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Creative Arabic Calligraphy: Proportions and Spacing

This post is part of a series called Arabic Calligraphy for Beginners.
Creative Arabic Calligraphy: Anatomy of the Letterforms
Creative Arabic Calligraphy: Square Kufic
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

While describing the Alif, I mentioned briefly that it was the module and archetype for the whole alphabet. This is not mere symbolism, but an indication of our starting point when creating a composition in Kufic, be it a word, a sentence, or the whole alphabet. Because we are not using a formal script where all the decisions (heights, proportions, spacing) have already been made, we have to make these decisions ourselves, and we are free to keep them constant throughout our work, or reinvent them every time (which I tend to do). Today we are going to learn how to set the essential rules of our script, and it all begins with the Alif.


At this stage we are working with the bare structural skeleton of the letters, over a grid where each square is 1 unit. In this mode, the Alif is a rectangle, and our first step is to define its proportions. For instance:

Alifs in various proportions

Let's go with the last one, at the very right. Its width is 1 and its height 6. This is our "alif-height" (to derive a term from Western typography) and it is the maximum height for our script. Remember only Lâm and Tâ' can reach the same height. Its width is also the line width for all our vertical and horizontal lines (for the moment). Note also that the Alif stands on the baseline (satr al-kitâba), which we must always bear in mind.

Next we must set a secondary height, which we'll call the bâ-height. This is the height for toothed and notched letters (such as ب ج س ر). There is no rule as to how high it can go, save that it must be lesser than the alif-height; however, it needs to be harmonized with the heights of the other letters, and these depend on spacing as we'll see next. So for now, let us tentatively settle on a height of 4. We may revise it later—design is seldom a linear process, but a back-and-forth movement between variables until we're happy with the result.

Setting the ba-height

When it comes to boxed letters (such as ص ط), we have to work with two horizontals and the space between them. In the simple grid we're using, that's a height of 3 units, no more and no less, because in boxes that space can stretch horizontally but not vertically.

Boxed letters

We can see already that if we keep our bâ-height as we set it earlier, it is not on the same level as the boxes. We can either bring down the bâ-height, or accept the difference in level. The next type of letter may help us decide.

Looped letters offer a certain flexibility, as they can stretch in height (but not horizontally). Some of them (ق ف) involve three horizontals and two spaces, and therefore a height of 5 or more. We can, however, forgo the "neck" of these letters and keep them close to the baseline as the other looped letters need to be (و م), bringing their height down to 3 or more.

Looped letters

Knowing this, we can go three ways:

Possibility 1: Constrain all the non-ascending letters to the same height, which must be whatever height best fits the least flexible letters (in this case, the boxed letters):

Alif-height plus one level
Alif-height plus one level.

Such an arrangement has a static quality, and can be seen as severe, but it also defines neat rectangular spaces between two Alifs, which can receive ornamentation in the form of arabesque or more writing, perhaps in a smaller and contrasting style. It is also useful when we want to fill an area evenly with writing, as a more jagged arrangement leaves empty spaces that are difficult to fill.

Possibility 2: If more liveliness and contrast are desired, loops can be lifted off the baseline while boxes and toothed letters are made the same height. We then have three levels: the high of the Alifs, the low of most letters, and the occasional break of looped letters, a very musical result even before we shape and refine the letters themselves. 

Alif-height plus two levels
Alif-height plus two levels.

This can be observed in the historical example below, an early Kufic manuscript. The baseline is in black and the green lines show, respectively, the level of boxed and toothed letters, and the level of looped letters (except for Mîm which, as we have seen, cannot be lifted; instead it is pushed lower on the baseline).

Levels in early Kufic

Other combinations are possible. For instance, Eastern Kufic, below, keeps the boxes low but has loops and teeth on a level.

Levels in Eastern Kufic

Below is an inscription that straddles possibilities 1 and 2. The limited space resulted in the alif-height being the same as the height of some looped and toothed letters (indicated by the edge of the box in which the inscription is carved). Notice, however, how everything else carefully matches a single other level (blue line). The end result has the robustness of a strict two-levels, but the up-and-down movement of the letters also gives it life.

Unusual shortening of the alif-height

Possibility 3: This is actually what not to do! A visual cacophony where every letter type has its own height, and no trace of consistency or harmony are left. Unless that's exactly the effect you're after, make sure not to fall into this error.

Too many levels
Too many levels!

It is to avoid jarring inconsistencies, of this kind and others, that we shape the script as a whole, rather than designing the letters separately one by one.

There is one remaining level to set, which is that of the descenders (tails), below the baseline. As there is just the one, it is a simpler decision. The historical examples below show how descenders are all level, whether they are the very close type of early styles, or the wide open round bowls of later Kufic.

Various levels of descenders

The tails of Wâw و  and Râ' ر are not true descenders, and this gives them a freedom of their own (somewhat like the relative freedom of behaviour that children enjoy). Sometimes, as in the first two examples above, they sit on the baseline; more rarely, in condensed compositions, they share the level of descenders; often they are anywhere between the baseline and descender level, but never lower, and usually much less substantial—see the short, hairline tails of و and ر in the third example above.


