Neshan Magazine-17-Summer 2008
Saed Meshki: Let's start from the 1980's, the years in which type became extensively used. What do you think yielded this growth?
Bijan Sayfouri: The emergence of an entity called typography in Iran may be an interesting story. It is something that even professionals in favor of or opposing have made an independent or superior definition for it. The Iranian typography despite being the most significant identity symbol for Iranian graphic design but it is not and cannot be beyond the realm of design.
In the 1980's, in a universal trend, graphic design moved from an illustrative direction towards more of a type and design density. In those years we were receiving books that deemed strange for our illustration-addicted eyes. To me it was exciting to see Neville Brody's works who gave his personal experiments such authenticity with type that the traditional illustration would completely shuffle the components. The effects of this excitement are distinctly seen in the works of many young designers at that time in the same way that we can trace stimulation and fashion in the posters of young designers today.
In any case, at the beginning there was a sort of confusion against the shock of Western typography but gradually the course changed. It was the depth, broadness, and timeless beauty of Iranian art, culture and thought that changed the course of trend. I think this is something that always happens in the Iranian culture. A rich and fluid culture that is able to take on self-reconstruction in any circumstances. And this for me, who was fascinated with Persian writing and types, meant the retrieval of the aesthetics of Iranian typography and experiencing new potentials in the new atmosphere. This was perhaps the Iranian translation of a fashion prevalent in the world graphics but one of a free interpretation. The Persian calligraphy and writing has a special and unique structure. It is here that recognizing tradition and crossing it becomes functional to the point that I can say today the Iranian graphic design gets its identity from Iranian typography. This however, is a positive event in this condensed, compressed and amassed world. As if everyone is after identity and symbol. But the problem starts where this symbolism, which is decided for Iranian graphic design by Westerners, makes codes that obliges Iranian graphic artists to observe so their works can be acceptable around the world. Cliché works decorated with Persian motifs, types and elements - this is the current that distances us away from creative experimentation. It is a problem more abundant in the works of our young designers. We had the same story in Iranian cinema.
In the 1980's I had major problems in executing my works. The experiments I had started with Iranian type, which was sort of taboo. I remember that sometimes, even to convince a client of my work, I had to give them so many concessions. Today though, this has all changed for the opposite. Every where you turn, from advertising billboards to packaging and newspaper titles and television advertisements; they have all become uninformed followers of this fashion.
SM: When I look back at those years I remember that we used to criticize Persian letters and our models were the orderly and strip like Latin alphabets. Now I believe that our lack of knowledge and inability was the cause of that criticism. At that time too, it was aimed to arrange the letters and words in order, whereas this is not possible with Persian alphabets unless they are shuffled. This shuffling of types and words gradually turned into a taste. My point is whether this approach helped the aesthetics of Persian writing or did it damage it?
BS: Not necessarily. Aesthetics is not achieved with mere guidelines or technique. And by the way, the technique and design style of one person cannot damage the beauty of Persian calligraphy. Frankly, I remember many taboos that I encountered in my work path. In every case, the crime is that you leave certain principles and violate rules and damage something. Something's forgotten here and that is the beauty of authentic Persian calligraphy and not the imported typefaces. Yes I may have violated the rules of machine typesetting but this meant to recognize the aesthetics of Persian writing. It means respect to creativity and spontaneity of calligraphy. It means up to dating the perception. And these are all a person's experiences. It is important who does the shuffling. Let's go back to cinema. A filmmaker reaches a personal and different style in a conscious and experimental course. After him come many people and make films with the same tokens and in the same atmosphere. Obviously, the first one is the author and the rest are just fashion followers. And I don't think the first one had intended to issue any guidelines. In essence, the artist does not want and cannot give formulas. It is the others who make him a role model.
SM: Comparing cinema with calligraphy especially in Iran is problematic. Cinema and photography are only a century old in Iran whereas the history of Persian calligraphy even if we disregard pre-Islamic era is about 1,200 years old. The Iranian cinema that originated from the West did not assume an integrated form (like it did in the West) and it has concluded to a few good films a year. My point on the issue of shuffling is that after so many years of experience and evolution in Persian writing we are changing things to get closer to the Western standards.
