Book Review Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès

A Kaleidoscopic Overview of Graphic Design from the Arab World

Review of A History of Arab Graphic Design book


A History of Arab Graphic Design Book Cover -

Bahia Shehab and Haytham Nawar, A History of Arab Graphic Design. Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2020. 360 pp.; 659 color ills. $49.95, paper

Review first published by Art Journal Open


Reclaiming a unique and distinctive cultural identity in the face of the all-equalizing force of globalism has given rise to research endeavors worldwide that aim to present inclusive and nuanced design histories that challenge the predominant Western narrative. It is vital to define the specificities and unique traits of one’s culture in order to create a continuum between past heritage and contemporary practice. It is equally important to acknowledge foreign influences on a culture and the benefits of cross-cultural pollinations to progress. For example, the Chinese invention of paper, brought to Europe via the Islamic world (along with other scientific knowledge), pulled Europe out of the dark ages and into the Renaissance and further economic prosperity. In the nineteenth century however, it was the turn of Europeans to inspire change and advancement in the Arab East with modern scientific knowledge and technological inventions. In turn these inventions were adapted to Arab cultural and social needs, which led to dynamic artistic and cultural production in which graphic design played a significant role. A History of Arab Graphic Design presents us with carefully selected slices of this story. Its authors argue that design (and Arab modernity) was (and still is) a dialogue between European-style modernity and Arab/Islamic crafts and design heritage.

A History of “Arab” Graphic Design

The book’s title brings to mind the field’s paradigmatic graphic design history textbook, A History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs, which was published in 1983 and has been revised in various editions since and was later renamed Megg’s History of Graphic Design. The addition of the world “Arab” seeks to define the authors’ research scope and their intention to contribute a nuanced addition to European and American design history which has come to define graphic design as a profession. They put forward a well-researched survey on the little-known history of “Arab” graphic design and its role in forging modernity and contemporary culture within the Arab world. This valuable resource is chronologically structured, concise, and illustrated with a diversity of works from various Arab countries. The authors proclaim the intention of decolonizing design history by presenting the way “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.” (2) They place the work of a select group of pioneer graphic designers and artists at the core of the modernization project in the region, choosing a particular historical moment—namely, late nineteenth to the late twentieth century—where significant developments of Arab nation-building took place. They inadvertently equate graphic design (and art) with the visualization and propagation of cultural progress. Unfortunately, this specificity is not reflected in the title of the book, which gives the impression of a more general survey rather than a carefully selected study of an important period.

The title reflects the aim of its authors to produce a textbook for educational institutions in the Arab world—and the world at large. Both authors are established designers and professors of graphic design at the American University in Cairo. The lack of sufficient culture-specific educational material hinders their teaching and their ability to provide both historical and current context for their coursework. Their plight is shared by all design educators in the region; since most design education in the region is not taught in Arabic and the teaching material and curricula are imported from Europe or the United States. The authors express the urgent need as educators to develop a pedagogical tool that helps connect the young generation of design students to their “design ancestors” and “design heritage”—ultimately dispelling the prevalent notion that design is a Western invention and upholding the discourse through design on Arab modernity and its evolution in the twentieth century. The challenges of developing and working on such a history can be daunting. I salute the authors for their perseverance, tenacity, and dedication to bring this seminal reference work to a successful completion. The authors were fortunate to have been granted access to their own academic institution’s archives. However, they have also had to rely on outside sources such as (the very few) relevant publications, primary material in personal archives, and interviews (where possible). They sometimes faced resistance from artists who do not identify as designers, even when they have executed design work, or their heirs who were reluctant to share the works in their possession.

The book is structured chronologically, divided into eight chapters, with the first chapter starting pre-1900 (the specific start of which is undefined) and with the last chapter ending in 2000. The chapters are keyed to important cultural events and periods in Arab history and their titles delineate the specific themes undertaken in each: “sources of inspiration,” “artists and calligraphers as early graphic designers,” “designing for the masses,” “Arab modernity,” “political resistance and the Palestinian struggle,” “designers in exile,” “the search for a new identity,” and “rebirth and setting the ground for the next generation of Arab designers.”

