Teaching Graphic Design History in/of the Arab World: Narratives and Practices

Two-part series: Thursday 29 February / Friday 1 March 2024

Graphic design in the Arab world has been shaped by colonial legacies that continue to influence both its teaching and practice. This research symposium aims to explore this issue by bringing together scholars, educators, and practitioners to discuss the decolonisation of graphic design education.

It aims to provide a platform to reflect on challenges and opportunities, and consider approaches to the study of graphic design in the Arab world with a focus on the cultural, social, linguistic, and historical contexts of the region.

This event is organised by Yasmine Nachabe Taan, Lebanese American University, Beirut and Trustee of the Design History Society, and Lina Hakim, Senior Lecturer and member of the Visual and Material Culture Research Centre at Kingston University, London.

Day 1: Thursday 29 February 2024

Welcome speech

  • Dr Chahid Akoury, Department of Art and Design Chair, School of Architecture and Design, LAU


  • Yasmine Nachabe Taan and Lina Hakim

Panel 1: Narratives (stories, definitions, timelines, archives)

  • Dina Benbrahim – Inside and outside the classroom: an anti-racist and feminist approach to design histories
  • Haytham Nawar  A History of Histories: The stories/challenges behind writing a book about "Arab Graphic Design History"
  • Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès - Uncovering the Multifaceted History of Typography in the Arab World
  • Yasmine Nachabe Taan  A Transition from Global to Glocal: Breaking Hierarchies in the Teaching of History of Graphic Design


  • All panellists

[Image: Jana Traboulsi, Kitab Al Hawamesh (The Book of Margins) [spread], 2017]

Day 1: Thursday 29 February 2024

Panel 1: Narratives (stories, definitions, timelines, archives)

Abstracts and biographies

Dina Benbrahim – Inside and outside the classroom: an anti-racist and feminist approach to design histories

In her book Complaint! Sara Ahmed writes: "to become a complainer is to become the location of a problem." Traditionally, graphic design history prioritizes whiteness, leaving behind an enormous gap with unrecorded histories.

When history points at structural racism in a classroom setting –  especially a white-dominated classroom –  it can become the location of a problem, more than one of curiosity. The idea of learning anything that does not maintain whiteness as the norm and foundation of graphic design causes tension. Indeed, attacking racist frameworks means questioning white identity as a default identity.

As a result, anti-racist pedagogy goes against the grain and can reduce the pedagogue into a problem. Yet, change cannot happen without tension, which situates it as a tool to reject oppressive narratives, challenge power relationships, create new definitions, and embrace expanded frames. These are necessary tasks we should all be responsible for and are not limited to the classroom. Sometimes, opening new spaces for learning and knowing can contribute to a curriculum as an effective social journey to actively contribute to more equitable futures.

Hello Departures, an ever-evolving experimental program at the intersection of design pedagogy, strategy, and community, promotes a diversity of thoughts and practices by developing intentional programming that highlights non-dominant, minoritised identities. This presentation uses an anti-racist and feminist perspective to rethink how we disseminate plural narratives within and outside the classroom using local contexts. It is an unapologetic complaint of the status quo inside institutions, an urgent invitation to collectively celebrate our histories, and a timely critique to promote emancipatory frames from which we teach and learn.

About Dina Benbrahim

Dina Benbrahim is a Moroccan multidisciplinary creative, educator, organiser and researcher, who uses an intersectional feminist lens to dissent and investigate design for visibility, civic action and social justice with minoritised communities to collectively reimagine equitable futures. She has been particularly invested in exploring design histories in North Africa.

Among multiple essays she wrote, she is the author of 'Woven in Oral History: An Incomplete Taxonomy of Amazigh Symbols' in the book Centered edited by Kaleena Sales, and 'A Biased Typographical Collection of Tangier' in the book Our Morocco edited by Lucas Peters. She is the founder and director of Hello Departures, an ever-evolving experimental program at the intersection of design pedagogy, strategy and community which provokes uplifting transformative possibilities. In addition, she serves as a Docent for the Letterform Archive.

