Ahmad Humeid and Dina Haddadin talk about the curatorial process behind Amman Design in Week’s Hangar Exhibition.
Three weeks of my life, poured into 3 minutes of film
Sure, you can simply see it as a promotional video for an educational institution (more about the project here). That’s totally fine.
But there is something personal about this project that brings multiple threads of my life together. My old school (the University Model School, adjacent to the new HQ of the Queen Rania Teacher Academy). It‘s where I became a teenager and made life-defining friendships. The University of Jordan, where my late father spent almost his entire professional career teaching and researching at the Faculty of Agriculture, and from where I graduated as an architect in the mid 1990s. The University‘s forested campus, dotted with the modernist 1960s buildings of the late architect Atallah Duwani was an important stage of my childhood and early adulthood (and where I met Salua, my life partner). Speaking of architecture, the new building celebrated in this film is by Faris and Faris, the architectural firm of Faris Zaru and Faris Abdelrahman, two (slightly older) colleagues of mine in the Faculty of Engineering, who have been consistently producing important works of contemporary architecture in the past two and a half decades in Jordan.
As I was writing the script of this film, I couldn’t help but make it about continuity. Looking back, looking forward. I briefly delved into the history of teacher training institutions and the stories of the pioneering teachers of Jordan in the 20th century. These stories became the starry-sky opening sequence. And in the last frame of the story we leave through the building‘s ‘star-gate’..
I am lucky to have clients like QRTA who trust me with their stories. Lucky to have a team at SYNTAX who can manage the delivery of such stories (and my sometimes chaotic methods of working). Lucky to have partners of creative integrity like Majd and Ali at Labiba Productions, who not only deliver footage of impeccable quality, but, most importantly, a profoundly human and artistic photographic eye to the story.
Yeah. It’s a 3 minute (and twenty seconds) video about teacher training. It has a job to fulfill. And I hope it does it.
But between the frames, snapshots of my life are captured.
(A special thank you goes to double-shift.org project for granting us permission to use video clips by Marjam Fels and Paula Ellguth, who documented the life inside one of Jordan’s public schools).
Ahmad Humeid, Co-Founder and CEO, SYNTAX
If you lived in the Arab region in the past few years, frustration must have become woven, in big and small ways, into the fabric of your daily reality. Regional conflicts and their resulting human tragedies, economic recession, bad governance and squandered human potential have all conspired to put the region in a state of tension and developmental limbo.
Not even the 2018 World Cup gave us a respite, as we watched Saudi Arabia and Qatar play a game, not of football, but of harsh political bickering over the broadcasting rights of the matches!
Your view of the region may differ depending on where you’re watching it from. But the reality of fragmentation and uncertainty is pervasive. In any case, this reality is hard to ignore from Amman. With one eye on Palestine, another one on Syria and Iraq, and a third one on developments in the Arabian Peninsula, we in Jordan feel the turbulent waters of the region. And our own local waters have also been troublesome. Even the long-awaited winter rain brought us deep sadness as the floods took the lives of our young and old in one of the biggest national tragedies in recent memory.
Whoever I talk to in the business community in Amman, be it owners and managers of large corporations, small business owners or startup founders, everyone seems to have taken a beating in 2018. Sales have crashed, insolvencies have risen, consumer confidence has disappeared. Street protests in Ramadan brought about a governmental change, but we are yet to see if this government can steer the country to safety.
For us at SYNTAX, 2018 has not been an easy year either. By year’s end I started to ask myself “what have I done in 2018?”. As I reviewed our projects, I noticed that we worked on a lot of things, but few of them have been launched for a variety of reasons, most of which were out of our, or our clients’, control. It was simply a lot of hard work that the team still has to wait to celebrate in 2019.
But what about 2019? The consensus amongst citizens and businesses seems pretty pessimistic. While people try to discern the few glimmers of hope in the region at the start of this new year, talk of an approaching global financial crisis in 2020 is also a part of people’s conversations.
But “the show must go on“.
Crisis is a call for action. Stress is an impetus for change. The end of an era is a good time for reflection and an opportunity to shed the weight of the past and move on. And difficult times can bring people closer together.
So in that spirit, here are 6 things we at SYNTAX can do to out-maneuver frustration, recession, stagnation and disconnection.
These are ideas that move us, not new year’s resolutions. Inspirations, not a game plan. A mindset, not a prescription. We are sharing these ideas hoping they resonate with other people. And who knows, maybe they can spark conversations, connections and alliances within our community in Jordan, the region and beyond.
