From Tehran to Chicago, Pouya Ahmadi is an adventurer for type
An award-winning Chicago-based graphic designer and art director focusing on brand, identity, publication design, editorial design, environmental graphics, art direction, photography, graphic design, typography, type design, interaction design, mobile (iPad/iPhone), web design, exhibition design, way finding, and graphic design Pouya Ahmadi is a creative nomad that a very respective clientele approves. His clients include large corporations, cultural institutions, fine and performing artists architects, and small businesses (Verge Books, Cacophonics Music, Chicago Design Museum, Experimental Film Society, Morningstar, Inc., University of Illinois at Chicago, AIGA, Neshan Magazine, The Basel School of Design to name a few) and his work is respected and adorned. Typeroom asked him all the appropriate questions for an introductory piece on Ahmadi’s multicultural typographic gems.
What is your first typographic memory?
My first typographic memory goes back to when I was five. I remember my father bought a colorful set of alphabet puzzle for my older sister (who was six years old at the time) and one with animal figures for me. The alphabet set was created with Naskh typeface which is one of the most ubiquitous typefaces in Iran. I remember I was very curious about them, though, I thought my own animal puzzle was far cooler than her boring type set. Now I know it wasn’t, really.
How did it all started?
I grew up listening to the music that my father used to collect when he was younger, which was a mix of 60’s and 70’s rock bands—mainly from UK, like Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, and King Crimson. Although, Western music (Pop and Rock) were banned back home since the 79 revolution, I could always manage to get my hands on them. It was risky and you could be fined for that or worst case scenario end up in jail. But I would recklessly find the music I was looking for regardless of that through friends of friends or sometimes even complete strangers. You have to use your imagination here; these tapes didn’t come with the original artworks or booklets. So, one of my hobbies was to imagine and draw the cover artwork for them with colored pencil, water color, and gouache. I loved drawing funky Latin letterforms and come up with some bizarre illustrations for these covers. And when I finished drawing them, I would put them in their cases as if they were the original artwork. I used to do this until I was in High School, and sometimes my friends would commission me to make a few different covers for them. However, I never took this seriously. I studied Math and Physics in High School, and while I was good at it, I never truly found myself passionate about it. So, eventually, the summer before the pre-college year, I decided that I want to study graphic design. Since I was told that those types of cover designs that I was doing while growing up is what graphic designers do for living. The following year I took the national exam and got in the Visual Communication program at the University of Tehran. And that’s how it all started.
How does East meet West in your portfolio?
Having lived in three continents (Asia, Europe, and America), I’ve had the opportunity to be exposed to quite a few different cultural, social, and political environments. Typography, to me, is what brings them all together. To me, typography is not merely a visual representation of language. Rather, a portrayal of subtle and drastic nuances in each culture. Even when you compare, for instance, Nastaliq (an Iranian calligraphic style) with Thuluth (an Arabic calligraphic style), while both feature an identical script with stunning aesthetics, they display fundamental visual differences, which represent the contrasting underlying cultures. Let alone comparing them to Latin-based scripts. And all of this is simply captured by letterforms. I have been told multiple times that my typography is influenced by an unusual mix of those scripts. I have to admit that I do not consciously inject any of it into my work. Nevertheless, it has naturally found its way into it apparently.
From Tehran through Basel to Chicago. Which is the most definite moment in your career so far?
All of them. I believe my work and who I am, both as a person and a designer, are really a sum of all these experiences. And interestingly, they couldn’t be any more different, could they? I think it confuses people to a great degree. Specially in a society where you are constantly judged by your ethnicity, country of your origin, color of your skin. Nevertheless, what I find most interesting about these experiences is the very early transition phase. The very first few days after you move to a new city or country. It rises many different and strong emotions in you; fear, curiosity, love, hate, and many more complex feelings. That’s what I love to experience again. I am in general interested in the idea of discovering new things. And funny enough, that’s what my name, Pouya, means in Farsi; a curious person.
What are your main influences?
