Qatar is mostly made up of around 4,250 sq. miles of arid, rocky, desert land. We could add the adjective barren as well if it wasn’t because they contain fabulous gas and petrol reserves. But before their exploitation resulted in flashy skyscrapers and a football world championship, Bedouin tribes and pearl fishermen with no linguistic, cultural or religious attributes that were any different than those of their fellow Arabian neighbours populated the country. Pirates used to roam their coasts as well, as did slave traffickers. Not very solid principles with which to forge a national identity.
Maybe that is why when, in the beginning of the 21st century, Qatar wanted to reaffirm its autonomous and distinctive character, it didn’t retort to unique ancestral folklore, historical epic tales or idiomatic singularities. It did what a state that works as a big corporation would do: it commissioned Tarek Atrissi to create a new typographic image that would condense the features with which Qataris wished to present themselves.
The idea of national branding sounds like a modern world perversion in which countries are another product more to label and position. But, in fact, there were other illustrious predecessors. After all, any collective identity implies a process of abstraction and symbolic cyphering. And typography is an optimal medium because it can transfer all sorts of references to a common and more or less mythical past in a very concrete way, delimit territories, enter many different day-by-day manifestations and express through its use the adherence to a collective project. It isn’t strange that this resource was firstly used by oppressed nations willing to gain independence, like Ireland. From the beginning of their rebellion against British occupation, Irish nationalist graphic designers and editors privileged the use of the uncial as an external sign of the regained Gaelic pride. Men like Colm Ó Lochlainn, who created the Collum Cille font with which he wanted to update the island’s glorious calligraphic past spread an association between ethnicity and Celtic type fonts that has survived to this day.
The closer-to-home example of Basque type fonts is equally illustrative of the case. Inspired by the popular lettering used from the Middle Ages on to engrave gravestones and lintels, the Euskal Pizkundea movement made them popular by using them on their publications and posters, making them part of a discourse that highlighted a Basque historical and cultural continuity.
Other parallel cases hide charming subtleties. Like that of the emerging Como el de la Czechoslovakia of the beginning of the 20th century, when characters such as Vojtêch Preissig had to come up with a way of printing in Czech overcoming the lack of characters of the available German fonts. The particular consonantal diacritical marks of this Slav language gave origin to the creation of typographic fonts such as Preissig Antiqua. Sometimes, identity is a matter of accent.
But national typographies haven’t always been used to highlight a differentiating nature. 1950s Switzerland became the head of an internationalist spirit that wished to accentuate the country’s modern, neutral disposition, alien to any sort of patriotism. From there originated two of the most transcendent creations of contemporary typography, which ironically took two as totally opposed names as Helvetica and Univers.
In other cases, the release provided by a font has been more delicate. The emergency of Modern Hebrew hastened printers to find a more readable and updated font than the one used on liturgical books. But it was a Brit called Hugh Schonfield who insisted upon the stylization and Romanization of the New Hebrew Typography devised to that end in order not to further stress the otherness of the Jewish community nor to disturb its assimilation.
The last and inevitable example of the use of a typography to highlight the nature of a nation accounts for the lack of success of the above-mentioned initiative. During the first years of last century, some German printers started changing their traditional Gothic fonts for those of the Antiqua family. That change provoked bitter complaints, so much so that its convenience was discussed in the Reichstag. However, and despite the modernist character of the Weimar Republik, when type fonts as notable as Futura were created, the intention of which was to get as far away as possible from the old notion of the Germanic nation implied by the Gebrochene Schrift, the booming Nationalist spirit from the end of the twenties used the Gothic fonts as a fundamental part of their visual rhetoric. The ascent of Nazism was written with such fonts and today it’s difficult not to associate them with that age of darkness. Paradoxically, in 1941 it was decreed that its use made difficult the reading of reports, news and other propaganda to foreign observers and correspondents, and also that it projected a barbarian halo over Germany. The party distributed a notice by Martin Bormann in order to forbid it, although its popular use was maintained without great alterations. A fact that clearly indicates the power of typography to foreshadow imaginaries and unite realities, but also its capacity to gain autonomy and avoid appropriations.
…Or to fail in all the above-mentioned: Tarek Atrissi’s project for Qatar had a modest life. They served the purpose of promoting the country’s touristic image for a while, but they didn’t quite reach the symbiotic status of the other examples cited. Today, nobody sees that typography and immediately pictures a quintessential image of the emirate in his/her head. Sometimes, typography is given a mission that far exceeds its possibilities. Summarizing through signs a marked identity is one thing; inventing it practically from scratch, another much more complex and uncertain one.