Interview:

THE STYLE-BENDING WORK & CURIOUS MIND OF CHICAGO'S POUYA AHMADI
Tell us about your creative background. Who is Pouya and how did he get here?
I’m a Chicago-based graphic designer, typographer, and educator. I am currently running my personal practice where I focus on brand identity, typography, and type design projects for a variety of businesses. I am also an assistant professor of graphic design at The University of Illinois at Chicago where I focus on teaching typography, type and poster design in both graduate and under-graduate levels. Prior to moving to Chicago, I studied Visual Communication and Image Research at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland where I had the opportunity to learn about Swiss typography more in-depth both in its historical context (what is known as International Style), as well as its current position in today’s design world. Before then, I studied Graphic Design at the University of Tehran.

How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?  
Formally speaking—you can easily trace influences from Swiss typography in my work. Conceptually speaking—I believe it could be the way I reflect on each project. My design process usually starts with a period of time spent on conceptualizing or thinking about the subject matter and understanding my position in relation to its core concept. I never start any project before forming an opinion about it. And that is basically what I mean by “reflecting on the project itself.” If I find myself in a position where I can’t contribute to the discourse, I usually remove myself from the project. But aside from that, to me, each project is an opportunity to reflect on design as a discipline and a form of communication. I do my best to take advantage of the opportunity to do so.

What drew you to this subject?
I’ve been always interested in cinema and was looking for an opportunity to collaborate with filmmakers or organizations dedicated to cinema to work on their promotional material, identity, etc. EFS was one of those rare opportunities that I was always looking for. I had absolute freedom to design the identity and promotional materials and I believe that was why the project was well-received in both film and design communities.

What inspirations helped inform this project?
Mainly the films themselves were the source of inspiration. The majority of the films are directed following the Remodernist Film Manifesto. The manifesto itself was also one of the biggest sources of inspirations for the posters.

Hardest part?
Translating the idea of each film to tangible visual ideas that could form a poster was the most challenging part. And of course thinking of each poster as an individual film but also part of a series didn’t make the process any easier.

What drew you to this subject?
The Starts/Speculations exhibition catalog was designed for the Chicago Design Museum's first exhibition in their permanent location. I think both the topic (100 years of design in Chicago) and the freedom I was given to design the catalog yielded the successful result. I also think the challenge of designing a piece for a design event was another factor that drew me to the project.

What inspirations helped inform this project?
The exhibited work were a great source of inspiration for the catalog as well as the layout of the exhibition. Every element in the catalog refers to either of those two. 

Hardest part?
The time pressure imposed a big challenge. We had less than a week to design the entire thing. Considering the fast pace of the project, our initial idea worked. And that was a huge relief since we didn’t have much time to test any of our ideas. We could only trust our intuition.

What drew you to this subject?
I designed this custom typeface (ERC Quantum) for the University of Chicago. The fact that the university was interested in having a custom typeface made the project very exciting. Of course the freedom that I was given in terms of designing the entire character set had an enormous impact on the outcome.

What inspirations helped inform this project?
The typeface was originally designed for the William Eckhardt Research Center. The scientific activities that took place in the center were the main source of inspiration for the geometric monospace typeface that I designed for them. 

Hardest part?
Designing a typeface is not an easy job. To make an entire character set that is perfectly balanced and working is perhaps the most difficult part about designing any typeface.

The “Writings” section of your portfolio showcases both your extensive knowledge of design, as well as your untethered curiosity in further explorations and discoveries. Does this process of establishing a dialogue with the work of others help inform your work in specific ways? 
It does. In fact, I don’t see my writings as separate from my design work. For me, it is another form of thinking or reflecting on design.

As a professor at the University of Illinois, teaching must keep you learning as well. Any tips or advice shared with your students that you can also offer to fellow creatives? Any tips to help fellow creatives jump-start a similar curiosity in their craft?
I think what you just mentioned is what I always found the most useful advice: to always be curious. I think curiosity is the most powerful sense that can drive anyone towards any assumed goal. It can lead to many new discoveries.

What moment or project in your career so far has made you the proudest?
The Experimental Film Society identity and poster series is one of my favorite personal projects. It’s been one of my longest collaboration throughout my career so far and the one that gave me the most freedom.

Biggest career failure?
There’s been many. Usually when I look at them in isolation, they seem to be big failures. However, in the grand scheme of things they seem unusually like appropriate moves toward some kind of larger goal. 

What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on an identity and a series of posters for an art/installation exhibition. I am also working on designing a book and a typeface for a young poet based in North Carolina. Aside from that I am working on my talk that I will give at TypeCon in August, and of course, preparing for school on the side.

How does Chicago influence your work?
To me, Chicago has the most interesting architectural scene in the US. But historically speaking, I think Chicago Fire has had an enormous impact on me as a designer.

What’s the creative scene in Chicago like? What cultural and creative venues do you frequent? 
Chicago has a relatively small design community which is really appealing to me. It’s competitive but it’s also very collaborative. I usually go to see the shows at the Art Institute of ChicagoMCA Chicago, and Cultural Center. I just moved to a new neighborhood in Chicago which allows me to visit some of my favorite live music venues like The Empty Bottle and Subterranean more often. I do also frequent Reckless Records to find some old Jazz records.

Do you thrive off of being part of a creative community or are you more in your element as a lone wolf?
The latter is probably more true about me. I do enjoy being part of the community but I usually am by myself or you can find me in a small circle of people. 

Who are some of your biggest creative idols and influences?
There are many, but to name one, and perhaps the most influential one, I would say David Lynch.

If you weren’t a Designer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Probably a filmmaker or a writer. But then again I do make films and write as a designer anyway. I think the loose boundaries between the creative fields these days have allowed creatives to explore different types of media simultaneously, and to be able to pick and choose the one they feel most confident using for their needs. That’s a big advantage due to democratization of creative tools and technological advancements. However, it is easy to get lost in the sea of all of these capabilities available to us.

What do you do when Not Working?
There’s not a clear boundary between my work and the other activities I do throughout the day, or at least I don’t see them as separate activities. 

What are some things you would tell your high school or early twenties self?
I would tell myself to stop caring too much about solving math problems.

What do you do when Not Working?
There’s not a clear boundary between my work and the other activities I do throughout the day, or at least I don’t see them as separate activities. 

What are some things you would tell your high school or early twenties self?
I would tell myself to stop caring too much about solving math problems.