Contemporary graphic design of Iran

Without one distinct culture or identity, how can Iran's graphic designers represent the nation through visual communication? Farshid Mesghali looks at the various factors present in the growth and evolution of graphic design in Iran and how a refreshed approach to the profession would help a new design generation truly tap in to the richness of this country.




Above left: Ghobad Shiva, Poster for music; right: Farshid Mesghali, Poster for animation movie.

Contemporary graphic design of Iran has no homogeneous structure. On one side, there is a very large domain, which notifies the public through visual communication illustrating specific information. On the other side, a form of graphic design has developed which is geared through a personal level, for instance suitable for exhibitions and shown to an elite audience. In my view, contemporary graphic design, which originates in Iran, is considered the entire range of all Iranian graphic design activities.

A consistent well-balanced societal growth within a single culture generates graphic design of its own with a logical structure and identical level of style. Our society does not cherish a unified culture. Part of the society is rural; another part is the newcomer city dwellers with a rural background. Some have a small town culture and some enjoy a large city or metropolitan culture and lifestyle. Our general approach to graphic design, which is supposed to deliver public information, is formed by graphic design schools and colleges; institutions where visual communication is not seriously considered. These schools instead of providing graphic designers are more concerned with generating graphic artists.


Above left: Sadeq Barirani, Poster for dance; right: Morteza Momayez, Poster for festival.

We have designers for whom any work of graphic design is a ground for expressing their artistic tastes, feelings and ambitions. Commercial graphic design and/or graphic for information, suffers from the same problem - a more artistic approach and less in delivering of communication. We can confirm that the fundamental problem is a non-communicative approach in all branches of graphic design.

For example, in a piece of newspaper advertisement, priorities are not specified based on their communicative significance. It is the designer's taste that dictates what part of the work should be more conspicuous. Also, the composition does not follow the application and lacks a communicational logic. Instead, it is fully subject to personal taste of the designer.

Few shop signs are seen whose contents are based on products sold in the shop and the principle of readability for public is observed. Few billboards are seen for the purpose of communicating with its passing audience, and in a few seconds time, creating a positive response toward the advertised commodity or service.

We have few journals tailored for the public audience, which have a logical and attractive layout proportionate with the understanding and need of the audience and with due regard to readability and public taste. Most of the logos and even titles of journals, which are designed for informing the public, are not sufficiently readable. The concrete outcome is that we have two types of graphic design; one is local design intended for domestic use, which we neglect to consider and craft, study and promote in educational institutions, and the other is a form of graphic design, which is mainly produced for participation of international contests and is mostly referred to as Iranian contemporary graphic design.


Above left to right: Onish Aminelahi, Advertisement for adhesive; Abdolkarim Moosavi, Cover for book; Parisa Tashakori, Poster for children.

Our personal and cultural graphic design

It seems that our cultural and personal graphic design is greatly inclined to being conspicuous, modern and deconstructive. In my view, tendency towards being conspicuous and distinct is the prime characteristic of today's personal graphic design. Modernism and deconstruction follow afterwards. In fact, modernism and deconstruction serve the distinction and conspicuousness. Why do I consider distinction as the main orientation of our graphic design? And why do I categorise modernity as second rank? Because we are not innately a modern society. Therefore, modernism cannot naturally come from within. On the other hand, our graphic design has never had consistent structure and theories to deconstruct and substitute with novel theories and a new thoughtful visual expression.

It is clear that this type of artistic graphic design in Iran is very dynamic, distinct and modern. These two characteristics have contributed to the development of an attractive type of personal graphics. When we look at the great number of graphic designers and the huge amount of work they produce, we cannot but get astonished and praise this extensive level of dynamism.

We can study the Iranian graphic design from different angles:


Above left to right: Naghmeh Zabihi, Cover for magazine; Tahamtan Aminian, Advertisement for vehicle’s parts; Sadaf Fadaeian, Advertisement for copier.

Communication

Communication is the primary principle in graphic design. Graphic design is all about the manner of conveying message, meaning or information to the audience, or better said - to a specific audience. Graphic design is a visually communicative bridge between message and audience.

How is this basic and essential definition redefined in our country? How do we respond to it?

When we speak about this approach, we do not limit ourselves when using a mass intake of cultural graphic design. In fact, we implement the full spectrum, which also includes cultural graphics.

In my view, the overall body of our graphic design works (commercial or cultural) lack intention/purpose – uncertainties exists too if they are not intended to communicate, or are unable to communicate, or are uncertain if the need for communication is valid, or they don't even know what communication is. And most importantly, who the audience of this planned communication is.

