Tags: creative director
Upon coming to Dubai I thought my inspiration and visual stimulation would grow numb. I vividly remember sitting in the kitchen of my best friend’s place and being instructed ‘not to lose control over gold accessories.’ And so far I’ve done good. But, to my surprise, there is a lot to discover in this city – apart from gold accessories, cars and appliances that is- , that screams Shopping Mall Wonderland, and once you find your way around, you can actually meet some pretty inspiring people.
Brownbook magazine has been a window to the region for me and a way to discover and understand how culture works, what’s happening, what’s going to happen, just to feel the pulse of things in general. So when I stumbled upon Brownbook’s creative director Samia Kallidis on my Instagram feed, I knew I had to meet her. And so I did, in her family’s villa in Jumeirah, which was all dolled up for Christmas by her mom. Samia told me about the magazine, the Bookshop, about her love for Dubai and her quest to discover and reveal all that’s happening in the region. And there’s a lot going on. Thankfully.
Hi Samia! So, I am confused, your last name’s Greek, but you live in Dubai and you also speak Arabic. What’s the deal with your background? And what do you say when people ask you where you’re from?
Hi! Well, I was born and raised in Dubai, so I naturally associate it as being home. My dad is Greek, and the Arabic comes from my mother, who is Palestinian. You could say I’m a third culture kid, I guess. It’s always a tough question to answer since there a few cities I feel I could call home. I spent a few years in New York and almost a quarter of my life in Toronto as well. You’d probably get a similar response from anyone who grew up in Dubai before it evolved to the city it is today.
You are involved in many creative projects, Brownbook being one of them. What are your responsibilities as a creative director of this magazine?
The quick answer is I oversee the design of the magazine and its supplementary projects, including Cultural Engineering. Brownbook Magazine falls under the parent company Cultural Engineering – a cultural solutions and advisory practice that focuses on elevating the role of Middle Eastern design globally through research, education, and urbanism.
Our work spans across publishing, exhibitions, campaigns, videos and cultural spaces like The Archive and Creekside. So it’s varied, which keeps it exciting and requires me to be pretty adaptable – one day I could be working on a spread in Brownbook, and the next I could be with a camera taking care of a photo shoot for a new campaign. The role is very interesting because it allows me to dabble in a little bit of everything so I get to learn a lot in the process.
I think it’s important for a creative director to build an environment and ethos where the very best ideas can be born and thrive, and that’s what I consistently try to do. Firstly, I’ve got to understand the audience we’re addressing by listening, adapting and proposing new ideas, strategies and being involved in new pitches. The key is to create work that looks awesome at the same time making sure that the company’s values and ideals are coming across. That involves making sure the brand strategy is implemented and maintaining brand consistency across the organization.
I’m usually pretty hands on and involved in the design of the projects and I enjoy the process. The role is always changing, just as the business and brand landscape is changing.
Recently you started running the Bookshop. Where’s that and what can I find there?
Actually, an awesome young man named Charles is the program manager at the Bookshop. I oversee the design strategy and make sure the brand is consistent as it falls under Cultural Engineering. Bookshop is our most recently-opened space in DIFC (Dubai International Financial Center). It is a bookstore and café that hosts a lovely selection of new and used books on the Middle East and North Africa – lots of them quite unique and hard to find – with topics ranging from architecture and photography to food, literature, and more. It’s quite a charming space, where you can stop by for a nice cup of coffee and work for hours. Charles puts together a great program of events for the community at the Bookshop, from poetry readings to creative writing workshops and language courses. It’s great because it focuses on educating the community on the great culture and history we have here in the Middle East through books.
Do you spend a lot of time reading? What would be your top 5 books?
I try to read as much as I can during downtime and before going to bed. I don’t think I need to get into how important reading and learning is, but I believe a good designer has to have good peripheral vision. I try to stay updated on what’s going on in pop culture, science, technology, and any field in general, because we’re always influenced by the world around us, and the more influenced our work is, the more interesting and smart it can be. Dan Medick says it perfectly in his book “The Culture Game” – “Books contain ideas and concepts that you can leverage in pursuit of tribal greatness. Select the right books to reiterate the beliefs, values, and principles you want.”
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite novels. But I find I’m drawn more towards nonfiction and I enjoy books on social economics, psychology, design thinking, innovation and strategy. A few of my favorites are Freakonomics, The Lean Startup, The Tipping Point, Rework and Where good ideas come from.
How challenging is it to work on a magazine and a bookstore, on times like this, where the digital is taking over, well, everything else and things are rapidly changing because of the internet?
It’s a very interesting and exciting time to be a designer. Challenge is always good, I see it as an opportunity to look at things from a new angle and explore ways we could be innovative.