BS: I'm not a calligrapher. I'm a graphic designer and infatuated with the aesthetics of calligraphy. I follow my own perception and incidentally, I'm not after approaching Western standards. Typography cannot be accounted as calligraphy. Clearly, graphic design with its universal and modern quality is not in conflict with traditional calligraphy either. To change the modern perception of typography does not necessarily mean to westernize it. My ideal is to reach timelessness. I believe art has no limit. Things have been lost in history and we have to retrieve them. What is lost is the original aesthetics. We are not to take on calligraphy instead of typing. But we are supposed to bring type closer to the essence and aesthetics of calligraphy in today's atmosphere.
SM: How do you apply this aesthetics in your works? Where in your works are essence and aesthetics visible?
BS: I think to recover Iranian aesthetics we have to understand it first. This understanding and recognition as much as recognizing a culture is subconscious and indirect and follows the law of attraction. I think in the course of my work the more I have become intimate with Iranian thought, culture and art, the more my work has become Iranian. This is not a mathematical relationship. For example, if someone relates to the Iranian intellectuals and mystics he will doubtlessly be affected. This means connecting to such a strong source of energy that its subconscious trace is not only seen on one's work but also visible in the smallest angles of his life. For an artist whose first priority is his life this will be much stronger and evident. Although these are general arguments but let me go back to our own specialized field.
As I said, I think to represent and recover the ancient Iranian aesthetics it has to be understood first. You asked about aesthetics in my typography. I must say that Persian calligraphy for me is a way to make codes such as type and letters comprehendible in the visual world. So these meaningful elements cannot be received except by understanding their eternal meaning. And by understanding these two - the visual aesthetics and its core meaning - and understanding the relation between the two, the aesthetics can be decoded. That's why I think without understanding any one of the two it is impossible to receive the whole.
Here I want to refer back to the subject at the beginning of our discussion - the methods of treating graphic design. The previous generations paid much attention to illustration but now design boasts independently. My outlook is to reach that pure atmosphere of design in my work. This is strongly inherent. Entering the world of graphic design is possible through many ways. One can enter illustratively but typography is the design part of the work. So I think giving texture to types or making textures out of types which is quite prevalent in many Iranian works although attractive but it is not much of a structural work in typography. By the same token, illustration with type is more like illustration than typography. It is not about good or bad. I'm explaining my taste and style of work. These two perceptions exist in the whole realm of graphic design today. But we can predict that the future graphic design is something more than design and much less than illustration.
SM: Types in essence are abstract forms that possess a mystical and coded appearance only discovered by reading and therefore, they are inclined towards form than towards atmosphere. This difference is like words against speech. Until words are read they are mere forms but once read they gain atmosphere and create meanings in the mind. My interpretation is that we pour liquids into a dish not of the same texture and then we make justifications. We move the skeleton of Persian letters and words towards settling between two lines and then we bring forth a calligraphic impression.
BS: There are points in your words worth the discussion and probing into. This is your taste and perhaps you regard tradition as unchangeable. But I see calligraphy as my impression of it today. It is the perception of one whom in calligraphy and lettering looks for materials for his work. I'm not a calligrapher. I have typographic impressions of letters and calligraphy. Sometimes by entering the realm of calligraphy we get stuck there. It has so much appeal that staying in it is pleasing. I have done works that I have enjoyed the course of doing them but at the end I have also seen that there is not enough of 'me' in them. So I've put them aside and looked at them as study cases for my final work. The final work that will contain my signature and fits in the course of my work; work wherein tradition has turned to modern combination. Like you I also avoid making strips with Persian types. This linear look at Persian writing results in the typefaces that none of us are keen to work with. On the other hand the immediate use of textures, coloring and far eastern atmospheres in order to immediately easternize the work is another downfall that exists in Iranian works. These are all external encounters with the work and not an internal perception. I however, like integration not only in graphic design but also in everything; music, painting, cinema, new art and even life.
SM: What do you mean by integration?
BS: I am subconsciously attached to the past. I also enjoy seeing progressive Western designs. Basically, I cannot see the beauty of the old work like they did in the past. This is quite natural. I live in today so subconsciously I even combine in my observation and this is the life story of all of us. Isn't the language that we speak, integrated? Life is a big integration. In this great fusion though choice also becomes determining. In this time of many choices knowledge, power and speed in choosing shape the art works. But meanwhile, sometimes choices with little insight and experience push the work towards chaos. There was a time when the sheer printing of a work was quite an event for the designer. In that time which is not too distant, a printed work meant an approved work and it was considered a model. But with modern day technology print has lost its validity. This unlimited access to print and copying has rendered the designer freedom of action and comfort but brought confusion to the adaptable student. This makes choosing more important yet more difficult.
