Samar Maakaroun on her creative ethos and multicultural and multilingual practice, Right to Left

Poppy Thaxter
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Samar Maakaroun on her creative ethos and multicultural and multilingual practice, Right to Left

Right to Left is a London-based design studio that specialises in bi-lingual and bi-scriptural work, created by a multicultural team. It comes from the mind of Samar Maakaroun, who – with her decades of industry and life experience working across two languages – delivers a thoughtful and research-focused practice. In our conversation, we delve into the lessons, insights and stories from her career that she imbues into her creative approach.

PT Hello Samar! Can you tell us how the studio first began?

SM I worked with two languages throughout my design career, mixing Arabic, French or English. This is the result of growing up on where I call the periphery of the world, the countries that are less powerful in defining history and narratives.

Those 20 years helped me refine my method in navigating complexities of two worlds instead of one. The key is to be able to approach a brief with the curiosity of the outsider and the familiarity of the insider, and to constantly jump between the two roles. 

True familiarity for me is acquired over time. One learns the rules and how they can be broken. My time in Europe and the Arab world allowed me to become very familiar with two scripts (Latin and Arabic), and their worlds. A visual research, for example, can tell you some things about a culture but it could also feed you stereotypes and cliches (hence the abundance of arabesque solutions to anything Arabic). The curiosity of the outsider, on the other hand, is a blank page that can bring freshness, new ideas, play and discovery. 

Photo by Joel Stagg
Photo by Joel Stagg

Why always start from English and its typographic histories?

One position – inside or outside – is not enough alone; both perspectives have to be considered as well as the relationships between the two worlds, the local and the global, and how that impacts the identity as a whole all the way down to its individual assets. 

In a way, Right to Left is a continuation of my method, integrating worlds in design, just expanded to include other designers who come from different cultures, speak different languages, and have a mix of references. After two years of COVID, I needed a change, and it felt like the right time to set this up, and this is how I ended up with a team that has cultural variety at its heart.

A lot of brands designed in London are hybrid, a mix of two identities, just like Londoners… so why always start from English and its typographic histories? I believe two worlds can coexist. By taking this approach, I am choosing to give both languages and cultures their power, avoid having one be the afterthought of the other and being more authentic in my process. 

PT What lessons and insights from your career did you bring with you when crafting the studio?

SM Flexibility, rigour, attention to detail, comfort in chaos, observing the variety of leadership styles and understanding their impact on people. Best of all I now have an amazing network of wonderful people who are now friends, mentors, collaborators, supporters, and some of them clients.

In chronological order: my early years growing up in Lebanon taught me how to be comfortable in chaos, and roll with the punches when they come – maybe not a good thing – I don’t know. My experience in theatre opened my eyes to the vast difference in perception of the same story across geography: a ‘yes’ does not always mean ‘yes.’ Two years at Apple taught me how to sweat the detail to the last pixel and how to build a tight case for change – in Keynote of course. 

Five years at Pentagram were incredibly insightful; to be around so many design giants and talented teams – this is perhaps where my process and method became watertight. I led my second big portfolio rebrand at Pentagram, this took two years, and I learned so much along the way. 

I like to maintain a mix of big and small projects in my studio to use all creative muscle: smaller projects with solo entrepreneurs require faster results, and a more intuitive process. Bigger projects need patience, rigour, strategy and the ability to negotiate internal dynamics. Different brain muscles.

Samar Maakaroun on her creative ethos and multicultural and multilingual practice, Right to Left

Individual values and personalities precede job titles and roles.

PT How did you approach building your team? What stands out to you when hiring?

SM I did not have a strategy, or very clear job roles, to be honest, I looked for kind and curious designers, with a great work ethic, some nuance to their story and openness. My approach was very much organic, with trials and errors and a little notebook of lessons on the side… to document the errors mostly and to avoid repeating them. I am also intrigued by people who arrived to design through an entirely non-linear story… I find that experience in other areas of life either culturally or in occupation are enriching for day-to-day creativity.

Individual values and personalities precede job titles and roles, and so I was very careful in choosing good people first; small actions sometimes say a lot about people – for example, one of my designers quietly took the bins out on her first week. It’s definitely not part of her role, and I did not ask her to help me in the office upkeep (which over the first few months is very time-consuming)… but I noticed, and I read this as attention to detail, humility and a genuine team spirit. This is not to say everybody should start taking the bins out instead of putting down I am a team player on their CV, but character traits for me are as important as design skills, as Tim Minchin once said in his nine lessons speech: “I have previously made important decisions about the people I work with, agents producers, very important decisions, based on how they treat the wait staff in the restaurant we are in – I don’t care if you are the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you based on how you treat the least powerful.”

PT What does a typical day look like for you?

SM I am an early bird, coffee first then a walk through the park enjoying the trees and seasons. I remind myself that to have a green space to walk through safely and to be able to spend the day doing something I love is a privilege I am grateful for. 

I get to the office one hour earlier. I’ve always done my best thinking in the morning so I try to use that time to break the back of the most difficult tasks, or the tasks I don’t enjoy doing so much – we all have those! Being a founder means for the first few years, I have to cover everything from creative to project management going via IT, HR, social media, strategy, ops, legal and accounting to buying the coffee, and snacks that keep us going.

On Mondays, I give my team an overview of what we need to output, and we choose the tasks that benefit from collaboration to do when we are together, and the tasks that can be done solo at home. I do not fill their diaries with check-ins and catch-ups – we always catch up when they are in, so our time solo is productive, and when we are together we collaborate and share. 

Best of both worlds, I hope. 

