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Engy Hashem
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THE DESK: Engy Hashem – 4/12

The Desk is an in-depth interview series with Arab Designers and Makers taking their desk as a focal point to view their practice. “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 next interviewee is the Egyptian designer: Engy Hashem.


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

Name Engy Hashem
Age 34
Nationality Egyptian – Palestinian
Title Graphic Designer / Visual Artist / Corporate Art Consultant

By profession, I go by the former titles, by identity I go by “Creative Practitioner”, a term I came across recently that I felt embodied the nature of my ‘being and doing’ – practicing creativity in a multitude of ways; presenting it; propagating it; making it. I have also found that conceiving myself within this definition helps relieve the pressure of the ‘career path’ concept. It allows me freedom to try new things, whether personally or professionally.

Engy Hashem, Cairo Home/Studio, 2022

Q: You are a single mother of two beautiful girls and a designer, how do you juggle between those two?

Engy Hashem and Farida, 2022

A: Barely. On some days, ‘barely’ seems to be the term closest to the situation. On others, there is flow and I am able to balance both simultaneously. Farida and Nelly are of different ages and have different interests and needs, but Nelly who is four is pure havoc so most of the focus-driven work needs to be done after she is put to bed, before she rises, or while she’s swallowed in the metaverse playing Roblox.

They do, however, fuel a very primal creative side of me. My children generally prefer the messier, less disciplined side of things so they appreciate it when I endorse painting on tables or drawing on walls; impulsive paper pulp making, or impromptu acting theatrics.

Farida, my eldest, presents her creativity not only through palpable creations but also through wit and sharp tongue, constantly sharing reflections and stories about how she sees the world. I feel very privileged to be able to see matters through her and her sister’s perspectives alike.

Left: Nelly Right: Farida, Sketches, 2022.

Q: You work across calligraphy, typography, illustrations, and sometimes moving images. What do you think are the benefits of having more than one skill in your arsenal as a designer?

I think it speaks to the nature of the field and how it’s moving forward. I remain quite reserved when it comes to new technologies and techniques as developing a new skill requires time and resources that I can’t afford in the way that I could in my early career.

However, “dabbling” in different creative expressions comes naturally to me. It’s a desire, and an instinct to explore ideas through the lens of different mediums, regardless of whether it will end up being part of the final outcome.

Various poster styles, 2016 – 2019

The way I see it is that everything is a story. Every person, object, piece of art, or design (architecture, furniture, a vase or otherwise) is telling a story, realized or not, intentionally or unintentionally. Various creative methods and skills are vital for me to be able to narrate these stories, be it for myself or my clients in both the fields of design and art.

Studying Graphic Design is one thing; it may hone your initial skills in composition and typography. However, with the constantly evolving nature of the field, from static to dynamic to interactive, eventually, what you want the project to achieve will dictate its best suited tools.

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?

One of my favorite projects to date is the Khatt book. ‘Khatt: Egypt’s Calligraphic Landscape’ (Published 2018).

Khatt book, designed by Engy Hashem, 2018

In 2016, Basma Hamdy, design professor at Virginia Commonwealth University – School of the Arts in Qatar, contacted me with the proposition to design Khatt: a book that would feature collected photographs by Noha Zayed of found typographic and calligraphic written expressions. A longtime admirer of Noha Zayed’s photographic journalling on Instagram through both her personal and ArabicTypography accounts, I said ‘I do’ before she could finish her sentence.

This project coincided with me moving back to settle in Cairo after a lifetime in my former home, Qatar. In retrospect, the process of this project proved to be a unique homecoming practice that cultivated both my cultural and geographical understanding of my new home through a simmering process that spanned approximately three years.

What is unique about this project specifically is the dynamic that flows between the different agents in the process (designer and author/s). This dynamic requires an open-mind for a different process; resisting the urge to cannonade the process with ‘design fundamentals’.

Although the book is essentially a documentation of visual instances and findings in public spaces, the journey of the photographs themselves remains quite personal to the documentor, as stated in an excerpt from Noha’s essay titled “Trucks: A moving canvas

‘…the truck itself is a medium for self- expression… In a way, it becomes his public voice. For myself, I imagine a further function, unconnected to the driver, one that I can’t quite put my finger on. From personal experience, it seems that just at the moment I need to know it, be reminded of it, be told of it—I look up and there it is, the message I was missing: a verse of scripture, a line of poetry, a quotation or a time-worn piece of advice.‘

The process of “Designing” in the context of the book became synonymous with ‘sorting, analyzing, deciphering, classifying, arranging, clustering, grouping, regrouping, and mapping.’ This usually happened through intimate and regular tete-a-tete conversations, which gave rise to important questions about the book’s overarching narrative: how do we structure the book, which taxonomy should we use – geographical, scenic, thematic or poetic?

Photography analysis process, Noha Zayed and Engy Hashem, 2018

In parallel, I commenced experimenting with various page layouts while working on a simple format for the invitation document to be sent to the contributing essay writers. This document included highlighted referential images that vaguely signaled the various chapters of the book to inspire and initiate the conversation.

The (still existing) shared Dropbox folder between Noha, Basma and I is indicative of the rigorous image compartmentalization process that took place. Working with this level of organization allowed us to be precise with the various ‘found calligraphy’, from tuk-tuks to food-carts to advertisements. We micro-organised to eventually macro-synthesize the overarching narrative which would encapsulate both the photography and the written pieces.

After a few iterations, we decided to loosely work with these categories;

  • Writings on vehicles
  • On walls
  • About faith
  • About consumerism.

In the process of analyzing the photographs, we realized an overwhelming dominance of two particular surfaces (vehicles and walls) and topics (faith and consumerism). Therefore, we decided to structure the book this way.

As someone without the attention span for long, meticulous writing, I bestowed upon myself the task of fabricating memorable chapter titles and short melodic intros for the agreed upon taxonomies. One was: ‘Text Sells’, a chapter focusing on consumerist based writings such as advertisements, decorative typography on street carts, and carefully lettered shop signs. This was an obvious play on the age-old ad expression ‘Sex Sells’, a nod to its competitive, unabating nature.

Another was ‘Mark my Walls’ a slight twist on ‘Mark my words’, which provided the context for both casual city scrawls and authoritarian announcements.

A sketch for a name iteration, “Found Khatt”, 2016
Notes, contact, sheets and extractions – (Khatt process work), 2018

At some point in the process, all of these paralleled efforts needed to converge to create a cohesive final project. This resulted in overnight editing, image correcting and finalizing to meet the print house deadline, the last minute inserts and exclusions as if by divine intervention, and the multiple FINALKHATTFOLDERs. This project manifested an energy of deliberate safe keeping; to seek, to relish and to preserve, not only the growingly endangered art form of hand lettering but the intuitive connections and meanings within it.

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?

Graphic Design is a wide field. It is static, kinetic, sometimes poetic, other times basic; experimental yet straightforward; aiming at function and delivery but best if not directly so.

To make this more comprehensible, I would say that Graphic Design is an environmentally sensitive, culturally informed attempt to narrate, visualize and assemble data to articulate a message or specific amount of information coherently.

Regarding the aspect of ‘a different definition of Arabic Graphic design’, I attempted to answer this in the aforementioned; with the ‘design being culturally informed’. This could be addressing, questioning or hitting on aspects that are relevant to the culture, whether that being its local language, ideologies, practices, symbols or otherwise.

Q: Who are some of your favorite Egyptian designers/artists? One old and one current? Please feel free to add more than one if you feel like one is difficult to pindown.

I’m terribly bad at remembering names and there are also designers that I’ve come across visually before knowing who they are. The multi-disciplinary storytellers resonate with my aspirations, so the artist-designer-activist-architect-human kind of creative, Others, I admire for their diligence and innovation in their chosen field. I’ll attempt to list them in order of historical revelation, or whose work I was introduced to first throughout my studies and career:

  1. Mohieddine Ellabbad
  2. Helmi Eltouni
  3. Adam Henein
  4. Hani Mahfouz
  5. Ganzeer
  6. Inji Efflatoun
  7. Omar El Nagdi
  8. Waleed Taher
  9. Salam Yousry
  10. Celine Raffy

Q: Who are your favorite non-Egyptian designers/artists? One old and one current?
Please feel free to add more than one if you feel like one is difficult to pindown.

Plenty. Again in order of historical revelation:

  1. Jewad Selim- Iraq
  2. Nicholas Blechman – USA
  3. Mehdi Saeedi – Iran
  4. Rana Salame – Lebanon
  5. Mohamed Melehy – Morocco
  6. Homa Delvaray – Iran
  7. Mona Chalabi – Iraq / USA
  8. Lujain Abulfaraj – UAE

Q: How do you get inspiration for your projects?

I’m reminded of a quote by Master Sculptor Adam Henein I came across in a documentary about his life (directed by Hesham El Shafie), where he said “I don’t believe much in inspiration. I’m not denying its existence, it’s there, but I don’t linger much there. The moral is, you enjoy what you’re working on, so you work on it all the time… inspiration comes from the act of working itself, it doesn’t come down on you from the outside.’

He went on to say ‘Well, what is basically the source of art? Art would certainly generate from nature. Man looks and sees and watches forms all the time and everywhere. He accumulates a stock of shapes and forms, the larger this stock, the richer the vocabulary of the artist.’

This is very good guiding advice to the deamer-experimenter-procrastinator type like myself; to focus on developing the work and to consciously enrich my vocabulary. So yes, I tend to take a lot of pictures. Especially during long walks and commutes. They’re usually of vernaculars; typography and calligraphy, patterns and color blocks, symbols and icons, and people – but low key with the people, as my observance of certain behaviors and body language including gestures are usually memorized rather than documented.

This collection of data (visual vocabulary) will usually initiate concepts for various projects, such as my entry for the Cairo Prints Exhibition (2021) “Fehras Al Tareeq.” This was intended to cite a selection of Microbus sign language witnessed along the infamous Ring Road.

Fehras Al Tareeq Poster – (Cairo Prints: a Cairopolitan initiative), 2021

Looking up and reading into the different schools of art has also played an important role in cultivating (hopefully) a rich visual vocabulary; a journey that started while I was in school and persists till this day. There is always that name of an artist, painting or era in the back of your mind waiting to be revisited. Naive art (Primitivism) in particular is one of my favorites; both aesthetically and historically, and how it organically grew from being a ‘marginal’ art practice into a recognised art school. It is characterized with autodidacticism or self-learning, making it seem primitive or raw, but is very much rooted in authentic culture.

This primitive or self-taught nature is close to the exploration phase in my process or my children’s verbal articulations in an attempt to conceive meaning of the world as they grow. Engaging with my kids and being around these traits always reminds me to not lose this “naive” sense of wonder and curiosity.

Random articulations by Farida and Nelly, visualized by Engy Hashem, 2022

Q: You have a dense pinterest page with a lot of pinned topics, what do you think the role of pinterest and its similar platforms in the designers workflow these days?

I was introduced to Pinterest in late 2011, nearly a year after its launch. I initially used it for personal interests, like grouping my favorite furniture, fashion styles or craft projects. With the design process, it comes in handy for a number of things: when curating mood boards, as visual stepping stones of sorts, to help clients understand the visual direction or tone of the project using reference imagery to support these different directions and rationals.

Left: Sketchbook/Diary entry, 2002-2003 Right: Creations and collectibles, 2012-2013

It also facilitates the collaboration process when working with a team, whether through multiple members curating a board and later discussing it or upload ing process work; allowing everyone to literally be on ‘board.’

The process of pinning on Pinterest isn’t too far off from collage making and scrapbooking; an activity I believe many of us either practice still, or are at least familiar with. Even the terminology of the platform pays tribute to the aforementioned. We have simply replaced scissors and tape with screenshotting and trackpad clicks.

Q: Describe what does your desk mean to you?

I’ve had many desks during my time. Due to the nature of living in the Gulf, being born and raised there, no home is a forever home. So some desks I’ve had to forgo. When I moved to Cairo, I moved the essentials, this current desk being the official dining table at my former household in Qatar. It evolved during the past six years to be my go to desk for anything that requires a large flat space; mainly hand lettering and calligraphy.

Engy Hashem’s studio/home/desk/dining table, 2022

When scratches and bumps started to appear on its surface, I attempted to conserve it modestly, then not so modestly; to the point of intentionally vandalizing it. The glass top was an attempt to maintain its wood surface that later allowed for it to become a visual memoir of sorts; an open sketchbook, a relic photo album, a pandora’s box of current findings and drawn out thoughts, a time-capsule.

