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‘The future is here:’ On design education in Egypt
Engy Abou El Khair, Iconography of Historic Monuments in Cairo, graduation project, graphic design program at AUC, 2016. - Courtesy: Haytham Nawar

For decades, the main supplier of designers in Egypt was the state-run Helwan University’s Faculty of Applied Arts and Faculty of Fine Arts. But the founding of design programs at the German University in Cairo (2006) and at the American University in Cairo (2011) has created a shift, tipping the balance in favor of the private sector and paving the way for an evolving design culture in the country.

It seems to be a common view that a vibrant design scene is growing and thriving in Cairo as part of a greater movement sweeping the region, despite the challenges posed by Egypt’s current political climate and its education system.

“To put it simply, the future is here,” says Haytham Nawar, the director of AUC’s program. “Great work is coming out of Cairo, Beirut, Marrakech, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha – the movement is growing very fast. Something significant has been taking place here these past few years. It’s undeniable, and the world is aware and constantly watching.”

Nawar thinks that trying conditions in Arab countries create a more fertile ground for designers than in wealthier societies. At AUC, graphic design is referred to as visual communication. “Designers are essentially problem-solvers, and – by virtue of being communicators – they have a role to play in shaping the visual culture of a community,” he explains. “In most Arab countries, there is a lack of visual education, and this is where designers can step in.”

He also believes educators and designers in Arab countries are finally drawing inspiration from their heritage, rather than imitating Western trends, as was prevalent a decade ago. That, in addition to exposure to global design developments and opportunities for some to study abroad, is resulting in highly original output that is increasingly sought. “We used to compete in a battlefield that wasn’t ours, armed with nothing of our own,” Nawar says. “But now we’re reclaiming our history, and it gives us an edge. The key is looking into the past and designing for the future.”

We used to compete in a battlefield that wasn’t ours, armed with nothing of our own, but now we’re reclaiming our history, and it gives us an edge

“I encourage students to explore the wealth of material left behind by the early civilizations in the region,” he adds. “The layout and illustrations in old Coptic manuscripts for instance – there’s so much to look at.”

Ahmad Saqfalhait taught at the GUC for the past five years and headed its graphic design department for the past two, before moving to AUC as an adjunct faculty member last month. Saqfalhait obtained his masters in graphic design from Japan’s Tama Art University before moving to Egypt right after the 2011 revolution. “I have always admired how Japanese designers manage to borrow elements from other cultures and blend them in a harmonious manner with their own, giving them new life by injecting them with a Japanese spirit, yet somehow maintaining their original essence at the same time,” Saqfalhait says. “This was the aim of my project that I tried to implement with my students at the GUC when I first came to Cairo – I wanted us to infuse our own culture with influences from others to create a new Arab visual language that goes beyond the rich legacy of Islamic art and the traditional aesthetics of Arabic calligraphy.”

Saqfalhait also believes a designer should play a constructive role in society, and that the best way to ensure that is to deal with design from a development perspective. “Egypt at the time was the perfect place to try and found the new direction in Arab design that I sought,” he goes on. “Geographically it was the best platform from which to reach out to other countries in the region, and demographically the moment was very ripe because of what the young generation had witnessed during the uprising. There was so much to work on with them.”

Saqfalhait’s work with his GUC students reflected such awareness, often through an interdisciplinary approach. One example is a research-based project titled The Flat World by student Yosra Gamal (chosen to participate at Dubai Design Week’s Global Grad Show), which, through six complementary diagrams, questions maps’ credibility as information sources by interrogating who is allowed to make them and thus deconstructs the concept of borders. Mariam Ramadan, another student, devised a card game to strengthen communication and understanding between parents and children, while Sabah Khaled created a “time machine” that exhibits how map projections have evolved, highlighting the relationship between measurements of time and measurements of space.

The Flat World by GUC student Yosra Gamal

The Flat World by GUC student Yosra Gamal

One course Nawar teaches – inspired by ancient multilingual manuscripts – is “multi-script design,” where students are required to design a trilingual publication. Another is “Arabic type design,” the process of creating Arabic fonts. “Very few places in the world offer this course. It’s very specific to the region, and it’s becoming very trendy and quite popular,” Nawar says. The course is also one of few taught in Arabic at AUC. “All typography terminology is in Latin, but Arabic script has its own unique characteristics, its own aesthetics – it should have its own terminology,” Nawar says. “Yet, it’s very challenging because you’re basically inventing as you go. Calligraphy is of course a major reference, but type is different in many ways. So you’re writing your own curriculum. You’re experimenting.”

