Beneath the Surface: Iran’s Graphic Design Evolution

During the past 15 years, graphic design in Iran has expanded beyond simply layout and book cover design. Its potential has become increasingly clear to students, universities, businesses and the public. Some Iranian designers’ work has been recognized internationally, especially in Europe and Asia. A graphic design major is now being offered in more and more universities in Iran. Some faculty members have studied abroad and have a good knowledge of design, design theory, design history and printing technology.

The history of graphic design in Iran goes back to 1940 through 1950. The first official graphic design department was established in 1950 at Tehran University’s College of Fine Arts by Morteza Momayez.* Before that, and as early as 1921, graphic design consisted mostly of newspaper layouts and illustrations related to their articles.

In earlier years, most artists, including graphic designers, worked in several areas of art, including cinema, animation, cartoon, illustration, painting, set design and film. This meant that one had to study in all areas, and there was no fine line between different art majors. Expectations from clients and the public was not high. As a result, a simple solution to a problem was sufficient to everybody.

Illustration, which again is rooted in fine art, is well integrated in a designer’s work. Designing type electronically is very limited. Therefore, there are few typefaces available. Calligraphy and handwriting are the dominant forms of typography. One can see the use of handwritten Farsi text on many posters and book covers working perfectly in terms of composition and style. Because of nature of the alphabet with many curves and movements, it easily becomes part of the composition in a very expressive form. There is no such thing as writing in all caps or all lowercase. It’s always a combination of the two cases. Each individual letter is used in four different formats: beginning, middle, end and by itself of a word. Letters can be enlarged within a word for beauty or stress, yet the letter has to keep its thickness in proportion and relation to rest of the letters within that word.

Iranian designers have been searching for an identity of their own, and this search has been quite successful in the past 10-15 years. Drawing upon their culture and history, they have found visual forms and memories to build ideas and solutions for communicating with the people of 21st century.

There is a unique style in design that combines of calligraphy and painting called “khat-nagashi,” which has its roots in antiquity when calligraphers were writing and illustrating the works of famous poets and religious books, and also its usage in pottery and architecture. This continues to this day, especially in recent years in many graphic designers’ work. However, the approach is different in very abstract and symbolic ways.

Many books published on design during the past few years were collections of posters, book covers and logos. But there are few samples of publication design or advertising. Most advertising for consumer goods have an international look, value and message. Many advertised products, such as fashion, cosmetics, heavy industries, appliances, machinery and electronics come from other countries. As a result their message, tone, value, and other cultural suggestions come from the country of origin and hardly ever are tailored or changed for the consumer’s culture. Text on ads, packages and billboards often appear both in Farsi and English. Overall, one could say advertising seems to function mostly as an announcement for new goods, not as competition against other sellers.

Due to internal and external economic issues, constant changes in laws and shortages of material, the availability of products is limited, whether they are local or imported. Therefore, there is little need for competition. Since it is hard for many companies and organizations to predict their future progress, they do not spend time and money to create a look or an identity.

In many instances, creating an identity program consists of a logo and stationery for companies or posters for a conference. A variety of paper is not available to designers or publishers, and good quality is expensive. Most magazines are printed on newsprint with the exception of their covers, due mostly to paper shortages.

The few standard magazines concerned with cinema, children, women, family and literature range from 64 to 80 pages and have only 1 to 4 pages of advertising. Some are well-designed with nice layout and typography. Designers commonly tailor their designs and color usage based solely on what paper and ink color is available to them.

Digital printing permits the use of large formats. As a result there are many billboard advertisements in big cities. Young artists have welcomed web design and computer technology. Having access to the internet and international publications has made communication and accessibility to information easier. Although Iranian designers share ideas and form connections across the world, they have not forgotten that other designers’ work is only a point of reference. For them, tapping into their history, culture and memory has brought creativity, uniqueness and better solutions for effective communication.

Related information
“The Iranian Graphic Designers Society,” a member of ICOGRADA, is the only coherent group among artists with their own standards. The society has over 400 members.

Neshan is the most prominent graphic designer’s magazine in Iran, published quarterly in Farsi (in color) and English (in black and white). It usually features designers’ profiles from Iran and around the world and carries articles about design related issues.

There are yearly, biennial, triennial and quadrennial expositions that give all artists a chance to show their work to the public and the design community. Some of these expositions attract international participants; a number of them are held in other countries.

* Morteza Momayez, Graphic Designer, 1936-2005

About the Author: Nahid Tootoonchi is a visiting assistant professor at Towson University. She last visited Iran in summer of 2005 for two months.