Our Design Around the World series introduces us to designers in other countries, giving us a glimpse of their unique design community and culture. For our latest interview, we're happy to introduce Backbone Branding from Armenia.
Backbone Branding is a branding studio located in Yerevan, the capital and largest city in Armenia. They are a vibrant team of young people passionate about changing design's role in their country. And they are leading the charge – the country's design community is small and only just developing. We spoke with Christina, Eliza and Mary about Armenia's artistic history and culture, how it translates to their work and how step by step, they are changing the perception of design in Armenia.
First, tell us a bit about your studio. Who is the team behind Backbone Branding and why did your founders open the studio? And we’re curious about the name — is there a story behind it?
ELIZA: Stepan Azaryan, our founder and creative director, wanted to take Armenian design to the highest level, so he opened a studio and took the responsibility for this goal. We shared the same desire and joined Backbone when there was already small team.
Backbone employs persons, not positions. This is a team of very hard-working people. We have become real friends here. Our differences help us to be a great team: We complete each other and combine our views to have a broader perspective. We never do design just for design’s sake. Instead, we use it as a tool to communicate. Functionality and results are our priorities.
As for the name “Backbone Banding," Stepan explains it this way: “We develop the brand’s backbone which supports the product’s strong position in the market.”
The Backbone Branding team looking fresh on a trip in Iran.
When I research Armenian graphic design, I notice a lot of typographical based design. Of course the rich colors and intricate detail of Armenian carpets come to mind as well. How would you describe Armenian design?
ELIZA: That’s a very good point. Typography and our letters are essential in the Armenian culture. We have been facing the problem of keeping our national and religious identity over centuries and our writing, especially the alphabet, plays a big role in that. As the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion, we value our unique identity, especially the alphabet, as it reminds us of the challenges we have overcome. Our letters have kept us the way we are.
There are several ethnic types of the Armenian calligraphy and typography. One of them is Trchnagir (Bird writing), which combines calligraphy with the rich colors and intricate details that you mentioned, stylized as a bird. You can see many original manuscripts presented in Matenadaran, the depository of ancient manuscripts, the most appreciated museum of Yerevan and one of the few in the world.
"We value our unique identity, especially the alphabet, as it reminds us of the challenges we have overcome."
The Republic of Armenia is an independent state from 1991, but our history and culture begins thousands of years ago — it is at least four thousand years old. One of the most important stages (for design) of that history was the Middle Ages with the rise of traditional Armenian miniature art. Now this heritage plays a big role in the formation of Armenian design. One of our new projects (not yet published in our portfolio) is an Armenian restaurant, Kololak. Besides the main branding, we created a lot of artwork for the interior which features Armenia's beautiful calligraphy.
Backbone's interior design work for Kololak.
It seems like the arts are appreciated in Armenia, especially in Yerevan with its museums and art galleries. Is graphic design valued the same way in your country? Do people seek quality design and recognize its potential social impact?
CHRISTINA: We live in a country with a developing design industry. We have a big share in its development; we have helped many businessmen learn about the impact and power of design. At first very few of them would trust a local company with big projects. We showed our first clients how important design can be for a business and how we could help them solve their communication and marketing problems. Step by step, with hard work over many years, we gained people’s trust and made them believe in quality design.
ELIZA: Design has been valued in Armenia for a long time, but it wasn’t graphic design as we know it. We had and still have talented artists working passionately, but could not adapt to the requirements of today's commercial world, which is why the design often lacked commercial approach and become more artistic than creative.
Armenian calligraphy – more work for Kololak.
How does Armenia’s history, culture and art inspire or influence your own work?
CHRISTINA: The influence is huge; we grew up in an environment where everyone tells you how important your heritage is. This inspiration is very useful when the brands we develop are connected to an Armenian identity. But for the rest of the projects we try to leave behind these borders. When developing the concept for Cafe Diego, an Argentine restaurant named for soccer player Diego Armando Maradona, we sought the spirit of Argentina and found it.
In some ways the Armenian heritage is a pillar on which we build our work. But we use all the world’s materials and techniques to keep building on that pillar. The goal is to create good design, not just Armenian design.
Backbone's brand design for Cafe Diego.
Why do you think good design is important? What does good design mean to you at Backbone Branding?
CHRISTINA: The answer may sound quite simple. Why do people always design something new? Why do manufacturers change the packaging of their product all the time? They want to be seen, to be recognized, to stand out on the shelf full of competitors. After all, they want the product to be sold. Design is becoming a primary tool in business, combining art and commerce.
