Dark Mode

Sporadic Notes On Design Education

– A Monster

In the heart of the downtown of a cosmopolitan and historic city, a large fluffy monster with irregular sleeping hours resides. It has no particular schedule, and the duration of each of its sleeping intervals remains unpredictable. But when the monster is awake, magical things happen! The body of the monster is covered with piñata-like fur, modular, light-weight strips of ideas and blooming aspirations.

The monster’s sleep pattern reflects how design operates in the region. During the past decade, interests have waxed and waned – and in consequence, events and activities related to visual communication tend to occur in a very designless manner, appearing and disappearing sporadically. At certain times, multiple projects are launched, while at other times nothing happens and it’s as if the discipline has no presence at all.

Those anxious vacant spaces between the intervals of the monster’s slumber hold the potential for new initiatives. They are spaces that could encourage the curious and ambitious occupants of these cities to overcome their fear of the unknown, their fear of failure.

– Sporadic

Lately the word ‘sporadic’ has been regularly on my mind. It infiltrates thoughts covering an array of topics that may not be relevant to one another, but which share a common context. The intense frequency of the word’s appearance reflects the current global situation we find ourselves in – a situation that we are unable to escape except temporarily, either by external distractions or by focusing on ourselves. The moment we feel that things are settling down, everything gets stirred up again. Nothing is working. Nothing. We live in a mist of senseless white noise.

– Graphic Design : Form- und Bildgestaltung : Création Graphique

I’ve always found ‘Graphic Design’ to be too cold a term to describe this branch of visual communication. It sounds dry and scientific, a bit outdated – it just doesn’t fit that well. It fails to describe the field accurately. The German equivalent, Form- und Bildgestaltung, by contrast, accurately reflects the elements that constitute the discipline: form and pictorial (visual) design. The French term, Création Graphique, expresses the act of creation. Both terms are more descriptive of the significance of the process in relation to the act of production.

As a field, graphic design involves transforming defined content into visual form for a specific goal, channeled via a chosen medium and limited by preset conditions. It’s like taking what you are given, and making some sort of sense out of it all. It’s making lemon sorbet out of the lemons life gives you. The methodology of the transformation depends on cultural context, medium of production, background of recipients, and the moment in time amongst other factors. The objective might be conveying a message; announcing an event; making a statement; guiding the recipient in a certain direction; or experimenting more freely with familiar ideas and unknown media to unravel something through a process.

– Movement

We need a nudge, a push, to break free from self-imposed limits and create a comfortable space for designers, students, educators and design enthusiasts to unreservedly come together, produce and share.

This could be a good chance to change things and start something new. It is difficult to interact with an aggressive context, and to build resilience in order not to be susceptible to such turbulence. But it’s absolutely necessary if we are to be able to move.

– Exploring the Unknown

Brand image, fashion trends, and their abundant presence on social media platforms suggest a certain way of living that is attractive to millennials. The subversive collaboration between Adidas Originals and Alexander Wang is one example. The collaboration is marked by an eclectic mix of influences. The designer took an element from the company’s past, the Trefoil logo reminiscent of the 70s, and changed how it is supposed to be seen by turning it upside down. By introducing error to familiar objects and being irreverent, the Adidas Originals celebrate a lifestyle that is ‘cool’ and ‘loose’. This connection between lifestyle culture and design is a significant drive behind the growing interest in studying graphic design. Even though the motivation behind this interest seems to be clear, some students walk into the classroom with the notion that graphic design is akin to animation, illustration or even interior design. I find this confused drive and interest still quite admirable. The field exerts a strong enough magnetic force to attract students even when they aren’t familiar with the subject. When students begin their studies without knowing exactly what it is they are studying, it allows them to work in a more open and less limited way. Misconceptions can become openings.

– Taking students for a walk

On a hot Cairene Monday morning, a teacher walks into a university classroom located in the deserts of Cairo’s urban outskirts, and finds students cooped together, bumping elbows, unsuccessfully attempting to work on long, meticulously set sheets of paper. They’re timidly drawing rectangles and circles using plastic templates, guided by prescribed pencil grids. The air in the classroom is still and dry and something needs to break. Control needs to be regained and lost. The teacher asks the students to bring materials for the next week’s class without revealing what they will be used for. They are told to bring black ink, the largest brushes they can find, and lots and lots of large-scale sheets of white paper.