There are three spacings to consider: the space between two letters (to simplify discussion, we'll call it letterspace), the space within a letter (innerspace, for instance between the teeth of س, or inside the loop of ف), and the space between two words (wordspace). The simplest treatment is to have them all equal. Let us start with this and see how it looks.

Equal spacing

There are a few problems with this even spacing, which I'll point out one by one and offer solutions for.

Problem 1

1. What Are These Four Teeth Supposed to Be?

If you speak and read Arabic, you may have recognized the word as بساط الريح ("flying carpet"), but what if you are not fluent, or the word is more ambiguous (as it would normally be when diacritics are not used), or we only see this grouping out of context? Drawn this way, these letters can't be made out. It could be سبا just as easily as بسا, or any permutation of يبتنا.

Clearly, then, we have to make it clear that the first tooth stands alone and is followed by the three teeth of one Sîn. A Sîn can be made distinct by treating its shape as a unit, and I'll refer you to our earlier lesson Anatomy of the Letterforms for fine examples of this. At the level of pure spacing, however, the solution is to reduce the innerspace so that it reads as a unit separate from the next:

Problem 1 solved

This is not done arbitrarily, as we want to keep all proportions in our script related to each other. In this case, the Sîn's innerspace is half the letterspace, and this removes the ambiguity around that letter: clearly the three teeth are together, and separate from the previous and following letters.

Problem 2

2. Words Too Close Together

We can tell that Tâ' ط is the last letter of a word by the fact it is not connecting to the Alif which follows it, but they are problematically close together. The problem is not the spacing itself, but the fact that there is no contrast between letterspacing and wordspacing, and therefore no visual clue announcing where one ends and the other begins.

To solve this, should we push the second word away, or pull the Tâ' closer to the rest of the first word? Here's how they would each look:

Problem 2 solved

For the word بساط, the first solution is noticeably tighter. In the second one, the difference between the words has been established well enough, but the Tâ' looks too distant from the other letters. Reducing that letterspace by half, as on top, has improved the word's inner adhesion and that alone resolves our problem. In the same breath, we have discovered that when two letters are not connected, their letterspace appears wider than that between two connecting letters, and may need to be reduced (matching it to the innerspace helps preserve consistency).

Which brings us to our third problem:

Problem 3

3. The Alif Looks Disconnected From the Lâm

This is the same issue we had with the Tâ', accentuated by the tall nature of both letters. Alif-Lâm, the most recurring pair of letters in the Arabic language, always gain from being placed closer together than the default letterspace, and this goes for Alif-shaped letters even when they do connect, such as two Lâms in a row لل, or Tâ' followed by Lâm or Alif طل طا. 

Once we adjust the Alif-Lâm spacing—and while we're at it, also the letterspace between Râ' and Yâ', which is another instance of non-connected letters—this is how the whole looks:

Problem 3 solved

The spacing is thus:
Letterspace = 1 unit
Innerspace = 1/2 unit
Wordspace = 1.5 unit

Is this the only correct way to space these two words? No! For instance, keeping the same relationships, we can multiply all the spaces by two for a more airy feel:

Increasing spacing proportionately

Bear in mind also that we've been working with very bare, square letters. Were the letter shapes more curved, or ornate, or triangular as in Eastern Kufic, we would find different spacing relationships that look better. Having done this work on a couple of words, though, we have a system that we can then apply throughout a project, only keeping an eye on other special letter pairings that may arise.

I will take this one more (optional) step further, as there is one last thing that bothers me now that we've set all the spaces: the innerspace of the Tâ' looks too big now that the innerspace is 1/2 unit. The same goes for the space between the baseline and the returning tail of the Hâ'. So I'm going to go ahead and adjust these heights, demonstrating the back-and-forth process I mentioned before. I could also decide to lower the bâ-height to the same level, or on the contrary raise it one more unit to make the contrast stronger... There are many decisions based on personal preferences or the nature of the project which can come into play here, until one is fully satisfied. I'm going to stop at the Tâ' adjustment, though, and call this finished:

Final version

Creativity Within the Grid

Once all the decisions in proportions and spacing are made, you have the basis of a system, a grid, which you can apply to achieve consistency and harmony. Does it mean you must follow it unwaveringly? Again no! 

First you put down the text according to the rules, as this step is a much-needed foundation for a project, and then you use your eyes and sensibility to make adjustments. Historical texts are riddled with creative improvisations that bend the grid and make the whole that much more pleasing to the eye, without ever breaking it. Here are a few examples of pairs of letters where the shape and/or height of one has been altered to create a more elegant ligature:

Creative variations


Below is a sentence in a dreadful shape: سلامة الانسان في حفظ اللسان ("A man's safety is in holding his tongue", Lebanese proverb.)


Working on gridded paper (you can print out the attached Basic-grid.pdf) and following the steps in this lesson, redraw them with adjusted proportions and spacing. There is no single correct way of writing each of them, so you may want to try different possibilities for them. Remember to look out for:

  • too many levels
  • inconsistent innerspace
  • stretching the space in a box or a loop in the wrong direction
  • uneven line width
  • ambiguous spacing
  • misplacing letters on the baseline—refer to Anatomy of Letterforms when in doubt

Two possible solutions are shown in Solution1.pdf and Solution2.pdf.

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