He says the results are extremely rewarding. “Students of mine are all over the market now, and it’s always a source of pride when I spot one of their fonts on a billboard on the street,” he says. Students have also started projects of their own, like Hanya Koueider, who now has her own furniture line. Fascinated by Arabic calligraphy and typography, Koueider worked with the square Kufic font to create 2D forms, followed by 3D forms on which she based her furniture pieces. “The process itself has been done before, but her designs are very special,” Nawar says.

Another practical project that derives from the study of Arabic type design is Downtown Fonts, which Nawar worked on with colleague Ghalia Elsrakbi and five GUC students after teaching Arabic font design for a semester at the university. “We interviewed many calligraphers, chronicling how calligraphy moved from being a sacred art, closely tied to the writing of religious text, to a public art, found on movie posters and store fronts,” Nawar says.

A project that also takes student work beyond school borders – this one coming out of GUC – is 100 Best Arabic Posters, which became the non-profit now known as 100/100. A competition calling for poster designs from around the Arab world, it started as an advanced studies project with 14 GUC students – now, the students have graduated, and selected posters were displayed in an exhibition in Amman and set to tour Abu Dhabi, Cairo and European cities. Saqfalhait thinks the regional dimension gives it strength. “It’s created a great platform for Arab designers to work together and compete in a healthy framework, and it’s inspired similar initiatives in other countries, like Wajha in Jordan, for instance. I think it’s very important in general to cultivate this culture of competition among Arab designers,” he adds, explaining that, regardless of winning or losing, there is a lot to gain in the process of competing.

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Over at Helwan’s Faculty of Applied Arts, for instance, design professor Mohamed Ardash says there is an upside to the large number of students: “Large numbers mean really intense competition, which makes the students very hard-working and persistent,” he explains. “This is one thing you don’t always find in private universities.” But it is also a challenge, especially in relation to the space, resources and equipment available.

Indeed, despite the special focus and the surplus in experienced and diverse faculty members at Helwan, certain problems keep the program from having the impact it could on the market and the development of design in Egypt. As well as enrollment, one major issue, as mentioned by Ardash, is tansiq – the process by which the Ministry of Higher Education’s Coordination Office assigns high school graduates to certain programs in state universities based on their test scores. This method of allocation means many students join a department only because it’s what their scores allow, rather than because of any passion for design.

Rewriting history: censorship and documentation

Nawar says the lack of references and art books is another major problem facing educators and students today. “Nobody has documented the history of Egyptian design in writing. We are constantly trying to fill the gaps,” he says. “And nobody is doing it now either. We have designers, practitioners, but we don’t have theorists or critics.”

Nobody has documented the history of Egyptian design in writing. We’re trying to fill the gaps

One beneficial aspect of projects like 100 Best Arabic Posters, Saqfalhait says, is that they create archiving and documentation opportunities. For instance, a catalogue containing all the poster designs will be printed to accompany the 100/100 exhibition. “The practice of documentation is almost non-existent in Arab countries,” he says. “Academics from the West come and do it for us.”

“The recorded history of modern art is very Eurocentric,” Nawar agrees, referencing a talk he gave in Switzerland about Egyptian graphic design in a global context, where he compared Egyptian artist and designer Mounir Canaan’s work with that of Swiss artist Lars Muller. “Why do you always find Muller in art history books but not Canaan? They both used very similar techniques.”

Yet even when Egyptian contributions are acknowledged as part of global artistic movements, as was the case with Egyptian surrealist Georges Henein and his Art et Liberté group, they are often overlooked in Egyptian curricula, especially in state universities. Nawar, who studied at Helwan’s Faculty of Fine Arts as an undergraduate, says they never studied Henein in art history. “The group’s work is very well documented and theoretically framed through their own writings, but their books are out of print, and nobody has cared enough to reissue them.”

Another problem with obtaining books, Nawar says, is censorship. “We often have to rely on online resources, which thankfully aren’t censored yet, but it isn’t always enough,” he says. Even though the AUC has an office in New York to facilitate the delivery of books from the United States to Egypt, they often take a long time to get here and are subject to security screening. “I once ordered a book on information design, among several other volumes, but when the shipment arrived it was missing,” Nawar recounts. “For three months we didn’t know anything about the book, until it arrived in a different package with a stamp on the front page and two signatures declaring it had been examined and approved by National Security. I couldn’t believe it.”