The room where the desk is quickly began to mirror it. This started specifically when I re-ventured into painting larger canvases.

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

Various digital illustrations – (Inktober Challenge), 2020

All projects usually start with a process of deep thinking about directions and ideas in a self-reflective way, and the aesthetic choices that accompany them. That can take a considerable chunk of my ideation timeline (which is always the first stage in my thinking process). This tends to be followed by the act of visualizing the ideas in more tangible forms. Although I have done this over and over for the past 10 and some years, it is still daunting putting pen to paper (or stylus to screen) and actually attempting to visualize an idea.

My humble findings after studying and practicing design since the early 2000s is that blocks are inevitable, be it distraction, lack of energy or being creatively drained. These are all valid reasons to pause, re-assess and attempt to resolve the blockage. If I am creatively blocked in one project, I could switch to another project, since I usually work on multiple projects at the same time and they are more likely to overlap. Sometimes it’s good to do something completely unrelated, just to let out some steam. This could be writing, reading, cooking or dancing. This switching allows the thoughts to flow freely which usually resolves my initial block.

Another methodology (used specifically on branding projects) is that I attempt to become a user persona. So instead of Engy, 34, mother of two, Designer and Artist (who needs to get to the nursery fast before they apply a late fees penalty, I am Omar, 22, recent college graduate, interning during a gap year before my masters. I’ll try to understand what Omar wants from, let’s say, the next upcoming ‘Coffee House Brand’. It needn’t be precise, but it opens up inspirational channels that I might not have come across as ‘Engy’.

Creativity prompts can somewhat be helpful too, like the popular Inktober or 30 Days of Type Challenges, albeit I usually lose focus and stamina half way through. You’ll know I’m at a complete block though if I get up to wash the dishes or fold laundry.

Poster for Tomorrow Workshop, 2016

Q: You work on a lot of branding projects, is there a specific reason why you are drawn to branding?

Yes. Branding or Identity Design forms a substantial bulk of my design portfolio. The opportunity to develop a client’s (sometimes incomplete) vision about a product or a service, into becoming a brand, is a treasured process; with the research, ideation and rationale development phases being the most critical and sometimes most overwhelming.

I completed my first branding project as a freshman in university for a chiropractic clinic. All I remember is that it was type based and that it was saved on a CD-ROM.

Although I now transfer work deliverables through the cloud, the element of using type or typography (manifested in logotypes) continues in most of my branding projects. Old habits do die hard. Though it is not a predetermined decision to use type, I easily slip into it sometimes; almost an automatic tendency and I practice challenging it by attempting more pictorial or abstracted options to not deny the brand at hand its possible potential.

Soufi’s branding ideation mindmap, 2016

Q: You are also a designer, an Art consultant, and an artist. How did your work within the Art space influence your practice as a designer and vice versa (if it did at all)?

Art will always be my primary propagator. I gravitated towards Design due to my fondness and practice of Art growing up. My first job in a design agency only lasted about three months. I resigned in order to freelance and focus on projects that allowed me to be part of something that had more of a cultural or educational impact.

When Mathaf, The Arab Museum of Modern Art, opened in Qatar in 2010, I was fortunate to be a member of its core team as we worked towards its inauguration. My formal Western education in the Arts didn’t offer the regional context that my time at Mathaf did and I consider it foundational to my practice now.

As Lead Graphic Designer at Mathaf, I was exposed to an array of acclaimed artists and curators such as Shirin Neshaat, Wael Shawky, Dia Azzawi and the multidisciplinary curatorial platform artReoriented to list a few. I was tasked with designing and producing resources to market and educate on Mathaf’s various exhibitions and initiatives; bridging international art practices with the local community. I was introduced to the works of master artists such Mahmoud Mokhtar, Baya Moheiddine, Inji Efflatoun and countless other Arab Artists.

Exemplar selection of collateral designed for Mathaf, 2012-2016

My current practice at TAM.Gallery is not that of a Graphic Designer (although I art directed and designed its current brand and several exhibition collaterals). I was inclined to add a shift to my career to sharpen my soft skills (pun intended) and therefore joined Tam’s Corporate Art team, where we, the gallery and the artists, work with corporations to deliver strategic art programs and solutions that add value to corporate environments.

tam.gallery branding presentation, 2019

The ultimate goal of creating Art is to interpret, comment on and document the present day experience to inspire, generate conversation, and broaden horizons that may eventually reshape understanding and culture. The role played by art institutions such as museums or galleries, is to accentuate that, protect it, market it, give a louder voice and wider reach than the artist might be able to do single-handedly. This is my current chosen environment.

Q: What are 3 pieces of advice you can give to a young designer embarking on a journey similar to yours? (Or if that is not a great formulation of the question, what would be your general reflections on the field of design now in Egypt as it stands?)

I’ll attempt to reiterate the advice I give myself in a more mindful way, as we are not so compassionate with ourselves after all.

On Purging.
We are constantly surrounded, better yet, bombarded with visuals from our urban landscape and it would be naive to think that this doesn’t seep into the formulation of our aesthetic choices and preferences.

That’s why I consciously and deliberately create a safe mental space for myself to go through the things I get exposed to on a daily basis, and purge what needs to be purged. Allowing myself time and space to freely explore, sketch out those sometimes mediocre, ugly, or revolutionary ideas floating in my head. This usually relieves the pressure and anxiety of the creative process, freeing up space for new ideas to be generated. So make sure you purge.

On Perspective.
I’ve doubted many projects because I assessed their value from ulterior perspectives rather than my own. Self-critique is necessary, but constructively rather than cripplingly.

On Perfectionism and Patience
Admirable but attainable only through patient practice.

Done. What a rambler!

 

Interviews
Engy Aly
Dark Mode

THE DESK: Engy Aly – 3/12

The Desk is an in-depth interview series with Arab Designers and Makers taking their desk as a focal point to view their practice. “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, Cairo Home/Studio, 2022
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.

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!

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.

The Dictionary of Mythical Creatures in World Mythologies, Arab Institute for Research & Publishing and A1, 1985, Shawky Abdelhakim, Mohieddine Ellabbad


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?

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!

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.

Interviews
Islam Zayed
Dark Mode

THE DESK: Islam Zayed – 2/12

The Desk is an in-depth interview series with Arab Designers and Makers taking their desk as a focal point to view their practice. “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 second interviewee is the multifaceted Egyptian designer: Islam Zayed.


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

Name Islam Osama Zayed
Age 35
Nationality Egyptian
Title Creative Design Head

I am the current Creative Design Head at EVA Pharma, I work with many designers to revamp, broaden and refine the company’s visual image. When I’m not doing that, I am pursuing ways to hone my skill and my own personal brand in many graphic design practices.

Islam Zayed, Cairo, 2022

Q: Your practice seems to float over a variety of different graphic design practices, from bilingual typography (Arabic & English), 3D, branding, data viz, to collage. Where do you see your practice sits within these practices?


As a Creative Head, it helps to have a hand dipped in multiple design practices. I have always wanted to experiment with different digital art forms which I think ultimately lead me to where I am now. Referencing and being exposed to different approaches to art and design is in my opinion one of the best tool sets a graphic designer could have, so I am always on the lookout for an amazing project and ask myself “how can I do something like this with my own skill set?”

That pushes me to experiment more and get out of my comfort zone and just try new things, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail but the process is always rewarding. Moreover, the accumulation of experiences allow me to guide the people I work with to achieve the best work they can within the limitations they are facing. In many ways I’ve been there, done that more times than I care to remember so I pass on that knowledge and help them in that way.

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?


Oh boy, well for me it would go something like:

“Graphic design is the utilization of assorted visual elements to first and foremost: solve a problem.” My definition for Arabic Graphic design would be more or less the same but with the added objective of projecting an authentic Arabic Identity in the design approach.

Arab designers throughout history have experimented with both structured and non-conventional (even chaotic) approaches to the practice, so it’s always good to have that shown when the need be.

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?
(Please scan as many things related to this process as possible as well as the final outcome of the project you will choose to talk about)


On the surface, my process is very basic and watching me work is kind of worrisome because a lot of the process actually happens inside my head, so if I’m just chillin, watching youtube or gaming a lot of the time, I am also working. I begin normally by researching, which is basically just going to different websites for inspiration, be it content aggregated websites or studios specialized in whatever it is I’m supposed to be creating. Then comes the execution phase, I don’t know how to sketch to save my life, so I just get into the meat of things so to speak. I fire up the software and see what comes up based on the inputs from the brief and the objectives I set out for the projects (the latter is optional in some cases, sometimes it works backwards).

When I’m settled on something I then normally leave it to simmer in my mind and come and have a later look at it, see if it can be pushed more, benchmark it against references and so on. I usually try to innovate with what i’m working with, sure there are best practices and they are necessary but I find it nice to add your own touch on things after understanding said best practices.

Now onto one of my favorite projects: In late 2020, I was approached by Laila Badawi to completely rebrand her Architecture studio: Grids 13. I always wanted to work on something architecture related so naturally the opportunity was too good to pass up.

We first had a workshop to determine what direction the brand needed to go, the workshop consisted of me putting a moodboard together along with design findings to establish a solid ground work.

So the first thing that struck me the most with the brand name is the use of number 13, which generally is a bad omen. Laila’s rationale was that the studio wanted to embrace what people are generally uncomfortable about, and it also had a personal connection to her as she won her first award in 2013.

With that in mind, it became very clear to me that 13 should be the focus of the brand mark. So I began exploring concepts. I have always been fascinated by the visual construction of Roman numerals, the use of very minimalist glyphs like I, X, C, L and M and the construction of the numerical value based on their order was a great numbering system at the time. Not to mention the civilization’s contribution to architecture and engineering. So I set out to explore the idea of having the Roman numeral “XIII” as a building block for the concept.

The explorations were…interesting, but they were not there just yet, the compositions felt a bit too panoramic in ratio like the first, some sketches like the second and the XIII didn’t look like it even belonged with the brand mark. Remember what I said earlier about the number 13 being very much integrated with the essence of the studio? That wasn’t achieved here. The “XIII” didn’t feel like a main part of the beandmark, so it was discarded and I kept exploring till I thought “wait a minute…”

By replacing the “I” in “Grids” with a vertically stacked 13, it achieved the objective I was set out to do with the brief. It was at that moment that I went “yep…that’s the one i’m selling”.

So now with the brand mark locked down, I wasn’t really ready to abandon the “XIII” from earlier, so I thought of building the design system around that.

The explorations were coming along nicely but I started having the concern that they might be too “out there” or impractical in different design applications. So the system was toned down a little bit so the XIII would be used as an indicator to the main highlight areas of the layout.

The system worked well, and it was scaleable to different forms and it functioned very nicely in both print and digital spaces. Obviously the system wasn’t going to have legs without the type and color palette. Which are shown below:

For the colors, they were split into 3 categories: a main color palette, which was more or less the old identity’s color palette and I worked on a nature and material based secondary color palette. The accent palette was made to show Laila’s love for bold, outspoken colors. A system was then created where the secondary palette serves as the building block, and it can be combined with either the main palette or accent palette depending on the designer’s choice at the time.

So all in all, the project turned out great. Definitely one of the most fun I have had on a branding project. It does help to have clients that are cooperative and trusting of what you do. The communication process between Laila and myself has always been fruitful and logical and that is some of the best qualities you could ask for in a client.

Q: Since you experiment a lot with different mediums and tools, what do you think is the importance of experimentation for designers?


It’s literally the most beneficial thing they could possibly do to hone their thinking and execution process. Specialization is important and it has its merits but even then, doing different things helps in so many ways beginning with breaking the monotony of repetition, it gives you new insights and benchmarks that make you better at self reflection and assessing yourself within the overall art space and when done right, you can combine all the learnings you get from experimentation both good and bad and create something truly unique to you.

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


Old:
So here’s the thing, I never honestly kept up with what would be considered “old” Egyptian designers. I was never really interested in the historic aspect of Egyptian design culture, even though I went through a lot of examples of Islamic-Arabic design culture while working on developing my own calligraphy style.

I think it’s because with all the visual noise I have been exposed to for basically my entire life in the everyday design culture, I fell into the trap of not thinking of looking back at the history of said culture. It is something I regret and I plan on reading up on those more and being exposed to their works.

