NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

Member of International Council of Design ico-D

English | فارسی

Neshan 29

Face to Face

“I always wanted to write.”– Rick Poynor

Majid Abbasi

Why did you choose to write about design? When did you start writing about design, and what kind of design have you written more about?
I started writing about design in 1986. I had studied the history of art and already had an interest in art, photography and film. In the early 1980s, design was beginning to get more public attention in Britain and I turned to design magazines as well as highly visual “style” magazines such as The Face, which dealt with popular culture. In my first job as an assistant editor on a design magazine, I wrote mainly about interior design. Then, in 1988, I became deputy editor of Blueprint magazine, where I wrote about all kinds of design and architecture. During this time, I became increasingly interested in graphic design and covered it regularly for Blueprint. New technology, new theories and new energy made graphic design an exciting and fast-moving field to investigate. In 1990, Blueprint’s publisher launched Eye magazine, with me as editor. I have written a lot about graphic design in the past 20 years, including a number of books, but I try to do this from the perspective of someone who has wider visual and cultural interests and knowledge. I’m still engaged by graphic design when it connects with, expands and helps to illuminate other fields, but I’m not interested in graphic design as some kind of inward-looking end in itself, and I try to avoid viewing it from a “design business” perspective. I describe myself as a writer about visual culture who has a strong interest in graphic communication. Before anything else, though, I just see myself as a writer. I always wanted to write.

How much should a design writer and critic be concerned with the past, and how much should s/he know about what is going on today? Is there any possibility that a design writer and critic can affect design of the future?
I believe you cannot produce good writing about design (or anything else) if you are ignorant of the past—where would your standards and yardsticks come from without this context? But I don’t think we should generalise too much because there are obviously different ways of positioning yourself as a writer. A writer whose interests are mainly historical won’t need to follow the contemporary scene too closely. Journalists, on the other hand, spend all their time monitoring the latest developments. Even so, the best journalists are deeply knowledgeable about the history and development of their subject. The influence of design writing on the development of design is a huge and intangible issue. We are all influenced by the ideas we absorb from what we read and see. Sometimes we are highly aware of these influences; sometimes we absorb them almost subliminally. We cannot avoid being shaped by the historical moment and culture we happen to find ourselves in. Sometimes, too, designers don’t want to acknowledge fully their influences in case it makes their own work seem less original. I don’t think writers should worry about the question of influence – there is something very phony and unconvincing about actively trying to be some kind of “guru”. Let others decide whether they find your work useful and relevant or not. Writers should just get on with doing the writing they believe in.

Your writing is both a historical review and a criticism of design. It seems this is your style. Is it true? Please tell us more.
Yes, this is true. I do writing that could be described as design history—for instance my book about Typographica magazine (1949-67). I have written monographs about contemporary designers, such as Jan van Toorn: Critical Practice. And I have written critical essays about contemporary visual culture and design, such as Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World. In my recent exhibition, Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design, which was shown in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, I was working as both a design historian documenting neglected areas of visual culture and a critic using these stunning examples to question the limitations of contemporary design thinking. I enjoy moving between different modes and styles of writing while trying to maintain my own voice. I believe that certain consistent themes and concerns link all of my writing, though these are expressed in different ways depending on the publishing context. I hope that readers who know my writing well will recognise a continuity and development of position and purpose in what I write.

You have mentioned that your writing is inspired by profound and thorough knowledge of Susan Sontag. Would you please explain more?
I started reading Sontag’s essays in my early 20s. She wrote about subjects I cared about deeply: literature, film, photography. The first books I read by her were Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will and then On Photography. Her style of essay writing was a revelation to me. I liked the clarity and precision of her prose style, and her seriousness of tone and purpose. She always thought deeply and wrote from real engagement. I admired her position as a public intellectual who was familiar with academic thinking but able to open up these ideas for wider educated audiences. She was highly visible as a critic, which is not easy to achieve, and always prepared to take a stand even if it made her unpopular. As a European myself, I appreciated her passionate commitment, as an American writer, to European cultural history and modernism. Later, I had the possibility to include her typically brilliant essay about Cuban posters in Looking Closer 3, a collection of historical writings about graphic design that I co-edited. I still quote her writing from time to time.

