Hanna Karraby’s narrative-driven designs delve into her experience as part of the Iranian American diaspora

The Philadelphia-based designer also utilises physical materials and elegant typography to create striking exhibition branding.

29 April 2022

Risograph printing has become a staple of the design world for its organic, unpredictable and pleasingly retro qualities. But rarely is it done so well, as seen in Hanna Karraby’s new zine Haft-seen. A collaborative piece devised alongside Bijan Berhaimi for design studio FISK’s Nowruz 1401 Collection release – which celebrates the recent Iranian new year, known as Nowruz – the zine pays homage to Hanna’s multi-layered relationship with her Iranian-American identity. As aesthetically striking as it is informative and gripping, Haft-seen exudes historicism. Combining Hanna’s warm, heartfelt words with a faded, neon yellow backdrop, soft brown Farsi-infused typography and images that look fresh out of a vintage cookbook, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the zine as a decades old artefact. And, you’ll be pleased to hear, this grainy, earthy and original publication is only the tip of the creative’s carefully considered and narrative-driven design practice.

Since childhood, two distinctive cultures have defined Hanna’s life. Whilst being born and raised in San Jose, California, Hanna’s parents actively “constructed Iranian culture” around her. Being immersed in dance classes, language lessons, family parties and community celebrations and being taught proper etiquette, how to make Persian food and that “I need to drink tea like water”, a “dual concept” of her identity is one that has always accompanied Hanna. Being part of a diaspora, Hanna tells us, “can feel like you’re constantly searching for tangible connections to your heritage”, and so, design has proven a vital means for exploration and navigation. “Honestly, I first began designing around themes of my heritage as a way to soothe the guilt I felt over not speaking the language perfectly, and never having visited Iran,” she says candidly, “this is the best way I know how to celebrate being Iranian: through creating something beautiful with its language and image.”

It is this thinking that gives the Haft-seen zine such depth. Being afforded total creative freedom on the visual aspects of the project, Hanna arrived at the simple concept of “mimicking vintage Iranian primary school books”. And, wanting to honour how Iranian culture “expresses our joy through movement”, Hanna ingeniously added a few stills of herself as a child performing on Nowruz, which when flipped shows her dancing. “I love tucking away details like this in my work, my hope is that someone can always appreciate something new.”

GalleryHanna Karraby: Haft-Seen Zine (Copyright © Hanna Karraby, 2022)

Prior to Haft-seen, Hanna worked on another compelling identity infused project, West Struck. This time, Hanna focussed on her parent’s time growing up in Iran, paying close attention to the complex cultural period of their youth. “The title of the project is a direct English translation of the Farsi word ‘Gharbzadegi’, meaning ‘Euromania’”, Hanna says, “the term was used by Iranians who were critical of the rebellious nature of youth in the 60s and 70s, and what they perceived as encroachment of Western influence”. With a fissure growing between two groups and tension eventually reaching a boiling point, Hanna explains this divide – and the anger of powerful religious groups – to have laid the groundwork for the 1979 revolution. Focussing on an “academic” and “minimal” approach, the designs are a conceptual mock-up for Hanna’s “dream” exhibition. The stand out visual element, alongside its brilliant array of vintage imagery, is its effective use of typography. The contrasting shifts in type – “between script-like gestural and traditional upright letters," Hanna explains – are intended to evoke “a tension that fits an era where modernity and tradition were going head-to-head”.

Whilst describing her journey toward graphic design as far from “straightforward”, Hanna tells us that she has always been drawn toward the more creative side of things. In school her favourite subjects were art and reading, “areas of study that allowed me to work alone and let my mind wander”. But, applying for college, Hanna decided to pursue a more “practical route” and went on to study general business. Not being able to shake the feeling that she would have been better suited in a creative field, however, Hanna toyed around with a few other majors, before taking the leap and applying for a transfer to her school’s graphic design program. “It was a perfect fit,” Hanna adds.

Following her studies, Hanna ended up taking up a senior designer position at Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. Working in exhibition branding, Hanna explains, has taught her to become a “much more thoughtful” designer, “exhibition graphics are all about detailed, high-impact decision making”. This high-impact decision making resonates with Hanna’s recent designs for the exhibition Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century. Exploring themes of death, tragedy and violence, Hanna and exhibition designer Helen Cahng decided to incorporate scrim fabric, “like a large mourning veil”, or “the barrier between the living and the dead”. And, in fitting with the exhibition’s themes, the type design (Holise by designer Ines Davodeau), exudes a dark beauty, long and elegant with subtle pointed edges. Having already mastered both the personal and professional poles of the design world at such an early stage in her career, we have no doubt that Hanna is going to be one to watch.

GalleryHanna Karraby: Haft-Seen Zine (Copyright © Hanna Karraby, 2022)

GalleryHanna Karraby: West Struck (Copyright © Hanna Karraby, 2021)

GalleryHanna Karraby: Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century (Copyright © Hanna Karraby, PMA Photo Studio, 2022)

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Hanna Karraby: Haft-Seen Zine (Copyright © Hanna Karraby, 2022)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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