The following Monday, the teacher walks in and hears the shuffling of paper, and the sound of unsettled students clumsily stumbling around. Like firemen in fire stations, the students are asked to set up their workspaces and prepare their material in a way that allows them to reach their tools and work in a fast and practical manner as soon as the stopwatch counter starts. The teacher then gives them a keyword, which they have to describe visually in 20 sketches, on 20 sheets of paper, and in 20 minutes. 20/20/20!

The proposed topic is ‘rain’; water droplets that pour down in a myriad of strengths, weights and speeds. Mist, drizzles, showers. The students begin working. Some focus on depicting slow and soft movements, while others use aggressive and loud strokes, thuds of ink hitting paper. Ink stained sheets wildly cover the floor of the classroom as students flip through pages and think of new outcomes as fast as they can while waiting for the work to dry. Twenty minutes later, the alarm goes off, signaling the end of the exercise. Both the teacher and the students start hopping around the classroom, moving between the sheets laid on the floor wherever they find an empty place to put their foot down. They chat about the similarities and differences of the various outcomes. There is a cloud of murmurs, in which can be detected new keywords that describe the experience and the experiments.

– Abstraction and the Process

Abstraction is crucial when it comes to finding the fitting context. Using abstraction in assignments as a pedagogical element helps us discover appropriate ways to communicate without leaning on presumed cultural, social and political gestures and connotations. Instead, it helps unravel the usual ways we use signs to represent ideas, so as to find new methods that better suit contemporary experiences – experiences we may be struggling to digest and understand due to the vast global unsettling that is taking place. Abstraction is used to simplify concepts in order to work without inhibitions. We strip elements down to their basic shapes and forms, rid them of color, and start the journey to find new relationships between those shapes and the space around them.

Although they are opposites, non-material abstraction and the material-driven process move in parallel. By depending on process as a tool for discovery, we are able to come up with an advanced verbal and visual vocabulary to channel contemporary situations. Processes, sometimes dictated by the mediums they are functioning within, are ways of communicating with abstract topics to discover possible relationships between form, topic and material or medium.

– Wolfgang Weingart

Wolfgang Weingart takes pleasure seriously. Weingart took the simplest of ideas through the most wondrous of journeys to come up with radically new solutions, inventing his own visual language that transcended the limitations of ‘Swiss design’ while working within the relatively modest confines of a typeshop at the Schule für Gestaltung in Basel. He made many influential discoveries through the spontaneity of his self-defined processes, and by modifying the tools of the typeshop. The exercise of ‘The Letter M’ is a good example of this curious endeavor. Weingart tinkered with the upper case ‘M’ in both flat and three-dimensional forms. He mixed sizes, thicknesses, positions, angles, perspectives and materials, looking for visual relationships by testing different compositional positions and overlaps of shapes, and coming up with a range of expressive, dynamic and diverse variations on a single character. Thin – Bold – Soft – Aggressive – Rational – Irrational – Legible – Illegible – Organic – Architectural. His process-based and experimental methodology remains appreciated to this day.

– Screen Time (Or How Not to Be A Dictator)

The expectations we build on class assignments set within a given timeframe are rarely met. We expect the current generation to have the same perception of time as we do, which may be an irrational expectation. Constantly online and surrounded by screens, millennials are used to interruptions. Perhaps the generation in question manages to be productive, and remains unaffected by the pings of incoming emails and texts from their friends and family. Maybe the expectations need to change, and we can find a way to use those interruptions productively – this is something that I have not yet cracked. How can we use the interruptions to mark time? How can we use contemporary conditions to rethink our educational methodology?

Bayn Journal commissioned this essay for their first issue, “The beginnings of dialogue,” in 2018, working with Bassem Yousri to translate it into Arabic.

This text has been slightly modified in format to better fit online publishing.