1. Put the past in a box. Celebrate it. Give it away.
In 2019 SYNTAX will turn 21 years old. We’re not a teenager anymore, but a fully “legal” adult. In 2018, perhaps oddly, we did not celebrate our 20th anniversary as companies usually do. Why? I could tell you we were too busy (and I wouldn’t be lying). But I think the real reason is that we simply weren’t ready to celebrate. As I look at all the work we struggled to bring to life over two decades in the context of Jordan and the region, I feel a combination of nostalgia, bewilderment and and a ting of “was it all worth it?”
As we look back, and forward, we hope to find a way to distill our experience in design, branding, digital media and innovation in a way that is meaningful to us, and hopefully to others. We’d like to package our story, put it in a box (maybe a book or a film or both) and share it with the world.
Our accumulated stories and narratives, be they personal, communal or corporate are important bedrocks of our identities. But there comes a moment, when we need to make room for new stories. So share your story by properly telling it. Then write a full-stop. And start a new chapter.
2. Become a beginner again.
This one is not easy. But it’s a must.
I recently watched a documentary called A Head full of Dreams, about Coldplay, one of the biggest bands of our time (who are also celebrating 20 years since their founding). At the end of 2017 they finished a 2-year global mega-tour in which they played to over 5 million people, grossing over half a billion dollars in ticket sales.
In the documentary, Coldplay members talked about their approach to their work and their concerts. They don’t take their achievements and experience for granted. They feel like they have to earn the right to walk up to that stage and play music for tens of thousands of people as if it was their first concert. They start at rock bottom every time. They have to rehearse. They don’t feel as if they’ve “made it”.
Here’s what that means to me: we have to systematically ignore our experience. Not because our experience is worthless. But because it can blind us from the opportunities and challenges that emerge everyday.
Personally, I cannot escape the fact that I became a designer in the early 1990s, infatuated with computers, falling in love with typography and newspaper design and discovering the early web, then, by the 2000s, learning all about branding. That’s how I built my company and maintained it for two decades.
But as a design company, we need to ask ourselves from scratch: what should we design for today’s generation of citizens, buyers, learners and entrepreneurs? What does it mean to build a brand on Instagram? How do teens and young adults deal with the flood of fake news? How to build Arduino prototypes? Is branding still relevant?
It’s easy to get stuck in the jaded mindset of the expert who’s “seen it all”. But amidst the uncertainty of 2019, we all have to remind ourselves that every day is a new chance to learn something new about the world, acquire a new skill and change our mind. This year, let’s try to get unstuck from the expert mindset by allowing ourselves to have a beginner’s mind again.
3. Clean up your brand.
Many business leaders and owners I talked to recently have referred to 2019 (especially in Jordan) as a year where they don’t expect to see any business growth. Some are seeing it as a chance to “clean up the house”.
For us at SYNTAX we hope to “clean up our brand” this year.
Five years ago, when we celebrated our 15th anniversary, we worked hard on creating a new website, based on a new understanding of our brand. In retrospect, I now realize that we overloaded our home page with smart-sounding talk about the “impact” our work can have, and so on.
Our work at the intersection of design, branding, technology and innovation has certainly evolved over the past decades. But we recently haven’t done the best job in communicating what we do in a simple, friendly manner. In the past months we started to have conversations about slimming down our service offering, using a simpler language and not taking ourselves too seriously.
But we need to go further.
There’s nothing like an economic recession to force you to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: what do I really stand for? How can I be of service? Who am I talking to? These are the fundamental questions any brand needs to continuously ask itself. 2019 seems like a good time to do that.
4. Truly embrace the web, not as a technology, but as a market.
We are a company that was built on the promise of the web and its unbounded global potential. A company that was there at the birth of web 1.0, more than two decades ago, and that helped usher in the Arab web 2.0 a decade ago. Yet we find ourselves today with a sporadically updated web site and no YouTube channel to speak of. Funny.
We are digital transformation pioneers. We‘ve built groundbreaking sites and digital initiatives for corporations, government and startups. But it‘s time we swallowed some of our own medicine!
When we started designing and developing websites in the 1990s they were considered exotic new creatures that had yet to prove their worth for business. It’s only in the past few years that our own website has become a sales tool, as a generation that grew up with the web is now in a position to make corporate buying decisions. And yes, they turn to Google and Facebook to find potential suppliers.
Digital and social media are the new normal. And even we, the digital pioneers, need to rethink what the web means for our business.
With Jordan and the region in an extreme slowdown, we truly need to embrace the web not as a technology, but as a living breathing global market. We need to change our mindset about where our next project will come from.
