Katharina Shafiei-Nasab’s portfolio is not just Swiss graphic design, it’s a hybrid of everything that she’s learned, seen and experienced
After studying fashion initially, the Visual Communication grad sees her star-shaped journey as beneficial, not only elevating her multifarious practice but driving it too.
Structured, considered and impeccably thought out, where would The Grads be this year if we weren’t to include German-Iranian designer Katharina Shafiei-Nasab? Based between Berlin and Zurich, you’d be surprised to hear that the recent graduate from Weissensee Art Academy never initially planned to follow the graphic design route. What first started as a career in fashion design soon turned into experiments with photography, fine art and coding, before an eventual pursuit of typography – a medium adorned for the fact that Katharina likes to build her creations in detail, fusing her works with subtle emotions and memories.
And that’s just it – Katharina’s work is not your typical Swiss design. Rather, it’s a hybrid of sorts that blends all of her previous experiences and learnings into one considered practice. This merge is evident by the subject matter she chooses to explore, be it an artist book for Berlin-based Martin Maeller, music or visualising speech for a publication about people in care homes. Below, we hear more about her journey into graphic design, how her multifarious background has helped her to structure her “chaotic” mind and why the community you build along the way can be the most important component of all.
It’s Nice That: What initially drew you towards graphic design, was it something that you knew you’d always pursue?
Katharina Shafiei-Nasab: No, not at all. When I was 19, I moved to Tokyo to study Fashion Design at Bunka Fashion College (Bunka Fukusou Gakuin), which had been a dream of mine since a very young age. After finishing my studies, I moved back to Germany and, even though I really loved studying Fashion Design, I soon realised that I didn’t want to pursue a career in the fashion industry.
During my time at Bunka, I developed a deep fascination for fashion publications – the wish to work with books and print media came naturally to me. After moving to Berlin, I applied for Visual Communication at Weißensee Academy of Art Berlin, which seemed like a good fit for me at the time because I still wasn’t completely sure which direction I wanted to go. The course covers many different fields such as photography, typography and coding, and it gave me the opportunity to try things out for myself, which I did. I even studied sculpture in the Fine Arts department for one semester because I wanted to learn how to combine graphic design with installation.
It wasn’t until I moved to Zurich to study for a year at Zürcher Hochschule der Künste that I realised typography was really the thing that I wanted to do. Of course, classic typography may seem very restricted but there’s actually no limit to it. You can apply it to any subject and connect it to any other discipline. It lets me connect the things I’ve already learned with other interests. When developing a layout, I follow a similar logical process to garment construction. I love to work in detail and with subtle elements, like when you look at the whole design and it tells a story or even triggers a memory.
My mind is very chaotic most of the time, so designing helps me to structure everything, put my thoughts in order and to understand them better. To be able to conceptualise things as abstract and ephemeral as thoughts and moods, and to see it printed on paper, is just one way to structure the world around me.
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Katharina Shafiei-Nasab: Positiv denken, Särge schenken
INT: How did you come to define your visual language, is there anything that you’re particularly inspired by?
KSN: To me, my visual language is really just the sum of everything that I’ve learned, seen and experienced. Obviously, Swiss graphic design has had a very clear impact on my work, but my visual language is a hybrid of all the disciplines and projects I’ve engaged with while studying.
I think inspiration can be found anywhere. What’s important is to find the right mood that you want to translate through your work and find a way to visualise it. Inspiration doesn’t necessarily have to come from something that’s obviously close to the medium you’re working with. For my graduation project, I made an artist book with the Berlin-based artist Martin Maeller. At the beginning of the process, he showed me a picture of a shoe and said that the material feeling was the mood that he would like his artist book to channel – and that was pretty much the only reference we worked with.
While I don’t focus on anything in particular, I am inspired by art, media and political theory – factors that have always been crucial to my work. I often reference some kind of theoretical input as I think it helps me as a designer to both position myself and my work, and to develop design concepts that people can recognise and relate to. Again, I think it really comes down to translating a mood after all.
"My visual language is a hybrid of all the disciplines and projects I’ve engaged with while studying"Katharina Shafiei-Nasab
INT: Your work focuses on a broad range of topics, from art, music and visualising speech from those living in care homes. How do you decide your themes? Are there specific kinds of projects you like to take on?
KSN: What I love most about working in graphic design is that it gives you the opportunity to research so many different topics without having to be an actual expert. With every project, you get to start a whole new research process and the amount of knowledge you gain from it is fantastic. I’m a naturally curious person, so I enjoy working with a broad range of topics.
At university you always get a specific assignment or a topic to work with as a set frame. What differentiates everybody’s work is, of course, the way we interpret the topic. I choose my themes very intuitively and subjectively, so it’s difficult to explain how I get there. The book I made about people in care homes was for a photo-editorial course at ZHdK. The topic for the assignment was ‘uniform’ and my interpretation dealt with ageing, as there’s nothing and nobody in the world that can evade it. I’m very happy I had the opportunity to do that project. Luckily, I got to spend a few hours with each person that I photographed, and I got to listen to so many interesting stories about growing up in rural Switzerland during WW2 or skiing with Farah Pahlavi in St. Moritz in the 60s.
Now that I'm done with my BA and my graduation project, I want to continue working on artist books in the future and explore more possibilities of the medium. I’d love to work with people from different artistic disciplines in the future and hopefully make a whole series of books. But a dream project of mine would be to design an identity for a cultural institution – it would give me the opportunity to work on a project long-term and see it grow. Creating something like this must be really exciting because, while you have to understand the institution and envision its future, you also have to research its traditions and its history, keep all of this in mind and weave that together into a new identity.
"No matter how good you are in what you’re doing, there’s always something that you can learn from others"Katharina Shafiei-Nasab
INT: What’s your design ethos and where do you see your work heading in the near future?
KSN: Always bring your team with you! I think the community you build along the way is the most important thing. I’ve made so many talented and inspiring friends in the last couple of years that I not only enjoy collaborating with professionally, but also admire and trust on a personal level.
I think it’s very important to work together and include people from your community in your projects because everyone is really good at something in particular – joining forces simply just makes you stronger. Plus, it’s more fun. No matter how good you are in what you’re doing, there’s always something that you can learn from others.
Right now I’m in the process of establishing my own design studio together with my good friend and colleague Alix Stria. We want to incorporate that sense of community into our studio philosophy while being a studio in the traditional sense that’s focused on typography, graphic design and coding. We’re also planning to initiate collaboration projects with other artists and designers on a regular basis. Hopefully I can tell you more about it soon.
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INT: What's the most important thing you learnt during your time at university?
KSN: Learning about my design process and finding my own personal way to approach projects was really important and liberating. For me personally, I had to accept that this process is internal and starts with a lot of thinking, reading and researching. At university, they make you draw a lot of sketches and drafts in the beginning, which never really worked for me. At first this made me really insecure and even question if graphic design was the right career for me, but university also shows you the things that don’t work for you. That helps your growth and positioning as a designer just as much as finding something that you like. As a result of that, I’ve learned to have confidence in my work and process. University gave me the opportunity to experience a lot and focus different interests and parts of my personality into a body of work that I can now enjoy. Finding something that you really love doing is empowering and I’m glad I had the time to figure that out.
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and continued to work with us on a freelance basis. From November 2019 she joined the team again, working with us as a Staff Writer on Mondays and Tuesdays until August 2020.