In our last interview with Engy Aly, we learned that the visual culture in Egypt is complex, layered and sometimes confusing. We talked about the quality of design education in Egypt, the jarring commerciality of advertising and more.
Here we continue the conversation with Nora Aly, discussing the visual extremes in Egyptian advertising, the jobs available to designers in Egypt and why the design scene in Egypt is dominated by women.
I am a 31-year-old designer born and raised in Cairo. I studied graphic design in the faculty of Applied Sciences and Arts in the German University in Cairo.
My story with design – more specifically typography – started really early when I was around 6-7 years old, before even recognizing that this means anything. I was always interested in both Arabic and Latin calligraphy. I remember I used to really enjoy my calligraphy classes a lot. Whenever I had a pen and paper in hand, I used to write my name and some of my family and friends’ names in different experimental styles. I was also known in school by my good handwriting, especially in Arabic, a skill that I believe I inherited from my mother. I used to observe her when she wrote anything and try to imitate her handwriting.
In high school, I worked on my first Arabic lettering as a tattoo design for a close friend of mine, and she inked it on her leg. However, I was not aware at all that these skills could be developed further and turn out to be something more than a hobby. All I knew at the time was that I am generally interested in art and crafts, and it felt right back then to join a faculty related to that interest. It was more like a gut feeling decision rather than a conscious one, which should be a constant reminder to follow this invisible voice :)
Fast forward five years, I graduated and joined Kairo, one of the rising agencies in Cairo that focuses on advertising and branding. I worked there for five years, in which I learned a lot and gained a lot of experience professionally and personally. Three years ago, I left Kairo to explore a new flexible, independent lifestyle. I am currently working as a freelancer on various commercial and culture-related projects. I get a lot of branding projects, but I try as much as possible to select the ones that are dealing more with Arabic typography/lettering which, I believe, is my main focus and it is also what I enjoy the most.
In parallel to the freelance work, I am working on my Master’s project which investigates the dying Nubian language (a language only spoken by a special ethnic group located in southern Egypt). This language is expected to die within 50-100 years because of many accumulative social and political occurrences. The language is not recognized by the country and the Nubian mothers stopped passing the language to their children, favoring the Arabic language instead due to the constant pressures that they face as an indigenous ethnic group in a dominating Arabic speaking society. In this project, I am working on a design solution that attempts to help the mothers to reclaim the value of their vernacular, in order to pass down the language to the younger generations and preserve one of the oldest languages in Africa.
Being surrounded in university by creatives from different backgrounds, but sharing more or less the same interests and passion, helped in creating a great community that kept on getting bigger by the time. It doesn’t stop here – social media is also playing an important role in widening this network now. It helps to get exposed to a lot of younger, up-and-coming designers, and stay in touch with the fellow creatives that I already knew.
As for the platforms and events in Egypt, I believe we have been seeing a significant rise during the past couple of years. I try to attend these events as much as I can to keep myself updated and connected, especially after quitting the agency life. I feel the need more now than before to meet people and exchange knowledge since I spend most of my time working alone.
We have a very diverse, strange, multi-layered visual culture that says a lot about Cairo and its people.
If you are walking in Cairo’s streets, you’ll be overwhelmed with the amount of visuals that you’ll encounter from the excessive amount of billboards, the colorful and overly designed pick-up trucks, to the hand-painted advertisements and the old small shops’ nostalgic signages.
I would like to make a small comparison that can give you a glimpse of the extremes we have in Egypt. If you look at the design of the majority of commercials on billboards, for example, and compare it to the hand-painted advertisements that are widely spread in less privileged neighborhoods, you can clearly see how the billboard designs are too western in how they communicate, mostly in English, and seek a certain impression that is not really influenced by Egypt or its culture whatsoever.
While the hand-painted on walls advertisements are completely the opposite because they communicate using only beautifully made Arabic lettering, trying to be striking with very vivid colors to catch people’s attention in the streets.
In between those two extremes, there are designers that always try to produce work that is influenced by Cairo and its visual culture and heritage. Most of the culture-related projects give room for this to come to life.