Here, I draw inspiration from YouTubers. Many of them don’t talk to their own countries. They greet their audience by saying “hey YouTube”. A Canadian tech YouTuber reviews Chinese phones that are popular in India. A Japanese knife expert gets millions of views for videos where he silently shows the world how to make a knife out of anything you can think of (for example: smoke!) A New York food YouTuber shows the world how to make a Falafel sandwich.
Accepting the web as a market requires a major mind shift from anyone who has been doing business locally for a long time. Design and branding can be very local, requiring a deep understanding of local communication, behavior, culture and history. Positioning ourselves to be relevant for the global web market is new territory for us.
Or is it?
Fun fact: SYNTAX had offices in New York and Berlin in the year 2000. That’s a story for another time. But in 2019 we really need to start building a new office in the cloud and get comfortable with that.
5. Make stuff.
As in: make physical stuff. Over the past decade we have witnessed the rise of the Maker Movement. A powerful force at the intersection of design, new fabrication technologies, cheap electronics, software and traditional crafts.
In an alternate universe I might have become a product/industrial designer. But in this universe I ended up being an information, brand and digital designer, as I grew up in Jordan, where industry is relatively unsophisticated and undemanding of designers.
With the rise of 3D printing and other digital fabrication technologies, there is less of an excuse for us not to try to design and make physical objects. Even more exciting would be physical objects with little computers inside of them, connected to the net and doing smart stuff.
Over the past year I taught myself the ins and outs of 3D printing. I’ve bought tools and materials. Together with an ironsmith I designed and built a wood-fired pizza oven. And I intend to build my first Arduino project soon.
I really want to bring this culture of making into my company. And I look forward to working with clients and partners on interesting challenges that require visits to the carpenter, 3D CAD design, 3D printing and messing about with circuit boards.
There is something very satisfying in making even the simplest physical object. The tools we have today enable every company, large and small, to explore the potential of making things. Making things is human and gives us control over what we consume and use everyday. You should try it someday!
6. Find hope and power in community.
This is political. There is growing fear in the world today, stoked by those who want to build new walls between us. They want to convince us that the world is nothing but a harsh and dangerous place. In a region that is literally being torn apart by sectarian and political strife, it is easy to be resigned to such destructive narratives.
As designers, I believe, our entire profession is built on hope and openness. Hope that we as humans can make better lives and a better world. That we as designers can help by designing sustainable, responsible and beautiful things: all the way from fonts to communication, products, services, buildings, cities, and global systems of learning, production, connection and solidarity.
This cannot be done without openness to ideas, people and cultures. It is increasingly clear that we cannot maintain hope as disconnected islands.
Seven years ago we launched an initiative called Redesign Arabia. At that time I felt as if the Arab world would finally awaken and that a new generation would usher in an age of democracy, human rights and social justice. And I felt that design could play a pivotal role in creating a more productive and beautiful Arab life. While we all know how that went, we cannot give up hope or stop pushing for a future that is sustainable, equitable and productive.
More recently, in 2017, I had the privilege to be involved in the second edition of Amman Design Week as its curator, exposing me further to the opportunities and immense challenges faced by the nascent design community in Jordan and the region.
In 2019, SYNTAX will strive to connect, professionally and socially with the creative communities around us, in our city, Amman, across the region or across the world, seeking opportunities and building platforms that help us work together, think together, make together.
It also means simply reconnecting with friends and family. If we must struggle in 2019, at least we can struggle through it together.
Wishing you a productive, connected 2019.
Recently I had the pleasure to give “career talks” at a number of private schools around Amman. You know; the kind of talk where you have to explain to high school kids what it is that you actually do.
Now, SYNTAX’s portfolio spans over 18 years of design projects. When we show our portfolio to professional adults, we mostly manage to impress them with our colorful slides. But let’s be honest. Tenth graders are a tougher crowd. I mean, what on earth does “web presence of a telecom” or “a brand for an outsourcing firm” or “UI/UX for a financial app” mean to those kids. Boring. That’s what.
So there I was getting them all pumped about about a career in design, and all I could show them was a “brand strategy” and “UX/UI”. But when an icon of a black and white penguin appeared on the projector screen, a theater full of kids shouted in unison: FOUR WINTERS.
Four Winters – the brand experience we created for our friends the ice cream revolutionaries – has made my school presentations cool. And that’s not only because the Four Winters guys are really cool; as cool as the -196 C degrees liquid nitrogen which they use to freeze the liquid ice cream, or what we call “freezing the seasons”, in front of their customers eyes.
It’s cool because everyone “gets” ice cream. Like my kids for example.
