Graphic design in Iran: A journey of evolution and practices shaping the future

A review of the outstanding graphic design studios in Iran whose works are enriched by the country's long visual history and diverse contemporary life.

by Afra SafaPublished on : Apr 06, 2022

Delving into contemporary Iranian graphic design is impossible without studying its context first. A civilisation at the crossroads of the East and the West, where cultures collide, Iran has been culturally enriched by both; each ethnicity adding something to this cultural melting pot. Through centuries, this diverse cultural unit has delivered an outstanding visual legacy. Crafts, miniatures and illustrations have left an everlasting impact on the Iranian visual culture, one that is still strongly present today.

Illustrations for the Wonders of Creation by Zakariya al-Qazwini, 1750| Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Illustrations for the Wonders of Creation by Zakariya al-Qazwini, 1750 Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

Although illustrations and design have always been a part of Persian art and crafts, the dawn of the contemporary Iranian graphic design genius goes back to the 1960s, when in the rapidly reforming country, modern graphic design programmes were offered in the cutting-edge University of Tehran by key figures such as Morteza Momayez, the prodigy whose creations are forever printed on the national memory of Iranians.

As the cultural sphere rapidly developed in the 1970s by the direct support of the monarchy state, Momayez along with Ghobad Shiva, Sadegh Barirani, Behzad Hatam and Farshid Mesghali constituted the pioneers of graphic design in Iran. Though the impact of western artistic discourses is apparent in the general practice of most of these graphic designers, an ever-present search for an Iranian identity in graphic design was already prominent in their works. These graphists would come to impact the entire graphic design practice of Iran in the following decades.

Second generation poster designs | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Left to Right: Sadegh Barirani poster design for Don Giovanni Opera in Roudaki hall, 1970s; Behzad Hatam Poster design for the Barber of Seville Opera in Roudaki Hall, 1976; Ghobad Shiva poster design for Shiraz Festival of the Arts, 1970; Farshid Mesghali book design, 1970s Image: Courtesy of the artists

The 1979 Islamic Revolution changed the game, and backward policies brought years of stagnation to the arts. However, like a phoenix rising from her ashes, by the 1990s a new generation of young Iranian graphic designers entered the scene. They rediscovered their rich past that was marginalised by the extremist state; but also began a prevailing search for their own independent Iranian identity in design that was yet to be achieved by their precedents and was temporarily lost during the Islamisation of the country. 

In the following passage, the work of a number of Iranian graphic designers and studios whom we believe have been significant in shaping the identity of this domain in the post-revolution era has been reviewed.

Reza Abedini

Efforts to efficiently organise design and use the scripts of Persian language or Farsi were few and far in between before Reza Abedini (1967). Thus, he is known to be the first graphic designer to make it his mission to work on the aesthetics of Farsi typography and to effectively bring it into the Iranian graphic design discourse.

An ever-present challenge for Abedini is turning concepts and words into images. In his world scripts, words and letters leave their ancient role of conveying meanings and turn into forms accompanied by elegant layouts and images that carry another sort of meaning; a meaning that mere language fails to shoulder; the knowledge and lived experience of a long-lasting culture hidden in every curve and line of designed letters. Text is not to be read in his work, but is something that has to be looked at like a work of art. The complexity of Persian typography in Abedini’s works is used to say that which is not supposed to be said explicitly in the oppressive environment of post Islamic Revolution.

Reza Abedini poster design |Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Reza Abedini poster design Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

Reza Abedini is the first Iranian graphic designer whose name entered the Meggs History of Graphic Design. 

Studio Abbasi

It is safe to claim that many brands in various industries owe their successful presence in the Iranian market to the memorable designs of Studio Abbasi.

Over two decades, Studio Abbasi has made many Iranian brands, institutions, businesses and services accessible, memorable and more effective through its unique designs based on simple geometric forms and the power of colour. Through its impressive body of works, this studio has used graphic design as an unmatched visual and communicative tool.

Studio Abbasi design for publications | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Studio Abbasi design for publications Image: Courtesy of Studio Abbasi

Studio Abbasi’s activities also cover a wide range of designs for cultural institutions such as book covers for Cheshmeh - one of Iran’s biggest publications, posters and catalogues for Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, and different journals.

Majid Abbasi (1965), the founder of Studio Abbasi, who is recognised internationally, has also been a key individual in educating young graphic designers. Since 2010, he has been the Editor-in-chief of Neshan Magazine, the most significant graphic design journal of the Middle East.

Studio Kargah

Studio Kargah began its life in 2001 and today is the most renowned graphic design studio in the culture and art sector of Iran.

Studio Kargah design with city as concept | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Studio Kargah design with city as concept Image: Courtesy of Studio Kargah

Kargah returns to the original ideas, following certain concepts in most of their designs; the city explores Tehran as an ever-changing megalopolis; Tales is a concept under which they discover the literature and oral history of the Iranian people; and Kenophobia, a characteristic historically attributed to Persian artists and artisans. Thus, Studio Kargah uses the capacities of art history, literature, visual culture and the diversity of the urban sphere of contemporary Iran to create a signature visual language.

Studio Kargah design with tales as concept | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Studio Kargah design with tales as concept Image: Courtesy of Studio Kargah

Moreover, Kargah carries out a vast archival project. They collect, classify, archive and curate the documents of Iran’s graphic design history to prevent them from being forgotten. Karnameh: Visual Culture of the Iranian Children, Roudaki Hall: Graphic Design, Architecture and Everything, and Red Paper: Ideological Publications by the Soviet Union were among the most significant and successful archival exhibitions of the recent decades in Iran.