I try to schedule my calls in a way that leaves me with half a day free, so I can do some work; The day ends for me when I feel I have achieved enough, often around 8ish. Some Fridays we stop at 5 to host a talk by a designer friend, who comes in to share their journey with us. We cherish these moments, we love having designers come in and share their stories and experience; then it’s pub o’clock. 

PT What led your decision to base the studio in Hackney Downs? And what’s it like there?

SM Pure geography; my commute is a walk in the park which is great. The independent creative businesses are great to be around, and so is Tom’s Pasta around the corner. 

PT Are there any designers, studios, or creatives that particularly inspire you at the moment?

SM I find inspiration in many fields: art galleries, social studies and psychology books, nature and long walks, language, as well as performance and video art. I had a side career as a set designer culminating in the design of a total of six performances for the director Rabih Mroué between 2003 and 2018; this stint in performance art was very informative in exploring design within a live setting, as well as the power of representation and stories. 

In terms of design, I have a lot of admiration for Pentagram, especially partners Domenic Lippa and Marina Willer and their unfaltering passion for design, even after years of experience. I hope to be able to maintain that joy in my day-to-day and not be burdened too much by the worries of an upcoming recession. 

A long-time teacher and mentor is Samir Sayegh, a man who modernised Arabic calligraphy and has a huge body of work – inaccessible online, unfortunately. He was the first one to show me how letters can carry a variety of emotions, and with the 12 different calligraphic Arabic scripts, the spectrum of emotion is vast. 

I very much love the aesthetic and typographic output of Raissa Pardini, and My Name is Wendy Studio. Honestly, London is full of great design studios, I won’t list them all, readers can just read your articles. 

TypeMap by Right to Left

Language, for me, says a lot about the culture it represents.

PT What is Type Map? And what have been your favourite discoveries from the project?

SM At RTL we speak over seven languages, and we find ourselves translating, equating and making parallels and comparisons between one language and another. Language, for me, says a lot about the culture it represents, and that culture lives within the politics of the area (especially if you are an Arab, Chinese, or Russian today).

Understanding each other is not just about what is said, but also what is unsaid or how things are said. So you have the words and everything else behind them, and if you only understand the words, you may very well have misunderstood what is being said. 

That was certainly my experience in London in the first few years. I was fluent in English, but I missed a lot of cues, I was not tuned in to the humour, nor the references.

Type Map is an expression of the nuance we discover every day, little nuggets of info that we are surprised to find as we communicate with each other, expressions of the misunderstandings or the assumptions we make – it’s a playful platform that deconstructs language(s).

Sometimes the posters are just about form, sometimes it’s more symbolic. Any designer interested in this subject can go on our website and share a poster with us. My discoveries on this project are all about Chinese characters and language because I do not read it. So I learn something new every week. 

PT Working with English and Arabic, how have the two languages – and two worlds – impacted each other in your work?

SM The most obvious part is references, my visual references and anchors come from the history of Arabic design and typography as well as the history of Western art. The design process is the same no matter the language, but working with more than one language means every aspect of that process has to be considered for both worlds. That will include ideas, reading direction, typography, colour relevance to the political landscape, and understanding the audience.

Take naming for example. If the brand is bilingual, the name may need to work in both languages. So I often find myself looking for a word that is simple enough to pronounce in both languages, that carries meaning in at least one language, better in two of course; and that is available to trademark – we have to cast a wide net to hit all the above. 

This inevitably leads to the process taking twice as long, and often costing more. The easy solution that some clients resort to is to stick to one language. If it’s Arabic, it risks becoming less relevant globally – if it’s English, it risks alienating a part of their audience. Over time, if Arab brands consistently choose English over Arabic, we would be contributing to the slow erasure of our language; especially since everything digital, Adobe as an example, works better and looks better in English (this is due to many technical aspects that I will not get into right now).

Another common practice with bilingual brands is to have an English version, an Arabic version, and a bilingual version. This practice I believe dilutes the brand, because you end up with three marques instead of one, and a complex asset management system: which version to use and where. 

So the way we work at Right to Left, once we have a clear strategy, is to start by looking at both scripts, worlds, insights and do a little ping pong between the two, we generate concepts from both ends, and try to identify intersections, the commonalities and differences, what is authentic and what is mainstream, what is inherently local that can be exported and what is global that is relevant. So we end with an integration of sorts, an idea, a movement, a type treatment that represents this dialogue or marriage.

Samar Maakaroun on her creative ethos and multicultural and multilingual practice, Right to Left

Our cultural multitude allows us to look for insight in a multitude of territories.

PT What do you think Right to Left’s greatest strengths are?

SM We do not make assumptions about the best way to go about a brief – we try to be open and thorough, and we try to establish a genuine dialogue with our partners, we enjoy listening. We see difference (of opinion, perspective, approach, references) as an inherent part of our method and process, that enables us to see connections and links that are otherwise invisible to a team of a different composition. Our cultural multitude allows us to look for insight in a multitude of territories. Our generational multiplicity enables us to be a good mix of play, experience, freshness and attention to detail. We go wide when we sketch and think, and then we narrow down to the pixel when we craft.

Typography, naming, brand identity and content are our areas of expertise. 

PT What’s next for the studio?

SM There is the plan and the wishlist. On the plan, more upcoming projects to go live: a destination brand that has been four years in the making, to launch in January; a collection of cardigans we are producing with AOI officially appearing before Christmas. Continued collaborations with our partners and clients, all making a difference in their respective industries: data, fashion, and art. 

The wishlist involves finding more Right to Left-ers to work with, designers and partners who share the same vision and passion, expanding our work into type design, and keeping our office plants alive.

Graphic Design

Right to Left