The state isn’t the only one to impose restrictions though, says Saqfalhait. “Field research is becoming really difficult. People are often hostile to students when they try to take photographs on the street. They are asked loads of questions and sometimes find themselves in tough situations. Phone cameras make it easier, of course, but the issue is one of the obstacles facing documentation efforts in Cairo.”

Design, social development and ‘the market’

Field research is one method teachers like Nawar and Saqfalhait rely on to make sure their students interact fully with Egyptian society, preparing them for their practical lives after graduation.

“The student body in GUC is relatively more demographically diverse than AUC, but still we need to stress the importance of interacting with local communities,” Saqfalhait says. “Students – if they want to be effective designers – cannot spend all their time between their private university, the mall and the gated compound where they live. They cannot live in a bubble.”

Students, if they want to be effective designers, cannot spend all their time between private university, the mall and the gated compound

Saqfalhait’s ultimate hope is to create a shift in design culture, its function and definition. “I want to change the perception of design, from something that serves capitalism to something that supports local businesses, as well as social and cultural development,” he says. “What design should do is pose meaningful questions and maybe even try to find answers every once in a while.”

GUC’s design program naturally has courses on branding, global communication and corporate design, but, while heading the department, Saqfalhait attempted to tackle each subject from social and cultural angles and make it obligatory for students to think and design in Arabic. “In one of the courses focused on advertising, we explored how the basics of advertising could be used to convey certain ideas rather than products, to tackle various social problems throughout the region,” he says. Saqfalhait also introduced package design under the topic “hospitality in the Arab world,” which prompted students to learn about the 22 Arab countries from a cultural studies perspective.

It may be tough to find a place in the market with this different outlook on design, but, in their final year, GUC students are required to do a three-month internship at a company or agency as a reality-check. “The way they learn at GUC makes it difficult to adapt to how things work in the market,” Saqfalhait says. “When they’re students, they are trained to research and create, while in the market a designer is expected to simply execute.”

At Helwan, not only is the demographic more diverse, but advertising has its own department, and designing for clients is a major component of the educational process. Ardash says that sometimes teachers even act like clients, asking students for more than one design for the same assignment. “One more way we try to integrate our students into the market is that we invite representatives of actual businesses to the university and hold competitions for students to design what they need, be it a logo, for instance, or a wider corporate identity,” Ardash adds.

Nawar, meanwhile, has students go to the paper market in Attaba to pick the material for their projects themselves, in order to become familiar with the market before they graduate. “In the academic world you are just a prototype. As a designer, you have to be part of the actual world, and the market is a big part of that.”

“The line between art and design is getting blurrier every day, but design after all is applied art. It is art with a function, while art can just be art, for its own sake,” Nawar says. “So you don’t necessarily have to teach designers how to sell, but you have to teach them how to communicate.”

Saqfalhait, for his part, has never aimed to help his students become more compatible with the market – he trys to provide them with tools that would help them find a way around its rules, rather than succumb to them. “Some of our best graduates worked in advertising agencies, but they weren’t happy,” he says. “This kind of environment practically kills everything we’ve been trying to teach them.”

He hopes his students can eventually create their own original content and work on spreading it, rather than build their careers on doing commissioned work. “I firmly believe that this generation will change a lot of concepts when it comes to design and its role in society,” he says. “It won’t be easy, because they will have to pave the way: They will have to create their own projects, their own studios and design collectives, and put their work out in the world.”

Saqfalhait believes much can be accomplished on low budgets, that crowdsourcing could help too. Yet the biggest difficulty, he acknowledges, is balancing the need for a decent income with that of creative fulfillment. “I have nothing against graduates deciding to try their hands at advertising or commercial work, if they need to, just as long as they approach it with the same mindset they developed while studying, so that they can bring a fresh perspective to the market, introducing new ideas and developing different aesthetics,” he says. “Later on they could open their own small businesses which would attract clients in place of the big, expensive agencies – this is the future of the market.”

This text is part of a collaboration with Cairobservor on the occasion of Cairo Now! City Incomplete, curated by Cairobserver’s Mohamed Elshahed, at Dubai Design Week.
Yasmine Zohdi