If you are interested to know more about Egypt’s visual culture, I recommend that you check the following books:
“Khatt” by Noha Zayed and Basma Hamdy and published by SAQI Books.
“Absolute Egypt” by Raghda Moataz and published by Khatt books.
Yes, I remember when I was an undergrad, students of other faculties like engineering and pharmacy used to make fun of what we do as designers and belittle our studies. However, I see this is changing with time. People are more aware now with design and its value, especially with the growing scene of entrepreneurship in Egypt.
Of course, there are still people who don't understand the role of design and underestimate the designer's efforts. I meet some of them as clients, but I believe it is our responsibility to explain to them how design and visual communication can affect their businesses.
Before the German University introduced the faculty of Applied Sciences and Arts in 2006, as well as the graphic design department in AUC in 2011, design education was very limited in Egypt. Now, it is growing and getting more attention. However, this does not eliminate the amount of designers who were completely self-taught as well, thanks to the internet.
Jobs for designers, in my opinion, are limited to advertising agencies. Yes, we do have some international companies headquartered in Cairo but the type of work is too commercial, to the extent that it is enough to kill any creative’s soul.
It is very difficult to find a designer who is satisfied with the quality of work that they produce in an advertising agency, especially in the big/international ones. I believe that the kind of clients that afford to pay big agencies always tend to be on the safe side when it comes to their visual appearance, so the work produced becomes very boring and not challenging enough. On the other hand, startups and small/cultural businesses that can’t afford the fees of a big agency are the ones who most likely are ready to take more risks and experiment with their aesthetics, so they most likely go to freelancers or small studios.
I see that Cairo has a gap in the varieties of jobs that should be available for graphic designers. Currently, the available jobs are in agencies or teaching whether in AUC or GUC.
"A lot of the women designers I know have the best work ethic and drive, and that's why I think the scene here has so many powerful women."
I work mostly with local clients but I had the chance to work with some overseas. I worked on several projects in Saudi Arabia, London and New York.
I used to get my clients through word of mouth mostly but within the past few years, social media started to have a great impact as well. Behance works best for me. I got a lot of clients through Behance, although I am not really good with updating my portfolio. I unfortunately get dragged with the daily routine and I forget to post about my work, but definitely the more present I am, the more clients I get, and this applies on Instagram too.
There is still a lot of “gender-shaming” in choosing specific professions for all genders. Some men might not gravitate to art and design due to wrong gender-conforming ideologies, making it a little more dominated by women here. A lot of the women designers I know have the best work ethic and drive, and that's why I think the scene here has so many powerful women. However, I think that the Egyptian design field (not the advertising field, to be clear) is pretty dominated by whoever works the hardest and creates with passion, regardless of gender.
Design is very subjective if you are going to judge it visually. To objectively judge a good design, in my opinion, it has to serve its purpose conceptually and aesthetically. Sometimes, we fall into the trap of making something that looks interesting visually, but is not necessarily relevant. This defies the whole purpose.
I am personally still exploring if design can have a real impact on a society through my Master’s project. Once I am done I’ll make up my mind regarding this point :)
However, I have always had high hopes in which design can make wonders, but I have to try it myself to see whether it is a myth or it can turn out to be true.
Yes, it is. I was asked by two clients before while working on packaging briefs to come up with designs that are applicable to environmental friendly materials. It is more happening in product and fashion design though. We have a lot of young Egyptian brands like “Upfuse,” “Reform Studio” and Kojakm, who is a fashion designer who created a dress made out of recycled plastic bags.
Obviously I can’t skip Engy Aly. She was my first TA in college and my favorite too.
Sarah Mossallam who I used to work with a lot in Kairo, and we collaborated more than once after we both left the agency. She is a great illustrator too.
Ahmad Hammoud who I collaborated with as well on many projects. He is one of my favorite designers.
Christine Adel who designs children's games and owns a brand called “Zagazoo”
Follow Nora's work on Behance and Instagram. And if you're just now jumping into our Design Around the World series, catch up on our interviews with studios and designers from India, Jordan, Thailand, Serbia, Armenia and many more.