What quality of design encourages you to write about a topic or a specific designer?
Actually, I would say the same thing that I just said about Sontag. I admire intense commitment. I like design that comes from deep thought and from strong personal motivations. I am interested in designers who have the vision, self-awareness and cultural perception to use design to say something original and engaging about how they see the contemporary world. My visual taste is pluralistic and I have no stylistic preconceptions. I can appreciate almost any style of design, from the everyday vernacular to severe aesthetic minimalism, so long as it is done well. On the whole, though, I prefer complexity of form because there is more to look at and enjoy, more to discover, and often, as a result, more to think about. I’m drawn to montage and collage because of the way these techniques allow the designer and image-maker to cut up and reinterpret reality.

Did you know that Typography Now which has been written in two booklets and is issued in different years is one of the most admired books in Iran for graphic designers? Why is typography, along with design, part of your interest?
My interest in typography goes back to the start of my interest in graphic design. Before I became a journalist and writer, I had a temporary job working as a typesetter. I knew how to touch-type, which was the essential qualification to do the job. I had no design training but I did have a good eye, developed by looking at and studying art, and I became fascinated by the tiny differences between different styles of type and how this can change the whole mood of a text. I began to read books about typography, too. Then, later, I started to meet designers and became even more intrigued by the tiny details of type and the orthographic conventions of design. As an editor, I found it very satisfying to collaborate with typographically aware designers; I learned a lot that way. Typography Now, which dealt with the new experimental typography, came out in 1991 at the height of this interest.
I still enjoy typography and letterforms and I have strong, almost musical reactions to type, but I don’t focus on it in my writing any longer. I am more interesting in images and how all the elements of a design, both type and imagery, fuse together to make its meaning. On a personal level, I would rather hang out with photographers and image-makers than type designers.

There are only two books of yours that are written about specific designers, Vaughan Oliver: Visceral Pleasures and Jan van Toorn: Critical Practice. One can observe books more about a specific period or specific topic in design and typography. How do you choose your books’ themes?
Monographs of living designers are difficult to do. You need the full cooperation of your subject, who is bound to have strong opinions about the book, while retaining your independence and freedom of interpretation as a writer and a critic. My Vaughan Oliver and Jan van Toorn books came about fairly organically because I knew the designers well and thought I had something to say about them. In fact, I have done other monographs: my first was about an architect, and my books about the musician Brian Eno and Herbert Spencer’s Typographica magazine are also both monographs. Monographs are difficult to sell and publishers are often wary of them. A few years ago, I devised a new series called Monographics for a London publisher because I wanted to create a platform for perceptive writers to engage in critical discussion of graphic designers’ bodies of work. The aim was to build a little reference library of monographs about significant historical and contemporary figures. But the first few books didn’t sell well enough and the series was cancelled after just four titles. I started to wonder if I was perhaps more interested in seeing a serious critical discussion of graphic design than many designers were. There are two or three exceptional graphic designers that I would still like to do books about, if the circumstances were right.

Why did you curate the Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties exhibition in London? Please tell us more about this exhibition.
The Barbican Art Gallery, a major venue owned and run by the City of London, approached me as a consultant about a possible exhibition of British graphic design. After some discussions, they asked me if I would like to be the curator. I jumped at the chance and proposed the theme—creative independence—and the time frame, from around 1960 to the present. British cultural history since the Second World War is an area I like to research, and it was graphic design work from this period that helped to inspire my interest in graphic design in the first place—so there was a personal side to the project, too. It was the first retrospective exhibition on this large scale to address the history of graphic design produced in Britain by small, highly motivated, independent studios. As curator, I had a polemical purpose: I wanted to reassert the importance and value to Britain’s cultural life of the contribution made by these designers. There’s a book too, also titled Communicate. The designers in the show included Alan Fletcher, Robert Brownjohn, Ken Garland, Richard Hollis, Margaret Calvert, Neville Brody, Peter Saville, Vaughan Oliver, Jonathan Barnbrook, Graphic Thought Facility, and many others. The work was organised by sector—publishing, identity, arts, music, politics and society, and self-initiated projects—rather than chronology. There was some web design, though I don’t think it’s ever very satisfactory to show websites in an exhibition. This is another example of a project where I was able to combine two sides of my work: design history and criticism.