I think people enjoy the physical interaction of picking up a magazine, feeling the texture of the paper, the scent of an old book. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. Although Dubai doesn’t have a rich history of print culture like the US and Europe does, we’re seeing a rise of independent magazines also in the Middle East like never before. It’s growing along with the arts industry, and we focus on great content that makes the reader want to pick up the magazine and hold on to it. There’s a sense of nostalgia and people want to hold on to print since digital is on the rise. I think that no matter the medium, the content is what is most important, and it can be displayed or distributed in any way, as long as it gets to the audience.
What first drew me to Brownbook is the content and focus – the way the magazine highlights positive things coming out of the Middle East and in our culture, when all that comes from traditional media is horror and negativity. Brownbook focuses on untold stories of interesting subjects across the region – from music to architecture and inspiring profiles across the Middle East and diaspora. It’s important for me to highlight people who are doing inspiring things that couldn’t be found elsewhere, from a craftsman in Istanbul to a pearl diver in Kuwait.
How we distribute that information is secondary to me. Print will always be there, and digital is another platform we can educate people with and push the boundaries of to go further and do things that print can’t. In this way, print and digital platforms can complement each other.
What do you wish to accomplish through the projects you are involved in, in the coming years?
I hope to spread awareness on the rich history and culture of the Middle East to the world and to our youth by continuing to tell good stories in Brownbook, and hopefully get more people to do the same. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to raise the standard and continue to push the boundaries through design with Cultural Engineering. The arts and culture scene is on the rise here in the UAE and I think it’s an exciting time to be a designer, where our work can influence a lot. I hope to be involved in the increase in cultural public spaces and community spaces where innovation can thrive, and that’s what interests me and what we’ll continue to do though our own spaces like The Archive, Creekside and The Space in Abu Dhabi.
I’m also working on a startup called Jointly, (jointly.us) which is a peer-to-peer disaster recovery platform. The aim is to help communities self-organize disaster relief to recover faster and sustain long-term recovery. I’m currently working with a developer to build the app and partners in New York to start using it once it’s in beta. The disaster and emergency response field is pretty archaic and could use some disruption through design and technology in order to improve the system. Hopefully disaster survivors will soon be able to get the help they need quicker and more efficiently, and communities can be empowered to recover and rebuild together.
To me, design is problem solving, and the most interesting things to focus our energy and effort on is social innovation and people. From climate change to health systems, I want to delve into pressing issues, offer solutions and create impact through design and design thinking.
You were born and raised in Dubai. I’m curious: what does a teenager do in Dubai? Any memories from back then?
We hear this all the time, but the speed at which Dubai has evolved is insane. It had a tiny population, where everyone knew everybody. It was such a small community, almost like growing up in a little village. It felt like a perfect place to grow up as a child over here in the early 90s, it wasn’t as fast-paced and people were closer, so it felt like the bonds were stronger and we spent a lot of time with people. We’d always have people over, or go to friends’ places. I remember staying up when I was kid, hearing my parents singing old songs with their friends, playing the oud and tabla. We’d always have people over jamming.
So many memories, and I’m lucky enough to have a dad who had a videocamera permanently attached to his hand! We’ve got lots of home videos we watch every now and then. One vivid memory I have is of the drive to Chicago Beach Village, a beach club we would go to on the weekends in the early 90s where the Meridian is now I believe near the Habtoor Grand. We were living in Garhoud at the time, and would drive all the way to what seemed like the end of the world on Sheikh Zayed Road, surrounded by just desert and the Trade Center. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in 20 years.
What made you come back to Dubai, after finishing your studies in Canada and the US? What’s the thing that makes Dubai special right now?
It’s home. Simple as that. I felt that it was time for my homecoming. And I’m lucky enough that it’s also not a bad place to be right now. Dubai is thriving with opportunity in every way – it’s an exciting time to be here. There’s so much beneath the surface and lots of cool people doing interesting things. Whether arts, culture, business or fitness, it’s a great place to start something because I think that if you work hard, you’ll get rewarded. You’ll also be able to meet so many interesting people from all walks of life who are always in and out of here since it’s such a central hub and pretty transitional.
A few comments on the things pictured and said above:
Samia’s mother made all this Christmas village, which when plugged in, has a train going around it, lights and music and ice skaters and well, pretty much everything. It can also be a bit scary if it were to go off on its on, say, in the middle of the night. / Samia is a great fan of sports, but basketball will top it all. She’s proud of her old school Nikes. / She is a neat freak. Take a look at her closet once more. / If by now she’s involved in all those successful projects, I can’t wait to see what’s coming up next.