The Desi Designer #4 (See #1, #2, & #3), Babar Suleman, boasts an interesting mix of different skills and talents: he identifies as a designer, writer and marketer – yes, all three! We managed to catch up with him during his epoch for an in-depth Q&A. He talks about launching Pakistan’s first design themed business publication and making it happen as a Desi Designer.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m an Islamabad-born and New York-based Designer, Writer and Marketer. I just spent a year in the business school at LUMS, completed a stint in the Marketing department at Unilever and am currently attending Parsons the New School for Design for a graduate degree in design on the Fulbright scholarship.
What inspires you?
I’m, above all, interested in the human condition. During the last century we looked outwards into the space and the possibility of technology for many answers to some of our most pressing questions. But we are still grappling with fundamental questions of existentialism and fulfillment. It’s time to look inside as we stand today debating whether technological advancement for its sake is a worthwhile pursuit or should it be kept subservient to us- if that’s even possible anymore. It’s time to start looking inside. Design is really important because it emphasizes the user’s need at all times and, in doing so, it helps us humanize technology and consumer products.
In terms of inspiration, art that attempts to explore or say something very personal, very individualistic about the artist offers me the most inspiration, as it is the most honest and intimate expression of the human condition.
Is a formal training or education in your field important? Is it worth the time and monetary investment?
An education is always worth the investment. But whether that education takes place inside the formal structure of the schooling system, on your own or on the streets, that is entirely up to you and your circumstances. As they say, grad school is purely elective surgery. You should have the agency to make what you want out of it. The best thing about being in an art or design school, that you may not have access to otherwise, is the artists community and the time and space to experiment and work playfully in a safe environment. You don’t get to do the latter a lot in the ‘real world’.
What’s the best training/education route for a creative professional working in Pakistan? (as in, either a full-time degree from a dedicated creative school at home or abroad, short diploma-type courses from vocational institutes, self-training, or any other approach)?
I never even studied design formally before coming to New York so clearly there isn’t a set way. You aren’t required to have exceled in art class during elementary school or attended an art school for college. I first discovered design during an extracurricular activity and learned how to use an Adobe product through trial and error on my own. If you’re interested and passionate about design and the creative arts, you will carve out your own path. The means will vary.
About being a Pakistani designer studying in the best possible place for a designer?
I feel like I’m getting two great educations at the same time. At Parsons, I get to benefit from the academic content and superb talent present at one of the world’s most prestigious design schools and, living in New York, the city manages to teach me at least as much- which is something the school also encourages its students to make the most of. The public art, the galleries and museums, the history of it all- it’s incredibly immersive and enlightening. I was at Fuerza Bruta, an off-Broadway show, a few days back and it was probably one of the best shows to attend as a designer- both as a spectacle and a lesson in using the arts for a breathtaking experience.
Your favorite designers, artists and works?
Design wise, Dieter Rams is an obvious favorite and IDEO is, of course, irrefutable. The work of Stefan Sagmeister, Bill Moggridge and Paul Rand also resonate with me a lot. However, I love all art forms and my design work is informed by all of the things I’m interested in. So for instance, I love Edward Hopper’s paintings, Tennessee Williams’ and Patrick Marber’s plays, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, Italo Calvino’s short stories, Jane Austen novels, Lars Von Trier’s and Nicole Kidman’s film work, Sade’s and Bjork’s music and so much more. One way or the other, they all influence me and my design work.
Tell us about your personal favorite project(s) of your own?
I’ve been involved in a lot of interesting stuff in the past but I’m very passionate about a project called SHAHEEN that I’m working on these days with a group of Pakistanis from other prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT, Rutgers and LUMS. SHAHEEN aims to provide Pakistani students with the information and guidance needed for higher study at the world’s best institutions. I’m working on the look and feel of the user experience for the project’s website and as a project that combines two of the things I’m most passionate about- education and design- it’s very close to my heart.
While at LUMS, I headed the annual publication LUMS Business Review (LBR)’s ‘Design Issue’, a first for a major Pakistani business school. That project is also one of my favorites,
I’m also working on a large scale transmedia storytelling project at Parsons right now which is very exciting for me. I want to use technology and multimedia to explore narrative strategies and storytelling for the future.
LUMS Business Review’s Design Issue was indeed a very pleasant surprise. As the Chief Editor and Art Director, what was it like bringing design to the business academia?
Our country faces so many problems- in terms of infrastructure, education and healthcare etc. – and every one of these problems represents a business opportunity. However, we don’t really see a lot of creatively charged lucrative solutions coming through. Pakistani business schools are churning out good managers but there is a lacuna when it comes to entrepreneurship, social activism and true creativity.