Communication has two components: information/message is the first component while the audience is the second. In most contemporary graphic design works (or in all fields of graphic design), no message is transparent or the message observed is obscure and impaired. Whilst, it is vague to what audience this impaired message is intended for. Most publicity works in newspapers and periodicals and/or cultural graphic works, which are graphically attractive and modern, belong to this category. If a separate description is not attached or the information is not scrutinised under a magnifier, you cannot recognise what the message or the poster is about and to whom it is addressed. Understanding the message and developing loyalty is among the basic subjects in graphic design.

Using graphic design as a means of communication is an inseparable part of the field. This fundamental issue is ignored both in graphic schools and in the collective consciousness of our designers. In our schools, graphic design is called "graphic art" while it is an applied tool not a pure art such as painting. Graphic design is an applied art like architecture. In the first place, a building has a function and purpose, such as a school, house or hospital. Then, aesthetic and abstract dimensions are added. In architecture, form follows the function and is codependent. In most architectural modern works, the function principle is always present. If the building is supposed to be used as an amphitheatre, the scene, audience seats and means of communication are never overlooked in the design. Only when these relationships are solved, then an architect may add new forms and even abstract aspects to the overall design.

During the 60's and 70's when post-modernism, deconstruction and movement against accepted norms and structures began and later - during the 90's - became one of the subjects of attention by young graphic designers in the West, theories of graphic design, communication and publicity graphics were already formed and considered the main rule of the work. Deconstructive theories revolted against a consistent structure in the West. One of the pioneers of deconstruction says, "Rules are devised to break, but you should first know the rule well to be able to break it."

Have we ever taught the meaning of design in our schools? Have our graphic designers ever come to know the concept of "graphic design: creative solution to visual issues" to desire hence to deny such theories?


Above left to right: Zeinab Shahidi, Poster for theatre; Farshid Mesghali, Poster for festival; Aria Kasaei, Poster for Avecina.

West

One of the most sensitive parts in studying graphic design is our relationship with the graphic design of the West - a relationship of love and hatred altogether. Today's definition of graphic design is a Western medium for mass communications. When a phenomenon such as printed books, trademarks, commercial ads, brochures or posters was produced in Iran, it could not exclude the West. Our graphic culture has persistently looked to the West as an example. This has occurred in all plastic arts. This imitative culture, which is common to a society outside the general route, adjusts our actions and reactions not to our own conditions, but to what we see from afar. The fact is that there is no other way. Therefore, our artistic route has no organic and consistent relationship with our society and our existence but is solely a reflection of what is transpiring in the West. It is as if we choose to enjoy the fruit instead of paying attention to the tree. We only know and want the fruit.

Plastic arts in the West are the outcome of societal, political and cultural conditions of each period. The history of the West is seen in arts in general and in plastic arts in particular. Western graphic design has also evolved step by step, and has been severely dependent to present societal conditions, and the conditions of the previous step. Each phase in Western graphic design is a reaction and response to the need of the society at that moment. If we are facing a type of deconstructive and rebellious graphic design in the West, it is a reaction originating from the deconstruction movement in that precise era. Furthermore, the entire procedure occurs in direct relationship with the structure of Western societies, artists, the elite, philosophers and culture.

These events are nothing separate from the overall structure of the West. Different components of Western society and culture are in an organic relationship with one another; each component influences the other component directly or indirectly. All parts are in an action-reaction relationship.

When we put Iranian cultural posters side by side with Western posters, we don't see much difference in appearance of the works. However, a very essential point is disregarded in this analogy. Western posters are in line with and a continuation of the western culture. Our posters, on the contrary, fail to establish any relationship with our culture because they have no relation to our society. Not that their elements are Iranian or not, the core of the matter is that they lack the necessary Iranian essence. Most of the works are just a simple layout.

Also, a large percentage of our advertising works have no relationship with their community. It is not known for what group or class the advertisements are produced. We do not study the audience or the target groups. There is no doubt that if we were keen on establishing relationships in graphic design, our works would have a different form.

Iranian graphic design is reflections of Western graphic design, but is not complementary or continuations of Western graphic design. It adds nothing to the world of graphics. At most, we may say that our graphic design is a variety in the world of graphics. The components used in an Iranian work of graphic design might be inspired by the Iranian traditional culture, but the outlook to the work is Western. Better to say that this outlook - whatever it may be - is not a stance for communicating with something or somebody in this land. It is more to make an impression, than communication.


Above left to right: Majid Abbasi, Poster for exhibition; Kourosh Parsanejad, Cover for book; Ebrahim Haghighi, Cover for book.

