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Beirut Madinati and the politics of design

It may have failed to in its bid to change the political landscape of Beirut, but Beirut Madinati has proved what is possible with design and a spirit of collaboration

On May 8 Beirut went to the polls. For the first time, a non-sectarian, volunteer-led campaign to elect a municipal council of “qualified, politically unaffiliated individuals” fielded 24 candidates for 24 seats on Beirut Municipal Council. It failed to win a single seat.

It did, however, win 40 per cent of the vote. Not bad for a political movement that is only a few months old and financed through crowd-funding and individual donations.

One aspect of the political campaign stood out: its branding and design. Created by a group of creative directors, art directors, designers, animators, illustrators and photographers, all of whom volunteered, Beirut Madinati’s visual communication was inventive, crisp and minimalist. It referenced pop culture and embraced collaboration, with videos, animation and GIFs creating a strong, highly visible and notable brand.

The logo, for example, is based on the letter ‘ba’ and is in the shape of an open heart. The idea was for the design to convey information in a simple and clear way. What is perhaps most striking about the design elements, however, is how they were appropriated online and a spirit of collaboration established between Beirut Madinati and its supporters.

“We only designed our broad strategy, suggested our personality, our tone of voice and our flexible guidelines,” says illustrator and artist Jana Traboulsi, who is part of the core team within Beirut Madinati. “But the diversified visual languages we established, as well as our multiple slogan approach, turned out to be an automatic call for contribution before it was even suggested. This is when the conversation started.

“On social media the campaign was appropriated by individual and groups who pitched in spontaneously. Not only visuals, films, animations and illustrations, but also ideas that fed into our own original content and started building intuitively along the way.”

Amongst those standing for election as part of the Beirut Madinati list were the director and actress Nadine Labaki and creative directors Amal Charif and Rana El-Khoury.

“Originally we gathered organically and planned a campaign that would project genuinely what we wanted for Beirut,” adds Maya Saikali, a creative director also involved in the communication aspect of the political campaign. “So we reverted to that part of ourselves that could serve us best: our common sense of citizenship.

“We needed to involve people in our campaign, although our means to do so on a massive scale were limited. In fact, our process went beyond that, since any citizen we addressed would potentially join us – either as a volunteer, a supporter or a voter – and hence become what constitutes ‘us’. We did this in a number of ways. Most apparent were the public debates we organised in neighbourhoods and the spontaneous contributions of people on social media. In both, creative contributions blurred the lines between messengers and recipients. In public debates, people’s demands and complaints, but also their ideas and creative suggestions on ways to improve their neighbourhoods, enriched the main points of our program.”

The Beirut Madinati campaign is an example of what is possible if a brand is willing to loosen control. It is the “spirit of collaboration and co-operation” that Amit Vyas, planning director at DDB Dubai, discusses on page 22. It also reveals a thirst for new forms of politics and representation amongst the creative community and Beirut’s younger population. What’s more, the design defines a language that reflects a new political, social and civic phase Beirut Madinati wishes the city to enter.

“So many campaigns communicate hope without solid foundations,” says Traboulsi. “The Beirut Madinati initiative was itself grounded in the expertise of its members and the role of the municipal council in activating feasible solutions. So we focused on conveying those attainable aspects of our vision and put hope within reach by sharing information, facts, legislation and proposals that bridged the gap between unjustified promises and clear possible municipal actions.

“We decided not to dwell too much on the past, to avoid nostalgia and to be realistic. We wanted to communicate possibilities for the very near future and suggest them in practice. We also knew that our tasks were not going to be easy, so we pledged to focus on what we have to offer and what we know can be done, and less on denouncing the obvious shortcomings of others.”

Are you demoralised by the defeat at the polls?

“No. Since at all stages we placed our city at the centre of our concerns and communicated its needs and aspirations; since the collaborative process ruled our work and became the core of our progress; since the ‘conversation’ prevailed over ‘speech’ in the course of our actions, Beirut Madinati has become a platform rather than a campaign,” says Saikali. “This is part of the big victory we are celebrating today. Our aim and duty is to now work even harder to maintain this conversation and channel it through our continuous work and involvement in our city.”