Sources of Inspiration and Beginnings

As a recognized profession, graphic design is often declared a product of the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution. Yet if we extend the notion to the practice of graphic design and visual communication, then it becomes evident that it originated from early handwritten manuscripts and maybe even the invention of writing and alphabets. Like Megg’s History of Graphic Design, the chronology of this book could have commenced with the development of writing and the Arabic script. The Arab context in this regard offers a potent message that transcends contemporary national borders. Egypt, one of the oldest cultures in the world, has been for millennia a melting pot of different cultures, races, and religions, and has given the world the “technology” of writing, leading to the invention of alphabetic systems. If the aim is to reclaim and valorize the modern Arab contribution to graphic design as a profession, connect the past to the present, and chart a basis for informed developments for the future, then I believe that reclaiming the region’s pre-Arab heritage is a good starting point. This segment of design history, which constitutes the two initial chapters in Meggs’s book, certainly has a more rightful place in this publication. However, the authors choose differently; their history begins with a brief overview of Arabic script and calligraphy, which developed in the seventh century CE.

The reason for beginning the book with a brief overview of the history of Arabic calligraphy and the calligraphers who set the stage for early Arabic printing types and book design, may have been to narrow the scope of the research to make it more manageable. They clearly state their intention with starting the book from “the sources of inspiration” of modern (and even contemporary) Arab graphic designers. It is also the language and its visual representation, the Arabic script and calligraphy, that make graphic design from the Arab World “Arab.” This important cultural identifier is at the core of Arab visual culture and a binding element in the shared or collective Arab identity that transcends regional and modern national divides. It is the binding agent and the common ground in the region. The authors discuss the influence of the Islamic arts on visual/material culture in the Arab world reflecting on its lasting influence on graphic design after World War I. They state that the main characteristic of Islamic visual culture is Arabic calligraphy and ornamentation (geometrical compositions, floral and figurative motifs), with calligraphy considered the highest art form in Islam—marrying human skill, aesthetic beauty, and spirituality. Arabic calligraphy played the role of both text and image, sometimes taking ornamental forms that valued beauty and abstract visual expression over legibility. This double role of Arabic calligraphic and typographic design remains relevant and practiced today, reinforcing its lasting cultural significance. The section on the history of Arabic calligraphy is concise because there are many resources and studies on the subject matter that can be consulted at length. What is unique is that the brief historical overview is employed to set the stage and make a direct link to modern graphic design.

The narrative transitions from calligraphy to book design and an analysis of layout conventions in the complex and standardized pagesetting of Quranic manuscripts in comparison with secular and illustrated scientific and literary works. It proceeds to describe a “visual language system” closely related to particular Islamic dynasties, such as the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria (1250–1517 CE), who were known to apply geometric star patterns to ornamentation ranging from monumental architectural design to manuscripts, and their complex system of heraldry that defined rank and identified possessions and buildings. The Ottomans (1301–1922 CE), the longest ruling dynasty to reign over most cultural centers of the Arab world, follow. They established the imperial design ateliers (nakkashane) where floral designs and patterns were produced in collaboration with various craftspeople and workshops and applied to all types of support—from tiles and ceramics to architecture, objects, textiles, and manuscripts.

The authors compare this practice to the Bauhaus and its “total design” approach in which art, design, and industry collaborate on bringing design and visual systems to all aspects of material culture. They end the chapter with a brief overview of printing with Arabic type; a timeline of Arabic typesetting in European books and the beginnings of printing in Arab lands; and a brief history of Egypt’s Bulaq Press, one of the best examples of a state press used in the service of intellectual progress and modernity. 