Past

It should be indicated that the issue of identity in graphic design is only applicable to cultural graphics, because graphics in the area of information and publicity takes form based on the content, information, message and relationship with the audience. Communication requirements leave no space for identity. One of the most important issues of concern in our cultural graphics is the relationship of the designer with the past and with our visual tradition or Iranian identity. When we talk about Iranian graphics, it is mainly the form, which is discussed rather than the essence and outlook.  And this topic is merely discussed in regard to our personal and cultural graphics.

I can say that most of our graphic designers have been more or less in contact with the visual traditions of Iran. The previous generations of Iranian designers were attentive to symbols and lithographs and in recent years, designers are inclined to use Persian script, calligraphy or print types. In the history of our contemporary graphic design, we witness the use of symbols and sins, lithographic illustrations, miniature and calligraphy. Practically, we have maintained our relationship with the past, but whether we are a continuation of the past, is another subject.

Using the past and continuing the past are two different topics. Is using the visual reservoir of the past the same as relationship with and continuation of the past?

In view of our culture, graphic works should be a continuation of the past or an evolution of the past. In the past, our people did not feel estranged and alienated, this close contact should naturally happen today as well.  Has there ever been a time when people felt estranged with rug motifs? If this close relationship could occur in graphics as well, we should have had modern but local works today. While neither the works, which look Western, nor those that are inspired by past visual elements and look Iranian in surface, have a true relationship with the current Iranian culture, which is a heterogeneous complicated culture because our approach is a Western approach.

There is another issue of concern as well and that is the judgment of our graphic industry by the international design community and their attitude and expectations of graphic design, which originates from Iran. The name of Iran, their expectations and judgments have given us a new definition of being Iranian. In fact, we judge our works based on their outlook and borrow the criteria of being Iranian from non-Iranians. The Western definition of Iran and the arts is generally a formalistic approach. If the visual elements they know were present in the work, then the work will be naturally different from their ordinary and will be considered Iranian.

Our graphic design should be a natural continuation of our past visual graphics. This continuation however can be real when everything is a persistence of the past and when all components have evolved together equally. Our sudden leap into the modern times, which has happened during the past 100 years, has caused an abrupt disconnection from the past. During the past 100 years, when we have come in universal contact, most of our attitudes to the world have changed. Our houses, cities, clothes, food, education, communication, all and all have been transformed. Furthermore, these changes are not equal and each goes its own way. Our relationship with the past is semi-connected and our relationship with our own time is inconsistent and uncertain. Therefore, there is no doubt that our outlook of visual tradition is also an undecided formalistic approach disconnected from the society rather than a natural approach.

Identity follows the outlook. Outlook is what comes to the view of an individual. All elements, which come to the mental view of a person and the order of significance of these elements, form the outlook of that person. Can I have a source different from various elements of what is available in my mental framework?

Type of outlook, its structure, what I see and what I choose express my Iranian identity which is not a simple thing or elective. What has remained in my unconscious from the past?  How close and intimate is my relationship with what is left in my mental view from the past? Can we conclude - based on the forced disruption with our past - that our relationship with our visual tradition a disrupted formalistic relationship?

Our relationship with the past should be clear and intimate in order to include its elements in our work intimately. Our formalistic approach in using the past visual tradition and the intervention of our Western outlook in this tradition have made it possible to experience some renovation in a limited number of works. I have seen and still view a considerable number of intimate uses of past visual elements in our contemporary works. Works, which connect me to something unclear, still appear familiar. However, there is a general essential disruption between our graphic design and the reality of our society.

At the end, I am able to say that graphic design can be Iranian if it establishes a relationship with the people and their current culture. Not the one that is called Iranian by the graphic designers themselves or by the foreign viewers. The graphic design which does not originate from this culture and which does not communicate with some groups in the society is an abstract and foreign graphic design.


Above left to right: Bijan Sayfouri, Poster for typography exhibition; Farhad Fozouni, Poster for music; Pedram Harby, Cover for book.

Technology

With a look at the graphic design works since 1951 onwards, we find that our graphic design has been deeply merged with the technical facilities and technology of the time and the infrastructure of approach to graphic design has changed with the modification of technology. In general, two main issues have been influential in the changes of our graphic design. The first is the social and historical changes and our confrontation with the West, and the second is the technical alterations.

Our graphic design has been influenced by technology in every period and technical facilities of each time have deeply affected it.