Engy Aly
Dark Mode

THE DESK: Engy Aly – 3/12

The Desk is in-depth interviews with Arab designers and makers in which their desk is the focal point. This is an interview with Engy Aly.”The Desk’s” name is borrowed from Mark Gardner’s film with the same name. Mark’s short documentary sought to explore the relationship between a worker and their desk and how that reflects their personality. Design Repository is curious to explore the same while adding an intention of scribing these interviews in the Now and therefore attempts to record a moment in time for future generations so that they can find something about now when they look back.

The interviews will be running around the year, with a new designer/maker and a new desk each month. Our third interviewee is the Egyptian designer: Engy Aly.

Q: Please introduce yourself (Name, age, nationality, and title) and what do you do?

Name Engy Aly
Age 39
Nationality Egyptian
Title Graphic Designer

I’m a “full-time-plus plus” independent graphic designer and I mostly work within the cultural realm, I also organize workshops and exhibitions that revolve around graphic design and visual cultures under the framework of a project titled ‘Sporadic Schooling’ – which was unfortunately put on hold when the pandemic struck, and sometimes I teach subjects within the graphic design curriculum. I also cook, take care of my plants, and play a LOT of tetris. My current tetris high score is 244,440 – level 30!

engy aly sitting on her desk at home working and behind her there are posters
Engy Aly, Cairo Home/Studio, 2022
a photograph of a book
Rumors Started Sometime Ago, bilingual publication design for Noor Abuarafeh, 2018

Q: What made you get into Design?

I’m not so sure, during school I had no particular career direction in mind. I liked drawing and reading, which for years I did under the desk during some of my school classes. For the last few years of school I started collecting printed material that I found interesting; chocolate wrappers, tickets, business cards etc..

Only after I graduated from high school and started discussing possible university enrollments with my parents did I realize that I wanted to study design – specifically graphic design and not interior design, which is what they had both studied and still practice to this day. I still like interior design and am obsessed with certain home furniture and home accessories designers but have never done it professionally.

Q: You are now based in Cairo, before we delve in your design process, how do you process Cairo? As in, it could be visually overwhelming with a lot going on at all times, so how do you extract visual input from the city?

I extract visual input from the memories and impressions others left us.

Other than my two years in Basel, Switzerland for my MFA, I have always lived in Heliopolis, Cairo. I can’t and don’t process the city. I find it extremely overwhelming – the overloaded sensory stimulations, the lack of understanding of personal space, the diminished idea of privacy and the abundant visual stimuli, and the juxtaposition between all these elements and the deserted and abandoned spaces around the new suburbs is a contrast I’m unable to process. So I live in my (somewhat versatile) bubble – I compartmentalize. Even before the pandemic, I used to only leave my home/studio around twice a week. The rest of the days I’m here working + resting + whatever else.

But that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t affect me, visually and otherwise. I just don’t intentionally look for inspiration or elements to extract and reuse, I don’t walk around researching or documenting a specific design era or visual element for example, because I no longer feel the sense of belonging to the majority of our urban landscape (more on that is in the text piece, ‘The Gradual Disappearance’). The traces left by those who lived in the city before us are what I find interesting, the pre-computer typographic signs, mostly on shops around the older neighborhoods, from the 60s to the early 90s, the diverse architectural structures between Modernist, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau, the reliefs and patterns on some buildings, bits and pieces all around. These are elements I can connect with and profoundly appreciate for their aesthetics, craftsmanship and endurance. But they also spark sadness because they are soon to vanish.

Q: Can you take us through your design process? Choose your favorite project and please walk us through its process from start to finish, challenges, and learnings?

The project I would like to share is a personal project, not a commissioned one. It’s a project I’ve been working on for around 4 years – titled ‘Life Diagrams’.

A diagram describing the smooth connection between the different parts of my life – (Life Diagrams), 2018
‘Odd one out: broken scenarios or life as we know it’ – (Life Diagrams), 2020

These compositions emerged from my love of working manually, with analog tools and, from a curiosity about the tools and templates that architects use, my fascination with both natural and man-made organized structures and with the world of architecture in general. In the 70s and 80s architects worked on a lot of typographic shop signs and visual identities, as did artists, so there was an overlap that funneled into the visual output of that time period that I found interesting and was actually inspirational for this project. I also needed to take a break from commissioned projects and do something more spontaneous where the end result is neither expected nor calculated. So I started with the idea of drawing something resembling an infograph, a diagram that discusses or mocks patterns of living, situations and dilemmas. All the compositions are around A5 in size but come from two different sketch pads and are on two different kinds of paper.