Artists and Calligraphers: Graphic Designers avant la lettre

In the second chapter dedicated to the early calligraphers and artists who practiced design—those that the authors consider the ancestors of Arab graphic design—we are presented with a list of educational institutions spanning the major cities of the Arab world, describing the origin and evolution of each.

The authors present these institutions as modeled after European art academies, like many aspects of modernity in the Arab world were. It makes sense that cultures borrow successful models from each other and work further to adapt this acquired knowledge to their own needs. However, just like their narrative on Arabic printing and typography, the authors describe the efforts of the educators in these institutions to develop curricula and courses that established a link to local heritage and context-specific subject matter; for example, Arabic calligraphy was subject of study in most fine arts colleges. This marrying of Western or international educational models with culture-specific subject matter and visual heritage is still prevalent today and part of cultural identity politics in various aspect of design and visual culture in the Arab World—of which this book is living proof. The remaining part of this chapter traces the biographies of a select group of significant Arab calligraphers and reveals for the first time their considerable influence on Arab visual culture with their practice as graphic designers avant la lettre. They created lettering for logotypes, books, newspapers, publications, cinema posters, broadcast media (radio and television), street signage, architectural monuments, postage stamps, and national currencies. It is incredibly important to place a name, face, and story behind works that are so ubiquitous and ingrained in the collective memory of most Arab people. This chapter reaffirms the particular importance of Arabic calligraphy (and Arabic language) as a transnational cultural emblem with particular national nuances.

Design for the Masses: Print Media, Film, and Typewriters

The third chapter, Design for the Masses, begins with a history of Arabic newspapers and periodicals that focuses on Egypt and Lebanon as late-nineteenth-century pioneers in this sphere. It highlights the work of Lebanese (or Lebanese emigré) and Egyptian intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and activists and their lasting legacies. The very brief history of the adaptation of the typewriter for Arabic script as part of “designing for the masses” is also interesting. Selim Shibli Haddad—a Syrian artist (from what is now Lebanon) living in Cairo—was commissioned by the Egyptian government to design the first Arabic typewriter for which he devised a simplification model that reduced the number of characters to fit the standard eighty-eight keys of the machine, among other technical adjustments that accommodated Arabic’s right to left writing direction. This design system was adopted for later typewriters using the Arabic script (including those for non-Arabic languages). His inventions became the model for Arabic mechanical typesetting. As the technology spread, highly skilled Arab calligraphers began collaborating with European and American companies on designing typefaces for their Arabic typewriters. The chapter continues with a discussion of mass media at the time, namely Egyptian cinema. Egyptian cinema in the 1920s became representative of Arab cinema; it attracted artists and talent from various parts of the Arab world; and its audiences extended to other countries in the region. Egyptian cinema played a role in disseminating sociopolitical ideas and forging a shared history among Arab peoples. It had a considerable influence on visual culture in various parts of the Arab world, for example, graphic design for Egyptian cinema was a trendsetter. The authors discuss this aspect of design for the masses by highlighting the works of key designers (illustrators and lettering artists/calligraphers), and the new styles they created. Originally, poster designs and illustration styles followed those made popular on Hollywood film posters of the time, but as Egyptian films developed a unique visual language of their own, so did the designers working to promote them. The authors present a classification of the design and the lettering of film posters and press books (promotional booklets distributed to audiences inside the theaters) in relation to the theme of the film. For example, historical films used classical calligraphic styles; vernacular movies used the informal Ruqaa style; modern or comic films used expressive freestyle lettering. Some posters used photography, other illustrations (or caricature), and some a combination of both. The production of these large-scale posters was a fascinating process: they were painted at actual size, divided into twenty-four separate numbered folios, that were then offset printed separately and pasted together when installed at the entrance of movie theaters, thus forming the complete image of the poster or billboard. The chapter concludes with short vignettes of some of the most renowned and popular film poster designers and their work.

