Language, culture and visual identity

LAU delegation in Malaysia conference

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When Nathalie Fallaha walks down the streets of Beirut, she sees more than just the rush-hour traffic.

"What is the visual language of Lebanese streets?" asks Fallaha, who teaches in the design program of LAU's Arts and Communication Department. She has a keen eye for "window shops, street signs, different eclectic mixes of architecture, of chaos and order."

This is just one of the topics Fallaha discussed at the Kuala Lumpur Design Week March 27–April 4 in Malaysia. She and three of her students represented LAU as the conference's only delegation from Lebanon.

At the conference, Fallaha lectured, participated in forums and master classes, and exhibited her work, while her students discussed their thesis projects with international experts and interacted with design students from Southeast Asian nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

Fallaha shared her personal views about the importance of her field with conference participants. "Design is not just pretty shapes, ornaments and surface treatment," she said. "There is also the designer engaged socially, following his own cause," she added.

Fallaha also discussed in depth the use of the Arabic language in design—a subject of particular interest to her.

According to Fallaha, Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion, generally uses Arabic for its sacred function, instead of its aesthetic appeal.

However, "Arabic is not only linked to Islam," said Fallaha. "It's also a way of being and a form," not a part of religious identity only, she added. According to her, "the same way non-Japanese speakers relate to Japanese calligraphy, Arabic calligraphy and type have an inherent beauty, and should be celebrated."

Nour Noueihed, one of the students who accompanied Fallaha to the event, was inspired by her teacher's examination of Arabic form. Noueihed's thesis project involves using the Arabic script to shed light on women's rights in the Arab world.

Noueihed crafts images of women's faces and bodies by "creating shapes and forms from Arabic calligraphy."

One of the most glaring visual contrasts that Fallaha noticed between Beirut and Kuala Lumpur was the use of language in street signs. While Beirut blends Arabic, French and English, Kuala Lumpur does little to combine its various signs in Arabic, English and Chinese.

"There is no attention whatsoever to integrating those three forms of writing visually, whereas in Beirut, even though it doesn't work most of the time, there is a strong conscious effort to match them," Fallaha said. "It might come out as irrelevant or unaesthetic, but there is an effort," she added.

In addition to returning to the conference next year as a speaker, Fallaha is planning to write a book on authentic Lebanese design, an area where she sees a vacuum in today's design world.

She criticized the lack of design material that supports a distinctly Lebanese style and history. "Today, with the blurring of borders, the blurring of nationalities, there's an urgent need for design that affirms someone's sense of belonging and reinforces someone's sense of identity, instead of being used just for media bombardment and being the product of blending of references," Fallaha said.

In the meantime, Fallaha has dedicated herself to helping her students, the next generation of Lebanese graphic designers, examine what it means to be Lebanese and find a visual path to their own identity.