Process scans of ‘A diagram depicting the semi-constant avoidance of clutter, noise and lights – the city – green company’, 2019
‘A diagram depicting the semi-constant avoidance of clutter, noise and lights – the city – green company’ – (Life Diagrams) 2019

I start with a simple and completely underdeveloped sketch, just a few lines or shapes here and there, as well as a title – usually a phrase or sentence with a satirical undertone. Because both title and visual elements are interrelated they shape each other throughout the process.. The way the composition develops is spontaneous and possibly slightly subconscious. Guided by the initial sketch, I start by putting one single element on the paper, using either pen, Letraset transfer sheets or Letraset stickers, that element inspires what comes next and so on. It’s free flowing in a way. Each step is dictated by the one that precedes it. Each new shape, form, texture or letter is also a reaction to what came before. I scan the different stages while working, which means I get to look at them with something of a fresh eye with each scan. I only get up from my desk when the composition is finished. And once done, I create an animation out of all or some of the steps I scanned along the way. The animation sometimes explains the way the composition has been built, and sometimes introduces new visual information endemic to the animation process such as a jittery movement enticing anxiety.

personal sketch book of engy aly
Left: Sketch for ‘The joy of having options’, unrealized, 2022
Right: Sketch for ‘A manifestation of how to stand upright ignoring what’s happening around you’, unrealized, 2022

The topics are personal but humorous, like comparing my age to the size of my clothing, noticing the start of the appearance of multiple gray hairs, the stress caused by work emails, the general lack of sense in life – light stuff!

engy aly looking at some of her work
Left: Engy Aly, Cairo Home/Studio, 2022 Right: Tools and materials. Image composed by Engy Aly

All compositions are in black and white, and some are inverted on photoshop just to play around with the visual weight of the elements, but other than that, there is usually minimal digital interference.

‘The long and utterly nonsensical wait for the world to change’ – (Life Diagrams), 2019
Working Process, ‘The long and utterly nonsensical wait for the world to change’ – (Life Diagrams), 2019

I work with a mix of material that was passed down to me from family friends and family members who worked as architects, and some new material that I can still find in stores. I have a large collection of Letraset sheets, both old and new (I love and treasure them deeply) and a large collection of architectural rulers and templates. So in a way I use a myriad of pre-existing forms, but I put them together, and ask them to converse in a new language; one that is humorous and spontaneous yet refined and calculated . Aiming to find a balance between the playfulness of the composition, and the meticulous nature of it as well.

‘Waiting for the World to Collapse‘– (Life Diagrams), 2021

A good example of this is the latest piece in the series, ‘Waiting for the World to Collapse’, A5, Mecanorma transfer sheets in Celtic and Gothique in addition to Mecanorma Symbols. This composition is from January 2021, which tells me I haven’t been in a proper mindset to create more since then. Except for one commissioned composition for Waraq in Beirut, Lebanon a few months ago.

The composition discusses the constant state of uncertainty we are living in, from a slightly pessimistic view that suggests the end may just not be a positive one. I started with two concentric oval shapes and began adding elements from the inside out. I knew I wanted it to depict an explosion, but a slow and organized one.

The inner circle is composed of the letters forming the word DOOM, set in Gothique 36 pts, and the outer circle is set in Celtic 20 and 48 points. It’s an imaginary restricted explosion in outer space…

③ Process scans of ‘Waiting for the World to Collapse’, 2021

Q: If you had to write a definition of Graphic Design for academic purposes, what would that be? And would you have a different definition of Arabic Graphic Design? If yes, what would it be and in what ways is it different?

Depending on who I’m addressing it could be: ‘Translating a written brief into a visual, or a group of different format visuals, while taking into consideration the limitation of time, budget, and the requirements of the commissioner’. This would be one of the definitions I would give students for example. Or ‘Working with different visual elements to create a composition that portrays a message, a feeling or gives an abstract impact’.

