We had the good fortune of connecting with Shirin Raban and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Shirin, why did you pursue a creative career?
My youngest memories are of when my mom would leave me at home with a maid, some coloring books and lots of color pencils, magic markers, crayons and play doe. She was a university student and a teacher. For hours I sat and painted or made fruits and characters out of play doe and played with them by myself. Until my brother was born when I was five, there were really no other children around, except for the landlord’s granddaughter, Pooneh, who came over once in a while to play. We lived on the third floor and I watched the green ivies on the neighbor’s four story brick wall and the white finches in our balcony cage. I did have lots of cousins whom we saw here and there, but not on a daily basis. My dad who was a scientist and researcher, took me on car rides. I especially remember when we drove through the mountain roads to get from Tehran to Caspian sea. On the way he made lots of stops to collect plant specimens for research. We drove quietly and sat quietly at the beach staring at the sea. Sometimes I lied down in the back seat of the car and watched the over-towering statues of the Kings father, Reza Shah surrounded by the clouds. I saw God and the angels in them. I must have been three at that time. When I was about 6 years old, my mom put a tray on the floor next to me so that I would be able to easily clean up the paper scraps I had cut with scissors for my collage artworks. At the same time, my dad went to Sweden for a yearlong sabbatical. When we joined him during the summer break, I saw a naked statue on the street, I recoiled with shame. I asked my mom, “Aren’t they ashamed to be naked?” She said, “This is art. In art being nude is ok.” That was when I realized I wanted to be an artist, because where I came from it was not ok for the statues to be nude. I knew there was more to life and I have strived for that ever since. When we came to Los Angeles a few years after an Islamic Revolution and war in Iran, I pursed biology at the recommendation of my dad. It did not take too long for me to go back to art.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am an interdisciplinary creative, a visual storyteller. I teach the entire gamut of graphic design courses including branding, packaging, design thinking, professional practice and history of graphic design. My creative practice for years was packaging and branding design. After I went back to grad school and got my masters in visual anthropology, I shifted my focus to documentary making. If you really think about it, graphic design and ethnographic film are very similar in nature. They are both about visual communication and telling the story of someone from their own point of view so that others will get it. In both practices, you get to ask questions and help articulate ideas. I love people, cultures and their stories and feel so lucky and privileged to be entrusted by people who share their stories. During the week, I spend a lot of time helping students bring out their own stories in their portfolio pieces that they design. I particularly enjoy the connections between ideas and people and that is something documentary making does for me. That is where the artist part kicks in. For the most part the films I make have a very personal component. So I get excited about a story because I think I know a lot about the topic. Then I move forward and begin discovering all these things I had no idea about. The most exciting part is when after all the pain and suffering of trying to struggle and understand why I am doing it or what the purpose is, everything comes together in an aha moment. I wake up and write it all down. After this there is a new level of questioning that brings it to the home run.
Being an anthropologist and a filmmaker makes me a graphic design teacher who helps students how to articulate and how to navigate their visual and conceptual journeys. This sets me apart from my other colleagues. My approach is interdisciplinary. My goal is not to teach students a set of rules of skills. My intention is to empower them as critical thinkers and leaders. It was not an easy journey to get to this point. I can say it took me half a century to figure out that it was ok not to fit inside of other people’s boxes. Even in applying to grad school it was hard to articulate myself. So that thing of finding my voice made me become the person who gives other people their voices. That is what I am good at. And what I am proud of.
For me successful goals are wishes that have come true. I mean what you want to do has to come from your heart. Your soul needs to want it or else it is not worth your time and life. And along the way the process may not be easy. For example, I dreamed of making film and sometimes I even woke up and told my husband about a detailed film I had just made in a dream. But I never believed I could be a filmmaker. It just revealed itself to me. So I did many things before this came to reality and a lot of those things I did not like. And together all of those things and events and experiences made me a better filmmaker. I wished to a great graphic designer. I never became like David Carson or Marian Bantjes and my other heroes. Because, I did not focus and put all my time into it. But along the way, as a young designer, I resented having to do production. Later, I used the skills to work on Korbel Champagne packaging that was also used for the Inaugural and Presidential purposes. And I used the skills to teach an important part of graphic design. No President knows who I am and it really doesn’t matter. I know that I am a good designer. And all of that led to the film making. And who knows, maybe in another ten years I will be puppeteer or a playwright or fiction writer or a painter. Who knows…
What I want the world to know about me and my brand story is that I am a brand designer, ethnographic filmmaker and educator. I care about people and their stories. My passion is helping project the authentic voices of my design clients, my students and my film subjects. In doing so I set strong structures that allow for the flexibility to explore and experiment.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I am more a nature person. So in LA, I love the beach, Franklin Canyon hiking and little duck pond, little cafes I can sit and do my work at, the Beverly Hills Library and museums for gathering creative energy. I love to cook and sit in my own garden and read or write. For me eating out is not something I do too much of, but hanging with friends and cooking for them is something I enjoy very much.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Definitely my mother who was the first person who knew that I was and artist and declared it out loud when I was young. My father who gave me unconditional love and kindness.
My husband who had always supported my artistic efforts and taken the rest of the weight on his shoulders.
My kindergarten teacher Ms. Rakhshandeh Nabavi and my grade school music teacher Mr. Mostafa Pourtorab.
Mr. Jorjani and Mr. Alavi my sixth grade summer camp painting teachers.
Mrs. Delzehdeh my seventh grade math teacher and her good friend, Mrs. Boodah, my geography and Persian literature teacher.
My typgoraphy teachers in college and beyond: Cindy Marsh, Andrew Kutchera, Andrew Byrom, John Clark, Dean Swick.
My friend and supervisor Scott Hutchinson who saw my potential and gave me the chance of a lifetime.
My kind mentors in graduate school who paved the way for my voice to emerge: Alan Roberts, Barbara Drucker, Andrei Simic, Tok Thompson, Nancy Lutkehaus, Janet Hoskins, Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Jennifer Cool.
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