Brand new to DESK, this interview series aims to shine light on different design communities across the world. In our second interview we look at design in Iran, featuring Studio Melli.
There is something magical and captivating about Studio Melli's design. To me, it's uniquely satisfying to study it without even knowing the language — to appreciate the shapes and strong lines, the pure visual experience. I'm clearly a big fan of the studio's work. Their typographical and editorial designs feel contemporary yet traditional, with strong ties to Iranian culture.
I reached out to Omid and Mahsa, who founded Studio Melli in the heart of Tehran, and asked them to be part of this series. I'm happy they accepted.
Hey, Mahsa & Omid. Tell us more about yourselves and your work. When was Studio Melli founded and why did you decide to start your own design studio?
We started working as graphic designers more than 16 years ago while studying at university. For many years we worked as freelance graphic designers for various publishers, art institutes and small studios. We also worked on our own independent and experimental projects. Three years ago we decided to start our own studio and named it Studio Melli.
In Farsi Language “melli” means “national” or something related to or maintained by a nation, something belonging to the nation, and that’s the philosophy behind our work.
"In Farsi Language 'melli' means something belonging to the nation, and that’s the philosophy behind our work."
Studio Melli is a Tehran-based, multi-disciplinary design studio with a bold focus on multilingual typography. We discover and create visual concepts with a contemporary approach to our visual culture and the aesthetics of our social life. We create visual identities for arts and cultural organizations, exhibitions, events, brands and people. We design posters, books, magazines, websites and many other things. But we have deep and strong passion in typography, so we try to focus on that feature.
Most of the time we are three to four people in the studio. Depending on our needs we invite some talented and interested young designer to join our team. Sometimes we have interns in our studio helping us with some parts of a project.
In my research I found quite a lot of traditional graphic designers and specifically poster designers who graduated from design universities in Tehran. But I didn’t find many designers or design studios that focus on branding, editorial or interactive design. Can you talk a little more about the local design community? What are the job opportunities as a designer in Iran?
That’s a very important thing you mentioned about designers graduating in Tehran. This is an educational issue and it’s part of the long story of our educational system. Interactive or media-based fields are very new in our graphic design courses in Iran. In our new generation of graphic designers, many are talented in interactive, editorial and digital.
One important thing is that most Iranian designers in the past were not very familiar or connected to international design networks. Most of the time they only shared their works at poster competitions, but these days they are presenting the new side of Iranian graphic design to the world.
With more than 80 million people living in Iran, it counts as the 18th biggest country in the world. Just looking at that and the country's fast-changing pace, I can only imagine how unique the challenges are and how you might be able to help solve them as a designer. What are some of the design challenges unique to Iran right now?
If we put aside the past history and culture of Iran, this country is in a very strong development way now. So it is expected that we have many challenges in design projects. Many art galleries and art-cultural institutes are opening in the heart of the country. International artistic exchanges and collaborations are happening in Tehran and many projects run as a startup. Then they need designers to show the subject in a strong, creative way.
That’s why we think strong “identity design” is one of the most challenging parts of new graphic design era in Iran. These identities are not only part of the project; context for Iranian identity is essential to the project.
For those of us who are not too familiar with the Iranian design community, can you describe it a bit more? For example, are there many design platforms and events that help you connect and meet up with other designers?
We are member of the IGDS (Iranian Graphic Design Society). This community organizes some annual events and exhibitions to show the works of its members. In recent years we’ve seen many collaborations between independent designers and nonprofits, as well as design exhibitions and collaboration between teams in different cities of Iran.
Most of the time designers come together through an event, exhibition or some collaborative project. The relation between designers and studios is competitive yet friendly.
We are connected to some of our freelance friends or studios from past years in university through free courses or group exhibitions.
You founded your own design studio, so of course you appreciate the value of design. But why do you think good design is important, and what does good design mean for you at Studio Melli?
It’s not easy to explain what “good design” is or what it means. As we mentioned, we at Studio Melli are looking for a contemporary approach to our visual culture and aesthetics of our social life. We hope to show the idea by our knowledge and experiments in graphic design; we use multiple disciplines to get the result. We believe in design that makes people move, makes them feel, makes them happy or sad and forces them to do something. We want to find connections between logical things and the deep feeling around us.
"We believe in design that makes people move, makes them feel, makes them happy or sad and forces them to do something."
As the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet, we see many designers working for clients remotely, not bound to clients within their own country. How is it for you? Do you work mostly with Iranian clients or also internationally?
We’ve had various opportunities to work and collaborate with foreign design studios and clients. It's very important for us to understand and think not only of our local situation, but also work to people with different cultures and ideas. That kind of experience improves our relationships and connections with design platforms around the world.
What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Social media has a big potential to introduce designers or studios and their abilities, so people can find good options for collaborations. We share everything we like on our social media whenever we have time, and we do it sometimes for our clients. We’re not very focused on our personal strategy or the networks we use.
As you mentioned, the startup and tech community in Iran is growing rapidly. There are dozens if not hundreds of new startups popping up every year. How do you feel about this trend toward tech and do you see a lot of demand for digital product designers in Iran right now?
This is a battleground when you talk about the fields of digital markets that need designers. Yes, they are popping up quickly and for sure there is lots of demand for it. While it’s exciting, it’s very risky for designers because most of the time there is not enough time for startup projects. We're not against this tech-based trend but there are many critics and details around designing for startups. Few of these projects could afford an exciting design and even fewer have survived.
When I think of Iranian design I often picture Persian design or art. Rich, earthy colors in combination with delicate ornamental elements. But I'm sure it's more complex than that. How would you describe Iranian design, and how does your tradition and history influence your work?
Earlier in another way we explained that we visually show our culture and the aesthetics of our social life in our work. In that way it is connected to our history. We are not trying to use the ancient Iranian symbols directly; we are influenced by old and historical Iranian calligraphy, philosophy, literature, poems and architecture. Yet we use them with a contemporary touch.
Help us get a bit more familiar with Iranian designers. In your opinion, what are the top 10 design studios from Iran that everyone should know?
Studio Kargah, Studio Tehran, Studio Shizaru and Studio Chapchin are a few we know and have worked with.
We also have some old graphic design heroes in Iran. For example Morteza Momayez is one of the old and famous ones, and one of the designers who studied out of Iran and came back to start the graphic design courses in Iran's universities. And then of course Reza Abedini.
We will always respect them. We actually respect all the old designers and heroes in our profession. But we don’t really look up to them and we're not following their style or mindset. We are inspired by them but we're inspired by many designers, many simple things and many situations around the world.
Last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Tehran design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
One of the most important magazines you can refer to is Neshan Magazine. Unfortunately most of the Iranian design blogs are only in Farsi language. But you can Google and find designers by their name and their studios.
Mahsa & Omid, thank you so, so much for this interview. I appreciate these insights into the Iranian design community and your work at Studio Melli.
For everyone who is interested in learning more about Iranian design studios, be sure to check out the studios Studio Melli mentioned above, and of course, follow Studio Melli on Instagram. Trust me, it's worth it.