A well-established centre for industry and craft, the United Arab Emirate of Sharjah has a strong cultural identity and a track record of investing in the arts. It was the first Emirate to establish a school of art and design, it boasts an impressive sixteen museums and in 1993 it hosted the first Biennale in the Middle East, which has become the go-to destination in the contemporary art world.
Pentagram partner Samar Maakaroun (while operating as Right to Left studio) was invited to create a new brand identity for the Emirate of Sharjah to help connect Sharjah’s rich history to its ambitious and vibrant arts and cultural scene and promote it as an exciting place to live, work and visit. As a nod to Sharjah’s own past, the slogan was taken from the much-loved 1970s sign ‘Smile, you’re in Sharjah’ that greeted motorists as they entered the city. The new identity embraced this friendly tone, playfully emphasising Sharjah’s openness, its rich heritage, its lively arts scene, industrious and enterprising nature, and its vibrant culture.
The accompanying graphic language takes the arch as its starting point: emblematic of the city’s architecture, the arch is also a symbol of structural integrity. The elegantly rounded motif replaces the two lowercase ‘a’s, introducing an element of transitions and passageways, that in turn embodies the ideas of transformation, progress, and journeys through Sharjah.
Strategic research investigating Sharjah’s possible colour in comparison to the other 6 sister emirates brought the team to a vibrant orange as the primary brand colour, but paired with a set of softer, earthier and more understated secondary colours. This was a way, again, of embodying both Sharjah’s bold nature and its perhaps unknown qualities: using colour to hint at the beautiful but often quite hidden locations throughout the city and relating to the variety of activities, surprises, and discoveries once can experience in Sharjah.
The wordmark was designed to work equally well across English and Arabic, with particular attention paid to harmony when the two wordmarks appeared together. While the arch replaced the lowercase a in English, in the Arabic one, it stood in for the final tah marbouta. In each language, the arch occupied its own ideal place, creating two harmonious wordmarks that rhyme rather than repeat.
This is particularly important in bilingual design, when appealing to a bilingual market. Samar and team considered the relationships between the two wordmarks, creating a design system that allows the Arabic wordmark to occupy the same width and height as the English, matching the exclusion zone, despite the difference in ascenders and descenders, and working with the overall proportions to maintain the same stroke weights.
The result is two wordmarks that have the same DNA, the same size, the same effect, and ultimately the same face, regardless of the language. This is not necessarily evident when working with two scripts that have wildly different structures, one cursive, and the other not, one reading from right to left, the other left to right. The strategic and thorough approach allowed for parity in aesthetic and design, between English and Arabic, while not necessarily adopting the typical approach of stacking two versions. The brand is one, but it speaks two different languages.
The brand package integrated the same DNA, colour system, motion and form in two separate languages, creating one face, one brand identity speaking equally fluently in two different languages. Samar and her team also provided recommendations for a more minimal approach in the guidelines, suggesting the usage of the wordmarks separately to give stature to one or the other language depending on context. The ultimate aim was for Sharjah to have the same face, the same attitude, the same fluency and ease regardless of what language it was using. The visually equal x-height and width means that both languages can be used side-by-side. This gives both languages equal footing, instead of the usual stacking of one language on top of the other, which always leads to one being dominant, or neither being visible and ownable enough.
The motion, illustration and social media package led with two movements: The opening of the arch to reveal surprises, or the transformation of the arch into a set of icons drawn to represent the 5 strategic pillars of the economy: people and tourism; industry; education and knowledge; arts & culture; and history and heritage. The movement was designed to be simple, playful, and humorous—a visual invitation to “smile [since] you’re in Sharjah”—with icons designed to introduce all the delights of Sharjah, in illustration or photography.
Arabic Type was part of the creative pitch process in the beginning, and was also commissioned by the client to develop a typeface in three weights incorporating the Pentagram team’s concept. The team also created a comprehensive set of printed and digital guidelines.
As a whole, the identity allowed Sharjah to lay claim to a range of visual and emotional lodestones, primarily the colour orange, the arch as a doorway to discovery, and an open, friendly and welcoming attitude.
Special thank you for the team at Sharjah Government Media Bureau for their close collaboration: Alya Al Suwaidi, Saleh Ghorbel, Karam Edrees, Hamda Al Suwaidi.