Publishers on design and visual culture of the Middle East and North Africa

Graphic design for social change

The El Hema project was a brilliant idea for launching five new typefaces. The public launch grew into one of the most remarkable manifestations in the history of Dutch graphic design. The El Hema project ran altogether for 2 years. First in Amsterdam and later in Rotterdam and The Hague. It became one of the best visited design exhibitions. The project was widely covered in the international press and on TV, receiving a level of media attention quite rare for graphic design, even in the Netherlands. The initiators of the El Hema project received the Dutch Design Prize in 2007, and ended up in the design collection of the Dutch Museum of the Image (MOTI).

The initial cause for the project was forgotten and almost entirely disappeared. The design prize confirmed the impact of publicity on our appreciation of design. The five new typefaces concerned were the result of the first ‘Typographic Matchmaking’ project initiated by Huda Smitshuijzen-AbiFarès. This project was subsidized by the Dutch government that at the time was keen on putting money into projects that could function as agents of cultural integration. The project brought together five renowned Dutch type designers and five Arab designers. The goal was to create a matching Arabic character set for existing (Latin) fonts. To make this collaboration work intense discussions and exchange of information on design and culture were essential.

The El Hema project extended the underlying goal of cultural integration marvelously. The Dutch design organization ‘Mediamatic’, with its outstanding reputation for organizing exhibitions and public events, saw the new typefaces as an opportunity to use all the visual material of a large popular Dutch retail chain ‘Hema’ and transform it into an ‘Arabized’ sister shop. To make this happen many more Dutch and Arab graphic designers had to work together to create a temporary ‘El Hema’ shop in the exhibition space of Mediamatic. The El Hema organizers were lucky, because the management of the Hema chain made a classic PR mistake by commissioning their lawyers to demand complete dismantling of the exhibition space on the ground of IP infringement. This move triggered the interest of the Dutch media and made the El Hema exhibition a national news item. When the El Hema shop opened, the event was covered by the local TV network, and there was a long queue of people waiting to get in. It was  Mediamatic’s most successful exhibition ever.

This books documents the story in all its details and shows in coloured images the range of products and activities that formed the ingredients of this unique social-design experiment and exhibition.