Areej Khan is a designer whose work bridges the social, cultural, and intellectual gaps between the West and the Middle East. Her museum and exhibit design, content translation, and project strategy in the Middle East has defined her role as a cultural interpreter– respecting the differences between cultures while honoring the similarities they share. In this interview, Areej Khan shares a little bit about her life, interests and projects.
Areej Khan is teaching Advertising Design at Queens College, CUNY Spring 2016.
Areej Khan at the age of three dressed in traditional Bedouin clothing.
KW: Tell us a little bit about your background?
AK: I was born and raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The fourth of five children to my amazing makers. I spent my summers going to school and camps in California. Both my parents had gone to college in the United States, and it was important to them for their children to get a well grounded education in both countries.
My oldest sister, Ghada, was my biggest creative influence growing up. From customized t-shirts and sweatshirts to comics and ridiculously detailed birthday cakes, she was very artistic and spent most of her free time making things. I was nine when she left home for college when her room became my secret garden. I’d study her artwork for hours and I drew inspiration from it to make my own.
Like all my older siblings, my parents had planned for me to go to college in the United States. Much to the world’s despair, 9/11 happened at the start of my senior year in high school. I was sixteen at the time, very sheltered, and still uncertain about what I wanted to do exactly. The general attitude towards Arabs that was an unfortunate result of that event deterred me from applying to schools in the United States and I decided to stay in Saudi.
KW: Dar Al-Hekma College was the first college in Saudi Arabia to offer an undergraduate degree in Graphic Design and you were one of the first students to receive a degree. What prompted you to pursue a degree in graphic design?
AK: Dar Al-Hekma –now a university– was one of the first private colleges established for women in Saudi Arabia. I visited the campus in Jeddah and was instantly drawn to how progressive it was in comparison to other schools I had visited in Riyadh. As I mentioned earlier, I was not exactly set on a major but was certain I wanted to be in design. I originally applied to the interior design program but a registration error lead to me being enrolled into graphic design. When I realized this error on the first day of classes, I was encouraged to attend as noted on my schedule and told I could switch within the first week. (Relatively new college with two new majors that year, first day, chaos at registration.)
I walked into my first Art Appreciation class and I met Jenny Spencer, the instructor who had moved from London to start the Graphic Design program. She spoke about art, but she also spoke about the power of graphic design.
“Designers are like sponges. They absorb all that is around them and then create beautiful things people did not know they needed to see.”
Even though I’d made endless custom mixtape covers, cards and posters in high school, I’d never thought of it as a field because of where and how I was raised. It was everything I already loved to do but was always told was just a hobby. I was hooked!
The program was developed under the advisory of the Texas International Education Consortium. All new programs have hiccups, but this one had additional limitations at its start because it was the first of its kind in the country and faculty, materials, resources and supplies were not readily available locally. We would not always have the right instructors at the right time due to visa and scheduling issues and there were a few shuffles in the order of the curriculum. Supplies had to be ordered in to the local stationery stores. Printmaking and photo development labs had to be built into the campus.
I like to think all of those hurdles gave me, and the other eleven women I graduated with. a unique angle. The program has since grown immensely and has had the highest number of graduates per year from the university since 2009.
Hadouken – Arabic style. 2005
KW: What were your first jobs in design and how did you find work?
AK: I got my first design internship through Dar Al-Hekma at Fullstop Advertising after my freshman year. Fullstop is a local Saudi agency that had just entered the market and had ten employees at the time. There were only two designers on staff who spoke Arabic and had a deep understanding of the local market. That meant that I got to dive straight into developing campaigns with the Creative Director. I learned a lot very quickly and continued to freelance for them during the next school year.
After graduating, I was hired as a Jr Art Director at Albert Promoseven, the Middle East arm of McCann Erickson. It was a giant in comparison to Fullstop and there, I dove into a larger think tank-type work environment. In addition to doing print advertising, I got to develop concepts and storyboards for TV campaigns. We had clients like McDonalds, Coca Cola, Unilever and several local snack and food brands. The work was a fun kind of challenging but I personally was always on the fence about advertising some of those brands and after a while found myself aching to do something different.