When we look at the cultural and publicity works before the 60's, we clearly see that lot of energy was put in by designers only in drawing the work. In each graphic work, the main executive factors are writing, painting or photography. Before the 60's, as modeling from photographs were not of proper quality, the designs were drawn by skilled artists. The writings were calligraphy by calligraphers or by designers themselves. All book cover designs and posters used illustration. A graphic designer was even referred to as an "advertising painter." There is little seen of a creative thought or graphic design. Manual skill was the main part of graphic design. In that period, the governing look is a performing look.

During the 60's, we witness a rapid growth in the use of technology. Using photographs with contrast and substituting modeling technique instead of manual skill is among the characteristics of this period. For writings, the cut out letters from newspaper titles were used. We did not have the concept of typography during that period.

During the 70's, a change in titles, book cover writings and posters are seen. In this period, type gradually takes distance from calligraphy. If during the 60's and prior, print was conducted by letterpress machines, yet the works were mainly black and white, and the designer was never hopeful of fidelity to paint in the print house. To the end of this decade, color print became possible by offset machines. Photography found its way into advertising; however, cultural graphic works were mainly made by the use of illustration. Letter design and size reduction/enlargement were not that easy or common for technical reasons.

During the 60's and 70's, the graphic work production process was not easy. The creative idea and thought were used to cover the lack of technical facilities. There were few works merely created as form. The dominant outlook in this period is an idea-based outlook.

The 80's decade is considered a turning point in technology. Personal computers and their public use in Iran provided new facilities to graphic design, which transformed the overall understanding of graphics. Minimum energy with entry level of experience combined with mastery over software was enough to technically carry out the most complicated graphic works. This easy performance brought along various advantages and disadvantages. The possibility of unlimited changes and rapid experiences in one work, setting letters and the change of font are among these new potentialities. Easy performance and the possibility of infinite and rapid changes brought about a fundamental change in the outlook and the overall approach of graphic designers. In this period, the outlook of graphic designers became an execution approach.

Like the 50's, execution undertook the prime role again but with different capabilities. The positive point in this new phenomenon is the development of aesthetic taste of graphic designers. These changes made formalistic innovations possible. Works could be performed very clean and precise. The ability of graphic artists in the use of color and creating novel compositions increased. Graphic design as a means of communication was overlooked and even negated by some of the graphic designers as unnecessary.

Another side effect of this vast and rapid potentiality is that graphic designers were drowned in the world of composition, color and font change. This can easily keep the designers away from loyalty toward the message and information and the accuracy of work components toward the object of communication. In the process of playing with components of a work of graphics, one of the simplest ones is the word play. It is possible to change all elements of letter especially when the designer does not care about the readability of letters. In this word play, valuable works have also been produced. However, in most of the works, meaning and communication is sacrificed in favor of aesthetic play. Finally, we face a repetition in works.


Above left to right: Saed Meshki, Cover for book; Pouya Ahmadi, Poster for exhibition; Iman Raad, Poster for exhibition.

Conclusion 

We witnessed a wave of energy, enthusiasm and interest in the new generation of graphic designers. Many sprouts are blossoming here and there in this old land. In my view, now that graphic potentialities abound, it may be time to enter into discussions on depth, thoughtfulness and theoretical dialogues in graphic design so that these young talents may benefit toward perfection.

We now need to know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it.
What is evident is that our graphic design is willingly active to be distinct and conspicuous. We may be ready to provide for a native graphic design, up-to-date and communicable.



This article originally appeared in Neshan, Iranian Graphic Design Magazine, Number 20, Summer 2009, and has been reproduced with permission.

About the author

Farshid Mesghali was born in Isfahan, 1943. While studying painting in the Fine Art Faculty at Tehran University, he began his professional career as a graphic designer and illustrator with "Negin Magazine" in 1964.

He joined the Institute for the Intellectual Development for Children and Young Adults in Tehran, in 1968, illustrating books for children and creating animated films for children. During 1970-1978 he made many of his award winning animated films, posters for films and illustrations for children books.

He moved to Paris in 1979. In the next four years he worked as an artist producing a number of paintings and sculptures, which were exhibited at Sammy King Gallery in Pairs.

In 1986 he moved to Southern California, United States, and opened his graphic design studio, Desktop Studio in Los Angeles. During 1990-1994 he created a series of digital photos based on snapshots, which were exhibited in some galleries in Los Angeles and later in the LA County Museum of Modern Arts.

In 1994 he started to work for Worlds, Inc., a multi-media company in San Francisco, producing and designing virtual reality environments for Internet for many clients including IBM, and AOL.

At present he is living and working in Tehran. He is doing mostly painted sculptures and installations. His works are presented in museums, collections and galleries around the world and he has also received many national and international awards since 1968.