OK! So they know their mom and dad are architects. But except designing our own house, we don’t have other architectural works to show them. I can’t point to a tower and say “see son, I designed that”. Bummer.
But when the first prototype shop of Four Winters opened in Abdoun over two years ago, not only could I point at that shop and say “kids, our company designed that shop”, and even better, they could go in and HAVE CRAZY ICE CREAM!
In fact, my oldest son was on a sort of summer internship with SYNTAX at the office when we worked with the Four Winters founders Abu Ali, Ali and Abid and their growing team. He was there when we dreamt up the brand and its business DNA together. And here is a secret I am giving away for the first time. Some of the ideas we developed were actually inspired by some food experiences pointed out to me by my son during our family vacations. My younger kids also participated in an early tasting session at the Four Winters’ make-shift lab, tucked away in one of Amman’s industrial zones.
So ice cream. Yeah. My kids get it. My mother gets it. And in Four Winters’ case it looks like the whole world will get it. Starting with London.
In the first half of this year, we were busy working with Four Winters’ dynamic CEO Zeid Zabian designing their first London shop which recently opened in London to great reviews. And more shops in the Middle East are on their way.
Our digital team also has been busy building a super-rich website for the company, bursting with delicious videos and photography which you can check out now at FourWinters.co.
It’s a brand made in Jordan, co-created by SYNTAX and courageous entrepreneurs to delight and surprise children, high school kids, parents and grand parents alike. It’s taking its first steps to become a global brand. It’s also a perfectly simple and engaging showcase on how innovation, design and branding can create great companies. Cool, ha?
For the past seven months, SYNTAX has been working on a project which I consider to be one of the most meaningful our company has handled in recent years: designing Amman’s first public transport map.
As I write this, this map is being printed in a limited test quantity, to be distributed to Ammanis who are riding busses, “coasters” and service-taxis to get to their places of work, study, shopping, healthcare, leisure, or simply going home or to visit family or friends.
In a few weeks, the map will be printed in massive quantities for wider distribution. It will be available online and as as mobile apps for iOS and Android.
Yes. It’s time the residents and visitors of Amman, our capital, got a map that, for the first time ever makes the public transport system in our city (as broken as it is) visible. This has the potential to transform the experience of public transport in Amman in more than one way. It may end up making a small difference in the lives of millions. That’s why I think this project is so important.
I get quite emotional when I talk about this endeavor. Angry, sad, anxious, yet also excited, proud and energized.
I am dismayed that our city authorities have not been able to produce a map for us in the past decades. I get angry when I see Amman’s streets clogged with ever worsening traffic jams. I am sad to see the indignity of those who do not own cars, struggling to use a weak transportation system. We all deserve better. I am baffled at our governments who, over the past decades, have spent hundreds of millions of Dinars on roads, bridges and tunnels in Amman but ignored to develop a modern public transport system. Amman has become a congested, polluted, nerve-wracking city because of short-sighted policies driven by car-driving politicians and bureaucrats.
Yet I am also exhilarated to have been part of a project that fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine: producing a transport map for Amman. I blogged and talked about such a project in the past, but it took much more than that to make this a reality. And the reality is that it took a real initiator: Peter Damrosch, an American teacher who lived in Jordan for a while and who had the spark that started the fire: he got on busses and started tracking their routes on Google Maps, marking the beginning of an amazing journey.
Then it took an organization, Maan Nasel (Arriving Together): Jordan’s first grassroots campaign demanding a modern public transport system for all, who embraced Peter and his early collaborators, recruited more volunteers to finish mapping most of the city’s transport lines.
Then it took a brilliant designer, Ahmad Sabbagh, my collaborator at SYNTAX for over a decade, who somehow was able to learn the art of transport mapping in no time and craft an intricate work of highly functional design, that translates all the work done by the volunteers into something people can actually use in their daily lives.
I also feel humbled, because we, as SYNTAX designers, stood on the shoulders of giants: pioneers of transport mapping like Henry Charles Beck, the draughtsman who drew the London Tube Map in his spare time in 1931, inspired by the geometry of electrical circuits to create a geometrical transport map that prioritized connections over geography. But we also became aware of an entire global movement of volunteer-based map design projects in the developing world. Amman didn’t only learn from London, Berlin and New York, but also Dakha, Bangladesh and Nairobi, Kenya as well as many other cities around the globe, who’s mapping experiences where documented online for everyone to learn from.
The first design challenge SYNTAX had to deal with to produce a transport map for Amman was to come up with the underlying grid upon which all the map’s elements would be layered. We considered Amman’s major highways, streets, intersections and its famous traffic “circles” (roundabouts) and abstracted them using a strict geometrical system to produce our first grid. We then added the city’s neighborhoods (many based on Amman’s well known hills), public parks and well known landmarks. Our aim was to enable people to relate the map to the common mental model they have of the city.