New:

Ahmed Hammoud[1]Ahmed Hammoud, Here
Nora Aly[2]Nora Aly, Here
Mohamed Samir[3]Mohamed Samir, Here
Islam Abou El Enein[4]Islam Abou El Enein, Here
Ibrahim Hamdi[5]Ibrahim Hamdi, Here
Ramy Kamel Omar[6]Ramy Kamel Omar, Here
Muhammad Mustafa (AKA Picasso, the illustration Grand Master Supreme)[7]Muhammad Mustafa, Here
A unicorn by the name of Nardine Shenouda.[8]Nardine Shenouda, Here

Left: Future of media poster, 2021 Right: Hand lettering, 2021

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


Old:

David Carson[9]David Carson, Here
Neville Brody[10]Neville Brody, Here
Massimo Vignelli[11]Vignelli Center, Here
Paul Rand[12]Paul Rand, Here

Massimo Vignelli, Knoll International Poster, 1967

New:

Mothanna Hussein[13]Mothanna Hussein, Here
Quim Marin[14]Quim Marin, Here
Adhemas Batista[15]Adhemas Batista, Here
Ryan Atkinson[16]Ryan Atkinson, Here
Grzegorz Domaradzki (Gabz)[17]Grzegorz Domaradzki, Here
Olly Moss[18]Olly Moss, Here
Yoji Shinkawa[19]Yoji Shinkawa, Here

Left: Allah. 2021 Right: Roots. Radio Alhara, 2021

Q: How do you get inspiration for your projects?


You got your usual suspects: Behance, Pinterest, Instagram…etc. Those I basically look at every single day, can be for hours to end so there is a constant inspiration stream. When it comes to tackling a certain brief I just visit the websites of studios I hold in high regard specializing in whatever scope of work I’m currently working on and cross reference projects from there with the aforementioned “big 3” and down goes the rabbit hole.

Q: Describe what does your desk mean to you?


I spend a lot of time on my desk, not just for work but for leisure as well. I have been gaming ever since I was 6, so my relationship with the desk goes way back. As cliche as that may sound but it is my own sanctuary most of the time and it’s where I prefer to retreat when overwhelmed or in need of focus. A Lot of memories there too, whether kicking ass (or getting my ass kicked) at a multiplayer match (shoutout to my Battlefield 3 and Titanfall 2 homies) or just you know…learning about a new cool technique or coming up with a new piece or project.

Islam Zayed Desk, Cairo, 2022

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


I honestly let the creative block be. If I’m blocked it’s probably because I have maybe thought about something too much and I have lost sight of what actually needs achieving vs. what I think I should achieve. I have never really defined myself by what I do, I realize that I am human at the end of the day and there are bad days (or weeks, months). So the important thing would be to not obsess about it too much, focus on my own well being and keep looking and referencing things for the sake of doing so, the ideas will eventually come. They always do.

Q: You have a specific experience with Data Visualization, how did you get interested in that and what are your thoughts generally on Data Visualization in Egypt?


All credit goes to Pixonal’s founder Mohamed Said. He approached me back in late 2016 for a job offer at his studio that was focused mainly on data visualization. I didn’t really know what it was about back in the day, but through his guidance and the opportunities offered, such as working with data viz gurus like the Netherlands-based Clever Franke, I gained so much insight into the power of storytelling data visualization has and the amazing possibilities of creating super complex designs from even more complex data sets and making them a positive experience to go through. Currently, the understanding of what data visualization is in the Egyptian space is next to non-existent. Data needs to be visualized at internal meetings in most organizations and not as a communication tool with the public, so the need isn’t really there at the moment but here’s hoping it catches on.

Airforce Dashboard, Pixonal

Q: Where do you see yourself going in the future, or where would you like to be/do?


So this is more gaming related, but two of my favorite game designers: Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear) and Hidetaka Miyazaki (Dark Souls) have this thing where they are like…so damn good at what they do they just do it. That’s it, and people generally love what they do. That level of mastery, of creative freedom and wisdom to do whatever you want and knowing that it will be loved and appreciated by people in that space is what I aspire to be and do the most.

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

  1. You are not what you are doing: be kind to yourself and don’t romanticize the practice or craft.
  2. You’re in this for the long haul: things take time, failure is part of the process and it has no quota, the more you fail the more you learn.
  3. Get over yourself: There are always artists better or more suited for the job than you are, there will always be a better solution than the one you provided. Keep improving yourself, don’t think you’ve “made it” cause that concept doesn’t exist; there is always more and it ultimately is about the journey.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Ahmed Hammoud, Here
2 Nora Aly, Here
3 Mohamed Samir, Here
4 Islam Abou El Enein, Here
5 Ibrahim Hamdi, Here
6 Ramy Kamel Omar, Here
7 Muhammad Mustafa, Here
8 Nardine Shenouda, Here
9 David Carson, Here
10 Neville Brody, Here
11 Vignelli Center, Here
12 Paul Rand, Here
13 Mothanna Hussein, Here
14 Quim Marin, Here
15 Adhemas Batista, Here
16 Ryan Atkinson, Here
17 Grzegorz Domaradzki, Here
18 Olly Moss, Here
19 Yoji Shinkawa, Here
Critical WritingEssaysInterviews
Moe El-Hossieny
Dark Mode

Scratching the Surface
of Ellabbad School

Prologue

I began working on this essay not knowing how industriously I would have to research it, nor how long it would turn out to be. The text you are presently reading is much longer than I had anticipated, and it is for this very reason that, as you will soon take note of, it ends rather abruptly. Consider it a work in progress, this article being the first iteration of many more to come.

Intro:

The recent history of Euro-American design is marked by three major events that have shaped the overall discourse around the discipline’s very history.

Symposium Publication, 1983. Courtesy of the Vignelli Archive.

The first is “Coming of Age: The first symposium on the history of graphic design” at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in 1983. This symposium brought together academics, practitioners, and educators to highlight the already available events, individuals, and forces that contributed to what was defined as graphic design at that point. The organizers of the symposium Barbara Hodik and Roger Remington stated:

“The history of graphic design has been scattered among the pasts of art, printing, typography, photography, and advertising.”[1]Teal Triggs, Graphic Design History: Past, Present, and Future

The symposium marks a pivotal point in how the field conceived itself, and acknowledged the need to move away from art history as the underpinning foundation of design, and to consider a design history that takes into account other disciplines, including “sociology, anthropology, aesthetics, politics, economics”[2]Ibid – as Massimo Vignelli expressly called for in his keynote lecture. History, theory, criticism, documentation, and technology, he maintained, were all crucial for the progression of the design field.

Video and audio tape catalogue, possibly 1987. Courtesy of the Heller Books Website.

The second event was a series of conferences titled “Modernism and Eclecticism: A History of American Graphic Design,” which were organized in late 1980s and early 1990s [3]Ibid by Steven Heller, the art director of the New York Times, and Richard Wilde, then-chair of the BFA Advertising and BFA Design departments at the School of Visual Arts. These conferences were mainly focused on what Andrew Blauvelt called a “biographical hagiography,” which described the dominant focus, in this moment in Western design history, on the evolution of graphic styles, as seen in the works of canonical (mainly white male) designers [4]Blauvelt. Designer Finds History, Publishes Book, 2010. Both Andrew Blauvelt and Rick Poynor refer to Meggs’ A History of Graphic Design (1983) as the ultimate embodiment of this view of history.[5]Poynor. Out of the Studio: Graphic Design History and Visual Studies, 2011

The third event was a two-day symposium titled “New Views: Repositioning Graphic Design history,” which took place at the London College of Communication in 2005. The symposium questioned the dominant narratives of design history, which were mostly informed by the Western canon, and posed a few important questions: Whose history is it? And who gets to write it? The symposium presented several papers exploring the richness of graphic design history in countries such as Germany, Greece, India, Iran, and Mexico[6]Triggs. Graphic Design History: Past, Present, and Future, 2011 .

Since then, we have seen a shift in the prevailing discourse around the history of graphic design, and with it, another shift in the language used to broach the topic. We now speak of graphic design “histories” to reflect the plurality of narratives around the discipline, which exist beyond the Western design canon. This realization caused a renewed interest in not only our own history of design in the Arab region, but in many other graphic and visual histories globally. This consequently sparks the curiosity of not only the people to whom this history belongs, but a wider scope of research rangers.

While the debate around whether or not Western design history has the scholarly potential to stand on its own and be a field in and of itself – as opposed to being annexed to another, such as “visual studies,” which Rick Poynor, among others, argues is requisite for it to grow [7]Poynor. Out of the Studio: Graphic Design History and Visual Studies, 2011– we, in the Arab region, are still attempting at building the foundational historical knowledge that the field requires.

And so, now, the question for Arab designers, historians, and scholars is: will they adopt a responsible and dedicated apparatus for being involved in the creation of the discourses around our own history, or will they witness their own history being documented, studied, and interpreted by the West as part of its larger efforts of expanding its canon?

Over the past several decades, knowledge production around graphic and artistic practices in our region has been predominantly Eurocentric, with very few homegrown efforts to further explore or document our own cultural production. Let us consider, for example, the recent work in Islamic manuscript studies by the scholar François Déroche, author of the seminal book Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script (2005), and Adam Gacek, who wrote Arabic Manuscript: A Vademecum for Readers (2009), to name a few.

Yet another the question for educational, governmental, private, and cultural institutions is: will they support these efforts if/when they arise?

Curious readers may read up on some challenges that faced the field in its early stages in these books: A History of Arab graphic design (2020) by Haytham Nawar and Bahia Shehab” ; Yara Khoury’s Nasri Khatar, A Modernist Typotect (2014) and Titus Nemth’s valuable Arabic Type-Making in the Machine Age (2017). Suffice to say that the challenges faced in those early days have been instrumental to where we are today. One of the main challenges that we continue to face to this day, and which is addressed in this essay, is the question of identity and that of continuity, and how one informs the other.

Some clues that may be able to help us formulate answers to these questions can be vaguely detected in our blurred visual memory, scattered deep within it. They are coded in the graphic work itself (or whatever remains of it). Designers’ attempts to engage with such questions rarely found their way in writing. Therefore, we are in the blind, for the most part, when it comes to how these designers conceived of these questions.

This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that such design writings are detrimental to us today, as we can surely formulate a reading of these design works in retrospect. But first, it would have given us a reading upon which we can juxtapose our readings today, and second, it would have given us historical context and insight on this moment from the point of view of design as it was practiced.

This early nonchalance towards documentation (of the work and in writing) made the prospect of progress or continuity extremely taxing. Indeed, anyone engaging with documented Arabic design work would attest to the fact that much of the work of designers born in the 1940s and 1950s was not well documented, nor was it preserved as it should have been, and therefore we find ourselves today tasked with doing historical patchwork.

Haytham Nawar and Bahia Shehab aptly put it in their survey book:

“Some designers simply refused to allow their work to be published. Still other designers have passed on without leaving behind an archive of their work; many of them were also artists who prioritized their art over their design practice, or their work was lost due to political unrest in their home countries.”

Mohieddine Ellabbad was one such person who lived this moment and had a sense of the importance of these practices to the future of the field of design. He said:

“New generations always start from Zero.”

Here, he was referring to the virtually nonexistent documentation and archival practices – not only of physical objects, but of thoughts and ideas – which are contributing to this rupture in history. That is one of the main reasons that Mohieddine Ellabbad wrote about design: to document his ideas, reflections, and observations.

This generation was comprised of mostly trained artists, a lot of whom wouldn’t fully embrace or commit to their design practice, as most scholars rightfully assert. Few were the ones who did.

This, of course, is not to say that there were no graphic productions taking place during the 1940s, a time that saw the dawn of modern Arabic graphic design. On the contrary, the region was exploding with great graphic engagement despite the latency of both individual and institutional acknowledgment of the field.

Now that the field is recognized and embraced, we are thus presented with a few pressing questions today: how can we move forward in the field of graphic design? What are these modes of progress?

Let’s take literature as an example. Would literature progress without the modes of both practice (literature) and thinking (literary theory)? No, it cannot. What literary theory offers, in very simple terms, is thinking about writing, reading, and language – the very thing that is missing in design and design writing.

One of the major challenges that Arabic design is facing today is that it is currently soaked in practice and lacks the kind of reflective thinking and historical context that is offered by writing. We should think of both practice and writing as the two main pillars on which the domain of design can erect and writing is where this mode of thinking about designing can be fully explored. One could also argue that the field of Arab design cannot ever reach its full potential until we reach technological independence, and progress in other domains that are linked or overlap with design.

Therefore, one need not to make a case for the importance of writing in the progression of any domain. Yet despite its undeniable importance, the field of graphic design still suffers from an acute deficit in writing.