Arab Design and Modernity: Designing for Culture

The fourth chapter, Arab Design and Modernity, tackles some interesting discussions, including the locating of Arab modernity to the 1940s. One can argue that modernity in the Arab world belongs, in fact, to the second half of the nineteenth century (effectively the start of this book) to the Nahda cultural movement (also referred to as the Arab Renaissance or Enlightenment) that flourished in Arabic-speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire, namely in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria.

The authors equate Arab modernity with the nascent postcolonial independent Arab states and the “awakened national identities” that ensued after the end of World War II. The chapter opens with a brief explanation of the historical context and events in the region, the formation of the Arab League, and the symbolism and design of the flags of Arab nations (but missing is a helpful visual overview of these flags). The political events and the establishment of the state of Israel, the displacement of Palestinians, and the wars that developed have influenced the region’s artistic output and have had a lasting effect on graphic design in the region. This was also a time of optimism and nation-building, with a modernity born of new ideas on culture and the exploration of a new Arab identity—namely, “a localized modernity inspired by European ideals.” The revival of pre-Ottoman and pre-Arab cultural heritage became fashionable: the Pharaonic heritage in Egypt, the Phoenician heritage in Lebanon, and the Mesopotamian heritage in Iraq and Syria. The period witnessed an economic and cultural boom that was reflected in the development of art institutions, arts education, and international cultural festivals, that set the stage for the establishment of a recognized and active graphic design profession. The authors decide to take us on this journey by briefly highlighting important cultural international events such as the Alexandria Biennale (Egypt, 1955) and its original Egyptian designer Seif Wanly, the Baalbeck Festival (Lebanon, 1956), and the Damascus International Fair (Syria, 1954) and its chief designer Abdulkader Arnaout. These international and prestigious cultural events, which stipulated the design of posters, booklets, catalogs, and even commemorative postage stamps, presented to the general public a sophisticated and modern graphic design practice. The chapter is regrettably interrupted with an interlude on modernist approaches to the simplification and reform of the Arabic script. The authors focus on the work of the Lebanese designer Nasri Khattar and the Moroccan linguist Mohammed Lakhdar Ghazal. Their projects of modernization are placed within the contexts of the sociocultural developments of the period. This interlude is then followed by a more expanded discussion of influential Egyptian design pioneers Abd al-Salam al-Sherif and Hussein Bicar, who as practitioners in 1940s–’50s in Cairo, established a modern design language rooted in Arab cultural heritage. Through their work and teaching, both al-Sherif and Bicar established Egyptian—and to a larger extent—modern Arab graphic design. They influenced many generations that followed and their experiments in layout design, illustration, and Arabic lettering remain an inspiration to designers to this day.

Inspiring Resistance: Political Activism Through Design

The fifth chapter focuses on the revolutionary graphic design of the 1960s, namely posters and publications that supported the Palestinian resistance against the occupation of Palestine. The chapter opens with a brief history of the conflict and the political context of the Arab-Israeli wars and the displacement of a large part of Palestinians to refugee camps in neighboring countries (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt). The authors present the work of pioneer Palestinian artists and designers Ismail Shammout, Vladimir Tamari, Nazir Nabaa, and other Arab artists that contributed to the output of children’s literature by the publishing house Dar al-Fata al-Arabi. The “Palestinian poster” is identified as a crucial medium for communicating with the Palestinian (and Arab) diaspora, and through this medium the narrative displays the breadth of involvement of a generation of artists and designers, from various Arab nationalities, in producing a vibrant graphic culture in the region. The authors introduce the Arab poster with a brief explanation of earlier Islamic traditions in the design of banners, which were used for religious or cultural celebrations—again an attempt to link traditional heritage to contemporary design approaches. Though this may make an interesting comparison to the function of the modern poster—and provides interesting and culturally specific information—the link feels a little forced in this context because the political posters discussed are clearly very different in their symbolism and aesthetic expression, and more in line with the socialist and South American design traditions of the 1960s. The authors state: 

