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Arfa Rehman is a master’s student in sociology at Oxford University. Originally from India, she is a resident of Saudi Arabia, a graduate of New York University Abu Dhabi, and a former Rhodes Scholar. After winning the logo competition for our new series on youth-led initiatives, Millennial Gulf, AGSIW interviewed Rehman to discuss her interests, her design philosophy, the concept behind her logo and header, and her views on Gulf, or Khaleeji, youth and the diversity of the region.
The challenge of capturing the essence of GCC youth is a testament to the unique context and energy of this group and the region. My design process has aimed to do justice to the distinctive makeup of the GCC youth and the artistic culture and heritage of the GCC, as well as the premise and vision of Millennial Gulf. I hope this sentiment is visible in my work, and so is my excitement at creating something that is for and by GCC youth. – Arfa Rehman
AGSIW: Tell us about your background and how you got into graphic design.
Arfa: I am currently a master’s student at Oxford studying sociology and will do an MBA next year as a joint degree. I am originally from India. I moved to Saudi after my mom got a job teaching at a university there when I was 11. I moved to the UAE for four years while I completed my undergraduate studies at NYU Abu Dhabi. I got into design pretty serendipitously; I was at NYU and I had started doing a major in social research and public policy and I happened to be placed in a design course taught by a visiting professor who was a graphic designer from Italy. It was a really intense three-week course geared toward really practical, real-world projects and I completely fell in love. I had done basic design before. I taught myself Photoshop when I was a kid for fun but when I took this class I took it more seriously and decided to do a double major in visual arts.
AGSIW: What made you want to enter the logo competition for Millennial Gulf?
Arfa: I read the brief, which detailed what it was about and instantly I thought, this is an intersection of everything I am interested in and care about. The fact that it is for youth in the GCC, that it’s a platform for stories related to entrepreneurship, innovation, literature, and art… It hit all the points and things I am interested in. I knew I could come up with something that would fit what the competition was looking for because I am interested in everything the series is going to be about.
AGSIW: In your statement submission you wrote about the use of design for social impact. Can you talk about how you see design as a medium for change?
Arfa: I am interested in design for social causes and impact, so my interest has always been in working for NGOs or social organizations that are working on issues I care about. I’ve worked in marketing and design, fundraising campaigns, and at NYU I co-founded a design group with another student and worked with other students on projects based mostly on campus so it was kind of a way to bring design in and use it for campus projects.
I see a lot of potential in design for social issues, which is my reason for combining arts and design with social issues in my education and work. I think we need designers who can understand and research social issues and then apply design thinking to tackle those issues. I can see design serving social causes in organizations – though a lot of times they don’t have the resources – but I think it can be an efficient mechanism to amplify social messages. Visual communication is such a fundamental part of how we interpret and digest information and has a lot of power because it can make important, complex issues comprehensible and relatable and thus strengthen the work of these organizations. That’s what I’ve tried to do in the past and hope to do in the future. Social design is a niche but an emerging field and I think it is really exciting because people are starting to see the potential and the applicability of design in addressing social issues, so I find it very exciting.
AGSIW: Tell us about the logo and the header you made and the concept behind the design.
Arfa: In the competition announcement, the use of Arabic and English was encouraged and I started thinking about ways to do that. I am drawn to Arabic calligraphy as it is used in a lot of designs in the region, and though it is sometimes seen as traditional, it has been adapted for modern use. I used Kufic calligraphy because it is beautiful and can be used in interesting ways to modernize. I drew inspiration from that and played around with the letters. I wanted to enclose it in something that can be used as a stand-alone logo and I was working with different patterns. I found myself drawn to the hexagon, which has six sides to represent all six GCC countries.
The header was meant to go with the logo and for the logo to fit into it. I’m really into patterns and I love geometric designs so I wanted to make the header colorful. When I was working with just the pattern it was vibrant, but I felt like it needed something to showcase what the series was about. I re-read the competition announcement and drew from the topics the series aimed to highlight, with a GCC vibe: the cityscape, the cell phone for technology, the handwriting for literature and art, and the strings, which represent innovation.
AGSIW: In your design statement, you wrote about the dynamism and diversity you see in youth in the Gulf. Can you talk about this in relation to your experience there?
Arfa: Moving to the Gulf was really eyeopening for me because of the really diverse population that comprises it. My perceptions of youth in the GCC are informed by my experience studying at NYU in the UAE, which to me is a microcosm of the social fabric of the Gulf, because it’s a collection of really smart and interesting people from all over the world coming together to learn and create really interesting things. I think the kind of exchange of ideas that take place in institutions like this is not replicable anywhere else because that kind of diversity is so unique. Another thing that has informed my view of the Gulf is research I did on entrepreneurship in the UAE. This was for my senior year research project and I did qualitative research on Emirati entrepreneurs, and talked to a lot of young people in the UAE who are doing really cool things and attempting to contribute to society through entrepreneurial activity.
I think the youth citizens are faced with challenges in terms of certain stereotypes about them – that they are inactive, lack skills, talent, motivation. These stereotypes are pervasive not only in the region, but globally. To me they are unfounded because I have seen firsthand, researched, and am friends with people who are incredibly motivated and doing great work in their communities. So many of them are socially driven and trying to enact change in their community. I think what’s so exciting about this region and what I’ve seen in the UAE is that youth are such an instrumental part in where the country is going. Someone I went to school with recently got named minister of youth in the UAE – this is what I mean, the youth are doing incredible things and the country is creating the environment and opportunities to facilitate that. So for me, living there was an incredible opportunity in terms of seeing what people are doing. It has been really exciting and inspirational.
AGSIW: As someone who grew up in the Gulf as a non-national where nationality is a strong marker of difference, how do you view the differences between nationals and non-nationals? After living there for so long do you feel a sense of belonging to the region?
Arfa: The differences are there. They are known and acknowledged and it is a unique experience to be there because you are in this state of limbo between belonging and non-belonging. People can spend their entire lives there and still not be citizens but will feel they belong there. I spent most of my life in the Gulf and whenever I am asked to introduce myself I can’t just say I am Indian because it feels like it is only half of me and I am not giving the whole story. I wouldn’t say I am Khaleeji, but I feel a real attachment to the place and to the region and wherever I go and whatever issue I think about, I am always thinking about how it applies to the GCC.
AGSIW: What are your future and postgraduate plans?
Arfa: I’m doing an MBA next year. Ideally, I want to have design as a part of whatever I am doing and I can see myself continuing in the path of using design for socially oriented organizations. Post-MBA, I plan to work primarily and hopefully in the social entrepreneurship field because that is what I am interested in and I hope to incorporate design into that work because it is what I love doing.
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