Fifteen Years with Grafist

Between 1995 and 1999, I have served as Vice-President at the Board of Directors for ICOGRADA, The International Council of Graphic Design Associations. During those years I collaborated with the Israeli designer and educator David Grossman who’d been the Treasurer and later became the President of the same board, in planning a project: Icograda Regional Design Education Collaboration Programme.  Our primary motivation behind initiating such a programme was to enable a meeting of designers, educators and graphic design students from neighbouring countries. As designers from developing countries, we’d already been following design products and designers from the USA and European countries. However, we were incognizant of the current situation in countries that were closest to us. Until then, we had listened with admiration to our colleagues from the USA, Japan, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Our gaze had been undoubtedly directed towards the West. 

We decided to hold the pilot project of the Regional Design Education Collaboration Programme in Israel and Turkey. Grossman was somewhat experienced in the field as he’d been running for the last three years a design education event called Festivital, at the Vital Design School which he’d founded in Tel Aviv with his partner Yaki Molcho and offered courses in graphic design, illustration, photography and industrial design. Festivital had a programme of workshops led by internationally renowned guest designers to which only Vital students were welcome, and then seminars that were open to the general public. 


 I discussed the matter with my colleagues at the Graphics Department of Mimar Sinan University and the Turkish Society of Graphic Design, offering them a proposal to organize an international event in collaboration with Vital, as part of the ICOGRADA programme. My proposition was enthusiastically received and agreed upon. Our first activity was to go to Tel Aviv in February 1997 with a group of 11 students from various different universities to participate in Festivital. The students attended workshops led by Erik Spiekermann, Siobhan Keanay, Lawrence Zeegen and David Carson and were offered accommodation with the Israeli students’ in their homes. We held in Tel Aviv the “Posters from Turkey” exhbition organization organized by the Turkish Society of Graphic Design. I also held a workshop where I had the opportunity to meet Israeli students, and gave a speech at the Design Seminar. We allocated Saturday (Festivital’s programme was halted due to the Israeli offical holiday which starts on Friday afternoon and ends on Sunday morning) for a visit to Jerusalem. After an exhilarating 10 days of enjoying new experiences and making new friends at this event, we returned to Turkey and kicked off the planning phase of the event we would organize in Istanbul. The students who’d attended Festivital had thoroughly enjoyed and benefited from the experience. 

 Organizing an international graphic design education event required know-how, experience and financial resources. We had very little know-how and experience; and literally no money. Our university’s resources were far from adequate. Nevertheless we wanted to realize this dream and believed that we could. 

Icograda’s Board of Directors chose a different city every three months to host their meeting and Istanbul was scheduled for Spring 1997. We approached this as a valuable opportunity and decided to hold the 1st Grafist/Istanbul International Graphic Design Week on 4th-9th of April, the scheduled dates of the Icograda meeting. This would allow us to  invite Icodgrada board members to the event as guest speakers and conveniently save us the transport and accommodation fees for the guests. Aykut Köksal, Esen Karol, Paul McMillen (a long-time resident of İstanbul) and Yossi Lemel (whom we’d met in Tel Aviv and who suggested to self-subsidize) agreed to lead workshops. Bülent Erkmen and the photographer couple Barbara and Zafer Baran (who lived in the UK) contributed to the seminar as speakers. According to our programme, four workshops were scheduled to run from Monday to Thursday and the final day of the week would be reserved for two seminars to be held on two separate locations, Mimar Sinan University and Marmara University. We also included an exhbition project curated by German designer Helmut Langer: Fax Posters Against Nuclear Trials. The 1st Grafist was attended by twelve students from Israel who were given accommodation in our students’ homes. In conclusion, it was by a very limited means that we managed to organize the Istanbul International Graphic Design Week. But as we had planned, the Grafist organization became in itself a model for Icograda who then went on to organize regional design events a few times a year in different parts of the world.  

grafist 2

Having thus begun as an educational event in 1997, Grafist is now celebrating its 15th year. The Vital School Of Design founded by David Grossman and Yaki Molcho had to be merged with another state school according to Israeli law; and Festivital is no longer organized. Grafist, however, continued to develop and came to be known as one of the most important graphic design education events to take place internationally. Many designers, design educators and students from different parts of the world passed through Istanbul on account of Grafist; and most of those students are now working as design professionals in their respective countries. It would hardly be an exaggeration to speak of a “Grafist Generation” existing now in Turkey and in the world.  


