Studio 40Mustaqel challenges the discourse of design in the Arab Swana region
The Cairo-based design studio was drawn together by a common interest in exploring how to tie their “complex and diverse Arab identity” into their design practice.
- Elfie Thomas
- 15 March 2022
“I think we’re mostly driven by a curiosity to what graphic design as a discipline can offer to the Swana region, and we try to bring in as many people as we can to this dialogue”, says 40Mustaqel founder Nada Hesham. “A byproduct of this curiosity,” she tells us, “is our constant attempt to contextualise our practice and challenge the discourse of design being perceived as an apolitical discipline.”
A mutual desire to “explore what ties our complex and diverse Arab identity to our practice”, is key to the cohesive functioning of the studio, Nada explains. After she initially began casting around for collaborators to join her on various creative projects, the studio started to form “organically”, drawn together by similar principles and attitudes to design. Believing that conversations about the politics of design cannot function in a vacuum, 40Mustaqel is dedicated to contextualising their practice and involving as diverse a sphere of collaborators as possible.
Nada says that the team “have the most fun” when they get to work on poster designs. “In a visually fertile city like Cairo, you learn a lot about what works in the street and what stands out against the visual overload of the city.” Using keen eyes trained on the streets of Cairo, the studio’s posters for Palestine Cinema Days and Aya Tarek’s exhibition Token, pop with vibrant colour and simple yet stylish typography. Understanding posters as “a medium with a limited screen time to make a loud and concise statement”, the joy that the team gets out of mastering the format translates through the visuals.
When the studio created the publication design for A World Unplugged, it needed to respond carefully to the themes of isolation, mental health, personal tragedy and escapism. A World Unplugged is a collection of stories and meditations about living in a post-Covid world, art director Mina Maurice explains. “Each piece is a peek into the ever shifting relationship between mankind, technology and social media in a world plagued by a pandemic.” In response, the team dreamed up a design which drew from pixelated motifs, meme language and cyberculture. Arabic type is used throughout as a medium for exploring these "visual cues".
Another project which offered interesting conceptual challenges for the team was their work on Instinct, a publication exploring the “nature of being human”, says art director, Hussein Salem. With a subject as abstract as the human psyche, the challenge was to “dissect and analyse” it successfully through a visual lens. “Staying true to the rawness of the human anatomy – skin folds and tones, irises, hands and muscles”, Hussein continues, “we extracted visual motifs as well as a neutral and raw skin colour palette to reflect the human being as an instinctual creature in nature, contrasted against an acidic neon green type treatment.”
The team are now looking forward to kickstarting their own publishing practice with their biannual and bilingual paperback print called Publication 40Mustaqel. With their experience in crystallising complex ideas through innovative design, the publication promises to be an exciting new development for the studio, allowing it to extend its creative reach and build collaborative opportunities for the future.
40Mustaqel: Token (Copyright © 40Mustaqel, 2021)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.