Mobius Studio

Mobius Studio was founded in 2010 by Hala Al-Ani, Hadeyeh Badri, and Riem Hassan. The three met during their undergraduate studies at the American University of Sharjah and decided to start the studio to overcome their existential blues. Mobius is a mathematical term meaning object that connects two worlds, it reflects a desire to twist together two opposing worlds, such as commercial and experimental work, or seriousness and levity.


This interview was conducted in 2018 December through email. Saki Ho IGVmet Hala Al-Ani HAin Sharjah, UAE during FIKRA Graphic Design Biennial, the conversation began and interview follows.

Introducing the cultural context

IGV What is an inspiring place for you in UAE/Dubai? What makes this place special to you?

HA One of the many places that inspire us is Tashkeel studio. This place has maintained us and fed us (literally, lunch everyday) since we started the studio in 2010. Our friend Marwan Shakarchi jokes about it “embracing the misfits”, but there is much truth to that. The building that houses Tashkeel went through a growth of its own: it was a grocery store, a college, and then, for years, a space dedicated to nurturing artists. We’ve grown together along with the space, breaking walls and expanding works for both. Tashkeel’s annual programmes of training, residencies, workshops, talks, and exhibitions have given us access to people, knowledge, and life-long friendships. The idea that a space can be humble but impactful is inspiring to us.  

IGV Let me enlarge the geographic scale. What about UAE in general? Why do you like to live here? Is it a good place for graphic design?

HA We think it is a good place for designers to thrive because of the many opportunities available to us. In general, there seem to be opportunities to exhibit and showcase work. Cultural institutions are more likely to invest in proposals from designers. Of course, we face the same difficulties a designer would encounter anywhere in the world. Making a living (one that is sustainable and steady) out of your work as a designer is challenging.  Hala and Hadeyeh grew up in the UAE. Riem moved to the UAE for university.

IGV My impressions of Dubai were: “rich”, “new architecture”, “tourism” and “high-end designs”. Cliché or truth? Do these influence your design practice too?

HA Every city has its peculiarities, ironies, and distinct paradoxes. Dubai is no different. These peculiar qualities are what give designers/thinkers plenty of venues for inquiry. There is always the tendency for people who have never lived here to generalize and focus on the shiny, the glitz, the glamour and the new. Outsiders’ projections focus on a certain group of people that are, for the same reasons, highlighted online. What about the rich demographics? The many, many encounters that are possible because of multicultural spaces? The matriarchs that run families? The variety of food? There’s much to talk about! I guess what we are trying to do is to direct the question back at the reader. What is it that you seek to know about the UAE?
IGV What characteristics do you think of when speaking of UAE mentality? What are the problems that UAE society is struggling with?

HA Mentality is not something that is homogenous. There’s a tendency to homogenize subjects that contain a wide spectrum when it comes to region. We want to ask the readers to think about who lives in the UAE. We have many nationalities: different experiences, and hence, different mentalities and an array of problems and struggles. All of which make this a unique place. We are aware that this doesn’t answer the question; the question would need to be more specific.

IGV Which of your culture’s values could I learn something from?

HA If we had to pick one thing that we would want you to experience, it would be the holy month of Ramadan. Regardless of your religion or belief, this month is special for everyone living in the UAE because of its spirit. We fast from dawn till dusk. Once it is time to break our fast, friends and family gather to eat. As corny as this sounds (we do love corn; and cheese), ties are strengthened or rekindled. The social life of the city changes for a whole month: nights are extended and you are able to go out and visit people for longer periods of time and also dedicate time for prayer. The night stretches out. And in the morning, there is time to pause for reflection. Our stomachs are empty, but that allows us to think of our blessings. Our hearts are full (insert cheese). We would definitely want you to experience the call for prayer. It is what we miss the most when we travel.

IGV What cultural influences – besides UAE – have been of significance to your career?

HA We are a multicultural trio! Our heritage is Egyptian, Iraqi, Emirati, and Iranian. We are constantly trying to learn more about our heritage and find literature that does not correspond to the Western canon. That has been a challenge, and will likely be a life-long pursuit.  

IGV Mobius is based in Dubai, but the founders of Mobius come from different walks of life in terms of background and cultures. Do you see UAE is a place which can embrace all these diversities? Is this character applicable to Mobius too?

HA We think it is clear from our answers to the questions above that the UAE is a place where different people come together. The three of us have travelled a lot over the years and we all believe the UAE is one of the most multicultural places we’ve visited. It is part of the UAE’s fabric. Having said that, the three of us feel like we thrive in spaces that are communal. We learn so much from people (far more than we do from books). We thrive in places that have a sense of camaraderie and try to avoid places that promote individualism.  We agree 100% on this. This is a Eurocentric thing, and there is a reason for us growing up with English being the main focus in our classrooms. From the onset, we’ve been exposed to a Western education. Back then (and now still), speaking good English is a sign of prestige. But we feel that we are at a loss. We wish we could go back and focus more on our mother tongue. It is a shame. Literally, we feel embarrassed that it is so difficult for us to conduct a full conversation in Arabic. In university, we didn’t have access to Arabic typography. Can you imagine? We hold ourselves accountable. We realize that we have to start somewhere and that this needs to change. We are thinking of ways to change this within our practice, the books we read, the references we use, the people we cite, and what we include in the classroom.  

Introducing the person

IGV Does beauty play an important role in your work? What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?

HA Beauty is subjective. We don’t think about it when making. The work is dictated by other factors: time, process, and intent.

