In Morocco, a graphic designer is an unthinking technician behind an old computer. A 2-year certificate is enough to be called a graphic designer. If one wasn’t really good enough at school, this was the perfect hideout. After graduating, graphic designers spend their days drinking coffee in sketchy coffee shops and making awful brochures in the back of a small printing shop. If they are lucky enough, they will end up in a studio to execute ideas until they die. They are usually bitter, monotone, and smell like a cold ashtray.
FYI, my parents are doctors. My dad is one of the best gynecologists in Tangier, a respected and avant-garde intellectual who leads conferences and has done many humanitarian missions. My mother is a caring, strong pediatrician. She gave more than twenty years of her life to volunteer for the abandoned children. She is the kind of woman who would sleep on a dirty floor of a hospital to save a life. Both of them have always wanted me to have a brilliant career, like any other parent I suppose, and to follow in their footsteps. Going into the arts wasn’t part of it, for it has almost no value in the society where I grew up. Art, in Morocco, is for the vulgar, for the feckless, for the dropouts, for the kids who couldn’t do any better. Plus, they didn’t want me to be bitter, monotone, and smell like a cold ashtray.
When I was little, after finishing my homework, bedtime came too quickly. But I found what I thought was a wild trick. Every night, with a quickened heartbeat and clammy hands, I jumped over my bed, ran into the bathroom, and locked myself in it. I found freedom within those four white walls, beneath the hum of a bright, aggressive halogen light. I painted on the floor of my bathroom during my entire childhood to save my Brobdingnagian imagination (clearly, I had been reading far too much Jonathan Swift and, at the time, was obsessed with anything Lilliputian, drawing tiny creatures in a tinier land) until my mother came to interrupt the sparkle in my eyes. She knew then that I would never want to be a doctor and her hopes, however feint, were dashed. I left behind my parents, and their ideals, as I grew up and imagined myself becoming an artist. Chuck Close thought we “should slowly do what we want instead of going directly to it.” So I had to go to a business school because my mother made me choose between “a blessing or a curse.” Her words, not mine.
A curse? What does that even mean? Studying art would make me evil? Will that curse make me bitter, monotone, and smell like a cold ashtray?
However, there was a bit of a silver lining. For being an excellent student, my dad offered me my first easel. I could now stop painting on the floor of a bathroom.
Twenty years later, I had finished my B.A., my mother’s so-called “blessing,” and was working as a copywriter for the leading advertising agency in Morocco. It was late at night, maybe 2 a.m. A last minute brief. As usual. During that brainstorming session, I was drawing to help my brain focus and stay productive. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge said: “painting is the intermediate somewhat between a thought and a thing.” Suddenly, a brutal silence made me stop my process of finding the big idea. I raised my head, and saw my art director staring at me.
He said: “you’re the only one here who has this.”
“This” was something that he couldn’t name. He simply gazed at my drawing. I understood he was talking about my lifelong passion for the arts. At that moment, I knew I had to do everything to pursue what my heart was always striving for: going into the arts. Because I had “this”, my art director allowed me to discover the magical world of Adobe Suite.
“This is graphic design? Oh boy!”
I had an epiphany. This was it! This was what I should be doing everyday!
I installed the Suite in my MacBook, and learned the basics. I had no idea where I was going with this, but my drive was becoming stronger and stronger. I left the agency and free-lanced during 2 years. My objective was to work on art projects only. I still did copywriting, but started designing small stuff for small clients, experimented different techniques, and did few exhibitions. I was living in a bubble.
Then, life happened. I left my ex husband. In Morocco, getting a divorce comes with a medieval pack of countless semi-scandalous, semi-funny and entirely ridiculous judgments. Hell has decided to stay longer in my life; certainly because I had to start over from Degree 0 as Barthes would think. Something must break down in all of us. Well. It sure did. And I was the lucky protagonist of all the little conversations since I dared to hope for better days. Tired of everything, I travelled for 5 months. When I came back, I needed a new beginning. A structure. Something that could keep me overbusy. Something like… the agency life!
I wanted to do more than a copywriter’s job, even if my title was copywriter. So, I designed prints, illustrated storyboards, and edited videos. My boss used to call me a concept provider. I was neither a copywriter, nor an art director. I was a creative. Honestly, the only good thing I did as a creative was Flawlessness, a campaign against domestic violence. It’s really hard to sell the big idea in Morocco for 3 main reasons:
- Clients think their audience is stupid
- Too many voices are giving their fucking opinion
- Agencies don’t know how to say no
As I didn’t have fun doing shit everyday, I had to leave Morocco for my own sanity. I decided to go back to school. I started my MFA in Graphic Design.
History repeats itself.
“This is graphic design? Oh boy!”
First semester: I enrolled in a typography class with Jarred Elrod, a really fucking talented designer. This class blew my mind. I learned to break a grid. I learned the difference between Helvetica and Univers. I learned to animate a logo. I learned to use thread and a needle to put together a saddle-stitch magazine. I learned that screen-printing makes me happy. I learned that letterpress feels like heaven. I learned that graphic design isn’t limited to a computer. Paula Scher became my favorite designer. And I met my hero.
Now, I teach undergrads that graphic design is good storytelling while I’m continually learning what graphic design means. And you’ll be happy to know that none of my student is bitter, monotone, and smells like a cold ashtray.