If I didn’t know better, I’d lazily describe Studio Parasto Backman’s work as “playful,” or “bold,” thanks to the gloriously bright colors and apparently whimsical hand-drawn typographic elements that abound. But having spoken to the studio’s eponymous founder, there’s so much more to these elements than neons and fun: her color palettes and letterforms are inherently political.
“The philosophy I work with has progressed over the ten years since I started the studio,” says Backman, “and a central part of my work is revealing power structures and trying to broaden the palette of graphic design. So I use feminist, post-colonial, and intersectional perspectives and methods within my design process.”
These politicized and thoughtful undercurrents inform the work in numerous ways, each dependent on the project at hand. For instance, Backman makes a point of working almost exclusively with female typographers, and more prominently, looks to create work that rails against inherited notions of “good taste” and the idea that graphic designers should stick to the grid.
“It’s different on different projects: in some, the intersectional perspective is a theory that considers class, race, sexual orientation, and gender; and that’s something I try to integrate through the choices I make throughout the process with the typography or the bodies I work with in art direction projects, or colors,” she explains.
“Something I’ve been working with a lot is trying to go against this dominant tradition with modernist grids and so on, bringing in ornament and other types of decoration that are not typical western aesthetics.” Much of this aim can be traced back to Backman’s own roots: her family’s from Iran, but she grew up and works in Sweden (the studio is based in Stockholm.) Growing up, her home was filled with color and embellishment, but the outside world prized minimalism and safe, clean design.
From her early days, through design school, and into her first graduate job at an agency, the distinctions between what are perceived as “good” and “bad” taste became increasingly apparent. “I want to work with what defines those and why, and what neutrality is, and for whom. That’s the stuff I translate into my practice with the different choices I make in the design process. I just try to work outside of a type of Western bubble, in a way unlearning a lot of the things we’re taught, and make space for a richer type of palette in graphic design. It’s super important to look at the tradition that’s a part of me, so my work looks at the dominant tradition in graphic design; it’s both historical and very political in a way.”
One of the best examples of Backman’s incorporation of those perspectives into her design is her ongoing work with Unga Klara, a Stockholm-based “norm critical” creative theater that works with children to devise performances from kids’ perspectives. “They’re super open with the perspectives and methods I work with, because they work with them too,” says Backman. The designer created a new visual identity for the theater, and has been working with it for the past three years on various poster designs and other projects. Her passion for the work is centered on the fact that it’s so thoroughly collaborative: “As a graphic designer, I start to work with them as soon as they start a new project, so I’m part of the whole artistic process from beginning to end. We created this new visual platform and that’s a constantly changing form that mirrors the theater’s visual output.
I just try to work outside of a type of Western bubble make space for a richer type of palette in graphic design.
“It’s a collaborative process with space for cross pollination of different fields, and that’s quite unique to be a part of the entire process as a graphic designer. My choices work with theirs, and vice versa, and I really enjoy being a part of big spectra. The thing with Unga Klara is they work intersectionally: we can talk about all the details, like which audience we want to approach—not just the white audience within the center, but we want to reach the audiences out in the suburbs.
“Those choices reflect what typeface we use, what expressions we use, what colors we use, and also definitely the body within the graphic design and also on stage, whatever the play is about. If it’s maybe about the Swedish post-colonial or racist history that they really haven’t worked that much with, they’ll dig into that and it’s a collective research phase we do together, so that’s really super. Nothing is static around Unga Klara, so I really really enjoy that.”
The resulting visual outcomes amalgamate all these conceptual and political frameworks; yet the beauty of them is that in doing so, they look brilliant—bright, smart, eye-catching, and thought-provoking. Above all, they’re accessible—just as getting such ideas across should be—and make a point of never over-academicizing issues that are relevant to each and every one of us.
Another similarly brightly hued but globally minded project is Backman’s designs for Novellix, a Stockholm-based publisher putting out books around different themes. For the “flee” output, the company worked with four different authors across four different generations with direct experience in migration: the youngest was a Persian-speaking, Afghanistan-born man, the oldest was almost 90 years-old. Backman started off by asking if she could print the titles in the writers’ native language, as well as in Swedish. Within that, her typographic choices were based around the stories of their creation: she used Albertus, as it was created by Berthold Wolpe, who as a German living in England, was sent to an internment camp in Australia at the outbreak of the Second World War. “He drew it while in exile, so it’s totally connected to the theme,” says Backman. The other typeface is Common Sans, a specially designed typeface that automatically replaces the word “refugee” with the word “human” For the background imagery, the designer “chose to think about something that is super free, like air and clouds and so on.” When the four volumes are arranged in a specific order, they fit together as a sort of cloud puzzle.
While until now Backman’s clients are predominantly in the cultural sector, she’s lately been thinking about the potential to get her ideas across through designing for corporate companies. After all, those ideas around feminism and so on are already far more likely to be accepted and championed by those in the arts world than elsewhere, surely; if she can reach more people through graphics, and through graphics for bigger companies, what’s not to love? “I’d like to try and work with a cultural commission just to see what’s possible,” she says. “I’d also love to work with MIA, that’s a dream collaboration.” For that reason and so many others, I really, really hope MIA reads Eye on Design.