I wouldn’t define Arabic Graphic Design differently, it follows the same basic rules and parameters but originates from the region: either directly through the designers living and working in the region or maybe more obliquely through designers with a regional background living elsewhere or also possibly just through the topic, content and use of relevant design elements.

Q: Who are your favorite Egyptian designers/artists? One old and one current?

Mohieddine Ellabbad, not only because he was a great designer but because he was also a writer and he established different entities and workshops, so to quote Eames once again (as I have in an essay before), he took his pleasure seriously!

I find his work conceptually profound yet instinctive in its aesthetic quality.

a scan of arabic book by mohieddine ellabbad
The Dictionary of Mythical Creatures in World Mythologies, Arab Institute for Research & Publishing and A1, 1985, Shawky Abdelhakim, Mohieddine Ellabbad

a scan of arabic book by mohieddine ellabbad

work in progress for the arab graphic center logo

a logo designed by an arab designer
Top: ‘A1 & Graphic Centre unpublished logo (experiment)’, Mohieddine Ellabbad, Undated Bottom: ‘English logo for National Bank for Development (NBD)’, Mohieddine Ellabbad, Undated Courtesy of the Arabic Design Archive

Choosing a single current designer is more tricky because I like a lot of people’s work for different reasons. So please spare me this question.

Q: Who are your favorite non-Egyptian designers/artists? One old and one current?

Naming just one puts that person in a holy and elevated position which is something I would like to avoid, so here are a few of my favorites:
Ikko Tanaka (1930–2002)
Wolfgang Weingart (1941–2021)
Charles and Ray Eames (1907–1978, 1912–1988)
HAY – to me, their products make life a little more enjoyable!

Q: You are not only a designer, you are an educator too, can you tell us why you were drawn to teaching, and what you learn from it as a designer?

I don’t currently teach, but I look forward to going back to teaching sometime. So I’m not sure if the label fully fits.

I think there’s a certain form of isolation when you freelance. And that’s what drew me to doing my MFA at The Basel School of Design (HGK FHNW) in 2012, I was in a joint program with the University of Illinois in Chicago. By being exposed to different mentors from both universities and through their different forms and styles of sharing knowledge, I became intrigued by the relationship between teacher and student and thought I’d find it enjoyable. Of course teaching is at times quite frustrating, but it’s fulfilling to see students develop with time. Some of their results are always great surprises, and in general, if it’s a good academic environment then it’s fantastic to be working with people who have the same interests and concerns. I also learn a lot from the students through the ongoing class conversations.

In addition to that, as a designer in Cairo, I already live in a bubble, teaching is an intersection of this bubble with other bubbles – people who are academically interested in some of the topics I am interested in, opening room for collaborations and discussions.

Through teaching, the idea that process and experimentation are the most important elements became even stronger.

Q: You were amongst the people who were working for fileclub? Some might say that there is a similar thread weaving through the works of all the people who worked there. Do you think if we look back at that moment, we can identify a design school?

Mmmm.. I don’t see any similar threads, maybe that’s an interesting point you and I can discuss over coffee sometime.

Fileclub was definitely a phenomenon – it was a group of talented and inspiring individuals who produced wonderful work, work that was locally way ahead of its time. I was lucky to be part of that studio environment for a few years. But it was not a school, a school creates a direction, invents or develops a style. This was not the case. We were good at digesting Western design trends and finding a way to use the concepts for local projects – but these ideas in themselves were not novel and were certainly not our invention. I was in Fileclub from 2006 to 2009 and they closed in late 2009 I think.

‘Ma3lesh معلش’, Illustration for Zafir t-shirts, courtesy of Filelclub Studio, 2009
Program booklet for the Goethe Institute Cairo. 50 years logo design by Mahmoud Hamdy. Courtesy of Fileclub Studio, 2009

Q: I personally think of you as a secret mentor? Do you have a secret or non-secret mentor?

I appreciate that, Moe. Nice to know! I’m flattered!
I maybe have an imaginary one; Wolfgang Weingart.