Downtown Amman, where a lot of transport lines converge, had to be enlarged in proportion to the the city’s other neighborhoods. This way, the intricate network of lines in the downtown area was made clearly readable. Amman’s two “ring roads” where indicated to on the map to define the boundaries of the city’s inner core and its outer belt of suburbs.
Only then could we add the 76 documented transport lines on the map. A color coding system was devised that classifies the lines into their general directions and make it easy for the user to follow the path of any given transport line.
In designing all the intricate details, symbols and visual elements of this map we drew on the collective experiences of the volunteering team behind this project which included transport experts, urbanists and activists. We also learned from the wealth of case studies we found online. The design went through no less than a dozen iterations until we were satisfied with it.
Now, I am excited as the first version of the Unofficial Amman Transport Map will hit the streets and phone screens around the city. My enthusiasm for this project doesn’t just come from the collaborative process of its creation, and its potential to improve, if just a little bit, the experience of getting around in Amman. There is more.
For the first time we have a visual tool that enables us to see Amman’s transport system in its entirety. It unites us as Ammanis around one map that we can talk about and use as a tool to address the various authorities that oversee the system and are responsible for its future development.
Make no mistake: Amman’s transport system is badly broken. We have too few busses. Those we have are barely up to acceptable standards. We have no regular bus schedules. The bus stops on the street are there for decorative purposes. We don’t have a fair bus fare system, nor an easy way to pay. But at least we now have a map that we can point at and talk about.
A glimmer of hope might be the Bus Rapid Transit project, which has been delayed for too long. But what we need are immediate, tangible improvements in the existing system. And that’s were our unofficial map will help.
At SYNTAX we claim to design “transforming experiences”. We use the tools of research, observations, design thinking, branding, communication and technology to create experiences that inform, delight, teach and hopefully improve life.
I get nervous when I start anticipating the result of the countless hours of work put into this project, be it the work of volunteers, activists and us as designers. Will anyone care? Will people find it useful? Will it drive the conversation about the public transport in Amman forward? Will it make a contribution towards a more fair, friendly, usable, productive and enjoyable Amman?
That remains to be seen. This doesn’t stop here. The work of Maan Nasel is not done. It’s barely beginning. But the first step is to do something. Create a map. Get it released. Then see what happens.
Honored to have been chosen as jury member of the 100 Best Arabic Posters competition, held with the support of the German University in Cairo. Excited to see the entries soon.
If you have a great poster you want submit, then hurry up. The closing date is at the end of February. You just have a few days left!
Since Uber launched in the Jordanian capital Amman in 2015, an “Uberification” craze has swept over the country’s services scene. Everyone now wants to launch the “Uber of this” or the “Uber of that”. It’s understandable of course. Here, finally, was a service on our smart phones that was hugely useful.
I mean, just look at my family. Uber has been making a decent revenue from my teenage son, on one extreme of the age spectrum, and my mom, on the other extreme. My son always had trouble finding taxis in our part of the city. With the lack of a decent public transport system in Amman, he often had to rely on his mother and me to take him places. Uber solved his mobility problem. And we as parents felt safer with the Uber drivers than we felt when he was taking taxis.
My mother, on the other hand, has almost never taken a taxi in Amman in her entire life. She also doesn’t drive. Recently widowed, she has had to initially rely on family members to drive her somewhere. But to my surprise she embraced Uber and used it several time to come and visit us.
It’s a shame that we had to wait for US-based Uber to come and help us with some of our urban mobility problem here in Jordan. Yes, I know that EasyTaxi (another import) launched before Uber, but it seems it was never as reliable and consistent as Uber and thus never created the same kind of buzz in the market that Uber achieved.
Which brings me to the Uberification craze. At SYNTAX we have met several entrepreneurs who had an “Uber of X” idea that they wanted to get branded, designed and developed by us. Some of those ideas were great and others, well, not so much.
So before you embark on your Uber-like startup, stop for a minute and consider these questions:
1 Does Jordan (or your city/country/world) need you idea? In other words, what problem are you really solving. We’ve seen too many entrepreneurs in this part of the world who create solutions that are still looking for non-existent problems. Uber solved a real pain for people in Amman and many other cities. In Amman that pain was an underdeveloped, degraded taxi service. We’re taking dirty, unkempt cars, drivers who often don’t want to turn on the meter, who didn’t have change, or who simply refused to take you to a certain place. Uber came and gave us a more reliable, cleaner, more elegant way to order a ride, make a journey and pay for it. Look at how many pains it removed. That’s why people embraced it, even as it was more expensive than taxis. Before you fall in love with your own idea to create the “Uber of baby diaper delivery” maybe you should notice that buying diapers is not a big problem in your city, as every coronership sells them. Are you solving a real problem?
