Shimal/Noord: The first Arabic travel guide to the Netherlands

A group of 22 artists and designers from the Netherlands, Egypt and the Middle East have met in Amsterdam this summer (Jul-Sep 2010) for a mapping project initiated by the Mediamatic foundation.

The different mapping exercises have resulted in an exhibition and a travel guide which was published as a supplement in one of Amsterdam’s most highly circulated dailies Het Parool. Maajoun was happy to lead the design team which was responsible for the identity of the project, and the design of the travel guide. This experience was one of a kind for us: it was the first time we work within such a big team of artists, designers, researchers, editors, writers and translators. And the first time our work results in a roomful of printed matter: more than 106.000 copies of the guide were printed at one go!

Participants and project kick-off

The project kicked off with a three-evening educational event on diverse mapping practices, which was open to the public. The program “Mapping Festival” featured inspiring work presented by Malkit Shoshan, Annelys de Vet, Christian Nold, Wietske Maas, Richard Rogers, Catalogtree, De Geuzen, and many others. For more about the speakers and their respective talks, you are invited to visit the following pages:
Evening 1 / Mapping for Change
Evening 2 / Mapping for Clarity
Evening 3 / Mapping Ignite

In parallel to that, the different artists and designers were getting to know each other. Each participant gave a presentation to introduce themselves as well as their work itineraries. Participants  were Ahmed Kamel, Ayman Ramadan, Engy Aly, Tunctunctunc, Ganzeer, Khajag Apelian, Sarah van Sonsbeeck, Golfstromen, Foundland, Wietske Maas, Kaweh Modiri, Kareem Lotfy, Lara Balaa, Lynn Amhaz, Mahmoud Hamdy, Malak Helmy, Melle Smets, Malkit Shoshan and Jan Rothuizen.

One of the main strengths of the Noord project lies in the fact that the lines were blurred between the different functions. Since day one, both designers and artists were encouraged to think of editorial content, artistic contributions and the form of the publication. Still, the main design team was comprised of four members; Khajag Apelian, Lara Balaa, Engy Aly and Lynn Amhaz, each of whom brought their personal touch to the table, from stylistic approaches to typography and pattern making. To know more about the designers involved, feel free to check the following interviews:
Interview with Khajag Apelian
Interview with Lara Balaa
Interview with Engy Aly
Interview with Lynn Amhaz

In the two weeks that followed, we were encouraged to attend many organized activities which were meant to familiarize us with Northern Amsterdam. Such activities included full-day bike tours, a tour with the neighborhood policeman, a trip to the Historical Center of North Amsterdam, and way too many dinners! During this time, and for the remaining period of the project, most participants resided in a small constellation of old houses located in a part of Amsterdam North which was subject to a massive gentrification process. Being neighbors helped us enjoy a generally outdated – and very Arab – neighborly relationship whereby one can easily drop by the neighbors’ place to ask for some rice to complete their dinner meal or an extra chair for one of their too many visitors.

Finally, our account of our stay in North Amsterdam would not be complete unless we share our ferry experience with you. Everyday, our trip to the Mediamatic premises and back included – besides the regular bike ride – a three minute ferry trip, best described as a full-fledged timeout.

The design process

Blurring the lines between editorial and design work (form and content) was definitely one of the fundamental principles behind this project. The project leaders Willem Velthoven and Jans Possel encouraged the design team to step outside of the boundaries of form, and more into structure and content, working hand-in-hand with other artists, researchers, and the main project editor Anne Margriet Van Dam. In line with this approach, Engy Aly produced her poster A tribute to the ferry which illustrates her own take on the ferry that links Central Station to North Amsterdam. However, this same principle resulted in a classical time-management issue which led the design team to stress over the little time left at the end of the process for the actual production of the publication. Luckily, the project organizers picked up on this problem, and postponed the opening of the exhibition for a week.

The first phase of the design work consisted of a general research on travel guides; form, content, sections, relevant information… etc. This was followed by the development of several moodboards which aimed at visualizing our different ideas for the publication to come. From there, the thought of creating a very basic travel guide was born. Of course, this basic form was to be challenged by several factors such as the newspaper format, its bilingual information (Arabic/Dutch) and most importantly an unconventional content that includes a good deal of humor.

The next step consisted of deciding on layout elements such as grid and typography, as well as a system for reading two different languages in parallel, each of which has its own reading direction. Arabic reads from right to left, while Dutch reads from left to right. We aimed for finding a solution without resorting to the common practice of separating the two layers of information, thus remaining true to the reading flow of the newspaper where information is highly fragmented. At the end of the day, we opted for a clear hierarchy between the two languages whereby Arabic texts were given the primary importance. Dutch texts remained secondary, and dotted lines were added to assist the Dutch reader in navigating through the different text blocks. This resulted in the whole publication reading from right to left. Which means that any Dutch reader would naturally be inclined to start with the newsletter’s back-cover. For this reason, we had to devise a back-cover that looks as interesting as our actual cover, and a backward reading trajectory that retains the reader’s interest until he/she figures-out the actual reading direction!

Naturally, this reading system was being developed in parallel with the grid and typography. After numerous experiments, we decided a 12-column-grid which allowed us a flexible division of the page to fit the different layers of information needed in our different sections. In regards to typography, we opted for a mix of multiscript typefaces using TheSans by LucasFonts (Arabic developed in consultaion with Mounir Al Shaarani) for titles, and FedraSans by Typotheque (Arabic developed in consultation with Tarek Atrissi) for text. Both Arabic versions of the fonts have been commissioned by the Khatt Foundation as part of the project Typographic Matchmaking 1.0. In addition to the above, a set of tailor made icons were developed to match our typographic choices.

Maps being a crucial part of any travel guide, one of our major challenges in this project was related to finding a suitable map. Copyright regulations regarding using or redrawing online maps turned out to be much more strict than initially expected, and the maps that were available for sale were either too detailed or too simplified. At the end of a long research process, we ended up receiving a suitable version from the local newspaper Het Parool, the map was then stylized and reworked to accommodate the information relevant to our travel guide content.

The layout production process that succeeded was of a very reiterative nature considering the short time assigned for the development of both form and content. The initial design was based on place-holding text, which was quite frustrating considering many initial assumptions had to be challenged once actual content started coming in. And content kept on coming in and changing until the last minute. Same goes for our flat plan, which increased the amount of stress, especially during the last week before we went to print.

The work also included designing the identity for the exhibition, as well as a set of related promotional material, including the A0 posters that took over the streets of Amsterdam at the beginning of September, making us all so proud!

Finally, the exhibition opened on the evening of Sep. 10, 2010 with inspiring artwork, Arabic pop music, and a massive party… in a typical Mediamatic fashion!

Many thanks for Willem Velthoven and Jans Possel for giving us the chance to participate in this project. We would also like to thank all those who were involved in the process including Anne Margriet van Dam, Femke Vos, Dido Reijntjes, Ista Boszhard, Ingunn Jonsdottir, Sebastiaan Klaasen, Justin Linds, Julia Luczywo, Alberto Marchioretto, Annouk Post, Eva Spijker, Tommy Vermeire, Amber Verstegen, Marie-Anne Huiskamp, Bas van den Broeke, Evelyn Austin and Lars Wannop.

Photo credits: Khajag Apelian, Mahmoud Hamdy and Willem Velthoven.