That is not to say that there are no writings about Arab design at all – I reference some good examples at the end of the essay – but what is already published is not merely enough, let alone thorough or comprehensive. Even good sources or studies exist, though not without their baggage and limitations, and each with some degree of inaccessibility to the wider design community. Most of these can only be found on:
۞ Membership-based academic platforms (mostly Western).
۞ University portals or university libraries under Ph.D. titles.
۞ Books which, depending on where you reside in the Arab region, can be beyond reach due to logistical or economic difficulties, and are thus only accessible to some.
۞ The offshoot magazine or article.

Despite the abundance of visual – both current and historical – output we have, the field in Egypt and the region at large is left with textual production that is insufficient, as evidenced by a ratio of design writings to design productions that is ineffably tilted.

There is also something important to clarify before delving further. When I say writing, I don’t just mean writing books, which we have started to see glimpses of, but I also mean all other forms of writing, as numerous as they may be, but especially the kind of writing that is self-reflective and research-based.

One of the greatest examples in recent history of how design and writing can be in unison is the school of Mohieddine Ellabbad (1940-2010), a school that valued and integrated design writing as an integral part of being a designer. Yet, we know very little about it. The present essay will merely scratch the surface of this school, and will focus on expanding what we know about it through an inquiry into Mohieddine Ellabbad’s establishment of the “Arab Graphic Centre” and the Arab workshop for children’s books in 1976.

A thorough understanding of this initiative is of essence, especially because it attempts to engage with the questions I raised above, which we are still grappling with to this day.

Anyone who knew Mohieddine Ellabbad would submit that his life was particularly challenging. On the one hand, his was a generation that experienced myriad socio-political challenges – the global complications of the cold war; the Arab Israeli war; the rise of the Palestinian resistance; to name a few – and on the other, his rigorousness and criticality were a double-edged sword, often relegating him to the sidelines.

Despite these challenges, Mohieddine Ellabbad remained committed to his work ethic, and to what he believed was vital to the profession. So, the best way to start this essay is by echoing Mohieddine Ellabbad’s spirit of criticality, humbleness, and skepticism and by letting those be my guiding principles throughout the essay.

In his spirit, I write.

But first, let’s take a closer look at current landscape of writing available about Mohieddine Ellabbad. One such repository of writings can be found on the Faculty of Fine Arts’ portal, where every “supposed artist” is featured i.e. everyone who comes out of the academy, despite the fact that some of them may identify as designers or otherwise. On this portal, everyone has an entry page with different tabs you can toggle between: their CV, some of their work, and a “Their vision” section.

The “Their vision” section is a crucial one to question and unpack, as this is where writing about Mohieddine Ellabbad lives – or more accurately, dies, because these texts are given eminence that assumes false totality and comprehensiveness through the sense of legitimacy bestowed by the academy. On this page, readers are presented with a plethora of piled written texts, which at first glance, can be exciting but, upon closer reading, all but disappoint. The Faculty of Fine Arts curated a selection of written pieces about Mohieddine Ellabbad, and we, as readers, are supposed to synthesize his vision in and through these writings. This is not to say that there is anything at fault, per se, in the featured writings themselves; but rather, that this part of the essay ought to question the mode of inquiry deployed in these writings – the selection criteria, the republishing method, and structure of these pieces.

Here you can view the written pieces on the portal.

To summarize, the list above includes a total of 32 pieces, 25 of which were written in 2010 – the year he passed away, amounting to a staggering 75% of the total – another one of which written in 2016, and yet another which is repeated twice, once under the year 1998, and once under the year 1988.


Mode of Inquiry: Is there even any?

The term “modes of inquiry” is used within research practices to describe the systems and methods deployed by researchers and scholars to investigate, explore, or identify questions of interest about their topic. These modes, as numerous as they may be, often lead to a conclusive outcome or contribute to the discourse in the field by giving rise to more questions. And so, when viewing these pieces, readers can conclude that none of them contain any actual mode of inquiry that is derived from a question of interest.

Astute readers will quickly register that the writings featured on the Faculty of Fine Arts portal are journalistic productions, and not research-oriented writings. This very fact is indicative of one of two conjectures: either this is what the academy considers to be “good” design writing; or there is a genuine lack of more critical, in-depth writing, especially in graphic design.


Criteria of Selection: A Broken logic

Attentive readers will also be able to deduce that the overarching method of selection is predicated on the following logic in curating these pieces:

  1. If the author of the piece is well-known, then the piece is by default a good one, and is allowed admission to this pantheon.
  2. Should that prove to be the case, the text does not undergo any editing, fact checking, or revision (given the many inaccurate facts, spelling mistakes, and even the inclusion of the same text twice).
  3. That these pieces can fulfill their function without providing a wider context to readers.
  4. That there is no need to consider these texts together and see if they are providing a multiplicity of readings or diverse understanding of the subject.
  5. That the academy has the authority to alter the original form that the text appeared in – including removing images or changing the formatting – and that this won’t affect the reading of the piece (which is not the same as editorial revisions).
  6. That quantity trumps quality.

These assumptions are manifested in the curated pieces available on this page. What the Faculty of Fine Arts has essentially done is dump these texts in one space, without questioning their content, nor whether or not this kind of writing is appropriate to both the subject or where it is being republished.


The structure
Language (Title and Titles)

The form or structure of these pieces falls under one or more of these categories:

  1. Testimonials
  2. Eulogies
  3. Commemoration letters
  4. Personal stories and anecdotes
  5. Quotes
  6. Paraphrasing

Most of these categories are replete with recycled information. They utilize ready-made modules that constitute an invisible writing structure, in which different fragments are sometimes combined or rearranged to give the illusion of novelty when this “new” text is presented.

Language:

Most of these texts use ambiguous, loaded, and packed language, while refraining from unpacking or elaborating on them. They are assertive in nature, not propositional, which is to say that information is presented as definitive and not as material of discourse. This kind of language deploys hyper-poetic forms of empty rhetoric that can bestow the text with an enchanting, albeit ultimately empty, quality.

This kind of poetic approach to writing can be said to be used as a medium for masking a poverty of knowledge and inaction. It is more concerned with linguistic acrobatics than the subject itself. Ultimately, such writings do not offer much, if any, substance, and do not stand up to intellectually rigorous scrutiny.

Titles:

Another important part of the structure is the language employed in the titles of these pieces. When we juxtapose the titles with the actual content, one notices a tendency to hyperbolize the title in relation to the content of the piece.

To illustrate, let’s extract one piece that perfectly embodies this point.

Translation:
Title:

Ellabbad (The Great), bookmaker and printmaking philosopher

Body text:

Ellabbad alone constituted a fabric. His was a great generation, and he managed to establish a new school in the art of caricature and painting.

Ellabbad was unique in his ability to create caricatures that draw on instinct, a sense of surprise, and a deepening meaning. He belonged to a generation that had great regard and pride for their country, and defended it through art, mannerism, and noble stances. They endured much for the sake of these stances. They are the ones who paid the price as a result of the June 1967 defeat.

Ellabbad lives on through his innovations and all that he had to offer, and in how he chose to live his life, which will be seared in the memory of those who knew him both as a man and as an artist.

The title suggests that something of great significance is about to be conveyed, but only a few sentences follow that use a form of eulogy, which does not address or elaborate on the grand statements put forward in the title: How was Mohieddine Ellabbad a philosopher of printmaking? What is this philosophy?


Republishing:

Many of the pieces featured here were initially published elsewhere, so the previous critique is of the version that is re-published on the Faculty of Fine Arts portal. Still, there is something to be said about what happened to these pieces when they move from their original publishing platform to the Faculty of Fine Arts portal. One would assume that nothing should happen to them, or, if anything, that maybe some extra quality control measures were taken by the academy. But somehow, these texts were downgraded even further in that process.

The original form that these articles appeared in, whether a magazine or a newspaper, might have had images that accompany the piece, and thus the academy, for whatever reason, have excluded these images when reproducing these texts on its portal, which would in turn compromise these already fragile articles. This, in a way, exposes the text even further. The written pieces now appear naked to the eye of the observer.

Let’s also illustrate.

Left: A given text as it appears on the Faculty of Fine Arts portal. Right: The same text as it originally features in Al Hilal Magazine, August, 1998. Courtesy of Al Sharekh Archives

Here is another example:

Left: Another text as it appears on the Faculty of Fine Arts portal. Right: The same text as it originally features in Al Hilal Magazine, November, 1989. Courtesy of Al Sharekh Archives

After a close scrutiny of these texts, we can now gauge the general characteristics of writings on the Faculty of Fine Arts website. The portal becomes a graveyard of design writing, and what is missing there is writing that sets an example: the kind of writing that can spark a discourse and offer a multitude of viewpoints, which in turn makes way for a plurality of readings about a person or subject, that exhibits how writing can illuminate ideas and meaning in design work.

Think about the different kinds of visitors of the portal. The kind of writing that is found there does not present the subject in a way that can spark curiosity – not because the subject itself isn’t interesting, but because the writing about this very subject is flat in and of itself.

What do we get out of any piece we are reading? What makes a good piece of writing?
A helpful set of questions are suggested by the designer Khoi Vinh, which you can view here.


Another locus where you can find an account about Mohieddine Ellabbad is A History of Arab Graphic Design (2020). Though by no means comprehensive nor without fault, this publication nevertheless comprises an important inventory – perhaps the first of its kind – of practitioners who contributed to Arab visual culture. Far from being encyclopedic, the book has been praised by design practitioners, the media, and scholars.

Evidently, the book features Mohieddine Ellabbad among its list of designers. However, what it offers is a slightly more organized assortment of the scattered pieces found online, with a few extra images here and there, though without adding any real nuance to Mohieddine Ellabad’s work.

The book is celebrated as the first of its kind – and it is – but on its own, it is not enough. A close and curious reading of Mohieddine Ellabbad’s entry reveals some shortcomings, especially the part about his attempt to establish the Arabic Graphic Centre. The authors of the book claim that:

In 1976, he established the first graphic design center in Egypt: al-Warsha al-Tajribya al-‘Arabiya li-Kutub al-Atfal (the Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books).

This excerpt presents this information as factual, but this can be contested. What is understood from this statement is that the Arab Graphic Centre is the same entity as the Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books.

Modern Thought Volume II – back cover, undated. Courtesy of The Arabic Design Archive.
Left: Modern Thought Volume II, undated. Courtesy of The Arabic Design Archive. Right: Modern Thought Volume I – sketch, 1979. Courtesy of Mohieddine Ellabbad Archive.

Translation:

“Over the past three years, the Arab Graphic Centre produced many essential works in the field of graphic design and publishing of art prints, from books, booklets, covers, posters, annual reports, calendars, brochures, postcards, ad campaigns, and logos for international, regional, and local institutions.

The centre consists of a team of artists, designers, photographers, and technicians. It features an in-house studio equipped with the newest machinery at the time to help make photolithography, color separation process, montage, and visual effects.

Since this studio is located in the vicinity of artists’ studios, it is the first of its kind in the graphic design field in Egypt. The Arab Graphic Centre is thrilled to offer these technical tools at the service of the artists, designers, publishers, and printing houses in Egypt.”

The accuracy of this statement in A History of Arab Design can be questioned when we read this ad for the Arab Graphic Centre, written on the back of the book Modern Thought, published by the Arab Graphic Centre, and whose cover was designed by Mohieddine Ellabbad. The ad makes no mention of the Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books being a part of the centre or synonymous with it.

A History of Arab Graphic Design, much like the portal of the Academy of Fine Arts, claims to be an authority on the subject – its supposed legitimacy stemming from both its authors and the publishing institution – and presents this information as factual, even if it may not be. The relationship between the Arab Graphic Centre and the Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books is uncertain, and the book ought to reflect this uncertainty.

Some examples from the stationary coming out of both the Arab Graphic Centre and the Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books help us speculate a few possible relationships between the two entities:

  1. The Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books was a sub-entity under the Arab Graphic Centre.
  2. The Arab Graphic Centre and the Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books were two separate entities headed by Mohieddine Ellabbad.
Left: Letterhead for the Arab Graphic Centre. Middle: Letterhead for the A1. Right: Envelope for both entities.
Left: Business card of Mohieddine Ellabbad. Middle: Receipt for both entities. Right: Receipt and map for A1. Courtesy of Mohieddine Ellabbad Archive

Indeed, they both shared the same space and were headed by Mohieddine Ellabbad, but that does not mean they were interchangeable entities. Looking at the stationery alone is not enough to identify a clear relationship between the two. If we consider size, scale, and typographic hierarchy – as an indication of the relationship between these two entities, then a close examination only leads to more ambiguity about the connection between the two. Perhaps Mohieddine Ellabbad himself had not established the exact distinction between the Arab Graphic Centre and the Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books – we cannot know. Yet, the book presents this information with the definitive language of the certain.

