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The Great Design of History

In their award-winning book, AUC faculty chart the evolution of Arab graphic design

By Elizabeth Lepro

Photos courtesy of AUC Press

Some of the more than 600 visuals featured in A History of Arab Graphic Design: the anatomy of a horse in crimson and azure, labeled in elegant Arabic calligraphy and preserved on paper for six centuries; tiles in shades of cerulean, turquoise and ultramarine adorning the half-moon entryway of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran; an illustrated mermaid hugging a bouquet of paintbrushes on the first-ever Alexandria Biennale poster. 

Agmal al-hikayat (Beautiful Tales) children’s book series, cover designs by Hilmi al-Touni, 1990s

 The first-of-its-kind textbook reminds us that for as long as humans have taken up space, we have insisted on decorating it. In doing so, Arab and Islamic artists have drawn, painted and etched a visual record of their history, whether they meant to or not. “Graphic design is part of a visual language that is itself the by-product and reflection of a culture and its society,” co-authors and Department of the Arts faculty Bahia Shehab (MA ’09), professor of practice, and Haytham Nawar, associate professor and chair, write. “We cannot discuss modern Arab graphic design and visual culture without understanding the region’s visual heritage.”  

Published by AUC Press, the book has received well-earned praise since debuting in 2020. The book sold out of its first printing within six months and won an Association of American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE) in 2021 in the Art History & Criticism category. Al-Fanar Media called the text a “landmark” for its dedication to building history layer by layer.

Al-Musawwar magazine, issue no. 1418 (1951)

In fact, A History of Arab Graphic Design begins at a time before the term “graphic design” had even been invented. The first pages detail pre-1900s Islamic visual art, such as the calligraphy in 16th-century editions of the Quran. It proceeds on a journey across a century of Arab history, documented through cinema posters of the 1920s and 1930s, early newspaper layouts, Palestinian resistance art and Arabic typography. Accompanying text touches on the influence of more than 80 designers representing Arabic-speaking countries from Iraq to Morocco as well as that of Arab artists in the diaspora. 

One of the book’s implicit themes is the way technology intersects with history and design. For example, Shehab and Nawar repeatedly return to the yearslong struggle of developing a practical Arabic typeface. Colonization meant that early Arab printing presses were reliant on European technology. “Most of the early Arabic typefaces were either designed by non-Arabic speakers or by individuals who were not versed in the beauty of the Arabic script,” they write. 

King Farouk’s calligraphic monogram, designs by Mohamed Mortada, year unknown

After World War II, there were several endeavors to create an Arabic typeface, but traditionalism — sometimes enforced by dictatorships — often clashed with the demands of modernity. Shehab and Nawar describe the ordeal faced by Iraqi designer and poet Mohammad Said al-Sakkar, who faced backlash for designing an Arabic font based on the shapes of letters:

“By the end of June 1976, al-Sakkar had begun to receive threats of imprisonment. The guild of Iraqi calligraphers sent a complaint to the Iraqi president signed by ten advocates, in which they forged fonts that they claimed were designed by al-Sakkar. They accused him of ruining Arab tradition and calligraphy. An informant was placed in his house for a whole year to monitor his and his family’s movements. The informant would arrive every morning and leave every night. Al-Sakkar became a prisoner in his own home.”

“[Al-Sakkar’s 1998 book, Al-Sakkar’s Alphabet: The Project and the Ordeal] is an important historic document on a failed attempt to modernize the Arabic script and on the role that dictatorship and ignorance can play in destroying the work of designers. He set his whole book in his experimental font to make the point that it is legible and usable. The genius of his experiment was in designing a shorthand Arabic that for its time could have sped up the process of printing and publishing.”

Left: Bible book cover, designed by Omar Racim, year unknown; right (top to bottom): Bulbul Effendi press-book design, 1948; Logotype for Umm Kulthum designed by Sayed Ibrahim Ali; Six Artists from Syria poster, designed by Ahmad Mualla, 1980

In some cases, Shehab and Nawar correct previous inaccuracies about the design contributions of Arab artists. In other cases, there is nothing to correct — the information is consistently missing from English-language history and art books, which centralize Western contributions, the co-authors explain. For this reason, Shehab, who is from Beirut, told The National News, “It was important that we document our own history.”

