What do a building, a billboard ad, a handbag and a website have in common? They all had a designer involved in their production.
Despite its wide scope — ranging from fashion to graphic design and from animation to architecture — and its integration in almost all businesses, the creative industry is undervalued in Lebanon today. This lies in sharp contrast to the regional and even global interest in Lebanese design talent, but the good news is that a slow but steady, community-based effort is on track to bring more recognition and more business to the design community. The most impressive expression of this effort is Beirut Design Week (BDW), a tandem carriage of practical events and theoretical information dedicated to celebrating local achievements while conveying global design expertise.
Maya Karanouh, chief executive of Tag Brands, a branding and advertising agency, along with her business partner Doreen Toutikian, are cofounders of BDW. They are convinced that the real story of Lebanon’s lively design community is just now beginning to be written. “So many Lebanese universities have solid programs in design education — from architecture to interior design to graphic design to fashion design — and they are still evolving and getting more diversified,” says Karanouh. She adds that there are trends toward recognizing local designers and toward design-oriented galleries where artistic yet functional objects are displayed instead of paintings.
The sentiment is shared by Mo Saad and Leen Sadder, two Lebanese designers who are working successfully in the United States. They are in the process of implementing a membership association for designers in the Middle East. It will be a branch of AIGA, a US-based professional design organization with over 23,000 members. Launched from Beirut during BDW 2013, AIGA Middle East is AIGA’s second affiliate outside of the US after China, Saad and Sadder tell Executive. They bristle with enthusiasm about the great creative talent found in the region and the global interest in it. “AIGA’s vision is to go global, and when we approached them [with AIGA Middle East] they instantly went for the idea, especially since there’s a growing interest from the West in Arab designers and calligraphy,” says Saad.
Yet, save for around a dozen well-established Lebanese designers in fields such as fashion and architecture, the general public is unaware of this national community and its wealth of talent. “The biggest challenge for designers in Lebanon, aside from the political tensions of the country, is public awareness, which needs to be dealt with, and also governmental support in terms of raising international awareness, helping designers find global points of distribution and having more competitions for designers,” says Karanouh, explaining how design and the creative industry represent a country’s culture.
The minimal exposure of Lebanese and Arab designers occurs at both the local and global levels. “There is so much talent in the country but it’s not exposed, so very few know about the Middle East designers unless they are actively trying to pinpoint them,” says Saad, giving the example of a friend who was congratulating him on AIGA Middle East and asking him to introduce him to talented Arab designers for his branding needs.
A related challenge facing designers is that local clients tend to under-appreciate their work. “The striking difference between working in Paris and in Lebanon is that in Paris they value your work and appreciate the time it takes to reach a final product and so you get paid accordingly without having to validate it. As a freelancer in Lebanon, I frequently have to justify why I am asking for such a figure, I have to explain the design process and convince the client of the value of my work,” says Dima Boulad, a Lebanese graphic and motion designer and creator of the brand Dessine-Moi Un Oiel.
The founders of AIGA Middle East also talk about the lack of value placed on a designer’s work when clients ask a freelance designer to create a logo for a pittance of $50 or to finish a 15-minute animation video in less than a day. Among the aims of the association are to educate the public about design and to ask for and protect the rights of designers.
Designers are in essence entrepreneurs who are working hard to establish their business, says Toutikian, who is developing a research-focused design consultancy under the name MENA Research Center. She emphasizes that the Lebanese market’s small size means it is paramount for designers to think globally while sustaining a local base.
Designers need incentives to work in or from Lebanon, and the nascent design industry needs the government’s support for that. “Lebanese designers abroad are doing so much better than they do in their own country, so how are we going to create this platform where designers stay, or leave but come back with fresh ideas?” asks Toutikian.
Feeling that the Lebanese government has other priorities, Karanouh and Toutikian took the matter of increasing public appreciation of design into their own hands by founding BDW, an event which, in other countries, is organized by the government. Held for the second time this summer, BDW is geared to be an annual experience that brings the country’s design community to the forefront of public attention while offering designers good prospects for collaboration.
“The general community discovered designers that they wouldn’t normally know of,” said Karanouh, explaining how BDW provides designers with a different way of interacting with the public through events showcasing their work and through the workshops they can give throughout the week. “Once you know a designer in that personal manner, you will identify with their work more and be more likely to buy it,” explains Karanouh.
Designers participating in BDW 2013 tell Executive that the concept works. “It was great exposure which allowed me to sell most of my products. Being featured in such an exhibition gives a sort of credibility to my work and a sort of push,” says Boulad.
When compared with its first edition in 2012, BDW has nearly doubled. Eighty-five designers participated and 100 events were held. The organizers claim they encountered much larger and more eager audiences in this year’s workshops and events.
One drawback of the week is that it is a once-a-year occurrence, say designers, who feel a need to see year-round collaborations in their community. “One needs to remember that BDW is an annual event and that designers need support and recognition year out, especially at the beginning of their careers,” says Toutikian. AIGA Middle East is hoping to develop a local design community, which will perform that role and provide a platform for designers to collaborate with and support each other.
AIGA Middle East has already raised enthusiasm among Lebanese designers. “As a designer, I would surely be part of AIGA Middle East because this is the platform we need. It is worth the extra effort on my part because it helps build connections and the more connections one has, the more collaborations one can build. We are in the same sphere after all,” says Boulad of Dessine-Moi Un Oiel.
This collaboration is something that Sadder considers essential to raise awareness about the country’s design scene. “Pushing against the current as an individual is hard, but when you push together as a community, it’s different,” says Sadder.