I met Bahia Shehab about a year ago at a conference on contemporary Arab graphic design in New York. A professor and founder of the graphic design program at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Shehab briefly mentioned to me that she’d been working on a research project along with Haytham Nawar, the chair of the department of the arts at AUC. I had no idea of the scope of their project at the time, but was curious and excited considering the dearth of resources around Arab graphic design. Little did I know, the pair were about to publish the biggest resource to date.
A History of Arab Graphic Design, published by American University in Cairo Press, traces the key figures and events that were integral to the shaping of a field of graphic design in the Arab world. In 382 pages, it examines the work of over 80 key designers, covering the pre-1900s to the end of the 20th century, from Islamic art to the digital revolution and the arrival of the internet. It’s a project almost four years in the making, and while it isn’t the definitive volume on Arab graphic design—there’s still a lot of research to be done, as Shehab alludes to in our interview—it’s an important and rich foundation on which to build, and an essential textbook for design educators all over the world. It’s the history book I wish I had as a student, and the resource I’ve been missing as a practicing designer.
I got to catch up again with Shehab last week, this time virtually, and talk to her about the process of putting together this significant and long overdue publication.
I wanted to start by telling you that I devoured the whole thing in one sitting. It’s such a friendly and easy read—it’s like reading a story. How did this project come about?
Back in 2010, when I was preparing the curriculum for the graphic design program at the AUC, I wanted to develop a history of Arab graphic design course—while knowing that I couldn’t teach it because we didn’t have enough books and resources around the subject matter. But then when Haytham [Nawar] came on board as a faculty member, we applied for research grants and got one from AUC. The first time we were able to offer the course was in 2016, after we had assembled enough research material to allow us to actually develop and conduct the class. The book got published four years later.
Archiving in the Arab world is generally problematic: national visual archives are either missing or inaccessible, and we mainly rely on personal collections, which are scarce. How did that affect the process of making this book?
In the Arab world, archiving is a hurdle for several reasons. On one hand, and to some extent, I think designers [assess] the validity of their work from their environment. So if you don’t have institutions, schools, governmental entities, and corporate sectors who value and understand the importance of design, then the designers might feel that their work is not important—and thus don’t archive it. On the other hand, you have designers who are fleeing wars, civil unrest, invasions, and colonialism. They are too busy and preoccupied to worry about the legacy of their own work.
So when we are discussing archiving in the Arab world, we need to be aware of the historical narrative of that human condition. It’s not because we don’t want to, or because we’re not good at it, but rather because we, as nations in a post-colonial Arab world, have different priorities. The reason why this book is long overdue is because we haven’t had the luxury of reflective practitioners who have time and means to publish history books. Having the ability to publish this book is a privilege in itself—a privilege that generations before us did not have.
You mention in your introduction that this book isn’t a comprehensive study and that it’s “just the tip of the iceberg.” Can you expand on that?
When we talk about the “Arab world,” we’re speaking of about 420 million people. We can’t really represent the visual history of 420 million people simply in one book and call it comprehensive, that would be pretentious. We’ll need an army of historians.
The Arab world is rich and complex. Arab countries have different histories: in Morocco and Algeria for instance, Arabic is almost eradicated because of French colonialism. Iraq on the other hand would require a four-volume book on graphic design… there’s so much to write.
Also, a lot of Arab countries, like Yemen and Sudan, were inaccessible to us due to political conditions. I had to take a car and drive from Lebanon to Syria in the midst of the war just to be able to meet some of the designers and collect their work. It wasn’t a smooth ride in that sense.
In our research, we also decided not to limit ourselves to the geography of the Arab world, and dedicated a whole chapter to the designers of the diaspora, or, as the architect and historian Nasser Rabbat calls them, “the hyphenated Arabs” [i.e. Arab-Americans, Arab-French]. Their contribution to the culture of the Arab world is invaluable because they have the luxury to reflect and the time to reinterpret and disseminate knowledge.
In the very first sentence of your book, you write that we cannot separate graphic design from the cultural and socio-political context in which it was created. Can you tell us more about the importance of examining design through these lenses?
People think that design is on the peripheries when it’s actually in the center. It’s in everything you do every day. The newspaper you hold, the screen you scroll through… It’s an invisible craft, and, because of that nature, people don’t contextualize it.
If you notice, we started the book with Islamic art. In Islamic art, you don’t create for yourself, you create for the collective knowledge. We wanted to highlight a connection between that and design: it isn’t about “us” as individuals, but “us” as a collective.
With new technologies, new policies, new social and political events unfolding, there’s always a boost in visual production. This was an important point for us to get across: it’s not the design itself that stands alone, but the design for and from communities.
“In Islamic art, you don’t create for yourself, you create for the collective knowledge.”
Indeed, some of the most interesting work featured in the book comes from political movements, notably the Palestinian resistance in the ’60s.
Thank you for highlighting that example—it’s again about the community. The designers of the Palestinian resistance, like Hilmi al-Touni, Mohieddine el Labbad, Kamal Boullata, Dia Azzawi among many others, cared deeply and were connected to a greater cause, which was reflected in the quality of their work. They were working for the bigger picture.
Another chapter that stood out to me was the one about the “calligraphers of the Golden Age” in the ’50s. I was particularly interested in the vernacular and playful usage of calligraphy. It’s so gratifying to see references from my childhood, like the opening credits of Layali el Hilmiya, an Egyptian soap opera I used to watch with my grandma—I never thought it would end up in a history book!
The artist behind that work, Khudair al-Bursa ‘idi, is amazing, you have to meet him and visit his museum in Cairo. He drew most of the titles of the soap operas we all grew up watching. It is really fascinating how calligraphers in these setups were major stakeholders. They weren’t just designing TV credits, they were shaping the look and feel of the product. Their creativity, intelligence, and wit were also at play, and you can see that in the work. We need a whole book about Arab title sequences—maybe you should write it! We’re a bit nostalgic—maybe the younger generation won’t relate to those details as much as we do—but then again, designers and calligraphers are the shapers of collective memories, and that’s very important.
“Designers and calligraphers are the shapers of collective memories, and that’s very important.”
Euro-centric design has shaped our way of learning in Lebanon and in other Arab countries. Hopefully this book will make a difference.
When I was a student at the American University of Beirut, we didn’t even get a history of graphic design course, it wasn’t offered at the time, and I always wondered who were our grandfathers and grandmothers as designers. In every craft, you have someone to look up to, and build from, and continue, and to me that question was nagging. Our book is now being adopted in curriculums all over the world, including Lebanon and the U.S. Similar history books from other cultures exist, and educators should invest in them. It’s our responsibility as educators to present a new global narrative on what graphic design is, and not from a western-centric view.
What’s next? Are you considering writing a second edition?
I don’t think we are ready for a second volume per se—[Haytham and I are] going into our own directions in terms of research. I’m really interested in publishing a book about women in design in the Arab world. I want to find them. I feel terrible that we featured very few and were unable to find the rest.
Through AUC’s Typelab, [a research space around the development and dissemination of Arabic script], I’ve been lucky enough to start meeting some of these women. For example, I recently discovered the work of the absurdly talented Arlette Haddad, who is now in her 70s. I still need to look for more women type designers, illustrators, editorial designers. I’m sure we can come up with a beautiful book on Arab women designers. This is my priority right now.
I also feel like we have given everybody a building block to build on. I want to encourage people to start researching, writing papers, books… please publish and preserve knowledge.
I hope that, in the near future, another group of young designers would want to write a better book, a more comprehensive book. We have so much potential, so many stories to tell, and we just need to support each other in making sure they get told. This is only the beginning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.