Whether it’s commercial or non-commercial, good design reflects the ideas of a brand. A designer must understand the essences of the brand, its vision and goals and use them as a foundation.
Christina behind the scenes.
I’ve read a lot of international businesses operate out of Yerevan. Does Backbone Branding seek to work with international clients? Why or why not?
MARY: Backbone Branding does work with dozens of international brands, some of which you can find in our portfolio, such as the above mentioned Cafe Diego in Abu-Dhabi; MØS, a Scandinavian restaurant in Moscow; and MooGoo, a Slovenian dairy company. We’re not concentrated on the Armenian market. In fact, we love to set new goals and challenges.
We give the world our original approach as an Armenian studio, and we exchange values and ideas. Both sides benefit from this kind of cooperation.
Packaging for MØS, a Nordic restaurant in Moscow.
What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
MARY: We actually get quite a lot of inquiries via social media. We do our best to create work that makes us proud, then, of course, we promote it through social media. That’s where people often find and share our work. It’s also our platform for keeping in touch with the world’s design community. Besides, there are clients who prefer social media messengers to email communication — in particular Facebook as it is #1 not only in the world, but here in Armenia as well. We use others as well, each for a certain purpose.
The Backbone team in action.
Do any events or organizations exist yet that connect and educate Armenian designers?
CHRISTINA: The community is just developing. There are some events a couple times a year like discussions, master classes, etc., but mostly they are one-time events, so I can’t mention anything significant. Our studio also organizes meetings and master classes to share and exchange experience with different audiences.
There are a couple of colleges and universities here in Yerevan that teach different branches of design. Also, Tumo Center of Creative Technologies operates in the capital and many regions of Armenia, providing training programs, workshops, master classes and exhibitions for teenagers interested in different creative fields.
Another shot featuring Backbone's work for MØS.
"We just do our job as well as we can, thus people get interested. It's a chain reaction."
When I hear news about Armenia, it’s usually related to the country’s political and economic tension. I’m curious to know how the design industry fits into this story. Do you think design can make a positive social impact in your country?
ELIZA: The media mostly cover the news that have high demand from the community and/or society. Same goes for the news about design industry. When you make something with obvious impact, everyone wants to read about it. Among the latest design-related news in Armenia was the new design of Armenian dram banknotes, which was very controversial. This is a topic that touches everyone in the country. We all deal with those banknotes and have no other choice.
On the other hand, tech news, which always speaks about progress, is in demand. You may have heard about Volterman, the multi-functional smart wallet. This is an Armenian project that holds a crowdfunding record, having collected 100% of its goal on the very first day of the campaign and 2287% ($1,555,343) by the end of the 1-month-long campaign. Backbone Branding is proud to be a part of the campaign.
As for our projects, being in the news is not among our primary goals. We just do our job as well as we can, thus people get interested. It's a chain reaction.
I read that Armenian children begin thinking about their careers at a very young age, and that parents conduct a ceremony with infants to determine their future career path. Is design considered a prestigious or desired profession to Armenians? And have you wanted to be designers since you were infants? 😀
ELIZA: I’m not sure what I had picked back then, but I’ve certainly had the desire to become a designer for as long as I remember. At first I was dreaming of it without a clear idea of what design even means.
The profession is respected, though sometimes the existing stereotype of a designer is not always correct. Some might think that it’s an easy job that doesn’t require much. But then they see hard-working professionals working long days, seeking perfection and succeeding with hard tasks. They realize that design requires both talent and professionalism, and the Backbone Branding team is proud to be a good example for everyone.
CHRISTINA: Just like Eliza, I’ve been dreaming of this profession since I was a little girl. But I hardly knew anything about graphic design, instead I was dreaming of fashion design. As I grew up and chose to become a graphic designer, I’ve still had that dream. Here at Backbone, I’ve had the chance to work on many kinds of projects and even make my childhood dream a reality. This was due to the project Shabeeg, as we developed t-shirt illustrations and prints for the brand.
A lifestyle shot for Shabeeg.
And now to our 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 Armenian design community?
As we mentioned, our design community is just on its way of development with small steps. There are no blogs nor magazines dedicated solely to design. A couple of portals write about advertising, sometimes publishing articles about branding as well, but they are only in Armenian.
If you want to find any information, it’s either on company websites or general news/entertainment portals. Yet, we are open to communicating with everyone who is interested. You can even visit us here. Dinner is on us – you’ll have a chance to learn about the famous Armenian hospitality :).
Thank you so much Eliza, Christina and Mary for making this interview happen and giving us such a meaningful look into the Armenian design community. I'm in particular in love with your recent work for Kololak and will be following your work closely in the future.