Ruba Abu-Nimah
Episode
33

Youth Rebellion and Artistry: A Conversation with Ruba Abu-Nimah

Show Notes

Summary

Ruba Abu-Nimah is a graphic designer at the vanguard of creative directing—even as the title of that role has become, she says, completely devalued. She’s put her creative skills to work directing brands like Elle US, Shiseido, Revlon, Tiffany & CO., and most recently Balenciaga. In this episode, Abu-Nimah offers her take on the value of formal education and travel, the balance to be struck between digital and analog craftsmanship, upholding heritage and striving for innovation, and how men and women are perceived differently in creative workspaces.

Her passion for access, information, and learning comes through in her articulate, informed perspective on what she sees as the trajectory of corporations and AI. Swayed by her love of democratic arts, from her passion for Andy Warhol to her formative years spent listening to punk and hip-hop, Abu-Nimah sees what’s contemporary now as what has been and will be: the power of youth and their rebellious nature.

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Episode Highlights
  • Formative years: Abu-Nimah notes the convergence of punk rock and hip-hop that took place during, and had a strong influence on, her formative years. Punk, she says, “hit me like a ton of bricks.”
  • London as a design city: She notes that she was “preprogrammed” to work in the tactile, visual world, and that London kickstarted her preoccupation with beautiful design.
  • Formal education: Abu-Nimah sees formal education as “outdated.” “It wasn’t creative enough for me, in terms of analytical thinking,” she says. Art school, on the other hand, though it was outside of her family’s understanding, “was the only possible way for me to get through life.”
  • The contemporary digital moment and creative directing: Access to software and information has created a misunderstanding or confusion around distinctions between creativity and the tools used to accomplish the creative process.
  • “It took me about 20 years to gain that title.”: On becoming a creative director, Abu-Nimah says the role requires a total knowledge of her craft, from typography to conceptually bringing a project to life.
  • On the fundamental nature of graphic design: She prefers to identify as a graphic designer because the title of creative director today has been devalued and doesn’t have much meaning, unfortunately. Also, “I believe that to be a creative director in my world, which is, in the world of branding and messaging and communication, I believe you have to come from an understanding of communication.”
  • Balancing brand heritage with innovation: She distinguishes between heritage and nostalgia, highlighting the importance of brand DNA woven together with what resonates with today’s audiences.
  • Working by instinct and driven by learning: “Any passion that becomes a purpose—I’m just a lucky person that I was able to achieve that. To me, a lot of it is just feeling and understanding and immersing myself and living and breathing the world that we work in. I really love it. I don’t stop absorbing it.”
  • Prioritizing creative direction: She says corporations (outside of the luxury world) tend to prioritize marketing over creative departments.  
  • On confidence and gender in the working world: She emphasizes a sexist perspective in which confident women are seen “as a bitch, as difficult to work with, or intransigent” while confident men are perceived as “strong.”
  • Travel: Abu-Nimah sees travel—whether uptown or to a city that’s a 15-hour flight away—as the most important education as well as a luxury.
  • Marrying art to a commercial purpose: She paraphrases Fran Lebowitz, saying that people are more interested in the price of the art than the art itself. “But the art itself, I think, is for everyone and should be available to everyone, and everyone should have the privilege to understand it.”
  • Discovering Warhol: She speaks of her love for Andy Warhol’s art and graphics, how he democratized art and was “the artist of the people.”
  • On AI: Though Abu-Nimah sees AI as currently in a rudimentary state and could never see a machine replicating the work of legendary artists, “it could emulate them. And it might be a source for some sort of process,” she says.
  • A love for the digital world: Having access to “everything” fuels her passion for information consumption and accelerated learning.
  • On what’s contemporary now: Youth rebellion and speaking out against injustice.

Notable Quotes:

  • “I think anybody who does anything in the creative field, I think most people that I know started with music. And music changed my life. From that very early age, I knew that the work that I was going to do was going to be influenced by punk forever.” —Ruba
  • “I knew that there was something in that sort of the tactile, the visual world that I was preprogrammed to do. I didn’t know what it was. I was incredibly lucky to have lived in London at the time, and I maintain this to this day: London is a design city. Everything is beautifully designed.” —Ruba
  • “I must say that I’m very glad that I learned to do it by hand, because I think that I believe in craftsmanship. Even understanding how to do things on a computer, I’m able to do it better because I know how to do it by hand.” —Ruba
  • On attending (analog-style) art school: “It was the only possible way for me to get through life.” —Ruba
  • “A lot of people think, ‘I learned how to use the software, so I’m a designer.’ Any good designer will tell you the exact opposite: Just because you know how to use the software doesn’t make you a designer. I know how to drive a car, but I’m not a racecar driver. I just think that you need to be a designer first and then use the tools to create something.” —Ruba
  • “The only way that I think you can be a viable creative director is if you do understand those skills, because the job is to be almost like a conductor of an orchestra. You have to understand all of the different roles and responsibilities, and you have to be able to bring them all together for a common goal. That is what a creative director is. And everything else is bullshit.” —Ruba
  • On “culture versus marketing”: “Culture always wins, but it’s not how corporations operate. They operate through marketing. And by the time they catch up with the culture, then it’s just marketing.” —Ruba
  • “I’m a glutton for information. I’m an absolute, like—anything I could learn, anything that I can see, any discovery I can make is just super exciting for me. When you’ve got all of that surrounding you, that’s the analysis that I need.” —Ruba
  • “I know people are very shocked by that [shyness]. I am not good in a public space. I am shy, but at the same time, I feel very strongly that in order to do the best work possible, I have to speak up. So it’s this Jekyll and Hyde situation that I deal with. Maybe not Jekyll and Hyde, maybe it’s just this yin and yang. I need to speak up. I need to be forthright. I need to be confident in my point of view, because if you’re not confident, you just get squashed.” —Ruba
  • “There is still that deep anomaly in terms of male versus female in the corporate field.” —Ruba
  • “The greatest education, in my opinion, has been to be able to travel, and it’s the greatest pleasure. It’s the most enriching thing that we can possibly do for ourselves.” —Ruba
  • “I don’t think people recognize how important [Warhol] was and is to the democracy of art. And I think that art should be democratic. Art should be available to all. I think not enough people visit museums, not enough people go and see the stuff in person.” —Ruba
  • “I think you cannot take away the human element from art. You cannot take away the human element. I think the artists are born to be artists.” —Ruba
  • “What’s better now is the access to everything. We have access to absolutely everything. There is nothing that we can’t learn today; it’s incredible. I love the ability—‘Oh, I want to look this up!’ And all the information is there.” —Ruba Abu-Nimah
  • “What’s contemporary now is the youth rebellion and the rebellion with regards to government, with regards to authority, with regards to injustice in this world. That started—it didn’t start a few years ago; it started many years ago with the Civil Rights movement and obviously prior to that. What I am very much encouraged by is people taking to the streets and speaking up for injustice. That, to me, is what’s contemporary now.” —Ruba

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