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An Interview with Parasto Backman

Parasto Backman is a formidable graphic designer based in Stockholm, whose stunning work weaves her Scandinavian surroundings with her Iranian roots. Backman’s inherent critical nature drives both her design process and her role as a senior lecturer in the Masters Program in Visual Communications at Konstfack University College of Arts, Craft & Design – an intense teaching role, which she says is an extension of her design practice.  In advance of her talk at Typographics in June, we spoke about how she questions and engages with design, our collective role in it, and that “Modernism isn’t truth” …

Studio Parasto Backman interior

Studio Parasto Backman.

“I can be picky about projects I choose to work on,” Backman says, because after ten years in her own studio, she has developed a reputation for creating striking works that push against the boundaries of what we’re used to seeing. “When I went to design school 11 years ago, when I was talking about intersectionality then, it was a total blank to people, especially the teachers. ‘Okay,’ they said, ‘we’ll put you in the critical thinkers.’ Of course I am! But they still didn’t understand it. The global awareness around these perspectives are much more recognized now than they were before.”

Book series for Novellix

Covers for a series of four books for Novellix, on the subject “To Flee”. The stories are told by four different voices and four generations of migration.

Born and raised in Sweden, Backman’s Iranian roots often clashed with her environment. “This Eurocentric making and thinking in graphic design is so dominant. These rules and structures that I’ve been taught and that surround us all the time is the opposite of the culture I was raised in. The dominant philosophy in Western culture is Modernism, the notion that form follows function.” Her observation that ornament is seen as superfluous in Modernism ran counter to the importance and intent of ornament in non-Western culture and design. This created the impetus for her work, and for her proclamation that “the rules around modernism are not ‘the truth’.”

Revy magazine spread

A spread from Revy, a literary magazine published by Natur & Kultur.

Influenced by these dominant traditions, Backman’s work integrates both worlds, while layering in complex content. She starts by writing down the collisions within traditions that she wants to overcome, and chooses which parts of cultural traditions will suit her goals. “I still relate to the modernist grid, for example. I just did film graphics for a well-known hip hop artist, Silvana, whose roots are in Syria and Sweden and Eastern Europe, and she is also gay. A lot of different layers. She’s quite complex, so they’ve done this documentary about her and within graphic design I chose to work with all of her layers. I want to make the complexity take space.”

Silvana film poster

Graphics for the movie about Silvana Imam.

Backman describes her approach to graphic design as “a conscious choice, to reflect design choices and put them in a broader context. There is poor coverage on graphic design, at least in Sweden, which leads to a rather superficial conversation.” Instead, she believes in diving deeper, and while design isn’t exactly going to save us all, “graphic design and visual communication have an important role in how we mirror the world, and if one is interested in striving for change with design as a tool, focus needs to be directed towards ourselves (designers and practitioners). Design cannot change anything before it changes itself.”

See Parasto Backman talk more about complexity in graphic design and typography during her presentation at the Typographics conference this June.

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