Haytham Nawar – A History of Histories: The stories/challenges behind writing a book about 'Arab Graphic Design History'

The Greek term "historia" originally connoted the concept of inquiry, comprising the deliberate engagement in knowledge acquisition and the subsequent assimilation of knowledge derived from such investigative pursuits. This semantic evolution of "historia" naturally extended to encompass the compilation of narratives depicting events resulting from these inquiries, commonly referred to as "stories."

The emergence of Arab graphic design in the early 20th century was intrinsically linked to the imperative of exerting influence and providing artistic expression amidst the profound socio-economic and political transformations that characterised the Arab world during that period. However, the formal recognition of graphic design as a distinct genre within the visual arts in the region only attained maturity in the 21st century. Remarkably, until now, there is a notable dearth of comprehensive scholarly investigations on this subject matter.

Teaching the history of Arab graphic design is intricately intertwined with teaching the broader Arab history itself. The evolution of graphic design in the Arab world is closely connected to the socio-political climate, and exploring its history reveals a compilation of stories that form part of the collective memory. By shedding light on the stories and challenges that scholars encounter while conducting archival and historical research in and about design in the Arab region, parallels emerge that shed light on the teaching of this material. This aspect becomes particularly relevant in research-based learning. Teaching A History of Arab Graphic Design book was an attempt to facilitate the process and collect material as part of the solution. However, the colonial influence is still evident within the obstacles encountered by students throughout their learning journey.

About Dr Haytham Nawar

Dr Haytham Nawar (b. 1978) is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, and scholar. He currently serves as an Associate Professor of Design at the American University in Cairo and previously chaired the Department of the Arts there. Nawar is recognized for founding the Cairo International Electronic and New Media Arts Festival, Cairotronica. He holds a Ph.D. from Plymouth University, UK, specializing in integrative arts, and has degrees in Printmaking, New Media, and Spatial Design from institutions including Cairo's Faculty of Arts and Zurich University of the Arts.

As a two-time Fulbright Visiting Scholar and Artist, Nawar's research and writing explore diverse areas such as design history, Arabic type design, and communication systems. He has a specific focus on the Arab World and Africa, delving into topics such as multiscriptual communication and pictographic systems. Notable publications include "Language of Tomorrow: Towards a Multicultural Visual Communication System in a Post-Human Era" (Intellect Books, 2020) and "A History of Arab Graphic Design" (coauthored with Bahia Shehab, AUC Press, 2020). Nawar's work showcases his commitment to interdisciplinary exploration and pushing the boundaries of art and design practices.

Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès – Uncovering the Multifaceted History of Typography in the Arab World

Writing on the history of graphic design in the Arab World, and Arabic typography in particular, presents several challenges for both authors and publishers. The lack and/or inaccessibility of proper archives with primary material and documents, the relative obscurity of the designers, the various complex political motivations at different stages in history, are some of the challenges that researchers and educators face.

However, these challenges can also work as motivation to the adventurous to embark on the totally uncharted journey of uncovering and exposing this new and much needed knowledge. This knowledge is essential for empowering design students in regions that fall outside the mainstream discourse on design, and will present a more nuanced history of global design and societies.

This paper will outline the various challenges and the blind spots in the history of Arabic typography. It will attempt to present a skeletal and concise roadmap for future publishing strategies and democratic ways of sharing information and research across the region.

About Dr Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès

Dr Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès is the Founding Director of the Khatt Foundation and Khatt Books publishers. She holds degrees in design and design history from Leiden University (PhD, 2017), Yale University (MFA, 1990), and Rhode Island School of Design (BFA, 1987).

She was a jury member of the Third Jameel Prize for Islamic Art and Design 2013 (Victoria & Albert Museum, London), and member of the grants selection committee for Mondrian Foundation (2011-2012) & The Netherlands Architecture and Design Fund (2013). She is member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale).

Dr Smitshuijzen AbiFarès specialises in multilingual typographic research and design, with focus on Arabic typography and design history. She has taught design and typography courses in the Arab world, The Netherlands, and internationally since 1994. She has published several books and essays on typography and design from the Arab World, and contributed essays to professional and academic publications.

