Bahia Shehab and Haytham Nawar, A History of Arab Graphic Design (The American University in Cairo Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Bahia Shehab (BS): We wrote this book because we felt an urgent need for the documentation and preservation of our history. Growing up during the civil war in Lebanon I witnessed archives and educational institutions being destroyed every day. As a result, I realized that there was an urgent need to preserve all of this knowledge. The best way to preserve knowledge, especially when there is a lack of stable institutions, is to put it in a book.

Haytham Nawar (HN): As a starting point, the book is part of the graphic design program curriculum designed by my colleague Bahia Shehab and taught at the American University in Cairo. On a person level, different occasions triggered the need to write such a book during my different travels and based on my international teaching experience. I have noticed that the graphic design world history does not really include all the work created globally. There is a big colonial question mark in our field. One of the instances that made me want to fill this gap was when the history of graphic design was part of my teaching in the design school at the Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, and one of my Chinese colleagues was teaching East Asia design history separately. Another time, I was traveling to Brazil and found a big book about one hundred years of Brazilian graphic design. This book’s content never appeared in any general history source about graphic design. When I came back to Egypt and met with Bahia, we decided to collaborate on this big project.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

BS & HN: The book looks at the history of Arab graphic design and tries to trace its birth and origins. It also documents the work of Arab graphic designers and their individual heritage in an attempt to highlight what Arab visual culture is and how the perception of it has evolved over the last century. We tried to connect the history of design in the Islamic world with modern times, through the art of the book. We explore the lives and accomplishments of different designers (five generations, according to our research) some of whom were the founding fathers of design in different parts of the Arab world, from Morocco and Sudan to Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. We try to tie the work of these designers with the social and political events that were unfolding in their time. Among the topics of the books, we have covered various themes such as: Nasser’s pan Arab project; the Palestinian cause; the Lebanese civil war; the Egyptian and the Lebanese open-door policy in the 1970s; the establishment of art and design schools in the Arab world; the Independence of Arab states; and design in relation to culture, the state, and the consumer.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

BS & HN: Both of us work as university professors and design history is part of what we teach. Although our other individual research and artistic projects might be related to this book, the most relevant answer is that we needed a textbook to support and enrich what we teach. Throughout our career, we came across different artists and designers, and we have collected various material to share with our students. Hence, this book is essentially the continuation of an ongoing life project. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

BS & HN: A History of Arab Graphic Design is the first book on this topic, and we are hoping that it will become a cornerstone for the canon. The book is for students of art and design, emerging designers and artists, art and design historians, and anyone interested in the history of visual culture in the Arab world. We hope that our students in and from the Arab world will be interested in reading the book. We target those who are interested in learning more about their history and designers and historians in different parts of the world who are interested in a parallel narrative for the history of graphic design in the world. Ideally, the book will fill a generation gap in the Arab world and educate our students and the coming generations about their heritage and the richness of our history.

We would also like to change the global history of graphic design by rewriting it and educating the global audience about this part of history. We did a part of this by contributing with the research in our region, but the global design history also includes other regions. We look forward to reading the work of scholars who will reflect on our book and build on it.

We are also hopeful that the book is read by the general public, the people who are not artists or designers by education. We would hope that this book is important in making people think and wonder about the importance and impact of design, and its relation to culture. Design is a practice that is not always acknowledged by professionals themselves and that is widely unnoticed by the public audience in the Arab world.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

BS: I am releasing You Can Crush the Flowers: A Visual Memoir of the Egyptian Revolution, a new book to commemorate ten years of the Egyptian uprising. It is published by Gingko Library in the UK. I have also launched Typelab@AUC, which is a platform for the dissemination of knowledge on and about Arabic letters and their calligraphers and designers.

HN: I am currently working on a book on an African narrative of design and visual cultures, and another about scripts of Egypt and the coexistence of different writing systems in Egypt, historically and until modern times, and from a design point of view. Also, I am working on an artistic project about generative language using AI technology.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)

The history of Arab graphic design is closely tied to the cultural, social, political, and economic context in which that design was created. As citizens of formerly colonized nations, Arab graphic designers grappled with questions of identity and nationalist formation that were specific to their region and common to those of other newly emergent countries of the Global South. This book attempts to trace the people and events that were integral to the shaping of a field of graphic design in the Arab world.