When I assumed the roles of Chief Editor and Art Director for LUMS Business Review, I wanted to do my part in steering our part of the business world into the future and introducing readers to a fresh way of thinking about the problems faced by us. Design Thinking is not only effective at tackling ‘wicked’ or ‘ill-defined’ problems but also enables the creativity and rational ideation and implementation that are necessary to address business as well as social problems.
Many members of the LUMS community were unsure about the theme for the magazine so I had to do a lot of explanation and justification throughout the process. However, Design Thinking has such a strong backing internationally that it wasn’t hard to locate credibility and importance for the theme. Just a few months before the launch of LUMS Business Review, BusinessWeek had put their own first ever design issue and that helped in convincing skeptics towards dedicating an entire business publication to design.
Here, I have to give a shout out to my fellow MBA students at LUMS and members of the LBR team, Sara Ghazi, Ali Nasir, Faizan Faisal, Wakas Qamar and Nehan Hussain for their hard work and dedication.
Tell us about your work habits. Do you like deadlines? Are you easy to work with? Are you self-disciplined?
I like deadlines because I wouldn’t work otherwise. I also get bored really, really easily so if a project hangs on for an unnecessarily long time, I start losing interest.
I’m fairly easy to work with. I tend to have difficulty sharing creative control but, as a designer, collaboration is of the utmost importance and I’ve worked hard to be a great team player. I can be self-disciplined when it’s necessary. However, generally, I’m a very idyllic person who’d rather dream than do. I engage with the world reluctantly even if I’m pretty good at it.
What’s the best thing about being a creative?
Having the ability and means to enjoy the finer things in life, spearheading innovation and meeting incredibly talented people who enjoy the same things as you do.
How do you keep yourself energized, motivated and at your productive best?
That’s an ongoing challenge. Having a to-do list helps as does making myself responsible for projects and social engagements. Left to my own devices, I can be a bit of a hermit and isolate myself completely. By consciously committing myself to projects and people, I manage to avoid detachment as I take commitments and responsibility very seriously.
Your tools of choice? What apps, software and non-digital tools are essential to you?
Adobe Fireworks will always be a very special product for me as its low learning curve enabled me to step into the design world. I’m not a big sketcher because, controversial as it sounds even in modern design practice, I find it to be a skeuomorphic approach to designing for the web. I also suck at it so there’s that too. I find it easier to wireframe and prototype inside digital environments whether it’s the aforementioned Fireworks or InDesign for print work.
We have touched upon the business graduate and designer in you but you’re also a writer. Tell us about that part of yourself.
Being a writer is the oldest part of my professional trifecta- and a profession I aspired to long before I even knew what a career was. I remember reading some of my favorites by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton as a child and wanting my own words to have the same spell binding effect. Whether I’m communicating through visuals as a designer or helping businesses communicate their brands better to their customers through marketing strategies, it’s the communication through words- and writing- that delineated this over-arching professional theme of my life. I won a nationwide short story contest last year through which I received the opportunity to be mentored by Mohsin Hamid, award winning author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This experience is the most recent personal reminder of how dear writing is to me.
Tell us more of this experience!
I just saw Mira Nair’s film adaptation of Mohsin’s novel yesterday and, throughout my time in the cinema, I was reminded repeatedly of the conversation I had with Mohsin last year. Since I’m interested in writing for the screen and Mohsin had a hand in adapting his novel for the screen, I particularly treasure his first hand account of writing for another medium as that was very enlightening for me. Another thing I must mention is that Mohsin Hamid has one of the most charismatic and generous personalities I’ve ever met. He was absolutely delightful to talk and listen to, and I nearly passed out at his compliment for my writing: After I read one of my short stories to him, he signed my copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist with the following inscription: ‘For Babar. Next time I hope you’ll be signing your book for me.’
Have you noticed any remarkable talent or project in the design/creative field coming out of Pakistan?
I’ve been a fan of The Desi Design since its inception and I’m not just saying that. I always felt TDD is doing some very important and seminal work in the Pakistani context. By covering visual culture and providing discourse on design in the local scene, The Desi Design is a part of the local movement towards putting the spotlight squarely on design thinking.
I feel like there’s a lot of really great creative and design talent in our country but it’s held back by a lack of vision, dedication and respect.
How are the creative industries faring in Pakistan? Is the future promising or bleak?
It can only get better. There’s certainly little room to get worse.
Your ultimate professional dream?
My own design agency and fashion house, but getting my stories published is at the top of my agenda right now. I also want to continue working for education.
Title illustration uses photo from Tumblr and icons from The Noun Project