Another faux pas that the authors of the book make is that they erroneously refer to the Arab Graphic Centre as the “Graphic Center in Egypt.” Though an image of the AGC logo is indeed included, it is captioned “The Arab Graphic Center,” which is not how Mohieddine Ellabbad had chosen to spell it himself, opting instead for British spelling (Centre) in the logotype. We do not know why the book’s authors refer to the AGC by another name. It could either be an innocent oversight, or a conscious choice to be dismissive of this detail.

The rest of the entry in the book seems to reiterate things that are already available online in a number of different sources, and surely, such a book has to be reductive if each entry must be limited to 2-4 pages. Hopefully, this essay can help fill in this gap in later editions.

Another important resource for those who are interested is a dedicated section about Mohieddine Ellabbad in the magazine “The world of Books,” which features a few a few interesting reads, one of which is written by the Syrian Theater director, Osama Ghanam, and titled: “My name is Labbad: If drawing speaks.”

The present essay is and will remain a work in progress, through which I hope to reveal some of the nuances about someone who is akin to a mentor whom I never met. It could also be viewed as an exploration of an alternative kind of writing about design. Readers are advised to critically read this essay, and maybe use Khoi Vinh’s lens to view it.

The Arab Graphic Centre (AGC):

Logo design for the Arab Graphic Centre Designed by Mohieddine Ellabbad, 1976 Courtesy of Mohieddine Ellabbad Archive

The Arab Graphic Centre was established in 1976 by Mohieddine Ellabbad, the year he came back from his journey with Dar Alfata Al Arabi in Beirut (1974-1976). Alongside the AGC, he also established the Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books (A1), though the exact relationship between the two remains unclear. They both were located at 4 El Molla Street, Mataria, Cairo, Egypt. Mohieddine Ellabbad left Dar Alfata Al Arabi for various reasons, not least among them was the increasingly alarming danger of the Lebanese civil war[8]نص ملتقي شرم الشيخ. He and Nabil Shaath also had differing visions about the future of the place.[9]Khan. Revolution For Kids: Dar El Fata El Arabi, Recollected, 2010 He then returned to Cairo, ultimately establishing both the AGC and A1.

The centre aimed to establish an authentic modernist Arab graphic design practice, grappling with what was a pressing issue at the time: the relationship between tradition and modernity, or the double claim of authenticity and modernism (التراث والحداثة) through mass printed media. When he was asked in an interview with Salah Issa about the idea of authenticity in children’s books, his answer – that authenticity and modernity are one – captures his overall standpoint on the matter.

The AGC consisted of a small apartment in Mataraya, a very small space according to his son, Ahmed Ellabbad, who confirmed that Mohieddine turned it into his studio after the AGC was no longer operating. One of the rooms was designated for production, and had either an Afga Repromaster 3500 (see Fig. 1) or 2200, either one of these models or a similar one confirmed by both Ahmed Ellabbad and Moody Hakim, an old colleague of Mohieddine Ellabbad’s. The machine is a photo mechanical transfer, also known as PMT. It offered a multiplicity of functions, including photolitho for special effects and other prepress functions.

Left: Catalogue advertising photolito effects available at the AGC, undated. Courtesy of Mohieddine Ellabbad Archive. Right: The Palestinian Resistance Poster with halftone effect done with Repromaster. Courtesy of Mohieddine Ellabbad Archive

Mohieddine Ellabbad equipped the machine with Japanese made layers (contact films) of filters, which were used to emulate what we now know as photo filters or effects in Photoshop. These filters created halftone effects, circles, color overlays, mezzotint, and more. Both the machine and the films were a significant investment, but for him it was an inevitability if he wanted to succeed in having ultimate control over the design process, as well as present the AGC as a true collaborative space. This machine was accessible to anyone who needed it away from the complexities and bureaucracy of publishing institutions, which were the sole provider of such a service at the time. He created a catalogue with samples of these effects, which were used to showcase the possibilities that can be achieved through the machine. He also presented it to clients to display its technical capacities, and distributed it to other graphic design practitioners who wanted to use the machine or know more about it.

A spread from Z. A. Prust’s Photo-offset Lithography (1977). Courtesy of the internet archive.
Fig. 1 Repromaster 2200 (1970s, 1980s) . Courtesy of the Norwegian Technical Museum.

The history of prepress (design before the computer) in the region remains a mystery to us to this day, as there is very little documentation of this period about the design, printing, or publishing process with its technical aspects and practices.

At the time, this machine was considered to be an advanced machinery which required special technical competence. A few years prior, Mohieddine Ellabbad had met the Ethiopian-Italian print specialist known as Mr. Louigy through Ros Alyousef. Mr. Louigy came to work in Egypt and was praised for being meticulous in his work, a trait that he shared with Mohieddine Ellabbad, and which also explains why they gravitated towards one another. Mr. Louigy played an important role as a technical consultant for the AGC. Mohieddine Ellabbad took his advice on which machine was better and then got a Danish-made photo transfer machine. Soon after, Mohieddine Ellabbad asked Mr. Louigy to be in charge of running the machine at the AGC on a project basis. Eventually, Mr. Louigy trained a person who would be permanently located at the centre to handle the machine to facilitate the day-to-day workflow.

This ensured that almost all prepress work happened in-house which, to a great extent, guaranteed the reduction of any mistakes that could happen in the process, and that the work would directly go from the AGC to the client.

Mr. Louigy, undated Head of printing at Ros Alyousef Courtesy of Mr. Mimi Khalifa.

The AGC aimed to be both an experimental and practical space for the design practice. According to Nabil Tag, who joined the AGC in 1977 as a permanent designer and Illustrator, the centre also engaged with client briefs and projects, providing services such as brand identity, editorial design, brochures, flyers, and posters.

When asking both Ahmed Ellabbad and Nabil Tag to identify one of the most important projects undertaken by the AGC, they both agreed that it was what Mohieddine Ellabbad jokingly referred to as the “Black Box” project: a limited-edition series of classical Islamic works published in 7 volumes, that features the works of people such as Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Hazm, and Ibn Khaldun. The series was published in 1981 by Les Éditions Kitaba & Les Éditions Kitab. One can try to reconstruct the thinking process of the AGC from the clarity of direction in the outcome. The AGC attempted to explore the possibility of infusing something traditional with a sense of contemporariness. However, it shows that it was not intended for it to be an equal balance between those two ingredients, as the AGC vigorously favored the traditional side – with good reason.

Label sticker in Arabic and French from the aforementioned book, 1981. Courtesy of Mohieddine Ellabbad Archive.

The 7 books are nested in a cardboard black box with a sticker on it that features the name of the series and publisher, written in a meticulously-crafted variation of Eastern Kufic script. Both the title and publisher’s name sit inside a rectangular compartment. When juxtaposing both the Arabic and French versions, we can see that Mohieddine used an all-lowercase serif typeface for the Latin, while making sure that some distinct features from the Kufic script spill over the the Latin script. This can be observed in the extended stems of the “l” and the “b,” where they are forcefully stretched to match the height of the Alef Lam in the Arabic, a feature that is unique to this kind of Kufic. We can also notice that some counters in the Latin are almost closed to match those in the Arabic. This may initially appear to be nothing more than a graphic treatment for consistency, but this deliberate design decision carries a more radical underpinning. The reversal of influence between the Arabic and Latin in the script echoes a much deeper decolonization project that Mohieddine Ellabbad was adopting.

This decolonization project was the substrate upon which all of Mohieddine Ellabbad’s work sits. Only when we consider the totality of his body of work, we can discern the thread weaving through this project. We could attempt to analyze one piece he did that couldn’t be more straightforward and emblematic of this project.

Logo design for the publishing house “The Arab Future.”

Three logo sketches for the publishing house – Almostaqbal Alarabi, undated. Courtesy of Mohieddine Ellabbad Archive.

Here, we see the evolution of the design of the logo, the iteration on the left being the final one. The logo has both a linguistic message and a symbolic one. The linguistic message only requires a knowledge of the Arabic language to comprehend. However, the symbolic one seems to have a multitude of meanings. The signs included here are a broken square – which implies that there square was once whole – with an arrow coming out of it. For the sake of understanding the meaning of this symbol, if it is captured in motion, then there must have been a starting point. Let us try to imagine this starting point (see animation below).

Author’s animation of the original logo, 2022.

The initial state of this symbol would have been a closed square, with a diagonal line dividing it into two equal spaces. The enclosed square may suggest a hegemonic space. When this is thought of as a simplification of a much larger structure, one could claim that it could represent the (Euro-American) hegemony that Arab intellectuals were trying to break from. Then we have the arrow that breaks out of the square. The arrow is a universal sign for moving, force, and direction. The arrow moves from right to left, emulating the Arabic writing direction as it breaks out from the square. Then the linguistic message of “The Arab Future” is attached by means of alignment to the head of the arrow, where the force is condensed. It could then be read as: The future of Arabs lies beyond the Euro-American cultural imperial project.

There is more than one reading that can be drawn from this symbol, but this will suffice to illustrate how this decolonization project found itself in a different avenue.

Back to the blackbox project: we see behind the titles what seems to be a variation of a Mamluk-inspired floral ornament. This book series was specifically inspired from Islamic manuscript traditions, which Mohieddine Ellabbad was particularly interested in, believing them to contain a wealth of graphic practices related to book-making which, for him, corresponded to what an Arab design might start from.

From the obvious cover design of these books to the subtler traditions like Khatm (colophon), Tatmim (closing formulae), a form of Isnad (ascription), and unwaan (title page)[10]Gacek. Arabic Manuscripts, 2009, he researched Islamic Manuscript traditions extensively. According to Ahmed Ellabbad:

“He had a wealth of references from different libraries to study, the likes of the Vatican, Italy and The National Library, France. He used to be always curious to look for their original copies and buy the slides when possible.”

Right: Case cover for the aforementioned above, 1981, AGC. Middle and left: Book covers of two volumes, 1981, AGC. Courtesy of The Arabic Design Archive.
Detached folio from a dispersed copy of the Qur’an, Egypt, Mamluk period. Courtesy of National Museum of Asian Art.

The layout, ornament and script style has staggering similarity with this Mamluk manuscript from Egypt. One might assume it could have been one of his many references while working on this project.

Mohieddine Ellabbad was not only interested in exploring these traditions for his own practice, for he was first and foremost a design populist, seeking to introduce the public to these traditions. He refused the notion of belittling the public’s ability to apprehend sophisticated visual communication, and he saw that this perception of the viewers lowers the standards of the profession.

Among his attempts to bring attention to these manuscript traditions was through A1.

Poster for an exhibition organized by the Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books, Cairo, 1982, at Cairo International Book Fair. Courtesy of Mohieddine Ellabbad Archive.

The Latin logo of the center is itself a statement of and on this approach. Subverting the foundation of the Latin written word, Mohieddine Ellabbad reinforces the Arabic reed pen to write the Latin logo, and to suppress the Latin characters by imposing the Arab characteristics onto it. The result is an “Arab Graphic Centre” that is Arabized.

Final sketch of the logo for the Arab Graphic Centre, designed by Mohieddine Ellabbad, undated. Courtesy of Mohieddine Ellabbad Archive.

This inspiration can be detected across his practice, with many different experimental and practical works that attempt to start from these traditions, incorporating them when possible. One example is a series of books published by Dar Ibn Rushd in 1981. In this series, Mohieddine Ellabbad experiments with the visual vocabulary of Islamic manuscripts. He skillfully uses decorative elements and visual devices not only for aesthetic purposes, but also to guide the viewer through the design, emphasizing certain parts by placing them in medallions. We can also see the utilization of the “circular medallion,” known as the Shamsah element, as a text divider between the author’s name and other pieces of information.

Book covers for Dar Ibn Rushd designed by Mohieddine Ellabbad, produced by the AGC. Courtesy of The Arabic Design Archive.

The Shamsah element was commonly seen in illuminated Quranic manuscripts as verse-counting devices, verse-markers, or verse-ending markers. Their highly decorative botanical shapes were meant to force the reader to take a pause at the end of each verse, as well as a reminder of the point that the reader reached in the text.

This shows that Mohieddine was knowledgeable with the function of these elements in their original context, which requires extensive research and study. Moreover, the liberty in positioning the design elements and their proximity, orientation, and placement in some of the covers, challenges the idea of an authoritative understructure grid perpetuated by the Swiss style of design, which had a significant influence on the Western modernist movement. Rather, he chooses to free some elements from this grid, which creates organic- looking designs.

