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.