Weingart, was a typographer who’s work transcended typography, he worked with a multitude of tools, paper, ink, type,film, and even tissue paper to name a few. His work was serious but humorous and was always full of surprises. He worked with trial and error as a way of discovery. I find his experiments, printing using the back of the metal type characters for example, to be astonishing, wonderful, concrete, abstract and poetic – mixed with a dose of darkness due to the nature of the material.

‘Type composed in a circular cardboard ring. Top and bottom sides. (Reconstruction)’, 1990. Scanned from: Wolfgang Weingart – Typography – My way to Typography / Wege zur Typographie, 22.5 x 27.5 cm, 520 pages, 450 illustrations, Lars Müller Publishers, 2014
‘Schriftkreise Rüchseute. (Nachbildung)’, 1990. Scanned from: Wolfgang Weingart – Typography – My way to Typography / Wege zur Typographie, 22.5 x 27.5 cm, 520 pages, 450 illustrations, Lars Müller Publishers, 2014

His myriad experiments with the letter M, which he began in 1962 and systematically developed over the years, are phenomenal – especially when you see the originals. I wish I could shrink and live inside those printed pages for a few hours! Just imagine yourself walking through the letters with their repetition and distortion, navigating your way around them and stepping out and walking through the white spaces too..

Left: ‘M Zeichenbild’, 1965. Photographed from: Wolfgang Weingart – Typography – My way to Typography / Wege zur Typographie, 22.5 x 27.5 cm, 520 pages, 450 illustrations, Lars Müller Publishers, 2014 Right: ‘M distortions with the darkroom enlarger: stretched, extended, slanted, blurred, sharp, condensed’, 1965/66. Photographed from: Wolfgang Weingart – Typography – My way to Typography / Wege zur Typographie, 22.5 x 27.5 cm, 520 pages, 450 illustrations, Lars Müller Publishers, 2014

One of the things I admire immensely is that some of his typographic work was less dependent on legibility and more focused on the potential of surprising results through the manipulation of the image by using simple acts like rotation, repetition, slanting, distortion and scaling. Seems basic but it isn’t.

I had the pleasure of meeting Weingart in person in 2014 at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich where he had his retrospective exhibition ‘Weingart Typography (Weingart Typografie)’, so the imaginary and the real intersected, which made his work even more tangible to me.

Q: Describe what does your desk mean to you?

the studio of engy aly
Engy Aly, Cairo Home/Studio, 2022

Office space, dining space, the reason for my knee pains!
My office space is my main space, my desk is in the main open area of the apartment, strategically close to the kitchen! The area also functions as a living room, and when I have guests over for dinner, I move the computer to another room and the desk transforms into a dining table. I spend a looooot of time on that desk.

Q: When you are creatively blocked what are some of the ways you overcome this block?

I mostly realize that I’m blocked when I notice that I haven’t produced anything worthwhile in a few hours. I usually try to find a way around that but when it does not work, I get out of the house for a bit, if it seems that the blockage will not clear up anytime soon I ask for a deadline extension!

I was lucky, the past two years, to work with people who were truly understanding, and we all accommodated (within production timelines and limitations of course) each other’s physical and mental health needs and slowed down or paused projects when needed.

Q: Post pandemic, do you intend to continue Sporadic schooling?

I think the term post pandemic means different things to different people. I am personally only starting to get out of my bubble and am not yet confident or comfortable with the idea of inviting guests and organizing events. So for now I’m keeping the program on hold while also reassessing some of my programming choices, structures and formats. The reward of all this will be that I have to go through the excruciating process of applying for funding again!

a poster by engy aly titled sporadic schooling
Engy Aly, Sporadic Schooling, 2020

Q: What are 3 pieces of advice you can give to a young designer embarking on a journey similar to yours?

I would prefer not to give advice. Being older doesn’t necessarily mean I know better. This older-person-giving-younger-person-advice-thing makes me uncomfortable. It’s always a little patronizing no matter how it’s phrased. I would instead maybe ask us to make our lives more enjoyable through:

Sharing references and research material whenever possible.
Openly discussing pricing and finding a way to regulate the calculation of the fees so we all get fair payments for the work we do.
Push for better work conditions.