My investigation into the AGC is still undergoing, and this essay will be followed by as many more texts as needed to shed light on the Arab Graphic Centre and its founder Mohieddine Ellabbad.


Resources to consider for Arabic design writings:

  1. The Arabic Design Library: Here
  2. On Arabic Justification: Here and Here
  3. Safar Magazine: Here
  4. Cosmopolitan Radicalism: Here
  5. Signs of Conflict: Here
  6. A History of Arab Graphic Design: Here
  7. Arabic Type-Making in the Machine Age: Here
  8. Arabic Typography History and Practice: Here
  9. Arabic Typography: Here
  10. The Abbasid Tradition: Here
  11. Qur’ans of the Umayyads: Here
  12. Arabic Manuscript: Here

Special Thanks to the following people:

1. Mr. Ahmed Ellabbad
2. Mr. Mimi Bisher
3. Mr. Mohsen Refaat
4. Mr. Moody Hakim

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Teal Triggs, Graphic Design History: Past, Present, and Future
2, 3 Ibid
4 Blauvelt. Designer Finds History, Publishes Book, 2010
5, 7 Poynor. Out of the Studio: Graphic Design History and Visual Studies, 2011
6 Triggs. Graphic Design History: Past, Present, and Future, 2011
8 نص ملتقي شرم الشيخ
9 Khan. Revolution For Kids: Dar El Fata El Arabi, Recollected, 2010
10 Gacek. Arabic Manuscripts, 2009
Interviews
Dara Hassanein
Dark Mode

THE DESK: Dara Hassanein
Rebel Cairo – 1/12

The Desk is an in-depth interview series with Arab Designers and Makers taking their desk as a focal point to view their practice. “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. We are honored to start the series with a dedicated and vigorous Egyptian designer and illustrator: Dara Hassanein, founder of RebelCairo.


Photograph of Dara Hassanein

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

Name Dara Hassanein
Age 25
Nationality Egyptian
Title Founder and designer of RebelCairo

I mostly do Design and Creative Direction but I’m also very involved in all aspects of the brand: production, connecting with clients, social media content and presence, website maintenance and handling orders.

Q: When did you start RebelCairo, why did you choose this name, and what made you start?


At university (GUC), I was into illustration, and I was curious about how it looked in different mediums, but for some reason, I specifically gravitated towards fabric and took every chance to explore it further; I even tried to incorporate it in my editorial design course. Then after university, I forgot about it. My interest would be reignited from time to time through projects I was involved with. The idea started to slowly sprout when I was working at Alchemy design studio as a graphic designer and a professional synchronized swimmer in parallel.

Each time I came close to starting the brand, I got busy with life and forgot about it, but it constantly came up again. I took this as a sign to try it out. I sat down with my mother and spoke to her about it. She didn’t know where this would take me, but she joined me anyway. We started contacting workshops, talking to factories, looking for raw materials as part of the initial research. Since then, it has been my mother and I and a few amazing workshops.

After extensive research to understand this area, I decided to launch in April 2019. As for the name, it came naturally to me because it was how I felt at the time. I wanted to change and challenge so many things around me, and I had no expectations of the brand growing, so I just went with it. I often get asked about the brand name as it gives people a particular impression. I remember connecting with someone through DMS and decided to meet up. The first thing she said was, “I expected to meet a rocker girl with that name,” which I found funny because I believe the adjective applies to so many of us, so there shouldn’t be a specific “aesthetic” attached to it. For me, the idea of being a rebel is more of a conceptual mindset.

Often people think it’s a bigger team. Rana Samir, a great visual artist, joined the family recently, so we’re now three with a lot of help from friends.

Q: What would you say is the ethos of Rebel Cairo?


Simply, making clothes that people would like to wear and make them feel good. That is not an easy feat if we try to align this ethos with our ideas of ethical fashion practice, which we are constantly working towards achieving.

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?


Briefly in steps: idea, research, sketch, digital trials, printing samples, pattern-making (the cut and form of the garment), refining, finishing, final product, but it’s not exactly in the same order each time. I wouldn’t say favorite, but it is one of the most challenging for sure, which I enjoyed working on for several reasons. It’s the brand’s latest collaboration with Sarrah Abdel Rahman. We collaborated on the print of the dress she wore for the opening night of the Gouna Film Festival. We first started with the idea of creating a dress with a custom print that would later be disassembled and recycled into something people could buy. The overarching theme of the print was supposed to be sustainability in fashion.

Right: Digital Collages – Process, 2021 Left: Dress Mockup – Process, 2021

I started working on the print immediately and often sent Sarrah to get her feedback. One month in, she asked me to pause and took a few days to re-think the whole concept and came back with a completely different manifesto for the print that was simultaneously emotionally charged and very personal to her.

Sarrah wanted to infuse the dress with multiple ideas, on the one hand maintaining the initial concept of sustainable fashion and on the other utilizing her own fashion choice encapsulated in the dress as a vehicle for her own fierce personal expression and belief system.

It was overwhelming to digest. One challenge was figuring out how I would translate that on a dress. How do I say all that abstractly? What to take? What to leave? What’s appropriate for the event, and should I even consider that? What’s not?

The idea of designing a dress for Sarrah to make her feel empowered as a woman was not that easy to do, and I had to draw inspiration from my own strength to understand how to empower Sarrah. I remember my first few trials were really subtle, and she would tell me, “Dara, I feel it’s apologetic. I want it to be unapologetic, loud, bold.”

Digital Trial – Process, 2021
Personal Sketchbook – Process, 2021

It took some time for me to reach that. The project had positive and negative feedback for several reasons that are difficult to get into in detail here. However, the idea of having your work go viral and observing people’s reactions to it teaches you a lot. I learned the subtle differences between working for a client and executing your very own ideas. As well as how to navigate criticism and articulate my thoughts and ideas better, it gave me a great insight into how I want to present my work in the future. All of which are positive takeaways from the project. One of the most significant takeaways of the project was the relationship-building process that I personally and the brand have built with Sarrah. It was enriching on a personal and professional level.

Right: Digital Illustration, 2021 Left: Print on Satin

If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the collection I’m currently working on (I can’t share yet), but I believe it’s my best work to come. Another project I enjoyed working on was Garidat RebelCairo, a brand journal we published in 2020 to celebrate our curiosity for illustrations that include stories, collaborations, impromptu sketches, and never-seen-before photographs that have, and continue to fuel the vision of our brand. The journal made me look back at key moments for the brand, which left me feeling grateful for the people I met and worked with along the way. I also enjoyed it because I love Editorial design and rarely do it now.

Garidat RebelCairo – Brand Journal – Issue 001, 2020
Garidat Rebel – Brand Journal – Inside Spreads, 2020

We also just launched our first knitwear collection in December, which I’m thrilled with because it’s an expansion to our product line, and it was fun to see how our prints would translate on this kind of fabric.

Right: Serpent Knit Coat, 2021 Left: Sulfur Knit Coat, 2021 Middle: Collection backstage short film done by the designer

Q: Who are your favorite Arab designers/artists?


They change constantly and they’re so many but currently:

  1. Ramses Wissa Wassef
  2. Hany Rashed
  3. Maison Artc in Fashion (from Morocco)
  4. Essam Marouf
Left: Maison Artc, Morocco
Right: Maison Artc and Mehdi Sabik – Beautiful Morocco 🇲🇦

Q: Who are your favorite non-Arab designers/artists?


I don’t have favorites. But if I had to choose at the top of my head:

  1. Dali
  2. Daniel RoseberrySchiaparelli
  3. Dries Van Noten

Q: How do you get inspiration for your projects?


Colors, arts, books, nature, history, spotting interesting details in people’s outfits, wanting to wear something and not finding it, trend forecasts, and different eras in fashion. I also follow many accounts that share work that inspires me: design, furniture, photography, etc.

Q: Describe what does your desk mean to you?


It has a calming effect on me and gives me a sense of order and structure when I need it. Though I’m not too attached to it, I work anywhere when I need to.

Dara’s Desk, 2022

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


I do not have one formula that works each time, but I cannot stress this enough: DO NOT make your work your whole day/life. You need to engage in other activities that are entirely different from your field to come up with new ideas. If I do not have the luxury to take a break and recharge, I try these:

  • I change my working space (work from a different place)
  • I share my work with artists/designers I know and trust. Their input always helps me when I feel stuck with a design/project and don’t know how to push it further.
  • I read.
  • I change my medium
  • I limit my time on social media. I believe some of my creative blocks were a result of that. It makes my brain lazier.

Q: How do you see the role of photography within your practice as a designer?


To my brand, it’s just as important and sometimes, an extension to the concept and story of each collection. Other times, I just want the clothes to shine alone, no crazy location, no props, nothing. Even then, which images I choose and how I show the pieces is very important. I see it as another tool to reinforce the brand’s personality and collection theme, and be different from others in the field. And it proved to be right from how people reacted to it. I get many positive comments about the brand’s content on Instagram when I meet people in real life. Recently, we’ve been focusing on showing our followers the BTS: production, printing etc. People are always curious to know about that and it’s where all the serious work happens anyway.

Right: Cancun – Scarf, 2020 Left: Serpent Knit Scarf (Knitwear Winter Collection) – Scarf, 2021
Right: Savannah Scarf – Model, Shahd Rezkana, 2021 Left: Spirit Flower – Model, Shahd Rezkana, 2021

Q: Where do you see Rebel Cairo going in the future?


My idea of where I see us going next is evolving constantly. However, a few constant goals would be: maturing and becoming stronger in design, execution, quality, knowledge and experience. I see our team getting bigger and more diverse as well as initiating projects that support stories we care about as a brand. I also see us expanding geographically which I’m currently working on.

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

  1. Do it for the right reasons
  2. Be patient when it comes to results
  3. Accept imperfection but work as if you’re reaching for it

Checkout more of RebelCairo Projects Here
Shop at RebelCairo Here

Photography of Dara Hassanein is shot by Aly Soliman

Next Interview with Marawan Fayed
InterviewsTranslations
Dark Mode

Revolution For Kids: Dar El Fata El Arabi, Recollected

In 1974, the children’s publishing house Dar El Fata El Arabi was launched in Beirut. Over the next decade, Dar El Fata — staffed by artists, designers, and writers devoted to bringing attention to the Palestinian cause — produced some of the most visually striking and progressive children’s books in the region. Bidoun sat down with Mohieddin Ellabbad, one of the cofounders of the publishing house and its first and most influential art director, as well as Nawal Traboulsi, a leading expert on children’s literature and reading habits, who got her start as an amateur illustrator hand-picked by Ellabbad to work with him making books.

(1)
The Palestinian
Alphabet Poster
Mohieddin Ellabad
(2)
Our Oil is Arab!! Original drawing and text for wall newspapers
Mohieddin Ellabad

Mohieddin Ellabbad: I remember the first time I walked into the Dar El Fata offices. Right away I noticed how plush the office was — wall-to-wall carpeting, a long row of telephones, fresh coffee and orange juice. I had come to Beirut under the assumption that conditions would be very difficult. In Egypt we had a fantasy that all things Palestinian automatically meant suffering. I imagined I would be sleeping in an iron bed with six other people in the room. But I was willing to suffer considerably for the cause. I had just scrapped a long-planned sabbatical in Paris, in which I had invested all of my savings, to come to Beirut and work with a novice publishing house linked to the Palestinians.

My first meeting was with Nabil Shaath who was the director of the Palestinian Planning Center and also in charge of the publishing house. He was also a member of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah; later he would hold various positions in the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. In Shaath’s office, I immediately noticed a stack of typewritten papers on the corner of his desk. In response to my inquisitive look, he told me that it was material he had approved for publication, and proceeded to dramatically ask one of his aides why it had not already been sent to the print shop. Another employee interjected that it was necessary to first design and prepare the manuscript. And of course, there was no designer. That was how I came in.

Nawal Traboulsi: Dar El Fata was the PLO’s cultural program, though there was no direct political guidance. Dar El Fata was very creative and progressive, although of course there was a definite, and genuine, enthusiasm for the Palestinian revolution. But the money came from the PLO.

ME: Actually, that’s not true. The money came from private businessmen. At the time, it was common for projects like this to be launched with private donations. But it was founded by Abu Ammar — Yasser Arafat’s nom de guerre — after Black September and the expulsion of the Palestinians to Lebanon. An Egyptian doctor who had been imprisoned by Nasser in the fifties, a Marxist, donated a sum of money to Fatah with the suggestion that it be used to fund something that would signify the revolution’s persistence — its ability to take the long road when necessary. A document for the education of children was being drafted at the same time, and thus the idea of launching a publishing house geared toward making books for children started to gain currency.