2 Are you thinking just about an App, or are creating a whole customer experience? At SYNTAX we always think about and observe customer experiences. Don’t get us started about the lack of great customer experiences in our region. Getting a website or an app right is not easy. But even if you have a good looking and properly functioning app, you’ve only taken one step towards success. When Uber launched in Jordan it created a model of service that delivers a good customer experience. Of course they had to deal with regulatory issues. They couldn’t just go with their US model where basically anyone could become an Uber driver, as that would be illegal in Jordan. They got decent drivers, provided them with decent cars, and then they launched their app. When we talk about touchpoints at SYNTAX we always emphasize to clients that they need to think about what touchpoint has the biggest impact on their business. When you want to launch the Uber of Falafel, make sure you can consistently make and deliver good falafel, before worrying about your mobile app.
3 Customer experience is the best marketing tool. If you solve a real problem for people, and then prove to them you can deliver the solution without driving them crazy, and when your all touchpoints have been well considered and designed, then congratulations, you have created a great customer experience. What will happen next is that you will have happy customers tweeting about it, telling their friends on Facebook and face to face too. That’s the best marketing you can get. It’s better than advertising and also better than gathering the “usual suspects” of “social media types” for a “tweetup” (or whatever it is called these days). By all means, advertise and do social media stuff, if you have the money and the time. But not before you get happy customers talking about the experience they had with your Uber of Falafel.
4 Are you ready to learn from your customers? A customer-centric mind set is more than just keeping the customer in mind when you first design your app, product of service. It also means that you are willing to learn from your customer’s behavior over time. When you initially launch your Uber of Falafel, or any app for that matter, take into consideration that you will need to tweak your offering over time, according to how people actually use it. Entrepreneurs often make the mistake of not budgeting enough time or money for the long haul. They are too focused on getting something out of the door. Well, more often than not, things do not work out they way you imagined. So you need to be ready to continuously improve your app, your communication and every touchpoint of your customer experience. The customers of you Uber of Falafel, may have problems with their credit cards. Or maybe the falafel are being delivered to them cold. Whatever. Such stuff will crop up. You need to listen, learn and tweak.
We at SYNTAX wish all the Uberification entrepreneurs the best of luck. Our region needs a million brilliant digitally-driven service to make our lives easier. But we also invite you to a chat about your next project. A customer-centric design conversation can add a lot of value to your next digital startup or corporate service.
In May 2013, SYNTAX celebrated its 15th birthday. More than a birthday party we transformed the occasion into what we called SYNTAX/Interface: we opened our offices (and building roof) for a day of ideas, interaction and fun. Our invited speakers, clients, partners, SYNTAXers and ex-SYNTAXers, friends and family all showed up for what turned out to be a great, colorful day.
But it was also a day that signaled the end of an era and the beginning of another.
Technology has changed. The world has changed. We have changed.
Only a decade ago, it was a struggle to convince clients in the Arab region of the importance of a coherent brand, or the value of a web strategy, or, even more far fetched, the need to innovate.
Today, some of these challenges remain. But it is clear that our region is more connected than ever before. Connected internally, and globally. Our region is not immune to global competition nor to social and political change. And the region’s innovators are no longer invisible.
SYNTAX, a company that for more than a decade and a half preached design and innovation needs to redesign itself.
Our DNA of curiosity, clarity and craft has not changed. But the scope of what we deliver has progressively evolved.
A history lesson
When we started the company in the late 1990s, we tagged ourselves as providers of “strategic design and interactive media”, and that’s what we did during what I call SYNTAX 1.0. That mission was translated into building pioneering websites, corporate designs, logos and publications. Sometimes we provided comprehensive solutions, but often disconnected, one-off interventions.
SYNTAX 2.0 saw us evolve our strategic branding capabilities and expertise, as well as our involvement with web 2.0 startups. Besides branding companies, we now were branding larger corporations, cities and regions.
Today, we’re increasingly designing backdrop businesses from the ground up: Product strategy, brand, technology, communication, user interface, space are more than just interconnected. They are one!
In parallel to this evolution, our team grew, not merely in numbers. It is the growth that comes from long term collaborative learning and the trust built between people who have been together through tough challenges and hard-won achievements for many years. In a world where job hopping has become the norm, many of us SYNTAXers have been here for 5 years or more. Some, a decade and more. Equally, I am it is the growth that comes from new members of our team who are adding exciting dimensions to our expertise and culture.