She is the author of Arabic Typography: A Comprehensive Sourcebook (2001), Typographic Matchmaking (2007), Typographic Matchmaking in the City (2011), Arabic Type Design for Beginners (2013), Nomadic Traces: Journeys of Arabian Scripts (2019), Kameel Hawa: The Art of Shaping Arabic Letters (2019), The Catholic Press of Beirut: A Printing and Design Legacy in the Arab East (2023), and Mouneer Al-Shaarani. Against the Grain: Exploring the Scope of the Arabic Letter (forthcoming), and Typographic Matchmaking in the Maghrib (forthcoming).

She works as and independent design curator, researcher, writer, designer, and publisher.

Yasmine Nachabe Taan – A Transition from Global to Glocal: Breaking Hierarchies in the Teaching of History of Graphic Design

Expanding the scope of concepts represented in history and the definition of graphic design to include diverse cultures demands a closer look at the way the practice unfolded in different places around the world. Such an approach broadens the field of design by fostering students' engagement and nurturing their sense of belonging and identity by enabling them to access their voices within the design community.

This presentation takes teaching the history of graphic design in Beirut as a case study to raise a number of concerns about the content used in the classroom. It contests the narrative of the history of graphic design as presented in commonly used sources, which are heavily American and Euro-centric and limit this history as such.

The article calls for the insertion of material on Arab cultures, among others, for a more inclusive narrative that reflects the different intersections of social, political, cultural, and economic contexts.

Day 2: Friday 1 March 2024

Panel 2: Practices (references, knowledge, language, dissemination)

  • Jana Traboulsi – Center and Margins in Design History: Reflecting on Kitab al Hawamesh 
  • Moe Elhossieny - Archives of The Shadow: Institutions, Collectors, Dealers, and Heirs
  • Basma Hamdy – The Myth of Complexity in the Arabic Script
  • Lara Balaa – A Methodological Framework for Studying Geographies of Graphic Design


  • All panellists

[Image: Jana Traboulsi, Kitab Al Hawamesh (The Book of Margins) [spread], 2017]

Day 2: Friday 1 March 2024

Panel 2: Practices (references, knowledge, language, dissemination)

Abstracts and biographies

Jana Traboulsi – Center and Margins in Design History: Reflecting on Kitab al Hawamesh

How to study and teach a history of art and design through both content and form, text and image? How can designers and artists engage with the material and creative forms that inscribe their work within the long and rich legacy of their practices? What textual and visual languages to tell that history?

This paper proposes a critical and creative methodology, practice-based research and visual rhetoric, to both investigate and narrate a history that has been mostly marginalized from contemporary design history. It looks at one case-study, a mass-produced artist book about book arts in the Arab world, that deploys graphically typography and images linked through compositions and making meaning together on and across pages.

Through the critical investigation of my own experience as a designer and artist, I ask questions about theory and practice and about the multiple literacies of history writing and teaching, with the hope they can contribute to the larger debate of scholars, students and practitioners reflecting on the study of Graphic Design in the Arab World.

About Jana Traboulsi

Jana Traboulsi is an artist, designer and educator. She teaches design studios, theory and history as well as illustration at the American University of Beirut. She is the co-founder and creative director of pan-Arab quarterly Bidayat and the artistic director of Snoubar Bayrout publishing house. In 2014, she co-founded Sigil, an art collective based in Beirut and New York. Her artist book The Book of Margins (2017), shortlisted for the Jameel Prize 2021, has been exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and has been on show in Chile, Argentina and Dubai in 2022 and 2023.

Moe Elhossieny – Archives of The Shadow: Institutions, Collectors, Dealers, and Heirs

The continuous inaccessibility to state and private archives in the Arab world has signalled a dearth of history over the past few decades. Subsequently, alternative ways of accessing that history had to be explored to free it from the many challenges these "formal" archives are struggling with.