A specific attribute of Palestinian posters was that from their inception they had to communicate with an international audience. They were translated to dozens of languages . . . to create awareness of the Palestinian problem. Designers started challenging themselves to come up with visual solutions that spoke beyond words. Minimal text, strong, internationally comprehensible symbols, directed messages, and multilingual designs were some of the techniques devised . . . (189)

The authors described the work on commemorative posters that marked certain events (wars, massacres, Prisoners’ Day, Labor Day, etc.), as containing positive symbols (a peace dove, an olive branch, map of Palestine, the Palestinian flag, a hammer and sickle, a torch, a five-pointed star), or negative symbols (the six-pointed star of David, barbed wire, prison bars, locks, shackles, and snakes), and often containing the images of resistance fighters, farmers, women, and children. The ultimate icon of Palestinian resistance was the refugee child character Hanzala, created by exiled Palestinian political cartoonist Naji al-Ali. Hanzala has no face, but a lot of symbolic meaning is scripted in his one-dimensional image. He is always portrayed with his back turned to the world while he witnesses and comments on the Palestinian tragedy as it unfolds. The authors rely on the specificity of the Palestinian resistance to discuss the “progressive ideas in support of modernity” and cultural and political movements such as Arab Nationalism, communism, “breaking with tradition, or any other ideas that gripped the world at the time,” (189) with Beirut becoming the center of free political activism. The publishing of knowledge and projects of translation in both Lebanon and Egypt are briefly explained making a transition in the narrative from political poster design to Arabic book publishing and publication design.

As readers, we are briefly distracted by another interlude on the simplification of the complex Arabic calligraphic scripts for mechanical and phototypesetting and the resulting inventions and discussions they triggered. This is an important story that presents little-known yet crucial information. However, this section is devoid of any visuals that help the reader understand the works discussed. Squeezing this section between two unrelated topics—namely political poster design and the “second-generation Arab designers” who specialized in publication design—reduces this section’s significance. Though the authors emphasize the importance of typography in their introduction stating: “the regression and stagnation in the development of Arabic calligraphy after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, and eventually the problems with the mechanization of calligraphy, forced Arab designers to invent novel script solutions suitable for modern use” (7), placing the history of Arabic typography in a scattered manner within each chapter’s timeframe creates a diluted and repetitive pattern of similar discussions on type modernization, with pro- and counterarguments. Though well-placed chronologically, the discussions on Arabic typeface design in relation to the evolution of typesetting technologies would have benefitted from having its own dedicated chapter in the book where we can follow that narrative more smoothly.

After this typography interlude, the narrative moves forward to discuss two prominent Egyptian graphic designers, Abd al-Gani Abu al-Enein and Hassan Fouad. Their work for progressive literary journals and cultural magazines, and their involvement in the theatrical and performing arts, has ensured that their design approach and visual language became ingrained in the subconscious of the Egyptian public. Like the other designers in this chapter, political activism was also present in their work. The chapter highlights the networks of these designers, their connections, and their shared ideologies within their respective geopolitical context.