KW: You moved to New York in 2007, was that to pursue an MFA in Design at the School of Visual Arts (SVA)? Why did you decide to pursue an MFA? How did the experience impact your career, your growth of a designer? Did your campaign “We the Women” come out of graduate studies?
AK:After losing my grandmother in late 2006, I decided to take ten days off work to visit my older sisters in the Los Angeles area. I needed some sort of change. I decided to drive to Santa Monica one morning and walked into a design book store. There were several books my teachers had told me about that we could not get back home due to censorship, and so many others I had never heard of or imagined. It felt like Eid (my version of Christmas). While there, I came across Milton Glaser’s The Design of Dissent. I picked it up, plopped down to the floor and flipped threw it for over an hour. I remember feeling elated to the point of tears and thinking that was the kind of design I wanted to do – design FOR people and for social change. I realized in order to do that, I needed to learn more.
I went back to Saudi fuelled by this notion and determined to apply to graduate school. It was two weeks before most application deadlines and I had not ever considered it or spoken to anyone about it before. I had a lot of research to do. I looked up programs all over the US that focused on or encouraged that type of design, narrowed it down to three and spent those two weeks going to work looking like a zombie because of sleep lost working on my application packages.
In April, I got accepted to all three. I chose the Designer as Author Program at SVA because of its focus on content and substance as well as aesthetics and because it encouraged socially driven projects. It was only after I accepted the offer to attend there that I learned that Milton Glaser was on the faculty (and that he had reviewed my application.
N7nu – We the Women, Areej Khan, 2009.
My thesis project was N7nu – We the Women: a campaign for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. The campaign was designed as a forum for dialogue and the exchange of opinions on the subject, which was a taboo back then. Blank speech bubbles branded with a pictogram of a woman dressed as a man – a common strategy females in Saudi have used in the past to get away with driving in emergencies – were distributed and available for download online. The goal was to make it easier for people to express themselves and listen to and understand each others beliefs. To avoid being censored by the government, the website was iframed from existing and widely used social media outlets like Facebook, Youtube and Flickr. This also meant people did not have to learn a new platform to participate in the campaign.
I was not planning on launching the campaign until I returned to Saudi but decided to take the site live last minute, the day before my thesis presentation to see what kind of response it would initially get and use that to support my presentation. By the next morning, the page had 1200 followers.
N7nu – We the Women, Areej Khan, 2009.
Women are still not allowed to drive there, so I cannot say it was a success but there have been several campaigns by very brave activists since and I like to think N7nu helped start that fire.
N7nu speech bubble: “I want to drive because I am no less than any man or woman from a different country” 2009.
KW: You moved back to Jeddah in 2009 to work as a senior brand designer for Rayat Brands. Are there differences in the way you would work as a designer in Saudi Arabia, than in United States? Are there universals in design regardless of audience? Why did you decide to move back to the U.S.?
AK: I moved back to Jeddah after getting my MFA to complete the launch of N7nu and teach History of Graphic Design and Corporate Identity at Dar Al-Hekma part-time. I then got hired by Rayat Brands as a senior brand designer and developed branding for several local startups and more established Saudi companies that needed to refresh their image to catch up with the new design boom in the country. The boom was a direct result of the growth of the graphic design department at Dar Al-Hekma, which was graduating and average of seventy new designers per year by then.
Swedish Ikea catalog (left). Saudi Ikea catalog–the woman has been erased out of the ad (right).
Teayana branding – a Saudi tea room chain. 2010 (left) and Cofique branding. 2010 (right).
Good design is universal. Working as a designer in Saudi had a few more limitations and restrictions. There are lots of cultural sensitivities that are irrelevant here and a great deal of censorship. Imagery of people and particularly women is frowned upon and often avoided. It was a little more challenging when it came to coming up with design solutions but it came more naturally to me in terms of language and messaging because it is home.