Critical WritingEssays
Dark Mode

The Gradual Disappearance

Cairo is a city where the only constants are change and randomness. The fluidity of traffic regulations, deficiency of pedestrian sidewalks, lack of structure of residential models, the rapid sprouting of organic clusters of brick units occupied by people all come together to produce a chaotic, dysfunctional, shifting tapestry of stimuli. The inhabitants of this city find themselves surrounded by signs, symbols and visual abstractions of ideas all manifest in different styles and mediums. Up to the 1980s this visual landscape was dominated by typefaces and hand lettering representing various design trends and directions, that appeared on facades of buildings from different architectural schools all across the city. Though the process through which the designer’s ideas are formalised is largely shaped by the double influence of tradition and technology, manually produced typography that went beyond the rigid constraints of Arabic calligraphy was very common in the public space before the advent of the digital age. Examples include unconnected letters, modular and mono-spaced typography, bilingual signage and organic typographical treatments. Graphic signs were always more than just carriers of their primary information, allowing us to witness the close relationship between the different visual disciplines coexisting in the urban context; mainly graphic design, typography, architecture and illustration. Architects, who at the time were also largely in charge of creating the identities of the spaces they were designing from store fronts to printed elements, were the primary shapers of this visual language and their roles overlapped largely with typographers, aided by the invention of Arabic Letraset dry transfer sheets in the mid-1960s. It was an inspiring place to grow up in in the 1980s.

Engy Aly
Baron Hotel Check-in Desk Heliopolis, Cairo

At the time, the relationship between city and citizen was well reflected in the tactile connection between the related disciplines of design and architecture. Many other sister cities, like Beirut and Amman, functioned under similar conditions. The public production of the designers of the period were well documented in these multi-layered cities offering several viewpoints, solutions and degrees of complexity. Their interests and refreshing tendency for experimentation were visible in an urban visual language that bore witness to modern, complex and multilingual societies. This dense, visual panorama opened up a space for stimulating debates about form, function, praxis, and aesthetics. A debate that remains pertinent to this very day.

Engy Aly
Bilingual ‘Modern Physical Medicine Clinic’ signage Zamalek, Cairo

However, now there is a gap between context and occupant that is constantly expanding, turning citizens into strangers that are desperately trying to either belong to the city, or to escape it completely.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a search for spatial memories. This drove the development of new visual languages that produced new memories. These developments were most visible in printed mediums that suddenly blitzed the walls of the city, especially posters communicating and documenting cultural activities, music, film screenings and contemporary art exhibitions. Such manifestations showcased the possibilities of the translation of ideas in diverse fashions, revealing the presence of a new generation of designers and a public that was open and receptive to new visual languages.

Over the past 15 years the visual impressions of the past decades have been slowly replaced by new materials and forms; inconsistent grids of fluorescent tubes locked in stretched plastic for example – design primarily driven by new technologies. What that led to was an amnesia of the visual production of the recent past; our memories of those streets are gradually disappearing. Although those contemporary mediums offer speed, flexibility, the possibilities of maximalism and a democratisation of practice that sometimes leads to surprising kitsch visuals, they also – due to their ease and speed – make it easy to avoid thinking conceptually about the design process as well as glossing over the aesthetic qualities of the form.

“No design can exist in isolation. It is always related, sometimes in very complex ways, to an entire constellation of influencing situations and attitudes.”

– George Nelson

By questioning our common delusions and allowing our questions to take an organic form that embraces the possibility of error and surprise, we begin new conversations. This process attempts to rigorously observe, and track trends, discovering commonalities and differences in the world of graphic design and illustration in the region. We aim to produce new memories, to initiate a conversation with our surroundings and to point towards a possible alternative future.

Engy Aly
Letraset Boutros Bold, Mourad Boutros, 14.0mm Scan
Personal Archive

“Take your pleasure seriously.” 

– Charles Eames

The Gradual Disappearance was published on the occasion of the exhibition Delusions and Errors, Dubai November 2017.
Delusions and Errors is a collaboration between: Engy Aly + Möbius Design Studio + Tashkeel + Weltformat and was supported by: ProHelvetia Cairo.