In any culture, design runs the risk of producing clichéd representations of the local culture. But this seems especially prominent in the Middle East over the past decade. As the region has exploded with new business and development, increasing demand for a modern approach to Arab identity, we are seeing more clichés and less great, functional design.
To be fair, it’s hard to determine what a “modern” “Arab” identity is. These two words tend to contradict each other, with “Arab” taking on associations that are anything but “modern.” Not to mention that the cultural references of the “Arab” world are of large variety, and in fact, because of its historical context and geographical location, influenced by many different outside cultures. This political history has also left a gap in the evolution of design culture, as years of conflict, colonization, and migration have left us without a sense of native development, forcing us to reference elements that are thousands of years old when we reach for authenticity.
Falling back on these elements however is exactly how we arrive at the cringe-worthy clichés that currently clutter our visual landscape. As we challenge ourselves to develop new ideas for business in the region, we must also challenge ourselves to develop a new definition for what is “modern” and “Arab.” We can start by avoiding these easy yet clichéd solutions, when looking to design elements of a brand.
Traditional calligraphy is the most obvious cliché in attempting to make something look “Arab.” In a way, it’s a good attempt, because the only thing that will make a “Modern” design feel “Arab” is if it involves the language. However, this effort can swing too far into making something look “traditional,” by, for instance, replicating historical “calligraphy” styles like Kufi and Thuluth. While these are beautiful applications of design, they are anything but modern.
For instance, the Aljazeera logo (left) has done detriment to the brand’s goals of trying to compete in a global newscape and bring a fresh perspective to political discussion. Because of its choice to use traditional calligraphy, it is potentially more easily associated with being Islamic and fundamentalis rather than simply Arab. The Pavillion in Downtown Dubai, on the other hand (right) has evoked its progressive and modern cultural curation intentions through its mark, innovating calligraphy and what it means to be “Arab” today.
2- Make it a pattern
If you are trying to be less obvious, but equally as brilliant, about including an Arab influence, the next trick is usually to make something a pattern. One of the most flourishing time periods for “Arab” art & design was during the Islamic Empire, and because it was not allowed to replicate reality, many stories were told through abstraction and patterns. However that time period’s rules no longer apply, so unless a pattern is functional, we have yet another arbitrary appropriation to what defines “Arab” design that is anything but modern.
These images are good examples of the divide between traditional and modern patterns. Yet ideally, graphic elements should not be afterthoughts; they should be as functional as a title and an innovative way to communicate your message.
3- The Orientalist
“Orientalist” design, in its homage to Edward Said’s colonization criticism, is design developed from an outsider’s impression on what “Arab” is. It tends towards the imaginary, mystic qualities: the Aladdin and Forty thieves syndrome, Ali Baba, Sindbad, where everything looks like it comes from a far away land with magic carpets and genie powers. Unless you are a cartoon, this serves no function but to insult Arab culture.
This cartoonishness extends to the use of “Arabic” elements in English text as well.
The opposite of Orientalist, but just as inappropriate, is forcing international design tendencies on local application. There are too many examples of this to name here, but it can be recognized in name translation issues, and forcing characteristics of other type forms onto Arabic typography (serifs, italics, etc.). I'm not saying it shouldn’t be done at all, but when done it must be done carefully. Only professional typographers should be allowed the luxury to develop functional roles for these characteristics into the modern typographic language. Such disasters are most evident when international marks are adapted into Arabic typography without formal consideration.
For example, although this logo is clearly recognizable as FEDEX even for those who cannot read Arabic, this application massacres the basics of Arabic typography. By forcing the “Hidden Arrow” adopted from its Latin version, we have destroyed many letterforms, leaving the mark illegible and unbalanced. This means that its only plus is its recognizability, which could have been achieved by leaving the Latin form as the mark. Ideally, no mark should come in multiple language options. There should be a hero mark in the priority language and a signature system for local application.
5- The Camel, the Goat, and the Falcon
And lastly, the most obvious of clichés is reference to icons that are inherent to the lands of “Arabia,” but have little context in our culture and may contradict the qualities of the product/service they are being associated with. A camel that is meant to exude intelligence, an oryx that can fly, or a falcon representing a hotel are all examples. This cliché is also not only visual, but also in naming and communication; we have forced palm trees, oases, pyramids, dates, etc. throughout our branding. One of the most amusing is the recurring concept of a “mirage” as a symbol of the future, however we tend to forget that an actual mirage disappears once you reach it. What more have we forgotten is that Arabs have long ceased to be travelling bedouins migrating across far lands searching for water refuge as rest stops. While bedouin culture does still exist, it by no means defines what it means to be “modern” or “Arab” today.
For example, while the Qatar Airways Oryx (left) is more unique than our typical clichés like camels, falcons, and horses, it unfortunately does not fly, which makes it a confusing symbol for an airline. The National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) Camel (right), on the other hand, perhaps works to some degree, as a representation of the fact that the bank is good at storing assets for long periods of time. However, it’s a bit of a stretch, and a camel still perpetuates the misconception that camels are still an integral part of life in the Arab World.
While it’s not the duty of someone branding a company in the region to redefine what is both “modern” and “Arab,” perhaps avoiding these clichés can at least prevent a step in the wrong direction, and help create powerful brands that are both authentic and forward-looking.