Student Profile: Maral Pourkazemi
Maral Pourkazemi holds a B.A. in Communication Design from the Muthesius University of Fine Arts Kiel and a M.A. in Design from the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. On her website, Maral writes:
Design is my conviction and my religion. I believe that design has the potential to make important and relevant topics accessible and to make the invisible visible. I want to use my ability as a designer to do just that. Apart from that, design is a lot of fun.
For her master’s thesis she designed an infographic composed of six content panels about the Iranian internet. Here we talk with her about her project and experience as a design student.
Tell us about your project The Iranian Internet.
My interest for this topic emerged after the disputed 2009 presidential elections in Iran. Making a long story short it was fascinating for me to see how Iranians used the internet after international journalists were sent out of the country when the massive protests on the streets of Iran began. At the same time it was really scary to experience the power of Iranian authorities on the web. On some days you couldn't get any information from Iran because they managed to slow down the internet speed such that it was impossible to upload new videos. This is only one thing they did during the protests. Aside from this historical event, which was also historical for the internet itself, I am an Iranian born in Germany, so I also have a personal connection to whatever happened in Iran and especially on the Iranian internet.
You describe your project as a series of panels. Can you discuss one in more detail?
The Cyber Criminals panel is the fifth of six content panels that comprise the entire infographic. It is different than the other panels because it does not deal with general information. Instead, you see 5 exemplary stories of bloggers/cyber activists or just non-politically motivated internet users who have been or still are in trouble with Iranian law. And some were not even permanently living in Iran — two of them were Canadian residents that were arrested while visiting their families in the country. This panel might be the only more emotional panel in the whole infographic — each user has an individual story worth telling. In the end, when you talk about an internet user, you shouldn’t see the user as someone very far away. This panel tries to make you think of the user as someone with a name and a background — just like you.
What processes, techniques, and/or tools were used or which ones were most helpful for the project?
Working on a highly politicized topic like the Iranian internet was a little bit of a challenge. I never studied politics, law, the social sciences or anything else that could be useful for this topic. I knew that I had to build up a network of people and experts who would be willing to provide me with knowledge and information/data that I could use for the final visual. Therefore the most important step for the project was to get to know people, build a network and scale it in order to design a well-grounded visual that could be useful and not only something nice to look at.
So, one thing I did was to visit a lot of conferences and get to know some of the pioneer researchers/journalists/politicians/activists in this field, and the network grew just like my information/data set. A lot of brainstorms and a few workshops finally helped me organize and categorize the gathered information into a very logical and clear structure. With that my very long research phase was finished, so then I started to develop a visual language for designing the final infographic. A lot of inspiration came from Iranian culture, like Iranian rugs and architecture or Islamic calligraphy.
What were some of the challenges you encountered and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was surely the lack of pure data, especially since I was planning on designing a data visualization! There was no way to find out exact numbers, and I am also sure that not even Iranian officials have the data that I was searching for. For example, what is the total number of Iranians that have internet access in their homes or how many use VPN and how many use TOR, as well as many, many other things.
At some point I struggled because of this, but after awhile I figured that I don't really need these pure numbers and data for what I wanted to communicate. I gathered a lot of "information", such as scenarios (VPN,TOR), ideas ("Halal"-Internet), facts (systems of government, cyber police), emotions (cyber criminals), etc. I figured that even though data and information can be two absolutely different things, both can be displayed narratively.
What insight or understanding did you gain through completing the project?
As a designer the most important thing that I learned during this project was that you need a network that you can rely on. There is always someone who will like what you do and who will be happy to help and provide you with what you ask for. With that you have a lot of responsibility and a positive stress to develop something amazing with this shared knowledge. For me personally this project was a milestone for my own understanding of being a designer. I figured that design (also as a process) enhances what experts from other fields are talking about. With an infographic you can make complicated procedures understandable, not only for an expert audience but also for those who are more generally interested.
You attended the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. What from your educational program ended up being most valuable in your creation of this project (i.e. a particular class, teacher, or skill)?
There were a couple of courses that were absolutely useful for my project and for my understanding of what I can do as a designer. "Public Private Interactions" with Prof. Boris Müller for instance made me think about possible interventions for making people on this side of the world aware of what’s happening in Iran and of course elsewhere, and "Design Activism" with Monika Hoinkis made me believe that there is a bright future in design and that designers are needed to not only develop nice visuals but also to use our skills in an interdisciplinary manner with subjects that matter.
What is the next infographic you might be working on now or want to work on in the future?
At the moment I am the "Visual Reseacher" of a London based organization (Small Media), and I am currently working on infographics about satellite jamming in Iran. I might also develop an infographic about LGBT Iranians. Aside from that we hope to have an event about the Internet in Iran this year, where we also want to showcase my master’s thesis. There is a lot more coming, so stay tuned!