06 May 2009
For the design industry of the world, Israel is mysterious and fascinating. With modern Jewish immigrants and the revival of oral Hebrew, more and more people are interested in the tiny country. Mel Bayas, the author of The Design Encyclopedia, published in 2004, claims that Israel design is a secret to be preserved best in the world.
Avital Scharf
Manager of the Design Department at the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute (IEICI)

For the design industry of the world, Israel is mysterious and fascinating. With modern Jewish immigrants and the revival of oral Hebrew, more and more people are interested in the tiny country. Mel Bayas, the author of The Design Encyclopedia, published in 2004, claims that Israel design is a secret to be preserved best in the world. Israel design reflects not only the application of modern design concepts and also a strong sense of local culture. Young or old, Israeli designers, bolstered by a high-tech export economy, a uniquely multi-cultural environment and a demanding public, create designs sought-after for their functionality and originality. This article by Avital Scharf, originally printed in Design 360°, looks at what makes Israeli graphic design so unique.

It's a tiny country, little more than a speck on the map, with a unique writing system more than 3,000 years old used every day for magazines, consumer packaging, movie posters, retail signs and more. That country is Israel, with one-tenth the area and one-tenth the population of China's Guangdong Province, and its graphic designers have given new life to a script that for nearly two millennia was used almost exclusively for religious purposes.

That script, the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet, evolved in parallel to its Phoenician cousin, which was borrowed by the ancient Greeks and ultimately led to the Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic and many other alphabets. Old text such as the Dead Sea Scrolls affirm that it has changed little from classical times.

Yet with the beginning of modern Jewish settlement and the revival of spoken Hebrew in this ancient land, new commercial and cultural needs arose. Around the same time, new printing technologies enabled greater graphic expression, a trend boosted with more recent availability of design software.

All these trends are evident in the graphic design of Israel today, a state with a thriving export economy, a burgeoning high-technology sector and a flourishing local culture conducted in Hebrew.

"We're the only place on earth that speaks and writes in Hebrew," says David Grossman, president of the Israel Community of Designers [a Professional Member of Icograda] and past president of Icograda, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations. "Our packaging and product design subscribes to the Western model, yet the attributes of local culture - from postage stamps to books to theatre programmes - all use the Hebrew alphabet."

Israel graphic imagery also reflects this dichotomy. A box of pasta, even if only for local consumption, competes with imported brands and is thus global in conception, even if its typography is Hebrew. In contrast, imagery with a cultural and even political message often invokes traditional Jewish and modern Israeli themes that are instantly understood by the local audiences but that can leave an outsider unaware of its meaning.

David Tartakover, a 2002 Israel Prize laureate and accomplished graphic artist, author and lecturer, observes that the modern roots of Israeli graphic design began in 1906 with the founding of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. "Bezalel reflected the spirit of the Arts & Crafts Movement," he says. "The wave of Jewish immigrants from Germany in the 1930s, schooled in that country's notions of industry and its accompanying needs for advertising and marketing, pushed local graphic design in a more commercial direction." Commercial work in today's Israel is strongly influenced by American motifs, in part because Israeli designers often study in that country.

Israel experienced a massive wave of immigration after its founding in 1948. The population quadrupled in a few short years and communication needs - institutional, commercial and cultural - grew rapidly. Adi Stern, who heads the Department of Visual Communication at Bezalel, says that between 1954 and 1958, type designers looked anew at the Hebrew alphabet and created the modern Hadassah, David, Koren, Narkiss Block and Hatzvi faces. "These designs recall the connection of the people to their historical land," he says. Still widely used, they have been bolstered by newer, computer-aided designs.

The Arabic and Latin alphabets, and more recently the Cyrillic, are also widely used in Israel, endowing local designers with unique multi-cultural capabilities.

Israel, a young state rooted in an old nation, has yet to fully form its identity. "Our lives are still bound in uncertainty," says Yehuda Hofshi, a commercial designer and teacher who is writing a book about Hebrew typography. "Young Israeli designers take great pride in their 'Israeliness,' but the conflict with most of our neighbouring countries ensures they keep a watchful eye on international developments. Even so, I believe the next generation of graphic designers will help consolidate the Israeli identity."

In 2007 the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute (IEICI), Israel's veteran private/public sector trade promotion organisation, established a Design Department to foster relationships with design groups and organisations internationally. [Its] job is to bring Israeli design and designers to the world through exhibitions and seminars, and to help create joint ventures with international design and project companies, as well as high-tech start-ups, medical equipment firms, and consumer product manufacturers.

A sampling of the best work at Designed In Israel 07-08, convened by the Israel Community of Designers and supported by the Israeli Ministry of Industry and Trade, IEICI and the private sector, has been converted into a traveling exhibition [that has been] presented in major cities and at international exhibitions including Inno Design Tech Expo 2008 (10-13 December) in Hong Kong and China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park in February 2009. [The exhibition will be part of 100% Design in Shanghai in October.]

Today, Israeli television and print advertising, local packaging and POS displays, books and magazines all reflect an ancient alphabet rejuvenated for modern use. Words once inscribed by quill on parchment and later rendered in movable type on paper, now play as pixels on a screen. They meet images drawn from local history and the wider world, coalescing into commercial and cultural expression. A challenge met at home, Israeli graphic designers now seek to play on the global stage.

This article originally appeared in the 2008/11 edition of Design 360° - Concept and Design Magazine and has been republished with permission.