This paper will investigate the construction of "the shadow archives," a constellation of materials that exist "informally" outside the confines of, yet parallel to, state and institutional archives. I will look at how these shadow archives acquire and collect history: Who are the major cultural protagonists behind them, and how can we utilize and engage them to secure sustainable access to Arab Design history?

The construction of a shadow archive is contingent on forging new conduits of collaboration between the archive and each of these protagonists. However, engaging with them requires navigating a range of complex challenges. For instance, we must first chart and diagnose the problems in state and institutional archives to develop a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand.

Additionally, we must consider the role of collectors in preserving history, including how to negotiate accessibility and mediate the collector's concern for authentic ownership, especially for rare items and special editions. Similarly, we must engage with dealers of cultural heritage materials, who often reduce the historical value of items to their materiality and are guided by the harsh economic challenges facing them. Finally, we must consider the obligations of heirs to design and artwork, who may face the burden of inheriting works that require preservation.

To secure the long-term preservation of Arab design history, we must formulate new strategies for engaging with and utilising each of these cultural actors. This paper will draw information from interviews conducted with some of these actors as well as photography and other sources to chart an understanding of the challenges involved, outline learnings from navigating these challenges, and how we could approach them to secure access to history for ourselves and future generations.

About Moe Elhossieny

Moe Elhossieny is a Cairo-based designer, researcher, and writer. He graduated from Central Saint Martins, London, UK, with an MA degree in Graphic Communication Design in 2018. In recent years his interest has shifted towards a more research-oriented and investigative practice.

In 2020, he established the research and publishing platform the Design Repository, through which he initiated the Arabic Design Archive project. This archival project aims to preserve and document Arabic Graphic Design history with a current collection of more than 8 thousand graphic materials.

Elhossieny also writes about Arab graphic design through Design Repository as well as curating, translating, and republishing writings focused on Arab graphic design.

Basma Hamdy – The Myth of Complexity in the Arabic Script

Arab graphic design is heavily influenced by the legacies of colonialism and Western modernity which have played a significant role in shaping design practices in the region. This influence often ignores the context and complexity of local cultures, leading to a homogenization of design practices or what can be referred to as a "colonial modernity".

The adoption of modernist design principles, which prioritize rationality, individualism, and progress, can be at odds with the cultural values and traditions of non-Western societies. The Arabic script is a prime example of this tension between tradition and modernity. On one hand, there is a desire to embrace the complexity and beauty of traditional calligraphic roots, while on the other hand, there is pressure to adopt a universal design approach that prioritises evolution and optimisation.

In the past, the Arabic script has been subject to proposals and modifications that aimed to simplify it due to technological limitations, resulting in a disconnection from its roots. However, advancements in open type technology and variable type features have introduced a new level of complexity and adaptability to Arabic type design. Despite this progress, certain fundamental features of the script, such as multiple baselines, dynamic elongations, and proper dot positioning, remain inaccessible in many Arabic fonts.

Unfortunately, most designers in the Arab world still prioritize efficiency, functionality, and consumerism over preserving the complexity of the script. This approach often sacrifices cultural nuances for the sake of universality. To combat this homogenization of culture, designers must prioritize ethical and relational mechanisms within their practice. This involves elevating the unique cultural values and traditions of the region, as well as promoting diversity and representation in their work.

About Basma Hamdy

Basma Hamdy is a design activist, author and educator who specializes in design and visual culture from Egypt and the Arab world. She is an advocate for revisionism, decolonisation and pluriversal design and is currently researching contemporary archival strategies for collecting, documenting and presenting design and visual culture from the SWANA region.

Hamdy has led a number of projects that are at the intersection of activism, inclusion, relationally and participation. She is co-author of the book Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution published in 2014, as well as, co-author of Khatt: Egypt's Calligraphic Landscape, published in 2018. She is the founder and director of the TypeAraby Lab, a space that celebrates local and regional design in the Arabic language and script.

Most recently, she was co-director of the Tasmeem 2022: Radical Futures Design Biennale which advocated for radical change in the approach to and systems of art and design.