SM: Sometimes the integration involves what's in fashion in Europe and America added with an Iranian image or element. This is the surface of the matter and anyone can do that. Sometimes the combination is being a modern human being - or better said a modern graphic designer - plus having an understanding of the depth and essence of Iranian culture. I object to the blend that is now turned into a taste.
BS: These are the results of wrongful consumption. Inevitably, not everyone produces original design style. There are always those who follow the fashion. They consume fashion. The bigger problem of course is our cultural authorities; those who have embarked on cultural activities without knowledge and place important orders with people who have the least creativity and the most complacency.
One of the media that strongly affects people's visual taste is television. Here of course I'm only speaking from a design point of view. I leave the other problems to other specialists. The appearance of our national media is hopeless. Incidentally, one of the least expensive and attractive segments of television is graphic design. We can see this in international networks that by proper art direction and sound format design they have made such characters for themselves. This goes back to our bigger problem which is the minimal influence of graphic design on our society. We have many genius designers in Iran, perhaps more top notch designers than in many advanced countries. But for every one of them there are too many a producer of low quality works and this reduces our average grade.
SM: We have created this fashion with some of our works. So we are responsible for it. I believe the works in which form is dominant and better said works that rely on design in the sense that you use, are copied easier and become fashion. Type and typography also have such properties. Everyone can easily do the type and it is not hard to shuffle these forms but the difficulty lies in how to break the rules to gain a correct output. I want to go back to your works. The question is how the disarrayed writings in two books with two very different subjects are the same. How differently have you treated the two books?
BS: I look for order in my works not chaos. In fact, what I do is to recover the order and beauty in Persian types. What I disarray is the Western typesetting machines that with the import of type machines have afflicted our writing. What you call chaos in my opinion is retrieval; the retrieval of Iranian aesthetics that I attempt to express in modern language. Even stylish Western designers that have thousands of choices for their writing, become focused on one typeface for a period of a few years. This is all part of the personal style. I always have a hidden scenario in the typography of my works. Everything follows that. Choosing types, size, lining, typographic composition, compression, form changes, breaking and omission, color and playing with frame, relation to image or possibility of independent type presence, type or image dominance and much other stuff. But frankly, many of these choices are subconscious and spontaneous. I do have the courage to design a work as I like it. And in the course I'm not after justifying the shadow of the client. I see many of the harmonies after finishing my work. And sometimes I'm so enthusiastic about the presence of a personal style that I give it priority. I mean in order to generate an understandable-to-all idea I don't change my work that contains hidden and symbolic signals on the subject. This is why with more attention to my works the differences and specifics of subjects become evident. I am always interested in a larger whole than the limited subject of my work. Years ago one of the publishers that I had designed a book cover for was disappointed at the complexity of my book cover designs. But I have to say that I have a personal opinion on every subject and I only send my works for printing when I have reached them. I am not much interested in bold and obvious expressions and ideas. I think sometimes a work can elevate so high that it can turn into a manifesto for the subject. I don't mean to deviate from the subject. I mean to elevate it. And this elevation from the subject can easily be understood in Rumi's Mathnawi book of poems. Rumi, with a small story, addresses such sublime meanings that studying the course of this conceptual flight has always been appealing to me. In the Iranian literature there are many fictional verses and prose but the distinct characteristic of Rumi's Mathnawi lies in his height of perception. This makes a work special and lasting.
SM: In all of the examples you mentioned there is subject too. Rumi for a sublime meaning and because of the audience's understanding begins from a trivial and daily subject and reaches the essence, which is the exalted goal. It is important to understand the subject and present it in a clear personal approach. Every designer in the course of his work eliminates extras and reaches more purity and clarity.
BS: Graphic design for me is personal codes and brief language that I try to reach. During my work many of these codes appear automatically. These are in fact the outlets of people's inner life; the impressions that they've had from within and without. I deliberate to see where they go. Some settle and others pass. Perhaps the artist's personal style is the result of this passages and settlements. For me the path I go through is the foundation. I am interested in expanding the achieved results and I think this means personal style. It is like creating a new language for which we have regulated a grammar after its emergence.