NT: I was twenty years old, and I was studying philosophy at the French university in Beirut, drawing on the side as a hobby. I had some work in an exhibition at a cultural center in the city, and I was very lucky that Ellabbad saw it. Though they informed him that I was only a student, he insisted on meeting me anyway. He asked if I was interested in doing drawings for children’s books. To be totally honest, at the time I had never done any drawings for children. What’s more, he said that the publishing house was to be primarily about and for Palestinian children, and at the time I had no relationship to Palestine or the Palestinians. But Ellabbad told me not to worry, he would guide me in the process. And in fact, he was so authoritarian! We called him Monsieur Millimeter because of his sharpness and precision. I ended up illustrating around ten books. I got to meet artists like Nazir Nabaa, Kamal Boullata, and Helmi El-Touni. All these Arabs then living in Beirut, “foreigners.” For a Lebanese French-speaking student from the 1968 generation, Dar El Fata opened my horizon onto the Arab world. I was interested in where they came from, their conversations, their painting. But I preferred to stay in the shadows.

ME: When I started, it wasn’t clear what we were going to do. There was no marketing or distribution plan. I decided that if the publishing house was to survive, I’d have to come up with one. What soon became clear was that we needed to establish several distinct series for various ages, in different formats. I made our official goal to publish sixty-seven books by the end of that first year. It was a large but necessary number. We needed to have an extensive and diverse back catalog for the publishing house to establish itself, and to find retail outlets in the Arab world willing to carry our books. I had arrived in May 1974, and I wanted sixty-seven books by December. It was crazy. Somehow we actually, miraculously, met our target.

NT: Yes, and you managed to publish original works! At the time, the few existing children’s publishing houses were busy translating already published books and copying their images. Even more impressive was that you published modern texts about modern children, the children of the 1960s and 70s. Furthermore, Dar El Fata was an Arab publishing house with authors and illustrators from every Arab country, which was a totally new and progressive practice. It was not a publishing house that merely reflected the owners’ tastes, as is common now, and at the same time it was not the property of any one country. Because it was dedicated to the Palestinian cause, which especially at that time was the cause of many Arabs, it was truly a pan-Arab endeavor. And it paid attention to children. Writing and publishing quality books for children was not common or trendy in those days — to even think about children was revolutionary!

(3)
Original preliminary drawing of the cover of The Cat’s Banquet
by Zakareya Tamer, 1975
Mohieddin Ellabad

ME: After the first year we conducted an internal assessment that pointed out the utter failure of our administrative and distribution system. What I suggested as a remedy was to become a much smaller operation, a sort of atelier de création, focusing only on the production of content. Nabil Shaath was very unhappy with my proposal, he wanted us to be something big, like Akhbar El Yom, the Egyptian newspaper giant, with their huge nine-story building. He wanted to be a big corporation that produced video for broadcast. I thought, “We can’t produce a sixteen-page book for children and distribute it properly.” He tried to convince me to stay, but I decided to leave after the second year. I returned to Egypt after the civil war erupted. Two of the office boys had already been killed in the fighting. But I did keep working with Dar El Fata through a project that I initiated in Cairo, the Arab Workshop for Children’s Books. We coproduced several books together.

(4)
A Colophon from The Numbers book, 1988
Published by Dar El Fata El Arabi & The Arabic Experimental workshop for Children’s books

NT: After Ellabbad left, nobody from Dar El Fata contacted me again. So it was a brief but influential two years for me. It was clear how crucial Mohieddin Ellabbad had been to the project. He was demanding about which artists he chose to work with, and he refused to have any artists forced upon him because they were Palestinian, or had certain political convictions. I remember that I was astonished to find that I was being paid exactly the same as other illustrators, although I didn’t consider myself a professional like they were. Ellabbad told me that he paid for the work, not the “name” of the person. It was a new and fair way of dealing, and I was proud to work in an institution that operated under such rules. Ellabbad gave Dar El Fata its Arab face — he made sure that it didn’t just become another tool for propaganda. He sought out writers and artists from Sudan, Morocco, Yemen, everywhere in the Arab world.

(5)
Home Poster published by Dar El Fata El Arabi, 1979
Mohieddin Ellabad

ME: To ensure my independence, and in order to keep the administration from interfering too much, I consciously made a point of doing my work away from their offices. I would keep the entire process under my control until I presented them with the final results. At this time, Hegazy, Adly Rizkallah, and Mahmoud Fahmy all came from Cairo and stayed at my house — four beds in a row, we lived and worked together. We worked so hard that we didn’t really have a chance to experience the Beirut you hear about, the Beirut of nighttime pleasures and good food. When we Egyptians went to Beirut in the Seventies, we made a bigger impact than is usually acknowledged.

One thing I remember unconsciously doing was to use the publishing house’s catalog as an opportunity to publish a visual manifesto of sorts. I collected different drawings and juxtaposed them to produce a cover for the catalog that represented the kind of visual world we were interested in. We got rid of Mickey Mouse and Tom & Jerry type drawings. The idea was to present a new “rough” aesthetic that was at the same time visually powerful and artistically complete — something that was local and that rejected the sentimental and bourgeois nature of the dominant form of illustration at the time. What we wanted were rats, dogs that looked like the ones you see walking down the street, cats smoking cigarettes. That was what I was looking for, not to be just driven by the demands of creating images for propaganda. Anyway, everything I suggested was accepted!

(6)
Original maquette of the cover of the first publications catalogue of the publishing house, considered by the artistic director as a sort of visual manifesto.

NT: I remember during the civil war a meeting that Mohieddin and I participated in where some colleagues voiced the opinion that instead of drawing killings and corpses we should be drawing optimistic and hopeful things. I was quite critical of this position, as I believed we should be drawing what’s around us, the terrible reality we were living. I had also become involved in the Palestinian cause by that point, and I agreed with Mohieddin that art should exceed reality so that the audience could register reality itself. The whole period was marked by revolutionary ideas everywhere.

ME: Dar El Fata being connected to a political organization still meant that there were pretty sticky situations sometimes. People I had never seen before would suddenly show up and stand there, watching us while we were working. In such situations, I tried to be both polite and firm. After the customary but curt greetings I would find out who they were, usually people from the Palestinian Planning Center, on some kind of investigation to find out what we were up to exactly.

In 1975, the Emirates paid for the media campaign that accompanied Abu Ammar’s historical address to the UN, and suddenly there was funding for us to do something cultural to accompany his trip. The decision was taken to translate a few of our books into different languages to demonstrate the kind of books Palestinian children were being exposed to. The mere existence of a children’s publishing house was already an achievement, but fortunately the books chosen were of an aesthetically high standard, not mere propaganda. But the problem with the administration was that they couldn’t always differentiate between propaganda and art. Our efforts were always bound up in propaganda, so in a sense we never fulfilled our true potential.

NT: Another artist and I made a postcard for the tenth anniversary of the Palestinian revolution. The image was also published in the An-Nawar newspaper, but it was attributed to a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl called Nawal Abboud, who didn’t exist. Although I felt like the Palestinian girl secretly existed inside me, like another secret me, and though I was happy that my work was selected and used for the Palestinian cause, as a poster and as a background for a Palestinian children’s play, it was ultimately an act of theft that didn’t respect the artist’s rights. But I didn’t say anything. I have a draft of the original illustration, and it seems, in retrospect, like a prescient illustration of the children of the Intifada in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

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A postcard for Palestine (Originally drawn for Lebanon)
Nawal Traboulsi

ME: It’s important to note that the experience of working in such close proximity to a political machine also influenced my practice positively, because it mixed up all the different channels. I used to work as a designer, a cartoonist, and illustrator — after Dar El Fata I started exploring the possibility of mixing all these different strands. There was a story by Zakaria Tamer called The Cat’s Banquet that I designed the cover for. At the time I was doing lots of caricatures about the infitah — Sadat’s economic open-door policy in the seventies — in which a vicious-looking cat is in the process of seducing a bird. I gave the cat a pack of Marlboros and a bottle of Coke.

(8)
Left: Beautiful Feather book, 1977
(9)
Right: The Cat’s Table، unknown
Mohieddin Ellabad

This was the image of the enemy: extremely well dressed but with claws, like the West. Our original publications, while actually quite cheap, looked lavish. I felt that this was not fitting — to walk into a refugee camp with open sewers and to present such an expensive-looking book, which indeed cost 25 pt — a lot at the time. I did an analysis that showed that it was possible to produce a book for a quarter of the price, if we got rid of the cover. But that never happened. I also initiated a wall journal, in public, with spaces left for locals to fill in. We produced six of them. Other formal innovative and rewarding experiences include the work I did on a book by Zakaria Tamer, which was a sort of comparison between a free, wild horse and a domesticated, servile one. At the time, I came across an exhibition of paintings of horses in Yemen by Laila Shawa. So I asked her if she would like to illustrate this book for me. When she hesitated, I told her that we could do the book together. I said, “You do the paintings in whichever form you like, and just leave me some space for the text.” We laid out the book together, and it was really beautiful. I was always interested in finding new unknown or unprofessional artists who had something strong about their work. Like Nawal, Laila had just graduated from university and had a wonderfully free and naive style. But you need time to discover people, and time to work with them. Unfortunately, things were run quite erratically, and we also worked with people who were not really able to go beyond the dominant aesthetics of the time. Also, the goal of producing sixty-seven books that I had set for the publishing house dictated some of these choices. Sometimes you are not as big as your dreams, and the people you’re dealing with are not up to it. And maybe I wasn’t able to achieve the aesthetic criteria I had set forth in the manifesto.

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One of a series of children’s newspapers-as-posters published by Dar Fata al Arabi, 1988
Mohieddin Ellabad

NT: For me, my experience with Dar El Fata and the war afterward put me on the path I am on now. At the time it was part of a general ambience of revolutionary movements. I am from the generation that dreamed of creating a new world, a new Lebanon as a country of freedom and rights for all citizens, independent of religion, gender, or social class. The war went on to destroy everything in my life, but my work at Dar El Fata was the seed of everything I am doing now. For over ten years I have been engaged with children’s literature, libraries, and public reading. I’m one of the founders of the first NGOs in Lebanon to focus on the establishment and development of public libraries. Right after the war ended, Rafik Hariri was rebuilding the country in a bourgeois way, and a group of friends and activists began working on how to find alternatives through which to reconstruct this damaged country. So we focused on children, public schools, and libraries.

ME: After I left Beirut in 1976, the publishing house continued until the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, when it left with the mass exodus of the Palestinians. It then came to Cairo, and a significant change took place. I guess politics finally became absolutely dominant. I am only guessing here, but I think that the house acted as a secret channel of communication between the PLO and the Egyptian government, who at the time were not officially communicating. I continued to design some books, and did some stamps for them, like the now iconic Falasteen Arabiyya (Palestine is Arab) stamp. When Israel participated for the first and last time in the Cairo Book Fair, with a pavilion next to the Dar El Fata pavilion, we volunteered to hold different events to support the publishing house and to celebrate Palestine. Later on we discovered that the PLO had allocated a budget for these activities. I wonder where the money went. By then, in the mid-Eighties, it was really over. Every couple of years a book might be published. The house was finally closed down sometime in the early Nineties. No one ever called to let us know.


Resources:

More of Mohieddin Ellabad’s work can be found on ADA
An online archive for some of Dar Al Fata’s work Here
A documentation of the Rainbow series for kids between 3-6 Here
An sound interview with Mohieddin Ellabad and Hasnaa Rida, 2014 Here
Buy Kashshoul Al Rasam for Mohieddin Ellabad’s Here
Buy Nazar for Mohieddin Ellabad’s Here

This interview was conducted by Hassan Khan and was published in BIDOUN, Noise, winter 2010.
This is published with permission from BIDOUN.
Some of the resources are taken from Hadibadi, check them Here
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Moe El-Hossieny
Dark Mode

The Culture of Dummies:
A Mapping of Tutorialism

Over the past year, I have come to observe a flow of crude visual output, making debuts on several platforms ranging from social media, websites to billboards. They are what is technically known as kinetic typography, i.e. a fancy term for moving text.

These images and clips appeared visually striking and had bold typographic treatments; contrasted with black/white backgrounds and in some cases, wrapped around an arbitrary geometric 3D object. The swirling visuals had a hypnotic trait in that they were animated in space. They were either rotating, moving across the screen in delayed intervals, or maintaining a POV that granted a deep sense of immersion.