 Shehab, an artist, designer and historian who has authored three other books, founded AUC’s graphic design program in 2011. She had been looking for a textbook to use for a foundational course, also called A History of Arab Graphic Design, and found that none existed. 

She and Nawar received a research grant from the University to create that textbook. They spent two years traveling to countries throughout the region for interviews, digging through archives, unearthing posters and ads, and visiting publishing houses. They found AUC’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library especially useful. Shehab and Nawar write explicitly about the difficulty of compilation: Some artists did not want their work published, some design work was never archived and still more has been lost during political unrest. The pair also had to contend with travel restrictions. 

 Still, the book’s breadth is a testament to the dedication and expertise of its authors. 

“Most of the early Arabic typefaces were either designed by non-Arabic speakers or by individuals who were not versed in the beauty of the Arabic script.”

From A History of Arab Graphic Design

In some cases, Shehab and Nawar correct previous inaccuracies about the design contributions of Arab artists. In other cases, there is nothing to correct — the information is consistently missing from English-language history and art books, which centralize Western contributions, the co-authors explain. For this reason, Shehab, who is from Beirut, told The National News, “It was important that we document our own history.”

 Shehab, an artist, designer and historian who has authored three other books, founded AUC’s graphic design program in 2011. She had been looking for a textbook to use for a foundational course, also called A History of Arab Graphic Design, and found that none existed. 

She and Nawar received a research grant from the University to create that textbook. They spent two years traveling to countries throughout the region for interviews, digging through archives, unearthing posters and ads, and visiting publishing houses. They found AUC’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library especially useful. Shehab and Nawar write explicitly about the difficulty of compilation: Some artists did not want their work published, some design work was never archived and still more has been lost during political unrest. The pair also had to contend with travel restrictions. 

 Still, the book’s breadth is a testament to the dedication and expertise of its authors. 

Design by Rana Salam Studio for Bassam Fattouh Cosmetic’s Nostalgie d’Orient, a limited edition box comprising lipstick, concealer and kohl, 2013

In 2017, Shehab became the first Arab woman to win the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture for her book No, A Thousand Times, No, which details 1,000 ways to write the word “no” in Arabic. Shehab has taught 14 courses at AUC on design, Arabic calligraphy and typography. 

Nawar was director of AUC’s graphic design program from 2016 to 2019 before taking over as chair of the Department of the Arts. He and Shehab met at the University — one of many connections Nawar said he has been fortunate to foster through AUC. “Serving as director or chair is a big responsibility, primarily because of the diversity of our programs, the size of the department and the significant number of activities throughout the year,” he said. “Working in these positions helped me grow my network and see new opportunities.”

Nawar earned his bachelor’s and Master of Fine Arts degrees from Helwan University in Egypt, a second Master of Advanced Studies in spatial design from Zurich University of the Arts in Switzerland and a PhD in communication design from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. In these institutions, he said his studies mostly focused on the history of art and design from a European perspective.

“Love and Compassion,” illustration by Burhan Karkutli, 1971

“Arab creators were always stuck between East and West. The West provided the technology, but the East was their identity, thus the reflection of their past and their future.” 

From A History of Arab Graphic Design

In contrast, the book and graphic design program at AUC both focus on Egypt, the Arab world and the Middle East. Shehab and Nawar hope the book encourages more educational institutions and scholars to highlight Arab design. Some universities in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and the United States are using A History of Arab Graphic Design as a reference book in courses on the global history of graphic design, according to Shehab. 

“We are getting comments from educators who said they never realized how much they needed our book in their classes until we published it,” Shehab said. “When the work is relevant, it usually shifts the discourse. We hope that we will be joined by more researchers in the future who will build on our work and develop more scholarship on design in our region.”

In its final chapter, the book takes readers up to the edge of the 21st century, closing in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War. Its authors describe the creation of Lebanese design programs such as that of the American University of Beirut — Shehab’s alma mater — whose aim, they write, “is to educate a new generation of designers and enable them to heal social rifts by developing an international language that is able to address the needs of a multicultural community.” 

As educators, this is a goal Shehab and Nawar share  — it is students to whom they are writing most directly. Their parting words may be particularly resonant for students at universities like AUC:

“Arab creators were always stuck between East and West. The West provided the technology, but the East was their identity, thus the reflection of their past and their future,” they write. “Foreign influences came and taught designers new things, but their experience and their work [were] always a reflection of their culture. We hope that future generations will keep looking for answers.”

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