Ten years ago, Bahia Shehab, now a professor of practice at the American University in Cairo, wanted to teach a course on Arab graphic design. The founder of the university’s graphic-design program, Shehab put together a description for the university’s course catalog. But as she planned out the course, she ran into a major obstacle: “There was no textbook to teach it.”
A few years later, when artist and academic Haytham Nawar joined the same institution, the two discussed developing such a textbook.
“Once we discovered that we had this common interest, and that we’re interested in teaching this course together, and writing this book, we applied for an AUC grant and we got funding,” Shehab explained over a series of WhatsApp recordings. “We started visiting different countries and interviewing and documenting the work of different designers.”
The pair did several years of research across many different countries. And now, a decade after their initial brainstorming session, Shehab and Nawar are celebrating the release of their co-authored book, A History of Arab Graphic Design, set to be released by the American University in Cairo Press in December.
They intended the book both for their own students and for any educator who is interested in teaching the history of Arab graphic design, in the hope that the book could be a universal educational reference.
Origins of Arab Graphic Design
Graphic design, Shehab said, is a constantly evolving field. Graphic designers practicing today need to be concerned not only with visual communication, but also with user experience.
But when graphic design emerged as a distinct discipline within the art world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it had no clear definition. Artists and calligraphers found themselves working on the design of calendars, packages, posters, and more. By the mid-twentieth century, as the demand for mass visual communication surged, graphic design also boomed across the Arab region.
But A History of Arab Graphic Design digs a bit deeper into the regional roots of the discipline. It begins hundreds of years ago, with the region’s visual heritage. Without understanding this history, the authors write, it is impossible to understand Arab graphic design. They look at four core elements of the region’s visual culture: Arabic calligraphy, geometric compositions, vegetal motifs, and figurative art. These artistic forms and motifs, they write, were “intertwined with people’s
The authors look at four core elements of the region’s visual culture: Arabic calligraphy, geometric compositions, vegetal motifs, and figurative art. These artistic forms and motifs, they write, were “intertwined with people’s everyday lives.”
they write, were “intertwined with people’s everyday lives.” They could be found not only in manuscripts and heraldry, but in public architecture and the design of everyday objects.
And these visual elements, the book demonstrates, continued to be important in the region’s graphic design, even as technologies shifted, and printing presses appeared across Arab cities in the mid-1800s. Calligraphic elements continued to be particularly important. They were visible not only in magazines and advertisements, but in the design of everyday objects, such as street signs.
Most of these early graphic designers “were also actually artists who considered graphic design the commercial work that they did to make a living,” Shehab said. Unfortunately, this means that “many of the designers that we interviewed did not really document their design work, because to them this was just work.”
Four Generations of Arab Designers
The book is filled with images and timelines, showing shifts in graphic-design styles over time. But more important than the historical overview are the profiles of individual designers. These include iconic creators such as Egyptian artist and designer Hussein Bicar (1913-2002), who designed hundreds of book and magazine covers, including covers for the popular children’s magazine Sindibad, alongside lesser-known designers who worked on film posters and postage stamps.
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Shehab said that they chose to profile designers in the hopes of creating a “clear lineage” for young designers reading the book. “The intention is education, and we’re always thinking about how to engage a young reader, a young designer, and it was important for us to put a face to the name. She added that they didn’t want to just write about “history in general and design in general, we wanted to personalize it, so that they feel that they have grandmothers and grandfathers in design who they can look up to.”
Shehab, who attended university in the 1990s, got the impression that there weren’t any Arab graphic designers. But after the research she conducted with Haytham Nawar, “I was really overwhelmed with how beautiful and how deep, how amazing their work was, and I wanted our students to know that, and for them to emotionally connect with these stories.”
“I was really overwhelmed with how beautiful and how deep, how amazing their work was, and I wanted our students to know that, and for them to emotionally connect with these stories.”Bahia Shehab
A professor of practice at the American University in Cairo and an author of A History of Arab Graphic Design
In their introduction, Shehab and Nawar write that they had initially intended to limit the book to Arab designers living in Arab countries. But they soon realized the book would have to include artists in the diaspora. “We found this repeating narrative in almost every country we went to: Whether for political or social conditions, these artists migrated and settled in other countries, and their work was essential for the narrative of the region,” she said. “So it was impossible to write the book without their work being included.”
These stories of exiles and emigrants created challenges for Shehab and Nawar as they tried to track down artists and their work. They also learned about the emotional burden that many exiled designers carry: “Many designers lost their archives. I had one designer in Syria who sent me pictures of his burnt studio, which was heartbreaking.”
Political Movements Driving Design
When selecting the eighty-some designers profiled in the book, Shehab said, they first looked for designers who had a strong ad distinct visual output. As it turned out, many of the designers in the book were politically engaged. And while the book has a whole chapter centered on Arab design and Palestinian resistance, there were other influential resistance movements.
For instance, Egyptian calligrapher Massad Khudair al-Bursa‘idi learned the art from his older brother, Mohammed, who “wrote politically insightful slogans against the British occupation forces on walls of houses and buildings in Port Said in 1956,” the authors write.
Shehab said large political movements often change shifts in graphic design.
One of the most frustrating aspects of their research, Shehab said, was the lack of archives. “There are major gaps in archival materials that are absurd—I don’t know where to start, actually, because many of the designers did not keep their work, and there are no governmental institutions that care about this work enough to keep it.”
Those institutional gaps meant they found only four women to profile for the book, “compared to 76 men.” But while this was personally frustrating for Shehab, it was also exciting to her as a researcher, because, “Now I want to find them. The Women of Arab Graphic Design should be coming out next.”