IGV How do you stay alert to the little miracles of everyday life?

HA We’d love to give a super philosophical answer to make ourselves sparkle, but we have to be honest here. Some days we are more in tune and more spiritual. Other days we just want to come back home and watch a rom-com and switch off.

IGV What themes or ideas do you find particularly interesting/ fascinating at the moment?

HA One thing we have in common is the fascination with how life cycles cause change.

IGV What do you expect from life? What does life in the UAE expect from you?

HA More than anything, we just want to be good people. We have hopes and dreams, but ultimately it all comes down to humanity and being kind.

IGV As a child, what was your dream career? or: What was the most significant experience of your youth, and did it influence your choice of profession?

HA We all probably wanted to be cashiers at the cash desk because we thought we could keep all that cash. (laughs)

IGV Where were you educated as a graphic designer?

HA In school, we did our undergrad at the American University of Sharjah.

IGV Are there other artistic or scientific disciplines that are important to you?

HA Music, food, literature. The list goes on.

Working life

IGV Could you describe your typical working day routine?

HA Coffee. More coffee. Work. Lunch. Work. Snack. Coffee. Work. In that order.

IGV What do you do on a holiday?

HA Try not to think of work. We have a hard time relaxing. It’s a dilemma.

IGV Dream job: graphic designer?

HA Some days, we just want to work at Baskin Robbins and make waffle cones.

IGV Why do clients pick you out as a designer? What are the core aspects of your design expertise?

HA We think the clients that pick us come to us because they know we are able to be playful.

IGV In your eyes, what are the qualities of a good graphic designer?

HA First and foremost, don’t be an asshole. That’s the general rule. Hahah. But in all seriousness, a good designer allows room for part of the process to be unknown. A little bit of surprise; a little bit of magic. Of course, that is rare when you have deadlines to meet and rent to pay. But, in an ideal world: magic!

IGV Are there any rituals associated with your design processes?

HA Food and coffee are our best friends. We also play the same song a million times.

IGV How does your idea-finding process work? or: How do you decide whether an idea is good?

HA We have been blessed with telepathy amongst each other. We rarely need to communicate our thoughts. We joke about being witches. A lot of our process is planned, but also, a lot of our decision making is intuitive.

IGV Are hierarchies important in your work and collaboration as a designer? What are these hierarchies?

HA We don’t believe in hierarchies in Mobius. We work together. Forever. (laughs)

IGV Are compromises an integral component of graphic design?

HA We always have to make compromises. There are always external factors at play: lack of time, lack of sleep, lack of energy, heartbreak, deadlines, money, etc. It is very rare to have everything our way.

IGV A compromise is always the result of a struggle. What are the typical conflicts that you have to fight out with clients? And how do you handle such a conflict? or: What is the biggest compromise that you have had to accept?

HA The struggles come when a client miscommunicates what they want. OR when a client doesn’t know what they want. Our most common dilemma is when clients say they want something “modern” but they actually mean they want something “traditional”. Another challenge we face is when clients make big changes but are unwilling to shift the deadline: we feel our labour goes unappreciated.  

IGV What are the most enthusiasm-filled and most annoying moments in the process?

HA The beginning is always hard. Sometimes we work for days but end up with unsatisfactory results. It happens. There is no other way around it. You work until something comes up.

IGV Who do you get your feedback from?

HA We are lucky to be situated in a space where likeminded people are around us all the time (Tashkeel). We can literally ask our studio neighbours for their opinion.

IGV Design process or product: what is more important to you?

HA Process, always.

IGV What about “stealing” from other designers?

HA That’s a different story entirely. The thing is, everything has been done before. So, if you rule out this unattainable (and fake) idea of originality, we think people have different ideas about what is considered “inspired” vs. what is in fact “stolen”. It all comes down to integrity; that is something you cannot teach someone. You either have it or you don’t. As a designer, you should be able to make and create. There is an abundance, and absolutely no need to steal someone else’s work.  

IGV Can you make a lot of money from graphic design in the UAE?

HA Like anywhere else, making a steady living from creative work is hard. We have good months and bad months.  


IGV Who do you design for? For connoisseurs, or for everyone? or: Do I need to understand design in order to feel the impact?

HA Everyone.

IGV In your eyes, what are the most important contemporary and historic movements in graphic design? or: What movement/designer has had the greatest influence on you?

HA Inspiration comes in bursts. It could be an excerpt or an exhibition or a scene from a series.

IGV How would you describe your individual graphic design attitude or style?

HA Dawood Hussain meets Tarek Al Ghoussein?

IGV Do you follow any meta-themes in your work? How and where do these concepts leave traces in your work?

HA We try to engage in processes that force us to have very little control.

IGV Is there a specific UAE approach in graphic design?

HA As with anywhere else, commercial projects look clinical.

IGV Could you name meta-themes that most UAE graphic designers share?

HA No, we would like to think that different designers have different pursuits.

IGV Do any of the following notions play a role in graphic design in UAE: craftsmanship, humbleness, identity, individuality, collectiveness?

HA We would say that identity plays a dominant role in many people’s work.

IGV Big question: Is graphic design important? Why?

HA If you couldn’t read the signs on the road clearly, would that be a problem? (This is the go to response that most graphic designers have up their sleeves, hahaha).

IGV Another big one: Can graphic design change society?

HA Graphic design can play a role.

IGV Half serious question: If you were the dictator of the world of graphic design, what measures would you implement?

HA We would encourage designers to research more about their roots rather than rely on their Eurocentric education.

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