Opinion
21 June 2021

Design as a Wrapper

Zena Adhami

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Four years ago, I worked on a project that made me realise many things about the profession I had chosen 15 years prior—the design profession.

I realised that the design industry suffered from a double crisis of will and of imagination. I don’t think I was immune to the problem; I have abused my profession, used a project to promote myself, and contributed to the growing gap between the privileged and the unprivileged. The devastating effects of assumptions and ephemerality were at the heart of the problem. The project I explore here unveiled the necessity of questioning the meaning of design and challenging its urgency.

AbdulHaq, March 2017. Image courtesy of the author

To draw a clearer picture, allow me to share the anecdote of AbdulHaq. Four years ago, I was invited to design a shopfront in the Heart of Sharjah with Wajha, a self-described social design initiative that helps the community by offering Design services for free. I couldn’t have been more honoured to participate: I identify as an agent of change and consider my act to help the community as something noble. Several designers were involved. We were briefed on the project through a specific guideline to create new shopfronts in one of Sharjah’s historical neighbourhoods. At the start of the field research, each designer was assigned a shop. I was given Al Abyad Saloon, a barbershop owned by AbdulHaq, a South Asian immigrant who had inherited the shop from his father.

Al Abyad Saloon interior, March 2017. Image courtesy of the author

Al Abyad Saloon interior, March 2017. Image courtesy of the author

Design for the Greater Good

The project was articulated as a vehicle of change, bringing together graphic designers to raise awareness about the notion of ‘Design for Good’ and the responsibility of giving back to the community. In the social context of design, we often hear debates over terms and categories: participatory design, collective impact, co-design, human-centred design, design for the greater good. While some argue these terms and categories are idealistic, we lack a definition of what ‘good’ looks like. Through this project, the crisis of misapplication—the application of establishing a design practice in the public and social sector that can help shape the role designers hope to play—wasn’t addressed. Learning how we fit and understand more clearly issues of power and justice is a ‘good’ place to start. Instead, designers were told by the initiative to impactfully shape society by describing themselves as ‘good’ and offering their graphic design services for free. We were expected to wrap the shopfronts and save the businesses by creating a forward-looking visual, hoping to create impact.

AbdulHaq, March 2017. Image courtesy of 1971 Design Space

In my case, the shop owner resisted, and the language barrier obfuscated any clear communication. An accompanying translator explained one of AbdulHaq’s major concerns: a ‘nice’ looking shop would lead his clients to assume his services were more expensive. As a designer, I was asked to create an aesthetically pleasing wrapper to the reality. I was torn between AbdulHaq’s request and the organisers' vision of the project. The vision was: to dress the shop as forward-looking to contribute to the idea of change, while overlooking AbdulHaq and his actual clientele, assuming “he did not know what good design really looks like.” Realising the danger of assumption, I instantly felt guilty.

The design here was a wrapper—it was enlisted to hide untold stories and, eventually, a project buried under mounds of visual clutter. Design had failed.

Al Abyad Saloon exterior, March 2017. Image courtesy of 1971 Design Space

An Act of Dictatorship
During the making process, we held several discussions with Wajha, and discussed AbdulHaq’s rejection of the new designs. Their response was naïve, to say the least. “This is for free,” retorqued one member. “If he did not like the design, he could have simply removed the vinyl.” So often with ‘design for the greater good,’ significant decisions affecting many economically – an individual in the case of Al Abyad Saloon – are made by those most protected from any precarity. My argument was that design could not be disconnected from the context in which it is created. Acknowledging the non-neutrality of communication puts everything in perspective; we are all culturally biased, which is why communication often fails.

AbdulHaq and Al Abyad Saloon exterior with the design solution, March 2017. Image courtesy of 1971 Design Space

Ownership
I wanted to feel better about working on this project. My approach focused on legacy as a ‘design solution’: offering inclusion by allowing AbdulHaq to be the hero of his brand made the process of finalising the project less of a burden. I employed universal and objective design in communication, using simple iconography, cultural patterns, identifiable ‘barber’ tools, and a red visible shop front. The paradox was just starting. Had I contributed to the Saloon looking more forward-thinking instead of what the community really wanted?

The design arguably was objective, but communication was a politically charged process: misinterpretations cannot be entirely avoided. At the root of miscommunication lied assumptions that AbdulHaq would understand the design because I conceivably used a ‘universal’ or ‘objective’ communication. I employed trilingual typography and included his language of communication, Hindi. I also simplified how he looked, used icons to depict his tools, applied patterns from his hometown, and used red to make the shopfront visible. Visibility is key; the very idea of visibility makes this project a design problem. As the designer of Al Abyad Saloon, I stood privileged.

Al Abyad Saloon exterior, 2020. Image courtesy of the author

As I now retell the story of AbdulHaq, the shop is deserted, its building poised to be demolished, and my design decayed. I regret not having considered the fundamental question of why we design. Who are we really designing for, and what are we creating? We stylise problems rather than address them, limiting our design to the value of what we create.

Al Abyad Saloon exterior, 2020. Image courtesy of the author

Our efforts to contribute to the community require humility and an absolute openness to new and uncomfortable lessons about the human condition. They must also challenge our assumptions of privilege. We should start by asking what we, as designers, need to learn from our communities, not the other way around.

If I could go back in time and meet AbdulHaq, I would apologise and exclude myself from the entanglement of inequality.


Al Abyad Saloon was part of the fourth edition of Design House (2016-2017): Change, Coordinates + Someone Else curated by Möbius Design. 1971 Design Space, conceived in Sharjah 2017.

Zena Adhami is a Designer and educator at Zayed University Dubai. Her research investigates social meaning through exploring the meaning of place, space and highlights narratives through urban experiences using communication design as a medium.

Banner Credit: Al Abyad storefront design. Courtesy of the author.

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