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The state we’re in

In Communicate, Dubai, Marketing, Published journalism on November 22, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Communicate takes the pulse of regional creativity at the International Design Forum

Originally published in Communicate, July 2007

Last month at Communicate we trimmed our goatees, donned our post-ironic retro T-shirts and big glasses and slung our man-bags over our shoulders to head to Dubai’s first International Design Forum and check out the state of creativity in the region.
The event was hosted by conference organizer Moutamarat, a joint venture between Tatweer and Saudi Research and Publishing Company.

While participants tossed around predictably unpredictable ideas, such as enigmatic Dutch product designer Marcel Wanders’s vases modeled by sneezing through a 3D scanner, much of the talk on the stage and on the sidelines was about the state of design and creativity in the region. And it wasn’t all favorable.

Sheikh Majed Al Sabah, the man behind Alef magazine and the ultra-trendy Villa Moda stores, bemoans the lack of visible talent in the Gulf. Much of this lies in the way designers are perceived, he says. “Not every Arab likes to be seen as a designer or an architect,” he tells Communicate, “because they think this job is not a macho job, is not a job that brings money.”

“There are a lot of graphic designers everywhere,” he says. “Mostly in the northern part of the Middle East, Lebanon, Jordan. You see a lot of talented people coming from that part of the world as graphic designers. Yet there are many more talented people in this part of the world. But because they come from the Gulf, many of them are shy to say they want to become graphic designers.”

Rodney Fitch, CEO of design company Fitch, says the forum highlighted that fact that most regional creativity is “architecture-driven.” Local press coverage of the forum, he says, “has nothing to speak of about all those other parts of design which are of such importance, whether it’s communication design, television design, film, fashion, interior or industrial. All it speaks of is the five tallest buildings in the world. I think that’s a great shame, and I think that’s a sign of a needed maturity in the market here.”

Timid new world
The most controversial speaker at the forum agreed that the Middle East’s design industry needs to grow up. Oliviero Toscani is the photographer behind United Colors of Benetton’s divisive ads, which have included a white baby suckling from a black woman’s breast and a Christ-like figure dying of AIDS in a hospital bed. His work, he says, has never been displayed in Dubai. “Everything is so tacky, golden, unlikeable,” he told the forum. “I have never been in a place so anti-design as this place.”

Speaking on the sidelines of the forum, he elaborates that the problems with design in the region stem from politics and passiveness. “No one’s got the courage to tell the truth,” he says. “No one’s got the courage to talk about politics and design, politics and architecture, politics and taste and politics and creativity. Nobody.”

In advertising, he says, “There is a monoculture that is going through everything. Everyone does the same thing. Everybody is trying to attract consensus, and looking for consensus attracts mediocrity. There is not enough personality, not enough courage.”

He says local architecture, in particular, is over-indulgent. “Nobody has the courage to say this is ridiculous. Las Vegas or Disneyland, even they’re not like this. … Creativity and taste are like salt or sugar. You have to be careful not to put too much or too little salt in what you cook. If you add too much salt, it doesn’t taste good. … So creativity is something to be put in the right dose. [Here] it is overdone. And I think being rich didn’t help.”

First steps
The cynicism lingering in the air was tempered by some of the idealism voiced on stage. When asked what changes he’d like to see in the region, one young local designer told his audience, “I had a vision of a street where I could walk and there would be people making frescoes and playing instruments. But there’s nothing like that here now.”

And the presence of design-heavy magazines such as Brown Book and newly-launched Desert Fish showed there is young creativity out there.

“Look at Alef,” says Al Sabah. “Look at Brown Book, look at Canvas. There are lots of improvements coming, you know: typography, graphics, layout, creativity. You look at the other titles and they are horrible. So there is a lot of improvement happening. At least it’s a start.”

And Fitch agrees regional creativity is now starting to move in the right direction. “Historically you’d have to look very hard to find a wide embrace for design here,” he says. “You’d be hard pushed to find good advertising, good copywriting, good packaging, good industrial design. It’s not hard to find any number of world-class buildings, but there aren’t those other manifestations of design. … I think joining those dots begins with a meeting of the minds like this forum. It begins to focus people’s minds and create priorities.”

“It’s an alarm,” says Al Sabah. “Just to make everyone wake up and say there should be a [regional] influence on design.”

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