Pakistan: An Emerging Design Nation

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A new book shows off the country's sometimes flamboyant, often nuanced, and nearly always overlooked design culture

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With Pakistan's strained relationship to the West in the news, it is perhaps timely that a book focusing on Pakistan's graphic design, often strongly influenced by the West, has just been published. The impressive volume is titled Mazaar, Bazaar (mazaar: a tomb or shrine, usually revering a saint; bazaar: market). Edited by Saima Zaidi, a Karachi-based designer and teacher of design history, who was schooled at the National College of Arts, Lahore, and Pratt Institute, New York, it addresses the coexistence of contradictions prevalent in Pakistani design and visual culture, primarily the spiritual and material, as well as realism and fantasy, tradition and modernity.

An outsider, like me, would characterize Pakistani design as flamboyant and cluttered, usually hand-crafted. But Zaidi insists that "Pakistani design cannot truly be confined to a few adjectives: each design carries its own influences, inspirations."

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Zaidi explains that Pakistani design is pluralistic and diverse, reflecting a visual culture that evolved from centuries of exchange with many civilizations. "Also," she adds, "the society itself is heterogeneous, comprising of 180 million people, speaking several languages and dialects (although Urdu is the lingua franca, which itself is a hybrid of many languages, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Sanskrit etc.)."

Alongside pluralism there exist some similarities in design within sub-continental South Asia (India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan). But differences too: "The main difference between these three would be identified by the typography: The cursive Perso-Arabic script being used in Pakistan for the Urdu language," Zaidi explains. "This text is however similar to that being utilized by Iran and further away in the Middle-East. There is also a residual British impact because of the British Raj and the 300-year rule and the fact that English is spoken and is also an official language." What's more, the Western influence, through media and Internet, is evident, especially in the cities.

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Generally speaking, Pakistani vernacular culture is prevalent in its commercial design, as it speaks a language that the viewer can comprehend easily. Yet, Zaidi notes, "there is a huge difference between designs addressing the rural and urban population; the latter being more global, obviously due to exposure to the West."

Mazaar, Bazaar has the look of an official tome—biblical heft and format. The physical proportion of the book evokes the fairly large Mughal manuscripts. Yet when Zaidi started the project, she was not trying to be so ambitious. "It grew and grew!" she says. "It started off with a focus on only popular products and retail packaging. Then it was curiosity about the images that we see on a daily basis, which led me to document and research them (and appropriate writers—pursuing a variety of professions and disciplines, including art and design). They naturally started to fall into 'sections' and then it was more a case of filling certain gaps."

The book derives from the fact that Communication Design (graphic, product, brand) is the most sought-after program in any art and design school in the country, and the competition among designers is intense. Zaidi observes that over the past 15 years, owing to the computer, "a lot of people learn the design programs and run small, successful design studios with small printing presses becoming a one stop shop to get stationery, brochures, et cetera designed and printed. In fact, a few years ago, there was graffiti on walls in Karachi advertising courses in which you could 'become a graphic designer in 3 months.'"

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Despite such unrealistic claims, Zaidi insists, the Pakistani design education is quite good for undergraduates and over the years design theory and criticism have been taken more seriously. Students, however, need to leave the country if they want to earn a master's degree.

For work opportunities, the most successful and visible design firms are the ones affiliated with international advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, IAL Saatchi, and RLintas. Other studios like Creative Unit, Circuit, and D'Hamidi partnership from Pakistan also produce excellent work. Nonetheless, Zaidi says, "I am not very excited by the work being churned out by the advertising agencies and thus, generally did not include them in the book: they usually have multi-national accounts with their brand strategies developed in other countries."

Mazaar, Bazaar is not available in Western bookstores (yet), but it marks an important step in putting Pakistani design on the map in Pakistan. Zaidi, when asked if she sees volume two on the horizon, responds, "Hopefully."

Images: Courtesy of Saima Zaidi

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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