When I moved back there my parents had already migrated to the United States and it was my first time living there as a single female without my family. I could have never imagined what that was like before I experienced it. The combination of that and the launch of N7nu got me labelled as rebel and a staunch non-conformist by many. I was very disheartened by how difficult it was to get around and by the lack of support from my community. I decided to move back to the US to be closer to my family and to be happier. It was necessary for my own well-being.
KW: In a world that is increasingly connected, do you think having knowledge of two different cultures has been advantageous in your career? Do you have advice for students who may feel they straddle two worlds on how to utilize their experience to their benefit in pursuing careers?
AK: It most definitely has. For the past three years, I have been working with Ralph Appelbaum Associates on museum and exhibit projects primarily in the Middle East. I was hired because of my experience in designing in Arabic and my knowledge of the culture. Living here and still being able to do work of this sort in the Middle East has been incredibly rewarding. I would advise anyone who feels any kind of duality to pursue multi/cross cultural projects. They lend themselves to an entirely different set of challenges that, if handled and approached the right way can be very meaningful and fulfilling.
KW: You have been working for some time for Ralph Appelbaum Associates as a 2D Designer / Language and Strategy Consultant. What exactly do you do? And please describe some of the projects and your role.
AK: Ralph Appelbaum is a New York based museum and exhibit design firm that was founded in the late 70’s and now has offices in London, Berlin, Beijing, and Moscow. I work with content developers, coordinators, and 3D designers to develop the graphic language of the exhibits within museums.
Since joining the company, I’ve had the opportunity to work on multiple museum projects both in the United States and the Middle East. My latest one was the Al-Shaheed Park Museums – two museums on either end of a newly developed park in the heart of Kuwait City. The purpose of the museums is to help teach young Kuwaitis about both their military and natural heritage. The Habitat Museum is a walkthrough of the different natural habitats in the country, the plants, birds, and animals that live in them and the importance of preservation and environmental awareness. Remembrance is a memorial museum that goes through a timeline of the battles the country has gone through leading up to the Gulf War and what effects that had on the nation. I developed and art directed the graphic language for both and consulted on language and content translation throughout the process. While working on a project in a different time zone has its own challenges, being able to continue to design in Arabic and build meaningful projects in the Middle East while living here is a blessing.
Her Royal Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser at the opening of Msheireb Downtown Doha Museums on October 20th, 2015 (left) and The Habitat Museum al Al-Shaheed Park in Kuwait City. Opening December 2015 (right)
I have also worked on the Msheireb Downtown Doha Museums in Qatar, The Presidio Officers’ Club in San Francisco, and the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
Presidio Officers’ Club. 2014 (left) and Detail of the Bruce Springsteen vignette inside the New Jersey Hall of Fame, 2013 (right).
KW: What skills do you need to be successful in this field? How much is technology impacting the type of work you create? What advice do you have for students wishing to pursue a similar career?
AK: Well first off, you need to be a designer. While technology is not necessary to be a designer, technical skill and flexibility when it comes to mediums is a must. It’s important to be able to design a concept and then be able to adapt it to all the paradigms that could help take it to the next level. The best way to stay current with technology is to use it. The more familiar you are with what methodologies work and what don’t as a user, the better you will be at designing for them.
It is also important to have an understanding of scale and the impact of hierarchy. Designing on screen or in print is very different from designing full wall graphics. It requires attention to a different kind of detail.
Don’t be afraid of going big, just make sure all the small bits work too.
KW: If you had unlimited funds, what would be your ideal project?
AK: I would open up and brand a bakery of immaculately designed edibles here is New York.. Think Gehry cakes and Dali platings. I love the art of cooking and baking almost as much as I love graphic design and being able to combine both is my dream.
KW: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
AK: The best piece of advice came from Milton Glaser.
“You should never tell people what to do, only imply it”
The most successful design is the kind that provokes new thought rather than informs.
AJ: Areej Khan
KW: Kathryn Weinstein