Lara Balaa – A methodological framework for studying geographies of graphic design

I propose a methodological framework for the study of graphic design history that would bring to the surface the particularities of design practices in a specific location – Beirut in my case.

This framework is based on understanding graphic design as a form of knowledge that is embedded in artefacts and embodied by practitioners, communities, and institutions. It distinguishes between the practice and the profession of graphic design and takes into account the fact that the practice predates the profession, recognizing that the latter is more susceptible to Eurocentric biases due to colonial legacies in educational institutions.

With this distinction in mind, writing about design history becomes a process of tracing the continuities and discontinuities between traditional practices and professional ones. In considering graphic design as knowledge, I follow the scholars who posit knowledge as a way of viewing and acting on the world, and propose an anthropological approach to studying graphic design as it is constructed through social practice and spatial dynamics.

It is my hope that others will find in this framework a useful tool for their own research so we can eventually, collectively, speak of graphic design geographies and challenge the Eurocentricity of existing sources through multiplication.

About Lara Balaa

Lara Balaa is a designer, writer, and lecturer. Her writing is focused on Arabic print and visual culture, her practice revolves around editorial design and multilingual reading experiences, and her teaching encompasses information theory, design history, typography, and design studio.

Lara is the author of the monograph Emile Menhem: Invigorating Arab Journalism Through Graphic Design (Khatt Books, 2019). She is the co-founder of Maajoun Design Studio (2010–2018), which serviced a portfolio of local and regional clients in the publishing, cultural, and non-profit sectors including Hachette-Antoine, Disney Middle East, IBRAAZ, SHAMS (Sunflower Theater), UMAM Documentation & Research, KAFA Enough Violence & Exploitation, and Médecins Sans Frontières.

She has taught at several universities in Lebanon and in New Jersey, and is now teaching at the School of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut. She holds a Bachelor in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon (2002) and a Master in International Communication Management from The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands (2009). She is currently a PhD Candidate at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University in New Jersey where she studies contemporary practices of Arabic calligraphy.

About the organisers

Yasmine Nachabe Taan

Dr Yasmine Nachabe Taan is Associate Professor of Art and Design History at the Lebanese American University. Her interdisciplinary research cuts across the fields of visual culture, gender politics, photography and design history with a focus on Lebanon and the Middle East.

She is currently lead researcher in a Khatt Foundation large project entitled ‘Revealing-Recording-Reflecting on generations of female graphic designers from Southwest Asia and North Africa, and the diaspora' funded by AFAC, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

In 2021, she received the 10x10 Photobooks grant for her research on Catherine Leroy's photographic practice in Beirut and in 2019, she received the Design History Society Research Grant for her research on Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui: Imagining Beirut from the 1960s till the 1990s (forthcoming).

She is the author of Reading Marie al-Khazen's Photographs (2020), Saloua Raouda Choucair: Modern Arab Design (2019), Abdulkader Arnaout: Designing as Visual Poetry (2017), and Hilmi el-Tuni, Evoking Popular Arab Culture (2014).

Nachabe Taan is on the advisory board for the Design & Culture journal.

Find out more about Yasmine by visiting sard.lau.edu.lb/about/institutes/iiaa/ or following her @iaaw_lau on Instagram.

Lina Hakim

Dr Lina Hakim is an educator, researcher, and artist particularly interested in overlaps between science, technology, art, craft, pedagogy, and play. She is currently a senior lecturer in Visual and Material Culture at Kingston University, London, where she mainly teaches Critical and Historical Studies to Graphic Design students.

Hakim has held an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where she co-coordinated the V&A Research Institute (VARI) Pilot Project exploring cross-disciplinary and collaborative models of object-led research. She has previously taught postgraduate students on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA programme, undergraduate STEM students at Imperial College London, and undergraduate design students at the Lebanese American University.

Hakim holds a PhD and MRes in Humanities and Cultural Studies (London Consortium, Birkbeck, University of London), an MA in Book Arts (Camberwell College of Arts, London), and a BA in Graphic Design (American University of Beirut).