Everyone: welcome to SYNTAX 3.0.
Remembering why we’re here
Beyond all the buzzwords and trends, beyond consultant’s presentations, we see our role as designers addressing some deep-rooted human needs: Communication. Knowledge. Tools. Space. Place. Identity.
Humans are a tool-making and tool-using species. From the stone hammer to the smartphone. We keep evolving our tools, making them better, redesigning them.
We are a species that communicates. The better communicators thrive.
We all need identities to “identify”. From our personal identity (who am I) to the identity of communities, cities, companies, organizations. Having an identity means standing for something.
We are a learning species. The gathering, organization, transmission and development of knowledge is central to human culture. Any system that stops learning, dies.
We are a space dwelling species: from caves to skyscrapers. From the village to the metropolis. Our relation to the spaces we dwell in and travel through is central to the living and understanding of our lives.
The best we can hope for at SYNTAX is to help people, communities and organization by designing better tools, communication and knowledge, spaces, places and identities.
How it’s done at SYNTAX
We favor designing and building things over talking about them. We are visual. We are tactile. We are experiential. We show and tell. We prototype the future to see how it looks and if it really works. We aren’t afraid to make “mistakes” as we iterate towards a solution that works elegantly.
We challenge the status quo, and don’t care about departmental politics. We don’t care if it “was always done this way”. We don’t care if it “can’t be done”.
We are not just “design nerds”. Yes we deeply care about obscure design details of materials, fonts, pixels and shades of color. But we are also passionately curious about real-world business challenges and how organizations work and how people use products, perceive information, interact with their environments and how they feel about the experiences they have.
Transforming your business through Experiential Integration
The best organizations and companies are the ones that can consistently offer their audiences experiences that respond to their needs, that add to their lives and that ultimately delight them in small and large ways.
People experience your organziation through a series of interfaces. These interfaces include the products you sell, the services you provide, the communication you transmit, the physical spaces and the digital platforms where they interact with you.
Designing those interfaces in a holistic, connected and thoughtful manner to deliver experiences that are easy, intuitive, beautiful, meaningful and delightful is what we call Experiential Integration.
“Transforming Experiences” is our guiding idea today. It not only means that we have the technical ability to transform an experience. It challenges us to create experiences transform perceptions, opinions, usage, engagement, profits, relevance. A great meal can transform your mood. A great teaching experience delivered by a passionate teacher can transform a child. A great transport experience can transform the lives of citizens. A great travel experience can transform the understanding the world and your place in it.
A window into our world
With these thoughts, I invite you to have a look at our new website to see more of what we’ve bee up to. We hope it sparks an idea. Maybe we’ll be working together soon to transform an experience.
Fifteen years ago SYNTAX was born. We were three partners and a couple of team members. We borrowed an empty doctor’s clinic for office space, put some Macs and PCs on cheap wooden boards supported by simple triangular legs, got a telephone line, and called ourselves a company.
Today, we still use those cheap wooden boards as tables. And in many ways we still are that “design workshop” we started out as.
But our journey of fifteen years changed us as well. Today we are a team of 25 SYNTAXers: designers, project coordinators, architects, content creators, strategists and managers (you’ve got to have some managers!), handling projects from all over the region (and sometimes beyond), designing the brands, digital experiences, spaces, and products of great companies and organizations, large and small.
Our extended family has grown as well to include Spring, our technology strategy and implementation sister company, and TootCorp, our friends who run a digital venture lab.
The road behind us was interesting and challenging. Often fun. Sometimes bumpy. Sometimes dangerous. But here we are. We survived! And on the way, we learned a lot and managed to, hopefully, deliver something useful, informative, engaging, and delightful into this world.
To celebrate 15 years of SYNTAXing, and to recognize and thank clients, partners, team members friends and family who have accompanied us on this journey, we designed SYNTAX: interface, a day of celebration, inspiration and design thinking, presented by the SYNTAX team in Amman and a group of guest designers, architects, technologists, entrepreneurs and other trouble makers.
SYNTAX: interface was held in a multi-part “open day” style on May 11, 2013 at our offices in Amman and the roof of our building.
Here’s to 15 more years to come.
Hello. I am Ahmad Humeid, cofounder and CEO of SYNTAX. And I’d like to tell you a story.
One evening, sometime in October 1997, I was sitting in an office on the second floor of an old building in Amman’s old Jabal Al Luwiebdeh neighborhood. I was excited. I had finally decided on the name of my design business.