Homa Delvaray

Delvaray is one of the only female voices with this scale of significance in the Iranian graphic design domain. An artist, designer and art director, her works blur the lines between graphic design, art and illustration and she has no fear of gliding freely between fields and mediums and mastering them all.

Delvaray's posters pay homage to the culture, traditions and arts of the women of her country | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Delvaray's posters pay homage to the culture, traditions and arts of the women of her country Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

A true student of Reza Abedini, she has developed an important Farsi font with a contemporary approach to Kufic script. Her creations are signified by 3D typography, unique personal illustrations and an exceptional set of radiating colours. Her knowledge and skill over Persian/Farsi typeface, Iranian ancient symbols and visual heritage as well as contemporary art discourses has allowed her to add her own one-of-a-kind dialect to the Iranian graphic design language.

Homa Delvaray poster design | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Homa Delvaray poster design Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

Due to her familiarity and knowledge of female cultural heritage of Iran, she has been able to create artworks and designs that are a homage to the culture, traditions and arts of the women of her country. Her works are unapologetically feminine in the male dominant graphic design sphere of Iran.

Studio Harby

Studio Harby poster design | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Studio Harby poster design Image: Courtesy of Studio Harby

A witty sense of humour has always been a significant part of Pedram Harby’s (b.1977) works, in other words Studio Harby does not take itself too seriously but that does not mean we shouldn't too. Studio Harby might have a smaller share of fame despite its impressive body of works; but it is quietly brilliant.

Whether a design for a poster or a book, Studio Harby utilises graphic design in full service of the subject. It conveys its message fast and direct, a characteristic that separates it from many of the post-revolution Iranian designers who prefer indirectness to explicitness; due to cultural backgrounds and closed political environment.

Studio Harby utilises graphic design in full service of the subject | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Studio Harby utilises graphic design in full service of the subject Image: Courtesy of Studio Harby

Studio Harby is best known for poster designs of various Iranian theatre plays and book covers for important Iranian publications.

Studio Fa

Mehdi Fatehi (b.1982), the founder of Studio Fa, is among the designers who believe graphic design can and should go beyond its initial role. Known most for his poster designs for theatre performances, visual art exhibitions and cultural events, he treats poster design as a tool for documentation of cultural history.

Studio Fa poster design | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Studio Fa poster design Image: Courtesy of Mehdi Fatehi

He still widely uses silkscreen print and manual techniques. This self-inflicted limitation has added a certain visual dynamism to his works that is reminiscent of the posters of the 1970s. Limited use of colours, selective forms and attention to the cultural and social context of the subjects has made Fatehi’s design outstanding in their simplicity. Fatehi also has a strong body of works of logo and book designs.

Following his belief in documenting visual history, Studio Fa is currently running a program to reprint limited editions of posters from the Iranian masters of graphic design, namely Morteza Momayez, Behzad Hatam and Ghobad Shiva. 

Studio Melli

Studio Melli's Persian poster calendar | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Studio Melli's Persian poster calendar Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

Founded by Mahsa Gholinejad and Omid Nemalhabib, Studio Melli is the youngest graphic design studio on our list. Perhaps it is soon to judge the entirety of their practice, however in the short span of their activity they have found themselves a solid foothold in the main discourse of the Iranian graphic design.

In Persian/Farsi language, “melli” literally means national, or something belonging to the nation. Following this idea, Studio Melli leans on the aesthetics of Persian typography, poetry, visual culture and even science. With its focus mostly on identity design, Studio Melli uses a kind of typography that is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time and juxtaposes it with soft colours. The gentleness of Studio Melli’s design language is a feature that distinguishes them from other Iranian designers. The smart use of contemporary typography makes their works very attractive to a non-Iranian audience.

Studio Melli poster for Kurdistan Diaries exhibition | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Studio Melli poster for Kurdistan Diaries exhibition Image: Courtesy of Studio Melli

Though we must wait to see how the practice of Studio Melli would develop further, they seem to have a bright future ahead in the graphic design sphere of Iran.

Studio Shizaru

Founded in 2009, Shizaru is also considered one of the younger generations of graphic design studios of Iran. Yet in the decade of its activity, they have managed to grow from a mere graphic design studio into a multidisciplinary design atelier that addresses multiple layers of social, digital, communicative and commercial issues. Shizaru designs identities, products and immersive spaces.

Studio Shizaru design for Zeeen | Graphic Design | Iran | STIRworld
Studio Shizaru design for Zeeen Image: Courtesy of Studio Shizaru

Studio Shizaru developed at a time when the wide use of internet and relative wealth has softened the hardcore values of the Islamic government and with a coy openness towards the world, many luxury brands, goods and spaces enter the Iranian market. In answer to this new lifestyle, studios such as Shizaru create a different discourse from the severe language of post-revolution graphic design of Iran. Their designs are joyful, witty, engaging and full of colour.

What makes Shizaru unique is that their work is less concerned with the exoticisation of Persian/Farsi script but is more about the power of illustration; it benefits from a continuous study of Iranian legends, stories, symbols and arts.

This list does not come close to covering all the bustling going on in the Iranian graphic design domain, but it might give a gist of what it looks like. From rapid westernisation, the severity of a religious revolution, a long war and then a timid return to the global sphere, the Iranian contemporary graphic design has come a long way; a journey of rediscovering the legends of the past, the uniqueness of their language and script and a long heritage of imagery. The graphic design sphere in Iran has achieved a unique powerful language; a language that is strictly Iranian with great bonds to its recent and ancient past; but is one that is contemporary, is constantly renewing itself and is a language with which it can speak to the world beyond its borders.

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