The Role of Graphic Design in Preserving Arab Identity

Jan 22, 2021

I am an Egyptian, Arab, Muslim woman. These adjectives combined form a “dangerous” element in a patriarchal society afflicted with Islamophobia and by the obliteration of the Arab identity. My existence in this world has forced me to defend myself for no particular reason. I then discovered that my work was the way to survive, to tell my story and the story of thousands of individuals who speak the same language and face the same struggle, as they are constantly expected to answer questions about who they are and where they come from.

I was born in a country that is not only known for its revolutionary stories, the stories of victories and collapse of civilizations, but also for its religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. Growing up in such an environment made me believe in the power of storytelling. People can tell stories in many different ways. I personally chose Graphic Design for that. In fact, if we go back in time, we realize that the oldest way to tell a tale was by drawing, an activity that has since then evolved into various forms of art, including Graphic Design. 

I believe that design can change the world. My life started when I started drawing…I always wanted to draw people, faces, eyes, emotions. However, this merely represented in my opinion an art without concrete function or purpose. My aim was to create a bigger impact. I wanted to touch people’s hearts, to highlight a concept or to create change. I then realized that I could both be an artist and improve the lives of people around me through design and visual communication. My early passion for shapes, colors and styles made Graphic Design an ideal choice for me, as the unseen and applied work of a Graphic Designer can improve and shape all aspects of our lives.

As such, in my hometown of Cairo in particular, graffiti art helped overthrow several dictators. In the past few years, Egypt witnessed two revolutions, during which banners and graphics played an essential role. These revolutions proved that visual communication has become more powerful and more impactful than words.

Language is also one of the most important characteristics of any country or culture. Arabic is one of the oldest languages in the world, a language with a rich history. It is also a language that has remained prominent over time, despite the currently limited number of Arabic-speaking countries compared to past centuries, impacted by various challenges including decades of colonialism, political repression and globalization.

Even for non-Arabic speakers, Arabic letters have a certain mystical charm. Seeing them only would make you sense their power, without even understanding the words. Arabic is a fascinating language that is enriched by its words, derivatives, idioms and metaphors. It is a language that reflects the characteristics, cachet and perceptions of the Arab world, and mirrors its ideologies, heritage, thoughts and sense of freedom. Based on this, and with words being behind such a sophisticated language, it was only natural for them to make a smooth entrance into the world of Graphic Design. I believe that this form of design can indeed revive the Arabic language and preserve the Arab identity.

While preparing for my Master’s degree, I sensed a certain longing for the Arabic language. I missed contemplating words and reflecting on their meaning. That feeling led me to one of the largest libraries in Italy, looking for Arabic books. When checking the Middle Eastern book section, I was struck by the realization that most, if not all, books revolved around fear, destruction, terrorism and ISIS. My heart sank, seeing that this was the image the world was seeing of us Arabs, even from a literary perspective.

I wondered what happened to the likes of Naguib Mahfouz and Gibran Khalil Gibran who are worldly renowned writers. What happened to acclaimed poets like Al-Mutanabbi and Nizar Qabbani? Were rich and diverse cultural products of a whole region in the world completely discarded? Were they prevented from creating a real impact on global media production and modern social discourse?

I felt responsible for my deep-rooted Arabic language, and started exploring ways to bring it back to its past glory and breathe life into it.

I wondered: could this be possible through education, arts, cinema, culture? Or all of those areas maybe? A more important question also lingered in my mind: Could Graphic Design change this stereotype? And what would my role be as a Graphic Designer in reviving and celebrating the Arabic language and culture?

From those thoughts, I came up with the project, entitled “Let’s Play!

I started thinking about ways to put an end to portrayals of Arabs as terrorists on this planet. I also reflected on means to preserve and promote the Arabic alphabet, and to share it with other communities and cultures. My eureka moment was when I discovered a bilingual solution for teaching Arabic, as effective communication, interaction and education naturally give way to more tolerant societies. After a long and deep reflection, I concluded that the best option would be to combine the concepts of innocence and Arab identity. As such, this identity is reflected in words, while innocence is embodied in children. Both elements made me think of one favorite toy for kids and adults: LEGO blocks.

Through this project, I aim to introduce learners and foreigners to the Arabic language, and most importantly, to help refugees integrate within their host communities, by creating a bi-directional bilingual learning and communication system. I chose to call this concept “Let’s Play!”

The concept is simply a fun, different and uplifting way to learn modern standard Arabic, or literary Arabic, using Legos. The idea translated into a kit to create letters of the Arabic alphabet using LEGO blocks. The kit included a booklet, a smartphone application, cards that display all the letters of the Arabic alphabet in their four different forms, and a 400-word Arabic dictionary.

116 letters were designed in just one week!

