Salem Al Qassimi, Founder of Fikra Design Studio

Salem Al Qassimi, a graphic designer from Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, received his Bachelors degree from the American University of Sharjah. After working and doing freelance projects for various companies and individuals both in the UAE and UK, his passion for this art grew even more.

In 2006, he founded Fikra, a multidisciplinary design studio based in Sharjah, which specializes in bilingual graphic design (in both Arabic and English). Fikra works across a variety of media (both time-based and print), including book design, data-visualizations, environmental graphics, bilingual typography, identity creation, interactive design, and motion graphics.

The studio's philosophy is deeply rooted in investigating new pathways for problem-solving through design exploration and education. Within a short period of time, Fikra gained its reputation as one of the leading graphic design studios in the UAE.

But Al Qassimi didn’t stop there. In 2011, he graduated with an MFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

Today, Al Qassimi is often invited as an external critic at the American University in Dubai (AUD), and teaches a course titled "The Design Profession" at the American University of Sharjah (AUS).

We got the chance to sit down with the talented Al Qassimi, to learn more about his story and his profession.

How and when did your interest in art begin?

During high school, I was particularly interested in sculpture, drawing, and painting, and took classes to enhance my skills. I always thought of art as a hobby and never as a career option. When applying to university, I selected 3 different majors – the first was Management Information System, the second was Computer Science, and the third was Multimedia Design. Luckily, I ended up in the Multimedia Design program, and the foundation year made me realize that I was in the right place.

After completing my undergraduate studies, I worked for several design companies in the UAE and the UK. And in 2006 I started Fikra Design Studio as a way to allow me to freely experiment with my own projects. I ended up taking on several bilingual branding projects (Arabic and English) which got me interested in understanding its cultural significance. I then went on to pursue an MFA in Graphic Design from RISD where my thesis was an investigation of the bilingual culture/identity of the UAE.

"Muslim," one of Al Qassimi's projects as a student at RISD

Did your family encourage you to pursue your interest in design? Or were there some concerns?

My family is fairly traditional, so to pursue a career in the arts was somehow seen as insignificant because it was thought to be a hobby and not a career option. However, they were very supportive of my decision to do what I wanted to do, and to study Multimedia Design. It was a learning process for them as it was for me. By the time I went for my MFA in Graphic Design, I was already established and it was an easy approval from them.

Tell us more about Fikra and how you came up with the idea.

I established Fikra in September 2006 after not being able to find the right design studio to work for in the UAE. In fact, there was no "experimental" design studio in the UAE that allowed room for experimentation. Fikra became the place that allowed me and other designers to continue to work on self-initiated projects while working on commercial ones.

What do you hope to achieve with Fikra?

I hope for Fikra to continue to be a used as a platform for design exploration and education and by that to be able to contribute to the enhancement of design, art, and culture in the region.

Hybrid Dress: A hybrid of Western and Arabic clothing

Can you tell us about the “Arabish” project that you executed back in 2011?

Arabish was the thesis topic for my MFA in Graphic Design at RISD. It was an investigation of the Arabish (Arabic and English) culture in the United Arab Emirates. As a designer, I address this emerging Arabish culture from a personal & global perspective. Graphic design is a powerful method of research and communication. I use it as a means to comment on hybrid cultural elements—dress, language, and urban landscape. It is my vehicle, helping me and others better understand the UAE identity and its emerging Arabish culture.

Who or what inspires you when it comes to your work?

I am inspired by many of the contemporary experimental graphic design practices that push the boundaries that define the discipline.

What encouraged you to start teaching? And what do you feel you can give to the students?

I enjoy teaching very much. For me, it is about learning as much as it is about teaching – if not more. I use teaching as a way to further explore topics I am interested in. I am often invited as a critic or "juror" at the AUD for graduating Visual Communication students' degree projects and portfolio reviews. I teach a class at AUS that introduces design students to the business of design and some of its issues, and encourages critical discourse in design.

ADAM, a collaborative project between Fikra and Pink Tank, is a tool to map the systems of collaboration between designers in the Arab world

The popularity of art has recently been increasing among the youth, particularly with the females. GCC males are quite resistant to it, do you think this will change?

I believe it is changing, slowly. I don't necessarily see an increase in the enrollment of men in art and design schools, but I see an increasing interest in the field of art and design in general on a professional level. The current economic situation is not helping students choose a career in the arts, but it is helping start-ups and boutique design studios to flourish. To be honest, I don't think students are enrolling in art and design schools because the educational infrastructure is not promoting it, and it's not taking the creative industry seriously. I think to be able to change the mentality, the government should be involved in rendering the importance of the creative industry on the economy.

What is your ultimate goal?

To help define a unique creative industry for the region – the UAE, the GCC, and the Arab world as a whole. This can only be done through education and with the help of governmental institutions and creative hubs. I believe we have a unique situation where our culture can be used as a means to build up on existing and established systems – institutions and councils in the design, arts, and culture – to create a unique creative economy.

Can you share with us some of your upcoming projects?

I am working on very exciting projects, some collaborative, some personal, and some with clients. We currently rebranded the The National Pavilion of the UAE for the Venice Biennale and are in the process of developing the overall theme for the event. We are developing ADAM, a collaborative project between Pink Tank and Fikra in creating a tool that visualizes collaborative networks in the Arab world. Fikra is also in the process of developing a series of workshops as part of our educational element. There are a few more projects but many of which are still confidential that I can't reveal yet.

– Mohammad AlBanna

A collaborative project between Fikra and Pink Tank commissioned by the UAE Embassy in Washington
Bilingual logo, typography and identity creation for Tashkeel by Fikra Design Studio
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