Generally, my ethos has always been to lend my voice to important topics. As a designer, it hasn't been so straightforward with the output of my labor over the years that I've been practicing. I see myself as a "white-label" designer who goes with the flow and tends to all of my clients' needs. Essentially, this has kept me from pursuing a meaningful career to my own beliefs. Or perhaps if I'm going to be honest with myself, I need to pave my own way.
An interviewer once asked me, "if you had a million dollars right now, what would you do with it?"
Without hesitation, I answered that I'd build a sort of platform for Arabs in the diaspora. Maybe something to do with culture and arts. You know, the idea isn't fully formed, but it makes a little sense, right?
For this week, I wanted to explore that half-baked answer I had once given in an interview I wasn't prepared for.
Before attempting to flesh out that idea, let's look back at week 12 from GDE710, where we briefly discussed what it means to design for social good or social change. Andrew Shea points out that there are ten essential steps we must consider:
Promise only what you can deliver
Identify the community's strengths
Utilize local resources
Design with the community's voice
Give communities ownership
I'll be referencing these points as I go into more details about this concept.
First, it was necessary to pinpoint the problem of this "solution". What would this cultural platform offer that others haven't already? Why did I want to address the Arab diaspora in particular?
The identity of Arabs in the diaspora is an intriguing topic and one that I am personally immersed in due to my own living situation. Numerous research articles touch on the subject of identity adopted by Arabs living outside of the Middle East and whether or not it has adverse effects on their abilities to assimilate to society. It has me wondering how preserving language and culture is strengthened even more by the negative speculation of their migrant status. And how the different cultures of the Middle East become one homogenous identity when situated in a foreign country.
Do Arab designers of the diaspora also pass through a similar disposition when forming their work? Do they reject Western design sensibilities in favor of a bolder, more distinctly Arab design aesthetic? Or could they make use of an avenue that supports them in their creative efforts while furthering a cultural discourse to their work?
In a nutshell, (this isn't my final elevator pitch, FYI), my idea is to build a platform to nurture Arab design in the diaspora.
For this proposal, it was essential for me to list the things I want to do versus the things I want to avoid:
Further cultural discourse around design: As a platform for cultural and design discourse, am I well versed enough on specific topics to lead the way through this discourse, or would I need to tap into a team of advisors to help shape and steer relevant conversations around design?
Build an inclusive network of Arab designers in the diaspora: The Arab world is vast, and its cultures and dialects are plenty. To build this network, I should start looking towards my inner circle and gradually making other connections.
Provide opportunities, both financial and educational, without any stigma or creative roadblocks
Eventually, contribute to academic or scholarly resources.
Meaningless NGO work
To further understanding and develop this idea, I looked at Arab art and design platforms, how they function, where they exist, and how they encourage interaction.
The platforms on a scale of the following four categories:
The MMAG Foundation
"Founded in 2017, The MMAG Foundation strives to contribute to the future of art practice and pedagogy by drawing on historical encounters and contemporary issues alike. Through art, it works to facilitate opportunities to shape responsive approaches to learning, knowledge-making and modes of dialogue. The foundation provides a space for artistic research, production and critical discourse through its exhibition program, educational projects and residency spaces."
Darat al Funun
"We aim to provide a platform for contemporary Arab artists, to support art practices and artistic exchange, to stimulate critical discourse, and to research, document, and archive Arab art."
"The Khatt Foundation, Center for Arabic Typography is a cultural foundation and design research center dedicated to advancing design and typography in the Middle East, North Africa, and their diaspora, and to building cross-cultural creative networks."
"platform is a curatorial collective dedicated to building a design culture with social value, based in Amman, Jordan."
"ālmamar is an emerging independent cultural-experience and residency program for collaborative creativity based in Amman, Jordan. Its mandate within its first year of operation is to host the Cultural Shell, a space for cultural and communal research and creativity particularly reflecting on the evolution of traditional values, critical arts practice, and the notion of transience within the context of Jordan."
"Studio-X Amman is a regional platform for experimental design and research run by Columbia GSAPP and the Columbia Global Centers | Amman. Studio-X Amman brings together Columbia GSAPP students and faculty with practitioners, researchers, and students from the Arab World to critically reflect on the role of architecture education and practice in times of mass displacement, dispossession, and destruction, and in the construction of alternative collective imaginaries for our cities."
Institut du Monde Arabe
"The Arab World Institute was designed to create some strong and durable cultural ties while cultivating constructive dialogue between the Arab World, France, and Europe. This cross-discipline space is the ideal place for the development of cultural projects, in collaboration with institutions, creators and thinkers from the Arab world."
Amman Design Week
"Amman Design Week is an immersive experience in local and regional design and culture. Focused on creating a forum for learning, exchange and collaboration, this platform empowers designers through its comprehensive program of large-scale curated exhibitions, student and community programs, workshops, talks, competitions, and cultural events."
While there might be many more similar platforms in the Middle East, looking at this handful which I'm already familiar with helped me understand their position a little better, while also inspecting where there might be a gap for innovation or creativity.
Their statements were a good starting point for how I wanted to also formulate an elevator pitch, so let's look at a few keywords that really stood out as an important part of the whole message:
Cultural and communal practice
My imaginary platform would ideally carry these concepts as a start, but it's easier to imagine how it would function when cemented in realism, like determining whether or not it would be located in a physical space, if it would operate primarily as an exhibition space or be geared more towards producing academic resources, or if it can even function as a co-working space for designers in close vicinity.
These are questions I'll explore bit by bit as we move along, but for now, let's come up with a name!
The Arabic word saṭr (سطر) came to mind almost instantly. It means "line", and for me, that symbolizes the start of any graphic. It can also symbolize a blank line, which one can fill with a "correct" answer.
With this name, I'm now able to better imagine a concrete platform and find a suitable position for it amongst others.
saṭr is a graphic design platform serving to further the cultural discourse within the Arab diaspora. It offers a communal space for design experimentation and reflection, aimed at the development and advancement of design from and for the Arab world.