Those involved in graphic design education know full well about the benefits of intensive workshops, seminars, debates, exhibitions, workplace visits that accompany a routine training programme. So schools often include such extra-curricular activities to their programme. 

Workshops are one of the fundamental building blocks of Grafist. In 15 years, around 2500 students received training in nearly 100 workshops. At the beginning workshops were open to anyone who wished to attend. But in our third year, when we received a group of 90 students visiting from Lebanon, we were positively confounded, as the available space in our workshops was rather limited. In response to this high level of demand from the universities, we were obliged to define a quota of maximum 20 people to attend each workshop. Even then, we sometimes had more than 30 students attending a workshop. Frankly speaking, we never had the heart to turn anyone away. 

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 The distribution of participants across the workshops was carried out with a consideration of the fair and balanced spread of different nationalities and schools. Our main objective was to give students an opportunity to interact with different cultures, overcome prejudices and enjoy working, learning and creating together. 

The works created during these four days of workshops were formerly being exhibited on wall panels in classrooms to be presented in meetings. But through the years, we witnessed a growing interest in these presentations and finally we could no longer fit inside the classrooms. In the end, the presentation of the works was moved to the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University’s auditorium. 


The Sedat Hakkı Eldem Auditorium at the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University can seat 300 people. Every year, for the Grafist Seminar, we welcome here an audience of 400. Students, educators and professionals travelling from many parts of the world and many cities in Turkey including Istanbul, Izmir, Eskişehir, Mersin, Adana, Isparta and Erzurum, to follow this seminar, fill up the entire auditorium. To the extent that there’s no room for manoeuver, so to speak... The world’s most well-known designers give speeches here, show their works and share their experiences. Fukuda, Massin, Piippo, Tartakover, Erkmen, Loesch, Momayez, Altıntaş, Jordan, Troxler, Orosz, Madrelle, Boom, Beeke, Fletcher, Arvanitis, Logvin and many others passed through this hall meeting young people. The Grafist seminar is a true celebration. 

Exhibitions, projects

In these fifteen years of Grafist, we held exhibitions in a number of galleries for nearly 100 artists. As opposed to workshops and seminars which we had to squeeze in the space of a week, the exhibitions could be spread out over two weeks to a month to be enjoyed by a large audience. We programmed exhibitions such as the Korean Posters, Posters Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of  Israel’s  Founding, Posters of Faxes Against Nuclear Trials, Beer Mats, Packaging Design from Japan, Emigre, Five Polish Poster Designers along with many other personal shows. We held a commemorative exhibition entitled “Forget-me-not”  in honour of those artists who’d once been guests of Grafist and are no longer with us, like Alan Fletcher, Morteza Momayez and Shigeo Fukuda. Special exhibitions were held for the works of Adrian Frutiger and Pierre Mendel who could not travel to Istanbul on account of their health. The poster project entitled “İstanbul as felt by...” was organized in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Grafist and welcomed the contribution of all designers whose labour had been very much appreciated in the course of Grafist history. 


Young designers and Grafist

We have been especially mindful about enabling young designers’ active participation in the Grafist programmes, encouraging them to be more than spectators, to assume leading positions as creators and organizors. The organization of Grafist is managed by our young colleagues. Young professionals from several different countries realized their own exhibition project  as part of the “Next Generation” programme and gave presentations in seminars. At the Grafist workshops, research assistants from various universities get the opportunity to assist the workshop leaders; they then go back to their respective academies and share their experience with the professors and students there. Every year, in at least one workshop, young designers are also given the chance to run their own workshops. Finally; in the process of selecting guests to invite to Grafist,  we always include young professionals from different countries. 