Architecture and Cinema—I generally find the idea of integrated disciplines, which was predominantly pronounced by early-modernists, quite fascinating, where one discipline can inform the other through dialectical conversations. The critical forces behind these conversations can manifest themselves in many levels and forms. They could even evolve from within a piece, say for instance, a work of architecture or a film. To me, the work of neo-futurist architects and urban planners is a clear materialization of a critical thought process; namely ArchiGO—the radical avant-garde architecture group that formed in the 60’s in Chicago with the goal of preventing modernism from becoming a sterile doctrine by its followers. In Cinema, much of the work done by David Lynch display a similar critical approach to filmmaking. His films are considered most challenging due to their unconventional narrative structure. While the scenes in his films might appear fragmented or abstract, they always refer to rather larger (both formal and theoretical) issues in cinema.
Which iconic typographer you admire the most for the way he or she revolutionizes your craft?
Marinetti’s declaration of “words-in-freedom” and its manifestation in his revolutionary work for the Futurist publication Zang Tumb Tumb has enormously impacted the way I approach typography. His attack against the conventional literature and art of the past was even more radical with his call for the “free express orthography”. It is basically the idea of drastic phonetic deformation of the words in order to achieve a more intellectual or emotional typography.
What is the state of Iranian graphic design scene at the moment? Any suggestions of people that are pushing the envelope forward?
It would require an entire article to answer this question. The graphic design after the 1979 revolution in Iran has rapidly evolved more so because of figures such as Morteza Momayez who, amongst the design community in Iran, is referred to as the “father of modern Iranian graphic design”. He was the first Iranian member of AGI and was also one of the founders of IGDS (Iranian Graphic Designers Society) in 1985. His brainchild, which became his legacy eventually, is Neshan Magazine—a bilingual (Farsi/English) quarterly on graphic design—which was founded by him and a handful of younger designers, some of which, are still affiliated in the project including Majid Abbasi and Saed Meshki. Both Abbasi and Meshki, amongst other influential figures like Reza Abedini, have had enormous impact on the younger generations of Iranian designers. Over the years, Neshan has become the most prestigious and highly recognized magazine on graphic design in the Middle East strengthening the ties between the Iranian and global design community. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be on the editorial board of the magazine.
Branding, teaching, designing custom typefaces. What excites you the most?
I usually get excited about any project that allows for experimental investigations and intellectual reflections. And while there are rare opportunities that include both, I try to surround myself with projects that have the potential to turn out that way. Resident Alien/Alien Resident (a hybrid book/installation) piece is a good example, I think. I designed four custom typefaces for the project based on the characters in the story and collaborated with my sister Pegah Ahmadi, who did the design and wrote the final content of the publication. The project illustrates the position of immigrants in a new socio-political environment in a non-linear prose format. The title for the piece and the typeface refers to the official term used by US Department of Immigration—thus Resident Alien.
If you were a font which one would you be and which word or phrase would it be your signature?
Wim Crouwel’s New Alphabet (1967)—highly systematic and yet hardly legible.
What is the most precious advice you were ever given?
The advice is from my high school math teacher: “Be either the best or the worst. Never mediocre.”
What do you dislike or don’t understand in today’s graphic design trends?
I generally see trends as reflections on certain local or global movements. The trends themselves never bother me. In fact I am interested in diving deeper into each trend and understand their underling message or the norms that they are trying to challenge. While that’s not always the case with every single trend, there are reasons behind the popularity of certain approaches, say in design or fashion. And that’s what interests me most about trends. Although, the word “trendy” itself has gained a negative connotation amongst designers. The way I see it, is to say “blindly following a popular current”, which in many cases you can argue that it’s true. But then again, not even trying to understand what they stand for or rather prejudicially objecting them, I think, is also a blind judgment.
What advice would you give to aspiring typographers out there?
I don’t really see myself in a position to give any advice. But, I think to become an expert in anything you need to try and fail relentlessly. Then try harder and fail even harder. That’s a natural process for learning—to become resilient.
What is the soundtrack to this interview?
John Cage’s 4’33”
John Cage’s 4’33”