With the visual’s design and aesthetic direction geared towards a distinct all-embracing feel, the viewer gets an Op Art-esque treatment to the moving typography.

A screenshot from
a Youtube tutorial

The Op Art movement arose in the early 60’s. It used a framework of purely geometric forms as the basis of its effects. It also borrowed inspiration from color theory and the psychology of perception. It was primarily concerned with creating optical illusions through the use of certain visual attributes, thereby tricking the viewer’s eyes to perceive depth or an illusion of movement.

Time Magazine, where the Op Art term was first coined, claimed that it simultaneously pulled the viewer in and attacked their eyes. This movement is also considered a form of Kinetic art, wherein artists began exploring the idea of how time can potentially be experienced in an art piece. Op Art had strong and fresh visual results, alas, short-lived. By the end of the 60’s, it gradually integrated itself into pop art and minimalism. But its influence can be discernibly observed to this day.

Blaze 1964
Bridget Riley

Untitled 1965
[Fragment 5/8]
Bridget Riley

Above are a set of visuals, one taken from YouTube and another from Bridget Riley, a prominent figure from the Op Art movement. By a simple juxtaposition of the two, one can see the resemblance these visuals have to Op Art. An art enthusiast with an eye for design can easily bridge the connection between the two. However, upon further inspection, this resemblance is not the result of a deliberate decision that said designers came to revisit the Op Art and Kinetic movements. It was not by the natural means of drawing inspiration from the movements, examining the visuals further, and consequently, experimenting with the visuals in a modern context, on Adobe After Effects. It is rather sobering that this familiarity we are noting is the mere doing of these designers following the same YouTube tutorials.

These so-called “designers” have entered a rabbit hole of uniformity. On the one hand, there is the designer that put together the tutorial and curated most of the design choices that brought about a particular visual aesthetic, leaving countless designers, on the other hand, to use that same tutorial that may as well be dummy text – filling in their material and claiming it as their own. This is evident in a tutorial posted around a year ago on a YouTube channel called Dope Motions. The channel is owned by Nikhil Pawar, a Motion & Graphics Designer, according to the About section on his website. He released a series of tutorials demonstrating how the coupling of particular After Effects functions can lead to the creation of several visual languages.

Throughout the past year, a few more tutorials of the same nature were released by the same channel, now, with packs of ready-to-use templates available for purchase from a variety of websites.

What struck me was the heaps of young designers racing to imitate these tutorials, only to produce carbon copies of the original visuals. To make matters worse, the outcomes are then shared as novel design experimentation or as actual work.

Similarly, contrasting colors have shown a recent spike (coincidentally, the black and white trend is gradually dimming) following the introduction of a new flow of tutorials involving C4D and AE from a channel by the name of madebytiger. It goes by the same concept, except it features more 3D objects from C4D, pop colors and better lighting.

Youtube tutorial
Madebytiger

The same approach can be seen, but with more technical sophistication. Presenting bold typography and 3D effects, these tutorials have shown to be useful in my experience; upon watching a few, I have grasped a great deal of technical prowess and seen the untapped potential of After Effects and C4DI took the liberty to interview Tiger Zhang, the Boston-based designer behind the channel madebytiger, to gain insight into why he is creating these tutorials.

Q: What made you start creating these tutorials in that specific visual aesthetic? What was your inspiration behind it?

I shared my short videos about kinetic typography, and viewers asked for the tutorials in the comments. So, I started recording videos when designing the kinetic typography in After Effects or Cinema 4D.Frank Gehry’s work inspired me because there is movement in his architecture.

MIT Stata Center
Frank Gehry

Lou Ruvo Center
Las  Vegas
Frank Gehry

Were you influenced by the Op Art movement from the 60’s?

I got insight from Op Art. The tutorials that I uploaded to YouTube are my experiment projects with the question of how I can imitate a three-dimensional environment in two-dimensional form.

Do you intend for your tutorials to be replicated exactly as they are? If not, what is the purpose of your tutorial?

No, I do not. Through my tutorials, I hope I can show that the combination of typography and motion design can deliver more value and express emotions to our audiences.

Is there anything you would like to advise people watching your tutorials in terms of how they should include that in their workflow?

I think technologies such as After Effects and Cinema 4D are easy to learn. The tool is not the answer, the designer is the answer – so, stop following the herd.

In a humble 4 questions to Tiger Zhang, one can deduce the intention behind these tutorials and better understand the inspirations he drew from.

Taking a glimpse at the lackadaisical attitude of today’s designers, one can easily speculate that this technology will gain traction and give rise to a new trend. The culture of mimicry will transpire leading one to anticipate the impressions of seemingly identical designs.

Now, let us examine what it means to imitate with little consideration, curiosity to investigate, or desire to build on technical skills learned. To begin with, this suggests that the mere act of following steps has the capability to produce work that possesses aesthetic or conceptual properties. On the contrary, it can be the dreariest, if not the most degenerative, activity a creative can perform. It may as well be done by a computer programmed to follow the same sequence with the permission to alter a few extra variables. The product would be roughly the same.

What is the value a designer brings to the table when sharing such work? What is the work’s inherent worth? The posed questions deserve some reflection. It is a cynical reality in which the creative industry is a passive bystander to these primitive propositions, only to be met with praise that is, quite frankly, out of place. In fact, it reflects a deeper flaw in the grounds upon which one defines ‘design’ and how the field respectively measures creativity.

With the lack of better education and the deficit in design criticism, both internal and external, these templates are deemed the one-stop-shop for a creative process. The outputs they create, unobstructed by much-needed criticism, subsequently leave unrelenting scars on our design history. The widely accessible blueprint opens the door to the general adoption of this practice, giving it false credibility as a means of creation.

A few keywords that could define this new wave are: Skimming, scanning, hover over, scroll, and swipe.

All terms that deal with the surface-level inspection of the subject in question.

All too often, designers look to the work of others as the source of inspiration while scouring the internet for visual references. Rarely was the source of inspiration art itself. It comes as no surprise that this practice was adopted by many designers in Egypt, dictating a style that appeals to anyone without the exposure necessary to detect the banality of the work in the eyes of designers and non-designers, alike.

It is crucial to highlight the risks that the lack of sufficient internal design criticism have posed, leaving visual culture to a roll of the dice, perpetuating poor critical thinking and peer reviews with no substance.

Instead of shaping a designer with a clear-cut, distinct style, it is leading to the prototype of a designer with short bursts of style that come and go with the seasons.

Design criticism is a dodged practice in Egypt and more often than not, it is taken as a personal attack, rather than professional, constructive feedback. One reason I wrote this essay is to break the taboo of design criticism and normalize it as a practice that I believe is to the benefit of visual culture. Another reason is in efforts to develop the healthy practice of critical thought, analysis and understanding of design. Through this, I aim to question myself and challenge my own thought processes and practices.

I believe that design criticism is aimed at untangling the mysteries and intricacies of design for oneself, first and foremost – given the designer harbors a keen sense of curiosity. Secondly, for the community of design in creating a healthy discourse surrounding given topics. And lastly, for the public, in making design more understandable and accessible to the untrained eye.

Going back to the matter at hand; in parallel to Op Art, where patterns, shapes and colors were selected for their illusory qualities rather than for their substantive content, there is the general aesthetic treatment of these tutorials. The designers originally producing these tutorials know the exact reason behind every choice made, be it the high contrast, the bold typography, or the particular shapes. They are carefully designed to attract the viewer’s attention, even hypnotize, as they reveal themselves on the thumbnail of a video on YouTube.

And so, designers fall prey to the allure of the visuals, follow the allocated steps and possibly pick up a few pointers about the software. The designer produces a work and plays with a couple of trivialities to more closely represent their identity, and proceeds to share it with their ecosystem. Some may credit the source where they arrived at this visual style from, while others hope that this aspect goes unnoticed, as they edit “Your Text Here” to “Summer Vibes”, or appropriate Arabic text as an effective concealer.

One of the arguments in favor of this practice is that it is considered as experimentation, and therefore, should be tolerated under that. The fact of the matter is, it should not be.“The word ‘experiment’ has come to justify a multitude of sins”, as Steve Heller, the design critic, pointed out. He was referring to the indifference that arises as a result of inadequate definition of ‘experimentation’ in university projects.By definition, creative experimentation is the process by which a designer engages with an idea in exploration of its full potential, through the utilization of the tools available at hand or new ones.

The process can involve several different methods; to mention a few: repetition, tracing, juxtaposing, alteration, association, adjustment, filtering down, clarifying amongst others. All of which usually happen simultaneously unless the designer intentionally designates specific attributes to work with.Experimentation, as most skilled designers know, is essential to any successful project. It can often be ugly and messy but other times, deeply intriguing. It is the fuel of the design process. Steve defines its formula as a mixture of elements, to which I will contribute some of my own:
Intuition, intelligence, creativity, discipline, curiosity, and constraints.

Take the Ames’ Guide to Self-Instruction in Practical and Artistic Penmanship as an example of commitment and dedication in experimentation.

Check out the full book
of hand lettering and type experimentation HERE

Another example of this exercise that was made by the Italian designer Bruno Munari, aiming to expand a person’s idea of what a face looks like using variation and repetition. Munari used a familiar icon and asked a simple question: how many variations of the front of the human face can I imagine?

Design as art
Bruno Munari

The results are fascinating, to say the least. Such an exercise was useful in that it involved a process of deep vertical thinking of a myriad of possibilities that could arise from zeroing in on one visual element. It also challenged the normative image of the face in the mind, using repetition to force the brain to find new relationships, juxtapositions and displacements that led to unorthodox results. These results would not have been possible had this exercise not been explored in its totality.

Comparing this definition and execution of the creative experiment to that of following a tutorial, exposes the superficiality of the process and outcome of the latter. So, the main problem of this argument is that it flattens the definition of what experimentation is. These visual reproductions are starved of intention, curiosity, constraints, rigor, or creativity. They are predesigned templates that use dummy text and a dummy visual language that is only intended to showcase a way of working and not to impose aesthetic choices.This fault is not only limited to the definition of experimentation, but, to a disconcerting extent, reflects the state of the Egyptian designer; one that uses pre-cooked formulas, scans visual elements horizontally and never digs into one symbol vertically. The current culture of mockups is one that places more emphasis on the designer’s portfolio than their actual work. It creates fictional parallels of visual outputs: The designer’s portfolio including clean 3D mockups and predesigned templates vs. The actual work. It also goes to say how modern-day Egyptian designers place unwarranted value on how their work performs in the real world as well as their skewed perception of the design process, where it begins and ends.If the presentation of the work in a designer’s portfolio matched that of their acumen in reality, we would witness a much higher-caliber visual environment, but that is a topic to cover in depth in another essay.

“It is said that imitation is a good start, but when imitation becomes the creation, then creativity becomes flat reproduction.”

This phenomenon is not a novel or foreign one. Remember the glitch, warp, slit-scan animated typography? or the don’t blink effect animation?

This culture has existed for years. For the sake of convenience and so that we can reference it back in the future with a name, let’s call this phenomena Tutorialism.

Screenshot from
a youtube tutorial
A reproduction made
by studio Akakir

The aim of this essay is not merely to highlight the problems of the current design scene but also, to give pointers that would hopefully inspire. Taking the example of Op Art, there are several noteworthy pieces that can be studied deeper. The notion of ‘study’ should be treated as intrinsic to the design process and be demonstrated consistently

by the designer.For example, the extraordinary works of artists Peter Sedgley and Victor Vasarely.

Glide 1966
Peter Sedgley

Gestalt 4 1970
Victor Vasarely
Dieuzeu 1908
Victor Vasarely

It could serve designers better to feed their mind the works of said artists, to deeply immerse oneself in the study of their processes and examine their mindful choices. It could even serve as a better visual stimulus than the urge to share their easy productions in return for transient external validations. I believe the real validation to be sought is an internal one; one that comes about from the knowledge of having exhausted all the possibilities for the work at hand; that it is thoughtful, experimental and perhaps original.In his book The Conduct of Life, Ralph Waldo Emerson notes:

“the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting”.

Tutorialism is a far cry from real ingenuity in design. It is as uninteresting in its process for the imitator as it is for the viewer. And if it is uninteresting then it is ugly, according to Emerson.Ultimately, these visual reproductions are highly dependent on the lack of criticism from within the field and receive validation from the untrained eye. By flattening the creation process to become a matter of replacing dummy text and dummy visual language, they perpetuate dummy mass visual culture which ought not be tolerated.