Amanda Ross-Ho, Blue Marble, (2013) in Tragedy plus Time at Public Fiction. Courtesy of Public Fiction

If you’re anything like most of us, you’ve spent a lot (or at least a bit) of time these past few weeks reflecting on the year that was and preparing for the one that’s now underway. But amidst all those self-care checklists and reflections, there’s one thing we’ve neglected to do, and that’s consider what we’d actually like our world to look like and feel like this year, and then figuring out how to get there. I think we all want to create work that reflects the complicated, capricious times we live in, that thoughtfully explores the issues we’re grappling with as a global community, and find original solutions and outcomes. For graphic designers, I have a humble suggestion: no more poster shows.

I love a good poster as much the next person, but the fact that graphic design exhibitions still struggle to go beyond hanging paper on walls is frankly embarrassing. We’re smarter than that and we know it—so what will it take for us to show it?

Fortunately, a recent show in the United Arab Emirates has emerged as our collective North Star. Open for one month this past November, the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial in Sharjah is the very first graphic design biennial in the Middle East, and one of just a handful in the world.

Fikra Graphic Design Biennial, Heart of Sharjah. Courtesy of Fikra. Photo: Obaid AlBudoor

Hosted by Fikra, the region’s leading graphic design studio, and curated by designers, researchers, and curators Prem Krishnamurthy, Emily Smith, and Na Kim, the conceit of the show draws directly from the governmental structure of the UAE, which is comprised of 31 ministries. In additional to core matters of state, there are ministries of “Happiness and Wellbeing,” “Artificial Intelligence,” “Future Food Security,” and “Climate Change.” Would a Ministry of Graphic Design really be such a stretch? And if it existed as a state-sanctioned office, who would work there and what would they do? What could graphic design look like if the government played a stronger creative role? 

It’s a pretty radical notion for most Westerners to consider, but the UAE’s ministries are not only quite progressive for the region, they’re progressive for the rest of the world, too. For comparison, the U.S.’s 16 cabinet and 7 cabinet-level positions leave no room for forward-thinking, let alone the whimsy of the UAE. So it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to suggest a 32nd ministry position for graphic design.

Fikra Graphic Design Biennial, Department of Non-Binaries. Christopher Benton, LLC Redux, A Great Place for Great People to Do Great Work (2018) Courtesy of Fikra. Photo: Obaid AlBudoor

The biennial’s Ministry of Graphic Design includes five “official” departments for Graphic Optimism, Non-Binaries, Flying Saucers, Dematerializing Language, Mapping Margins, as well as an Office of the Archive. This strong organizing principle allowed Kim, Smith, and Krishnamurthy to let the curators they brought in as “department heads” run wild with their ideas without the show ever feeling too unfocused. And it definitely ran a little wild at times.

Unlike a typical biennial, the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial (FGDB) is a living, breathing space, constantly changing shape to accommodate the daily needs of the various talks, workshops, and other happenings. It’s the opposite of pristine white gallery walls with exhibitions fixed in stone. Whereas the atmosphere of traditional biennials is serene at best and staid or stagnant at worst, the FGDB is full of kinetic energy. Sometimes this can come off as messy, but mostly it’s exciting; it’s new and different, and the idea exchange that’s happening is at such a high level.

That’s the medium, so what’s the message? “It’s really using graphic design as a kind of lens with which to look at the world,” says Krishnamurthy. That lens may not be rose-colored, but it’s positive, to be sure. Krishnamurthy finds the UAE’s ministry structure and areas of focus quite hopeful, hence the show’s Department of Graphic Optimism. The UAE was founded in 1971, and its rapid growth and ambitious plans for expansion speak to the hope a newly established country must feel.

Just as the UAE is caught between its traditional past and its progressive dreams for the future, so too are most graphic designers hybrid creatures, rooted in a traditional skill-set on the one hand, and full of forward-thinking ideas and a host of new talents and abilities on the other. So visitors to the Department of Non-Binaries were first confronted by a large board with dozens of descriptors to select to define yourself, including: typesetter, engineer, game designer, filmmaker, and brand manager, as well as agitator, Instagrammer, list maker, and thought provoker. Good luck picking just 10.

The department’s featured artists and designers had a clear understanding of graphic communication, but made work that extended beyond traditional definitions of graphic design. A good example is Alexandra Bell, whose work enlarges New York Times stories that she’s edited to reveal racial bias in the reporting.

Moving on, the Department of Mapping Margins was created to address the need for “something that was about a discourse and collecting conversations… in an adventurous experimental format, not a typical conference format,” says Krishnamurthy. This included sprawling dinner parties, a game show, and “performative panels,” or panels in which the panelists actively perform.

“We wanted to play with the format and think about how we can have a critical conversation about where we’re at right now in graphic design,” Krishnamurthy says. “And the topics were serious—like decolonizing and decentering design pedagogy—the kinds of topics that would normally be discussed in a drier kind of discussion panel. We wanted to see if we could draw these discussions together in a much more inviting format.”

It seems to have worked. Fikra’s founder and director, Salem Al-Qassimi, told me that one of the show’s volunteers started the month as a committed medical student and ended as a graphic design convert with plans to switch degree programs (sorry, medicine). “I didn’t expect that I’d be able to have these different conversations and talk about all these different issues and topics through design,” the student told him.

But how did three non-Emirati curators throw the Middle East’s first graphic design biennial—when none of them had ever set foot there? “As outsiders, we were really sensitive about our position there,” says Krishnamurthy.

“I didn’t even know where Sharjah was, but there was something about being in that outside position that allowed me to go into this with an open mind,” says Emily Smith. “We knew we couldn’t bring our Western perspectives without having a really deep knowledge of the way things work there. We relied a lot on our curatorial team and assistants to help us understand the complexity of the area. It’s complicated to say the least.”

Not everyone who saw the show was an instant fan. “We had some critical feedback by one of the biennial’s board of advisors who asked us why we didn’t show any of the better known or more recognizable voices in Arabic and Middle Eastern graphic design. And our response was that we tried to shy away from having too many big names, and to use this is an opportunity to give space to practitioners whose work is still emerging,” says Smith. Krishnamurthy sums it up: “This is a place not for canonization but for experimentation.”

Unlike a discipline like art, where for centuries biennials have been set up to provide the space and time for experimentation that the demands of a daily practice doesn’t necessarily allow for, design doesn’t have that kind of established exhibition tradition—and so it may need the open format of a biennial more than most other creative disciplines right now.

“I think graphic design is so interesting because it doesn’t have a native discourse beyond a certain set of skills and tools, like thinking about typography and images and entity; that language which is intrinsic to graphic design.” It’s high time we added some new glyphs to that language. Let’s hope that need means the next biennial will be even wilder.

Fikra Graphic Design Biennial