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Interview By Kathryn Weinstein
Illustrations and Photographs Courtesy of Areej Khan
Background Illustrations By Anna Poguliaeva

Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 41, Issue 1, Spring 2016)

Areej at the age of three dressed
in traditional Bedouin clothing.

Areej Khan is a designer whose work bridges the social, cultural, and intellectual gaps between the West and the Middle East. Her museum and exhibit design, content translation, and project strategy in the Middle East has defined her role as a cultural interpreter—respecting the differences between cultures while honoring the similarities they share. In this interview, Areej Khan shares a little bit about her life, interests, and projects.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background?

A: I was born and raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the fourth of five children to my amazing makers. I spent my summers going to school and camps in California. Both my parents had gone to college in the United States, and it was important to them for their children to get a well-grounded education in both countries. My oldest sister, Ghada, was my biggest creative influence growing up. From customized T-shirts and sweatshirts to comics and ridiculously detailed birthday cakes, she was very artistic and spent most of her free time making things. I was nine when she left home for college when her room became my secret garden. I’d study her artwork for hours and I drew inspiration from it to make my own. Like all my older siblings, my parents had planned for me to go to college in the United States. Much to the world’s despair, 9/11 happened at the start of my senior year in high school. I was sixteen at the time, very sheltered, and still uncertain about what I wanted to do exactly. The general attitude towards Arabs that was an unfortunate result of that event deterred me from applying to schools in the United States and I decided to stay in Saudi.

The N7nu—We the Women logo is a tribute to the brave women who dressed like men to drive throughout the history of the country and is inspired by the pictograms used to identify male and female sections and restrooms in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Arabian Gulf, Areej Khan, 2009.

Q: Dar Al-Hekma College was the first college in Saudi Arabia to offer an undergraduate degree in Graphic Design and you were one of the first students to receive a degree. What prompted you to pursue a degree in graphic design?
Dar Al-Hekma—now a university—was one of the first private colleges established for women in Saudi Arabia. I visited the campus in Jeddah and was instantly drawn to how progressive it was in comparison to other schools I had visited in Riyadh. I was not exactly set on a major but was certain I wanted to be in design. I originally applied to the interior design program but a registration error lead to me being enrolled into graphic design. When I realized this error on the first day of classes, I was encouraged to attend as noted on my schedule and told I could switch within the first week. (Relatively new college with two new majors that year, first day, chaos at registration.) I walked into my first Art Appreciation class and I met Jenny Spencer, the instructor who had moved from London to start the Graphic Design program. She spoke about art, but she also spoke about the power of graphic design. Designers are like sponges. They absorb all that is around them and then create beautiful things people did not know they needed to see. Even though I’d made endless custom mix-tape covers, cards, and posters in high school, I’d never thought of it as a field because of where and how I was raised. It was everything I already loved to do but was always told was just a hobby. I was hooked! The program was developed under the advisory of the Texas International Education Consortium. All new programs have hiccups, but this one had additional limitations at its start because it was the first of its kind in the country and faculty, materials, resources, and supplies were not readily available locally. We would not always have the right instructors at the right time due to visa and scheduling issues and there were a few shuffles in the order of the curriculum. Supplies had to be ordered in to the local stationery stores. Printmaking and photo development labs had to be built into the campus. I like to think all of those hurdles gave me, and the other eleven women I graduated with, a unique angle. The program has since grown immensely and has had the highest number of graduates per year from the university since 2009. 

Left: N7nu speech bubble: “I want to drive because I am no less than any man or woman from a different country,” 2009; Center: Hadouken—Arabic style, 2005; Right: Areej Khan on set of the N7nu—We the Women launch video shoot, 2009.

Q: What were your first jobs in design and how did you find work?
A: I got my first design internship through Dar Al-Hekma at Fullstop Advertising after my freshman year. Fullstop is a local Saudi agency that had just entered the market and had ten employees at the time. There were only two designers on staff who spoke Arabic and had a deep understanding of the local market. That meant that I got to dive straight into developing campaigns with the creative director. I learned a lot very quickly and continued to freelance for them during the next school year. After graduating, I was hired as a junior art director at Albert Promoseven, the Middle East arm of McCann Erickson. It was a giant in comparison to Fullstop and there, I dove into a larger think tank-type work environment. In addition to doing print advertising, I got to develop concepts and storyboards for TV campaigns. We had clients like McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Unilever, and several local snack and food brands. The work was a fun kind of challenging but I personally was always on the fence about advertising some of those brands and after a while found myself aching to do something different.

Left: Presidio Officers’ Club, 2014. Right: Detail of the Bruce Springsteen vignette inside the New Jersey Hall of Fame, 2013.

Q: You moved to New York in 2007, was that to pursue an MFA in Design at the School of Visual Arts (SVA)? Why did you decide to pursue an MFA? How did the experience impact your career, your growth of a designer? Did your campaign, “We the Women” come out of graduate studies?
A: After losing my grandmother in late 2006, I decided to take ten days off work to visit my older sisters in the Los Angeles area. I needed some sort of change. I decided to drive to Santa Monica one morning and walked into a design book store. There were several books my teachers had told me about that we could not get back home due to censorship, and so many others I had never heard of or imagined. It felt like Eid (my version of Christmas). While there, I came across Milton Glaser’s The Design of Dissent. I picked it up, plopped down to the floor, and flipped threw it for over an hour. I remember feeling elated to the point of tears and thinking that was the kind of design I wanted to do­—design FOR people and for social change. I realized I needed to learn more in order to do that. I went back to Saudi fuelled by this notion and determined to apply to graduate school. It was two weeks before most application deadlines and I had not ever considered it or spoken to anyone about it before. I had a lot of research to do. I looked up programs all over the US that focused on or encouraged that type of design, narrowed it down to three, and spent those two weeks going to work looking like a zombie because of sleep lost working on my application packages. In April, I got accepted to all three. I chose the Designer as Author Program at SVA because of its focus on content and substance as well as aesthetics and because it encouraged socially driven projects. It was only after I accepted the offer to attend there that I learned that Milton Glaser was on the faculty (and that he had reviewed my application).

Left: The Habitat Museum al Al-Shaheed Park in Kuwait City. Opening 2016. Right: Cofique branding, 2010.

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