How much are you familiar with the art and design of non-western countries? As an Iranian I would like to know how much you know of Iran’s graphic design.
A few years ago, I started to get interested in the calligraphic qualities of Iranian graphic design. I had seen your work and Reza Abedini’s work in the book Area (2003) and I was also impressed by some of the pieces in New Visual Culture of Modern Iran (2006), which I reviewed for Eye magazine. In 2007, I met Reza Abedini in Amsterdam and interviewed him for Creative Review. But the problem, always, if you don’t speak the language in which the graphic work is made, is properly understanding its linguistic, cultural, national, and perhaps also religious meaning. You can appreciate the look of it—and interpret this according to your own cultural preconceptions—but that is not sufficient when it comes to informed criticism. This was my complaint in my review of New Visual Culture of Modern Iran—the book showed beautiful images but it didn’t explain anything. I thought I might visit Iran to see and learn more, but this didn’t happen, so I haven’t been able to pursue these initial impressions. What Iranian graphic design needs, if it’s to be fully appreciated in the west, is writers able to speak Farsi, understand Iranian history and culture, and then explain the work engagingly to outsiders in their own language. (The same thing applies to any form of non-western design, especially from cultures with unfamiliar alphabets.) Despite its quality, Iranian design is still not well known in Britain.

Do you believe that the globalization of design is a threat for to national and indigenous identities?
Yes, I do. We all know that the same visual homogenization is happening everywhere, and this is also a kind of narrowing of thought. Technology, software and contemporary media have become irresistible forces. The most positive while still realistic thing you can hope for is that some of the best new graphic communication will take the form of hybrids. The incoming influences will be spliced together inventively with local influences to make something new, distinctive and still uniquely local. What I liked about what I saw of Iranian design is that it used familiar techniques that we might see in graphic design from elsewhere, but produced tremendously powerful graphic images with these tools. I think you can answer better than me whether these influences and pressures from outside are having a positive impact in Iran.

Monitors are replacing paper and books and magazines are converted to electronic files. What is your idea about the design approach of the future?
People of my generation are in a funny position on this question. My education, my pleasure as a reader and my working life as a writer, editor and lecturer have been built on paper. My office is a storehouse of wonderful books and that’s how it will remain. I don’t intend to change this now. The physical and graphic form of the book has always been a vital part of the reading experience for me and I see no good reason to give that up for an inferior version of the experience on a Kindle. Yet we know that a transition to screen-based reading (or skimming) is happening and there is a new generation who want to read, but don’t feel the same loyalty and attachment to the physical form of the book or the daily newspaper. I’m sure there is truth in the argument often made by print-loving designers that to survive, for at least the short to medium term, books will have to become ravishing objects that seduce people into buying them. I enjoy that kind of visual book too, but highly designed books often aren’t bought to be read and, for me, the point is still reading. Buying luxurious, freshly printed books solely to admire and fondle them as precious objects is a kind of sentimentalism. For books to live, we need to carry them with us and read them.

Majid Abbasi

is design director of Studio Abbasi active in the international community, based in Tehran and Toronto. He leads a variety of design projects for start-ups, non-profits and educational organizations worldwide. Majid actively contributes to the international design scene as an instructor, jury member, curator and writer. He has been editor-in-chief of Neshan, the leading Iranian graphic design magazine since 2010. Majid has been members of Iranian Graphic Designers Society (IGDS) since 1998 and Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) since 2009.

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