Interview with Pouya Ahmadi
Interview with graphic designer Pouya Ahmadi.
Dennis: Hello Pouya how are you?
Pouya Ahmadi: Hello! I’m A-okay—pretty busy at the moment. Thanks for this wonderful opportunity. It’s an honor to be featured on Ligature amongst so many amazing designers.
DM: Can you introduce yourself?
PA: I’m a graphic designer, educator, and researcher currently based in Chicago. I was born and raised in Tehran. While studying visual communication at the University of Tehran, I worked for a few small studios and also freelanced on the side. Soon after I graduated with my BFA, I moved to Basel to continue my studies in Graphic Design at the Basel School of Design (FHNW HGK). It was perfect timing because they just started their International Master of Design (MDes) program together with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I believe it was the only International Master’s program in Switzerland at the time with quite an ambitious agenda. It took a year to figure out everything around my move, but it all worked out and I ended up completing two different master’s programs there. After four years studying in Basel, I was ready to move on and figure out what was next. I moved to Chicago and worked for a few places including Studiolab. I also taught part-time at UIC School of Design for a year. I knew that I wanted to run my own practice at some point and teach simultaneously, so when the opportunity arose, I took it. I have been running my own studio for a while now, focusing on cultural and social projects across print and digital platforms. I am also an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at UIC School of Design as well as a faculty member of the International Master of Design program (MDes) at HGK FHNW in Basel, and an editorial board member of the Iranian graphic design magazine Neshan since 2010.
D: Where does your interest in design come from?
PA: Mostly music and books—my father used to collect cassette tapes for many years since he was in college. My parents both owned quite a few books, and I remember we always had space issues because we lived in a small apartment. As a kid, I was always drawn to these objects, mainly cassette tapes, because of their designs. At the time I didn’t think that you could design those things for a living. I used to go through them and draw my own versions of the album or book covers and replace the originals with my own designs (not to mention that they were quite hideous). My parents didn’t mind that, so I kept doing that stuff for a while. It got to the point where my classmates started commissioning me for random projects. I still wasn’t too serious about the whole graphic design thing until the last year of high school when I realized that it was one of the very few things I cared about. So I insisted on switching majors from Mathematics and Physics to Visual Arts. I spent the entire pre-college year learning about visual arts and getting my hands on as many art history and theory books as I could. The following year, I was accepted in the Visual Communication program at the University of Tehran, College of Fine Arts. At the time, I complained a lot about the program and wasn’t sure if it was what I really expected it to be. But it all ended up working out for the best. Majid Abbasi, Reza Abedini, and Saed Meshki were some of my instructors in that program whom I learned quite a bit from.
D: How Switzerland and Basel influenced your work?
PA: Basel had a significant influence on my work. And it wasn’t just about design. So much of it was about things that revolved around it—or should I say culture at large. I had some ideas of what to expect before I moved there, but of course, experiencing it all first hand is a whole different story. One of the reasons I decided to go to Basel was my fascination with Wolfgang Weingart’s work. The other reason was the fact that I didn’t learn much about working with Latin-based type back in my undergrad studies, since our writing system is all based on Arabic script. So naturally, I was intrigued by the whole premise of contemporary Swiss typography as well as its historical roots and significance. To me, this wasn’t something that I could learn by just looking at books. I wanted to absorb so much more than that, which all happened naturally. I had to forget all I thought I knew about Latin-based typography and relearn everything from scratch. The program was rather rigorous and it took a lot to catch up with so many new things happening at the same time. Much of what I know now about the basics of typography comes from that period of time.
As much as I care about typography and form in general, I also think that it is all a means to an end. There is so much that goes into design that you need to consider with regard to any project in hand; social, cultural, political impact of design is not something that can be overlooked, especially now with all the madness happening in the world.
D: Typography is one of your main design tools. How do you make the right typographic choices?
PA: I would have probably answered this question very differently a couple of years ago. But I happen to question things often and that becomes problematic sometimes. At this point in my career, I don’t think that there is really one “right typographic choice.” What I mean by that is there are so many different lenses through which you can look at any given subject matter and depending on the configurations of those lenses, your choice of typography (and all other formal decisions for that matter) can change. If you, for instance, are tasked to typographically translate a written piece that deals with a particular mode of production through a lens of agency, your choice of typeface might be drastically different as opposed to looking at the same topic through a lens of economics. What if you added a critical lens on top of that? What would that mean in terms of your approach to the typography of the piece? They can’t all be treated or dealt with the same way. That to me would be very questionable or basically suggest an inability to take a stance.
D: Would you like to talk about one of your recent projects?
PA: How about the public seminar series that I organized at UIC School of Design? The series was titled Through a Glass Darkly and aimed to question the notion of design practice today as well as determine parameters within which designers operate and potentially move beyond. With that agenda in mind, I put together a list of designers that have established various territories for their practice such as writing, curating, publishing, performance, teaching, etc., as a way to redefine the role of design in society as well as elevate the level of discourse around it. It was also interesting to see where each designer came from. For instance, Mark Owens studied literary theory before studying graphic design; Till Wittwer is actually a visual artist with an interest in performance and writing; Andrew Blauvelt is a curator; and Tereza and Vit Ruller do performative design. This made for a good mix of views on what a design practice could be today. Of course, there are so many more interesting practices that could be added to the list. But given our time and budget, we had to make a tough decision. I also designed the entire identity system around the series including the website (t-a-g-d.info) and series of promotional posters.