In my workshop in Florence, I put the letters and the pieces together, then I took pictures of each and every letter. I color-coded them and chose the adequate color for the background, in addition to the font that I was going to use. My next plan would be to translate this booklet into as many languages as possible, so that teaching Arabic could become universally fun, easy and accessible.

Working on this project was a form of visual meditation, such as supplications or Sufi prayers for a better world. In fact, using Lego blocks to bring two languages together, was a metaphor to highlight the notion of togetherness and the need for us to build a common ground with diverse cultures, languages and ways of thinking. With this project, I have seen how boundaries can be brought down between people. With that in mind and regardless of our potentially negative perception of the world around us or the numerous distressing books centered around ISIS and other terrorist organizations, I will consistently aim at building a unified, colorful and vibrant world.

The Branding Egypt Initiative

After the “Let’s Play!” project, a different type of project was launched to build a brand for Egypt. The idea behind the Branding Egypt Initiative consisted in creating a new visual identity for 29 governorates in Egypt. In 2018, I presented the full project plan to the youth of Egypt as part of a youth conference attended by the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The President approved the initiative instantly, and it was adopted and rolled out after its initial pilot project entitled “Branding Luxor.”

The project’s purpose is to connect the dots between the past, the present and the future, and to promote tourism across Egypt. Luxor was the first city to be featured, which is home to one third of the world's ancient monuments.

Designs of the Branding Luxor project combined Hieroglyphic and modern writing scripts. They also relied on a vibrant and dynamic color palette, inspired by ancient Egyptian drawings that are still found in certain temples. Another great source of inspiration was in the elements of the city itself-- its fascinating history, architecture, nature, myths, and of course its unique geography (Luxor is situated on the East and West bank of the Nile river).

The EcoEgypt Project

I always believed that art can reveal the beauty of any country and any culture, and that in any parts of the world, there are hidden treasures that are only waiting to be uncovered. That is how I realized that I could show the beauty of my homeland, Egypt, to the world through Graphic Design.

After almost two years of work, my dream finally came true with EcoEgypt. EcoEgypt is an electronic encyclopedia that introduces people in Egypt and across the world to a rich selection of Egyptian hidden gems, uncovering tribal heritage, monuments, natural landscapes and natural reserves in more than 30 locations, including Wadi El Gemal, abu Galum, Nabq, Ras Muhammad, Saint Katherine, Siwa, White Desert, Nubia, El Wahat El Bahariya, Lake Qarun, Wadi Degla, Wadi El Rayan, Taba, to only name a few.

Egypt's National Library Manuscript Museum Branding

As there could be no future without a documented past and history, Art has always played a key role in preserving and reviving our history. In that context, one of the important projects I launched was the rebranding, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), of Egypt's National Library Manuscript Museum, which is considered one of the most unique cultural monuments in the country.

The library is one of the largest in the world, and houses approximately 60,000 manuscripts written in Arabic, Turkish and Persian over the course of several centuries, and on different subjects like religious studies, natural sciences, mathematics, poetry, linguistics, history and sociology. It also holds papyrus, maps, calligraphic albums and paintings, detached book covers, early printed books, periodicals, and more than 21,000 forms of coins and medals.

The project was about rebranding this fascinating place from A to Z, starting with the creation of a logo for the library and the drafting of a script to include all information on this monument. Work entailed also the creation of a comprehensive map, designing a guide for the Manuscript Museum, along with the creation of print designs for it.

The “7UP Celebrating Egypt” Project

Design plays a crucial role in highlighting the visual identity of any product, and has the power to unveil and re-introduce the culture and identity of any country.

Egyptians consider, in general, that the design of soft drink cans is entirely western. For that reason, we started an initiative to design the first local version of the soda can, called “7UP Celebrating Egypt”. The concept was to create a chronology of the evolution of visual graphics in Egypt, by showcasing four eras in the history of the country. This project represented an opportunity to celebrate the Egyptian heritage and to create a sense of pride amongst Egyptians, in addition to reviving their sense of belonging to their beloved country.

As part of this project as well, we started a competition at the Helwan University, during which students had to compete by creating different can designs with one slogan in mind: The celebration of Egyptian identity. 

My journey does not stop here. I still would like to start a visual revolution in Egypt and in the Middle East. I would like to promote Graphic Design in the field of education and raise awareness about its importance in our daily lives. I hope to one day help spread the concept of Graphic Design in various fields such as education, health, politics, in addition to any other fields in which I could contribute to the revival of my country and the region’s culture and history. Art can indeed promote culture and find new ways to preserve history while keeping an eye on the future, my goal is to introduce a new perspective to the treasures of our renowned history, in a way that is modern and that can reach as many people as possible.

Watch her TED Talk here:

About the Author

Ghada Wali is a TED speaker and pioneering graphic designer in Egypt who has designed fonts, brands and design-driven art projects.