A Common Language of Design: The Seattle-Havana-Tehran Poster Show

Ask yourself what graphic design looks like in Seattle, Havana, and Tehran. Radically different images likely fill your head as these cities are politically and geographically disparate. But consider for a moment the common language of design and its vernacular—color, composition, typography, pattern, etc. These things are universal.

It’s that very concept of commonalities existing among forces that are supposed to be vastly different that brought the “Seattle-Havana-Tehran Poster Show” (lovingly known by its creators as the “SHT Show”) to life. Curated by Daniel R. Smith of Seattle, Pepe Menéndez of Havana and Iman Raad of Tehran, the Show is an exhibit featuring 69 arts and culture-related posters. The hook is that the posters are organized into 23 groups of three, or “triplets” as the curators say, with each triplet containing a poster from each of the three countries. They are selected to appear together based on a common trait that all three of the posters share. What does it all mean exactly to see three very different posters from opposite corners of the world with a common thread? “To me, the similarities underline our universal nature. Despite the fact that the designers are working in very different parts of the world, in opposing political situations, they have created wonderfully similar works,” says Smith, who started this project nearly a decade ago.

Poster Sample 5_resized

Poster Sample 4_resized

Poster Sample 3_resized

In 2007, he orchestrated “The Seattle-Havana Poster Show” with Menéndez, the first American and Cuban city-to-city design exchange since the end of Cuba’s Revolution.Then “The Seattle-Tehran Poster Show” in 2008 with Raad, also a ground-breaking arts collaboration. This show marks the first time that all three cities come together to produce a collective exhibit. “The posters are substitutes for people. As people, we naturally seek commonalities with one other. It actually takes great efforts to keep us apart,” Smith says. “When we see what the other is doing—and recognize ourselves—the truth is arrived at; we are more alike than different. The real ‘shit show’ belongs to forces that try to manipulate us through stereotyping, through fear, to keep us apart,” he says.

Photo Credit: Morgen Schuler

Daniel Smith and Pepe Menendez, Photo Credit: Morgen Schuler

Photo Credit: Morgen Schuler

Photo Credit: Morgen Schuler

Menéndez describes the moment as “eureka” when the three curators discover a triplet. “It made me happy to find those coincidences—improbably and at the same time inevitable,” he says. “Even in cities as distant as ours, styles approach one another. We have a lot in common. Above all, we have the times we live in—an era in which images cross all borders.”

Poster Sample 2_resized

Poster Sample 1_resized

In looking at the triplets, these unexplainable coincidences leave a beautiful footprint, as you see the similarities as well as a bit of regional flavor. Designers around the world are more in-tune than ever before to widespread styles, thanks to the accessibility that the internet provides. But to Smith, regionalism isn’t dead just yet. “It’s beautiful though—for the moment that we can still be enthralled by our differences and marvel at the random similarities between our work.”

The Seattle-Tehran-Havana Show exhibit debuted in Seattle at the BumbershootGallery in early September, but will travel to Havana and Tehran in 2016.

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