In conducting this survey, we highlight the work of key graphic designers, our aim being to document an aspect of Arab life and culture that has historically gone unnoticed, so ingrained is it in everyday life. While there are over twenty-eight other languages that use the Arabic script, the most prominent of which are Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Urdu, this book documents the work of designers and institutions in and from the Arabic-speaking world, defined as the twenty-two nations represented in the League of Arab States.

To date, the study of graphic design has been focused primarily on Western discourses of the practice. Political turmoil in different parts of the Arab world, moreover, impressed upon us the urgency of documenting what was available to us before it disappears. It would be impossible to include everything we have encountered in a single book, so the selection process was a daunting one, but there were other constraining factors. One was the availability of the material: some designers simply refused to allow their work to be published. Still other designers have passed on without leaving behind an archive of their work; many of them were also artists who prioritized their art over their design practice, or their work was lost due to political unrest in their home countries. Accessibility at a more fundamental level was also a problem, since we were unable to visit certain countries. Overall, the scarcity of archives and references made the task of collecting material on Arab graphic designers a very difficult one.

We begin our historical survey by trying to understand the influences on Arab graphic design of Islamic art, which was the prevalent form of visual language in the Arab world before the formation of Arab nation-states in the aftermath of the First World War. We then turn to the advancement of printing and its emergence in European countries at the turn of the fifteenth century. The role of calligraphers and art schools, and the blurring of lines between the roles of artist, designer, and calligrapher in earlier times, are explored in chapter 2. The impact of cinema and the formation of key publishing institutions are covered in chapter 3. Since graphic design is directly tied to technological advances in knowledge sharing and dissemination, we highlight key moments such as the introduction of the Arabic typewriter and of computers.

The first design pioneers that we know of started working in the 1940s and 1950s. These designers helped shape Arab graphic design following the independence of Arab states in the early twentieth century. As political events in the region gathered pace, they became key to Arab visual expression, with the rise of the Palestinian resistance and its artists taking center stage. This is explored in parallel to design expressions and events that emerged in other parts of the Arab world. The sheer volume of visual content rose dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s due to the development of printing techniques and publishing houses, which led to wider dissemination, but also as a result of new ideas that were in currency at the time. The wars against Israel, Palestinian national demands, and ideals of Arab unity were all events and ideas that gripped the Arab psyche in this period. Arab dictatorships and military regimes and, eventually, globalization came to play major roles in shaping Arab visual communication techniques and strategies. The mass migration of artists and designers from different parts of the Arab world is discussed in detail, in addition to the difficulty of movement faced by artists in exile.

Through interviews conducted with prominent Arab designers residing in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other parts of the world, this book documents a history that is not limited to the geographical boundaries of the Arab countries. Although we began with the aim of researching the work of Arab designers and artists who reside within the Arabic-speaking world, political and economic realities compelled us to explore the work of Arab designers in the diaspora as well.

From the 1980s, with the rise of computers and widespread economic liberalization, it becomes possible to discern a clear shift in Arab visual expression—from manual to digitized graphic design. The final chapter looks at the post–civil war revival of artistic and intellectual activity in Beirut, which planted the seeds of a new global Arab design movement. The work of key Arab artists who influenced graphic design is covered, in view of the historical overlap between the roles of designer and artist in the Arab world.

The term ‘graphic design’ has undergone a process of evolution ever since the need for the field arose in the region. The tasks that required the intervention of a designer were publishing, advertising, entertainment, propaganda, and branding design. In the early twentieth century, an artist who was responsible for the layout of magazines was called an artistic director. Designers were mostly artists who worked in the commercial realm, sometimes in collaboration with calligraphers.

Our research documents works that we were able to access within the time frame we had allotted for this book. It is by no means a comprehensive study of the history of Arab graphic design. The information here is, to our knowledge, only the tip of the iceberg. It is incomplete and we hope that others will, too, in time, fill in the gaps.

As design educators, we felt the need to start connecting previous generations of designers with future ones. Hence, for us, this book is primarily an educational tool to help us introduce our students to their visual ancestors and to create the awareness that there has always been design expression in and from the Arab world.