Arab Designers in Exile and Networks of Solidarity

The sixth chapter on Arab designers in exile focuses on the 1970s. It is one of the most interesting chapters in the book—and the longest one. We are very quickly led as readers into the personal stories and works of several designers from different parts of the Arab world who have migrated (willingly or forcibly) and contributed to designing for culture, and to employing design in the service of cultural activism. The chapter begins with describing the work of the first woman graphic designer to brand a country, Mona Bassili Sehnaoui. Her work is presented in the context of creating a “modern” image that bolstered tourism in Lebanon and highlighted its rich history and natural beauty. Then the chapter introduces a plethora of designers and specialization ranging from the Lebanese typeface designer Ismet Chanbour, who designed for Linotype and Letraset and inspired a new aesthetic for Arabic display type, to photographic experimentation in the work of Iraqi designer Waddah Faris for the Baalbeck Festival, to the typeface and lettering innovations of Iraqi printer and typeface designer Nadhim Ramzi whose work became emblematic and appeared on posters, in magazines, and on book covers from Baghdad to Beirut. The chapter presents the connections between these designers, their shared travails and migrations, and their cross-cultural inspirations. It also highlights the regional particularities to which each belongs and groups them under national/regional design schools: Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, postsocialist Egyptian, Algerian, Moroccan (the Casablanca school), and Sudanese. The chapter ends with iconic design pioneers that the authors label as “the third generation.” These designers include Syrian artist/illustrator Burhan Karkutli, Egyptian artist/illustrator/book designer Hilmi al-Touni, Syrian artist/poet/graphic designer Abdulkader Arnaout, Iraqi artist/designer Dia al-Azzawi, Egyptian graphic designer Mohieddine al-Labbad, and Palestinian artist/designer Kamal Boullata.

In Search of Identity: Arabic Type Design

In the seventh chapter, the authors define the 1980s as a period of searching for identity. Interestingly, the chapter opens with a discussion about the involvement of Arab designers in the creation of typefaces for dry-transfer type as well as nascent digital type technologies. The chapter also discusses the teaching of typography in graphic design programs in Lebanon and Sudan and briefly presents the designers who graduated from these programs and left a mark on today’s typeface design scene. Again, migration to and from the Arab world informed and influenced the work of these designers/educators. The chapter then presents the work of several designers—some referred to as “the fourth-generation”—who have designed works for popular newspapers, important brands, and the public domain. These designers include Sabry Hegazy who designed among others the logotype of Al-Khalij publishing house and newspaper with its distinctive and monumental 3D lettering; Salah Abd al-Karim who designed the logo for the Cairo Metro, and typeface designer Fathy Gouda who designed the signage system of the Cairo Metro; Kameel Hawa who established the first independent studio in Saudi Arabia, al-Mohtaraf al-Saudi, designing several brand identities and custom typefaces for newspapers and cultural institutions (in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon); Youssef Abdelké who specialized in political poster design and publications for leftists publishing houses; Emile Menhem who revolutionized Arab newspaper design; Mouneer Al-Shaarani who invented new Arabic calligraphic styles and applied his calligraphic work to book covers, logos, and typeface design. This chapter is rich in its scope and diversity and offers an image of a mature profession.

Paving the Way for the Next Generations

The final chapter introduces the reader to graphic design education and practice at the end of the twentieth century and prepares us for what Arab graphic design has become today. It discusses the young design studios and the teachers that have inspired and informed the work of Arab designers today. Arab graphic design in the 1990s is discussed and presented through the work of a selection of graphic designers; Leila Musfy, Mind the Gap studio, Samir Sayegh, and Rana Salam in Beirut; Ahmad al-Labbad and Walid Taher in Cairo; Ahmad Mualla in Damascus; and Raouf Karray in Tunisia. The chapter concludes again with artists and calligraphers who have applied their work to design or used vernacular graphic design in their artwork. With this the book comes full circle to reconnect with Arabic calligraphy and the potent graphic power of the Arabic letterforms. The authors leave us with this lovely and universal statement:

Culture is a construct; some of it is acquired and some of it is part of the personal experience. Foreign influences came and taught designers new things, but their experience and their work was always a reflection of their culture. (413)

Even for being hastily argued or scantily illustrated at times, this book is a significant contribution to the global discourse on graphic design history, and essential for all graphic design and visual communication programs (especially in the Arab world). It brings together, under one cover, important yet little-known information. It offers a kaleidoscopic view of graphic design from the Arab world and grounds the field within the broader discussion of graphic design from the peripheries of the established design canon. I can only hope that this invaluable reference will instigate further in-depth research. I concur with the authors that “Arab design needs to learn more about itself” (413), and I believe that this book is a solid first step in this direction.