At the time, I was a partner in a company division which was part of a larger group that worked in magazine publishing and web media. My division did graphic design, multimedia and web design work. It was called “Arabian Media Concepts”, not exactly a name I liked. That name was a result of a strategy that positioned our little division as a kind of “media research and development” unit that experimented with a variety of media projects and concepts.
I love media and technology. And we had a great time experimenting with the web, comic books, magazine projects and building some of the first Arab corporate web sites and actually creating the first Arab web portal ever.
But, at heart, I was a designer. In the early 1990’s, while still studying architecture at the University of Jordan, I started my own small graphic design business. By 1997, After a few years of being deeply involved in a pioneering Arab publishing venture, I wanted independence again and I had an image in my mind of building and working in a design firm, not a “media concepts” firm.
A year earlier, towards the end of 1996, I had the chance to be briefly exposed to a number successful design, branding and multimedia/web companies in Germany and Austria. I even considered leaving Jordan at the time to work in Europe. A company that really captured my imagination (but didn’t hire me 🙂 was MetaDesign in Berlin, who played an important role in the design scene in Germany during the 1990s.
But here I was in Amman.
Our parent publishing group was going through some tough times and big changes.
Inspired by the companies I visited or read about in magazines or saw on the young web, I really wanted to focus on building a design company. My wife Salua Qidan and our friend Racha Tarazi where ready to be partners. Together we were three young architects ready to go independent.
I can’t remember exactly how I arrived at the name “SYNTAX”. But it felt right. It had that amazing linguistic, philosophical and technical meaning. it was not about “style” or “creative” or “cool”. It was all about building meaningful things.
So what do you do when you finally hit upon the right name for your company? Well, you register a domain name, of course. And on 22 November, 1997 that’s what I did, most probably on a Mac Quadra that sat on my desk at that old Luweibdeh office. The domain SYNTAXDESIGN.com was registered.
SYNTAX officially became a company nine month later in August 1998.
We used SYNTAX DESIGN as our name and SYNTAXDESIGN.com as our domain name for the first year of our operation.
The internet bubble came along. Driven by enthusiasm, and by venture capital money, we set up shop in New York, ready to conquer the world (wide web).
We were still designers at heart, but the opportunity was in doing “digital” work. In 1999 we registered SYNTAXDIGITAL.com and since 2000 we started using that domain as our main address on the web. At one point we even changed our logo to SYNTAXDIGITAL. But we maintained ownership of SYNTAXDESIGN too.
The internet bubble burst. September 11th 2001 happened. Our dreams of being a “global” company where put on the shelf. We retreated to Amman, focusing on Jordan and regional market.
I think that around 2002, we started thinking of ourselves as simply “SYNTAX”. But the SYNTAXDIGITAL name kept lingering on. For a long while I convinced myself that “DIGITAL” was simply a way to say that our website was the “digital home” of SYNTAX.
Looking back, I have to admit that this was a branding mistake. And it’s a pretty lame mistake for a branding company to make too. We always insist on naming clarity when working with startups and even large corporations. But we couldn’t get ourselves to take the same medicine we prescribed.
Then, a few years ago, something even worse happened. An administrative mistake caused us to lose our original SYNTAXDESIGN.com domain name. It was scooped up by a domain name trader. My anxious emails to the guy (in Japan!) brought no results. We were being asked for a very high price to get our domain name back.
SYNTAX is, in three words, a design company. We really needed that domain name back! And we obviously kept watching the situation. SYNTAXDESIGN.com started pointing to a Japanese domain sales site. It was probably for sale, but we had given up on the issue.
We lived with this reality for years and we have suffered from it, not only on a branding level, but also on a technical level as some of our company’s accounts with various online services where registered using email addresses on the SYNTAXDESIGN.com domain.
It was bad.
But our luck started changing around a week ago.
I checked the domain again and noticed that it was for sale by a domain brokerage that spoke English.
Our web wizard Ibrahim Owais submitted a bid that we agreed to keep reasonably low, and to see what happens.
To our surprise, the bid was accepted. We couldn’t believe our luck!
The days-long process of transferring the domain name to our ownership started. We were nervous that something would go wrong and kept following up on a daily basis.
Then, yesterday morning, the great news arrived. SYNTAXDESIGN.com was ours again.
And as of yesterday afternoon, it takes you the the SYNTAX site.
It’s back to the future! Design is our DNA. SYNTAXDESIGN.com is our domain.
In the coming weeks we will transfer our emails to our new/old domain name and we will get our own house in order, branding-wise.
The door of the carpenter shall be broken no more.