A truly international designer, Pouya Ahmadi’s work has taken him all the way from his native Tehran, Iran, to Switzerland, and finally to Chicago, where he now works as a graphic designer and assistant professor of graphic design at the University of Illinois. Each of these very different parts of the world has played a role in shaping his visually cohesive and typographically experimental practice. He now works mainly with cultural clients like the Experimental Film Society, Verge Books, and Chicago Design Museum, but he cut his teeth designing Neshan magazine, a visual culture publication founded by two of Ahmadi’s teachers at the University of Tehran that aims to form ties between the graphic designers of Iran, Asia, and the rest of the world.
Though Ahmadi describes Neshan as his “first professional job,” the seeds for a visually driven career were sown when he was much, much younger. “When I was about three or four, my parents would take me to my grandparents’ house, and every time I was there I would draw on their walls,” he says. “They hated it, of course, but I became known in my family for doing that. One of my uncles wanted to encourage me, and he put paper up on the walls and let me draw all over them in crayon.
“I would draw all the time at school. My dad had all these cassette tapes from before the revolution in 1979; they were all illegal, but people would have them at home. I’d make fake album covers for them and put them in the frames. Then when I was in middle school one of my cousins said ‘what you’re doing is graphic design, you should do that for a living.’”
He followed that early advice, and went on to study visual communication at the University of Tehran and later in Basel. The clean lines, stark color palettes, and minimal nuances of Ahmadi’s work indicate that this was a match made in design heaven. “Before I moved to Basel I had all these ideas about the place, or this sort of dream, but the reality is so different,” says Ahmadi. “Contemporary Swiss graphic design is not something I can even define: of course you can look at the ’50s and ’60s Swiss International Style, but then it’s also totally radical. Most of the time I was just sort of absorbing things I would see, so it was a huge culture shock, I guess. You would see stuff coming out of Switzerland even back home in Tehran, but being in that place and seeing it happen right there was a whole different thing.”
While Ahmadi acknowledges the influence of “very clean Swiss graphic design” on his work, he’s aware that his Iranian roots have had a “weird influence that I can’t put my finger on.” Much of this is wrought in his use of typography, a discipline that’s still emerging in his home country. Type-based design was taught to students—even at university level—by calligraphers, and according to Ahmadi it’s only in recent years that typography as we know it in the West has begun to emerge as a separate facet of graphic design. But these traditional approaches to type have played a role in Ahmadi’s approach to drawing letterforms. “I’m not using a pre-made typeface, and the whole reverse contrast type design which is becoming a lot more common or popular now is like the writing forms I grew up with, where the horizontals and verticals have less impact.
“It’s funny to see these things emerging in Western typography, as it’s something I’m used to but in a totally different writing system. It messes with your eyes in a way—you get so used to something and try and get away from it, but then there’s a weird back and forth in things I do, but I don’t always know where they come from.”
The impact of this design dialogue between East and West, and modernity and tradition, is perhaps most evident in Ahmadi’s designs for Tirzah Goldenberg’s book Aleph. The type is a strange angular serif that feels both futuristic and a relic of the past. Ahmadi’s layouts take a similar duality, using strange and deliciously disorientating framing devices that slice into headlines, or arrange body copy upside down or right to left, often housed in bold patterns that resemble flags or decorative glass such as in his work for the Festival of Poets Theater publication.
Another addition to Ahmadi’s cache of global influences is the impact of his work as a teacher. “There’s an experimentation that I like about academia in general. You have the luxury of not being bound by the ‘real world’—I hate to say ‘real world’ though, as it is my real world.
“At school, you always have the opportunity to push things really far without someone saying that it’s too much. When you’re working with younger generations sometimes they do things like, ‘wow where did that come from?’ I’d never thought you could do it like that.”
“Seeing students just fearlessly do things they might not even realize they’re doing… that energy is really great. It opens your eyes to seeing the limitless opportunity you don’t see sometimes.”