Grafist’s guests

We aim to achieve a healthy balance of experiences, genders, countries and areas of expertise in our selection of guests; striving towards diversity by bringing together the young and the mature, women and men, neighbouring countries and distant lands, unknown and renowned designers in the same programme. We also take pains to include many fields of expertise like poster design, publication design, illustration, multimedia, design history and theory in our programme. 

Grafist is an organization based on the voluntary spirit. Those who work for Grafist do not receive any payment for the work they do. Travel, food and accommodation expenses of guests travelling from abroad and other cities are covered by the organization, but apart from we are not able to make any other payments of fees. The guest students meet their own travel and accommodation expenses, but attendance to the workshops remains free of charge. 


Grafist events are documented as much as possible through publications which began as simple brochures and evolved into a book in 2001. The Grafist Book (15.5 x 23cm) is published every year in both Turkish and English and includes event information, the guest designers’ works and interviews held with them. The editing, design and production as well as the interviews are being handled by our young colleagues. Alongside the Grafist books, a number of special publications including a brochure entitled “Packaging: Design For Sale”, a book “50 Questions, 50 Answers / An interview by e-mail with Rudy Vanderlans (Emigre)”  and “Panic At Times of Getting Lost On the Streets” which was prepared by the students, were published during the years. 

 Grafist Archive

It’s become a celebrated tradition that our guest designers kindly donate some of the works they bring to Istanbul to be exhibited. Thanks to this generous contribution from our guests, we are compiling a rich archive of graphic design which keeps growing both in size and diversity with the valuable addition of autographed books, correspondence letters, samples of handwriting, business cards, paper napkins with dinner-time scribblings, gifts, photographs and videos taken during Grafist activities, seminar records, and students’ works produced at the workshops. Some of the treasured items include the typographic installation created by Rene Knip for Grafist 12, Alan Fletcher’s original print, posters designed and printed by Fukuda and Kari Piippo for the special occasion of their visit to Istanbul, Alain Le Quernec’s giant sized posters and Andrey Logvin’s original sketches... Fifteen years of age, Grafist has already created a great deal of history. 

 How it’s done

Grafist is the first and only example of its kind in Turkey. Organizing an international graphic design event is an expensive and laborious task that requires know-how and experience. Grafist’s organizors were aware of the challenges when they set off on this path. Nevertheless, they were resolved to raise the quality of graphic design education, and contribute towards design students’ and young professionals’ experiences in building relationships with the rest of the world. 

All of Grafist’s expenditure has been met through sponsorship. We’ve been supported by enterprises and private persons. No financial contributions were demanded from the participating students and their universities. The hosting university MSFAU assigned its studios, exhibition and conference halls for our use. Among the collaborating institutions, Icograda, AGI / Alliance Graphique Internationale, Turkish Society of Graphic Design, Bikem Özsunay Graphic Design Foundation, Dutch Consulate of Istanbul are especially noteworthy for their valuable support. 

 The Future of Graphic Design Education

In 2000, Icograda published the “Graphic Design Education Manifesto” which re-defined, as we entered the Third Millennium, the concepts of graphic design, designer and design education. In the organization of Grafist and creating the programme, we are always mindful of the definitions and principles stated in the manifesto. In closing, we think it would be beneficial to remind ourselves once again the section in the manifesto regarding education:  

“(future of design education)The new design program includes the following dimensions:

  • image, text, movement, time, sound and interactivity.
  • Design education should focus on critical mentality combined with tools to communicate.
  • It should nurture a self-reflective attitude and ability.
  • The new program should foster strategies and methods for communication and collaboration.
  • Theory and design history should be an integral part of design education.
  • Design research should increase the production of design knowledge in order to enhance design performance through understanding cognition and emotion, physical and social and cultural human factors.
  • More than ever, design education must prepare students for change. To this end, it must move from being teaching-centered to a learning-centered environment which enables students to experiment and to develop their own potential in and beyond academic programs.

 Thus the role of design educator shifts from that of only knowledge provider to that of a person who inspires and facilitates orientation for a more substantial practice.”