Strong, distinct visual impact. "One glance at Burhan Karkutli's posters or designs and you’re directly drawn to his amazing, unique style," says Bahia Shehab.

“A History of Arab Graphic Design”
Shaping collective memories

Bahia Shehab and Haytham Nawar's award-winning "A History of Arab Graphic Design" (2020) took ten years to produce. In interview with Marcia Lynx Qualey, Shehab talks about the project and the difficulties in compiling an Arab graphic design textbook

What brought you two together in creating/assembling "A History of Arab Graphic Design"? What distinct or overlapping skills, experience and personal histories did you each bring to the project?

Bahia Shehab: I planned this course into the syllabus of a programme I developed back in 2011. We went ahead and launched it, only to discover there was no textbook to teach it. But the course had already been entered into the graphic design programme’s system. When Haytham joined us as a faculty member, the idea of us possibly collaborating came up. The first meeting was hilarious. He visited me in my library and began to laugh, saying ‘When you come to my house you will understand!’ We discovered our libraries were almost identical – basically, we were already interested in the same things. When we finally met at AUC, we found we were both preparing independently to work on this book – what better reason to pool our time and resources.

For whom did you write this book? Were you thinking about your students and the needs of young graphic designers?

Cover of "A history of Arab graphic design" by Bahia Shehab and Haytham Nawar (published by AUC Press)
Arab diaspora plays vital role: many artists and accomplished designers now reside outside the Arab world because of the political environment – be that the Palestinian situation, the Lebanese civil war, the invasion of Iraq, or the destruction in Syria. Their work, however, remains essential for the narrative of the region

Bahia Shehab: We needed to teach this course and we had no textbook, so, yes, we were hoping this would be a textbook for our students and any educator interested in teaching the history of Arab graphic design – a point of reference for them to work from, if you like. This was the main reason we got together to create the book. The course was the nucleus, but our shared interest in the same topics drove the process.

What do you understand as the essence of “graphic design”? Google defines it as design working in a mode of visual communication? Do you have a better definition?

Bahia Shehab: The phrase ‘graphic design’ is becoming fluid; the world of design is currently in a state of flux. A designer is no longer simply the person who deals with the graphics or the visual communication of a medium, they are also the people who consider user experience, how the visual outcome communicates with the target audience and whether it is accomplishing its goal.

The role of designers is evolving, but the focus of ‘graphic design’ is still visual communication. 

Most artists at the turn of the twentieth century used to work as graphic designers, designing calendars, packages, posters, et cetera. There was, however, as yet no clear definition or specific demand for the role of graphic designer. The increase in industrialisation following the two World Wars spawned a need for mass communication and the art of graphic design began to emerge.

What is the relationship between graphic design and art? Does the relationship between Arab graphic design and Arab art differ from that between U.S. graphic design and U.S. art?

Bahia Shehab: It’s roughly the same as in Europe or the United States. That said, Arab designers are often artists who take on design work – it’s how they make a living. As a result, many of the designers we interviewed do not document their designs, because to them it is just work.

Creating a clear lineage of Arab graphic design

In the introduction, you note that initially you had intended to focus on Arab graphic design as practiced in Arab countries, but then decided to expand to the Arab diaspora as well. What limits did you ultimately apply to the project?

Bahia Shehab: This also reflects the reality of the Arab world. Many artists and accomplished designers now reside outside the Arab world because of the political environment – be that the Palestinian situation, the Lebanese civil war, the invasion of Iraq, or the destruction in Syria. In almost every country we visited we encountered this repeating narrative: whether for political or social conditions these artists had migrated and settled in other countries.

(From left to right): folio from the Koran, early Kufic style, Abbasid dynastiy; newspaper gift insert, calligraphy by Yusuf Ahmad and Sayed Ibrahim, year unknown; advertisement for Waked’s al-Hilal Arabic typewriter, early 20th century (source: AUC Press)
Show here from left to right is a folio from the Koran, early Kufic style, Abbasid dynastiy; newspaper gift insert, calligraphy by Yusuf Ahmad and Sayed Ibrahim, year unknown; advertisement for Waked’s al-Hilal Arabic typewriter, early 20th century: most artists at the turn of the twentieth century also worked as graphic designers, designing calendars, packages, posters, et cetera. There was, however, as yet no clear definition or specific demand for the role of graphic designer. The increase in industrialisation following the two World Wars spawned a need for mass communication and the art of graphic design began to emerge

Their work was, however, essential for the narrative of the region, so it was impossible to write the book without including their work. It proved impossible to limit Arab design to the geography of the Arab world. The result was liberating, since we were no longer confined to the area between Morocco and Iraq, meaning we could interview anybody whose work we found influential and important for the narrative as a whole.

What are the major gaps, in terms of both archival materials and the ways people think about different aspects of Arab graphic design?

Bahia Shehab: The gaps relating to archival materials are so absurd that I really don’t know where to start. Many designers did not keep their work and, it seems, no governmental institutions cared enough about this work to keep it either. We don’t even have a design museum, let alone a design archive.

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