Signs of the Times


Sophie Chamas


Essa Almasri & Hussein Alazaat


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Khaled’s business has been situated in Jabal Al Nuzha, where Alazaat’s parents live, for decades. Two years ago, his small shop was little more than a discrete, somewhat dilapidated dent in the worn down walls of his street, undistinguished by any kind of marker that could point passersby towards his skills.

Alazaat and Almasri, colleagues at a design agency in Amman who have long been adamant that design and branding should serve a social and not merely commercial purpose, wanted to use their knowledge and expertise not only to help Khaled refresh his business, but also to prove to him that he is acknowledged, appreciated and still needed by the surrounding community.

‘Ali and I settled on creating a design for the glass of his shop front,’ explains Alazaat. ‘We started with the hat, because we were trying to find a metaphor or an iconic element to reflect Khaled’s personal story. We could have helped him out by using any computer font to write “tailor shop” on the glass. But, we chose the harder route, creating special lettering, custom typography and illustrations.’

People were delighted to see this illustrated, younger and more virile version of the tailor, his grey facial hair coloured black, his usual casualwear replaced with a classic suit. Most importantly, Khaled himself was overjoyed. ‘He felt like his shop now existed somehow, and that there are people out there who care about him,’ says Almasri.

The young designers – 32 and 27 respectively – saw in the success of the Khaled project the potential for an organic, grassroots Arabic branding culture, one that is oriented towards small businesses rather than large corporations, and that is rooted in the local heritage surrounding it. They called themselves Wajha, which translates to ‘façade’ in English.

‘If you think about the name,’ explains Almasri, ‘it communicates the interaction between shop owners, their storefronts and passersby, and it also reflects the importance of branding. The customer’s first encounter with a shop is through its façade.’

The duo believe that a city makes an impression on both visitors and residents through its signage, through the way it ‘brands’ its streets and the shops and venues that define them. Signs, they explain, blend into one another, forming the urban face of the city. ‘The people responsible for signage in most Arab cities these days,’ argues Almasri, ‘usually have a background in production. They don’t know anything about design or typography. Thirty years ago this industry was dominated by calligraphers and craftsmen’ – predecessors of what are today referred to as graphic designers. ‘If we leave this key component of the city’s façade to people without the right kind of knowledge,’ continues Alazaat, ‘they will ruin it. This is why we chose to interfere.’

What the two offer local shop owners is simply a design for their shop front. They don’t touch the interior or attempt to ‘modernise’ the business in any way. ‘We find shops that are in need. We approach them on our own and offer our services – design and production – for free,’ Alazaat says. ‘We want our design to have a logic, to have a strong relationship with a shop owner. We don’t do fantasy work. We could, but we don’t.’

Alazaat and Almasri scavenge for shops hidden not only in Jordan’s more underdeveloped corners, but also deep within its cultural arteries. They point tourists in popular areas like downtown Amman towards what they call the city’s ‘noble businessmen’, small-scale professionals who, unbeknown to most, helped weave the city’s cultural fabric – like the owner of Elmuhtaseb Bookshop. ‘He had started selling books at really cheap prices and the rent for his shop increased. Everything was against him,’ says Alazaat.

They approached him, like they do all of their potential customers, looking to derive as much technical information as they could, from the shop’s legal name to the items the owner preferred they highlight in their redesign. They asked, as has become their custom, questions about his personal life, how he had spent the last 10 years, his hobbies and the simple pleasures that bring him joy. Interestingly, they never inquire about the owners’ design preferences. They don’t even allow them to preview the design prior to installation.

‘To be honest, in our region, especially in cities like Amman, many people have bad taste when it comes to visual and design culture. We want to fix this, because we are experts in branding, Arabic typography and graphic design, and we understand small businesses,’ Alazaat says.

They do, elaborates Almasri, attempt to compensate the owners for excluding them from the design process by ensuring that the final product reflects their identity and personal charm. ‘With the bookshop, for example, we spray-painted a fisherman onto the façade, because fishing is the owner’s hobby. We thought this would please him.’

A month or two of in-depth research into a given shop, its owner and the history of the neighbourhood, preface Wajha’s design process. Typographic experimentation is crucial to the duo’s approach. ‘We try to do four things,’ Almasri makes clear, ‘incorporate a retro element, refreshing the old dimensions of Arabic type; play with calligraphy; create custom lettering; and use both English and Arabic type to reflect the bilingual nature of Amman.’

Their ambitions grow with every successful experiment. What began merely as alterations to shop fronts evolved with the second ‘bookshop’ project, into business cards, stamps, bookmarks and other branded items. ‘Some people come in and say “Ammo, I want a bookmark,” and that’s all they come in to buy,’ comments Alazaat. ‘Every day the shop owner opens his shutters and the first thing he interacts with is our designs. This kind of appreciation really helps a noble business. We gave him hope.’

The designers’ fourth project took things even further, introducing a graffiti-based advertising system into the mix. Amman, they explain, is famous for its stairs. Abu Ahmad Barbershop is located next to one such set of historical steps and, unlike the pair’s previous projects, it doesn’t boast a glass front. To steer traffic towards Abu Ahmad, Alazaat and Almasri had to transform the stairs themselves into the shop’s façade.

‘We went to a traditional sign maker who still works with brushes and oil paints and asked him to apply our design onto a metal surface. We hung the pieces on the wall by the entrance to the stairs and the shop.’ Wanting to create a path to the barbershop rather than a mere sign indicating its presence, they graffitied the simple illustrative icons – scissors, a comb, a traditional razor – they had created, along with the word ‘barbershop’ in a total of six languages, onto the steps as well as throughout the downtown area.

‘Everyone was curious about the project,’ reflects Alazaat. ‘At first they were suspicious, asking around if the government did it [laughs], wondering what these strange icons were for. But when we finished they were happy because they felt it would attract tourists.’

Two years since its humble beginnings with Khaled in Jabal Al Nuzha, Wajha has not run out of steam. Almasri and Alazaat are currently sprucing up a small grocery store in the very same neighbourhood where their initiative first began, and are planning to extend their philanthropic design skills to a baker, a goldsmith and a blacksmith.

Design, they believe, is not just a profession. It is a culture and a social responsibility. It can, they confidently proclaim, ‘change the world’. For the time being, it certainly appears to be transforming the Jordanian façade.

This article appears in the issue44Buy Now