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Ivan's picture

Visual communication crash course

When I arrived to the Middle East (when I refer to Middle East in this post I exclude Israel) few years ago I had no idea what to expect. I had two visual references of the Middle East in my mind. The first was the Aladdin style sexually charged, rich and exotic Arabia with comfortable palaces and harems. The second stereotype was the poor desert lifestyle with veiled women and camels. No need to say that these images turned out to be completely wrong. The visual culture of the Middle East is a mixture of the socialist realism and emerging consumerism.

Companies are trying to appeal to the new generation of Arabs, who are desperately looking for patterns in mass media. At the same time cultural taboos are imposing strict rules on what can and what can not be shown in public. This war sometimes leads to creative and sometimes disturbing results.

Working in advertising and design for a mixture of international and local clients I have learnt numerous things, which I would like to note down for my own reference and for your interest.


Face and eyes are not allowed to be shown outdoors in more conservative areas. Companies try to come up with the most interesting solutions. It's common to pixelate the eyes, but more creative solutions are to let the talents wear sunglasses or come up with a concept where the models would have to close their eyes.


Nudity is a not allowed in any form. The Islamic culture is very conservative and showing any skin other than the face, hands or feet can be considered sexually arousing, therefore inappropriate for public display. Different countries vary, Riyadh in Saudi being the most conservative and Dubai in UAE the most liberal. In Saudi Arabia you can't show any skin (other than the mentioned body parts) outdoors, while in Dubai the same beauty product ads are running as in Europe.

Magazines are edited by hand and alternative covers need to be developed for the more conservative audience.

Movie ads need to be retouched to comply with the strict cultural expectations. Legs, clevage and even shoulders need to be covered. This not only applies to women, but to man as well. Even cartoon characters need to be dressed up.


No references to homosexuality can be made in ads. However shows like Will and Grace can be seen on TV.

Witches, Magicians, Vampires or aliens

Any connotation to supernatural can be considered as another God like force, therefore it's a no-no.


Drugs, alcohol or even a champaign glass can not be shown in advertising. Unless it's an anti campaign.


Although I know many Arab Muslims keep and love dogs, generally dogs are considered dirty, therefore there are no puppies or golden retrievers in the ads. There can be many other borderline issues with other animals as well, such as fish means christianity, crow means death or chameleons mean hypocrisy.


The crusades have left a deep wound in the Arab psychy. Any form of crosses can be considered offending. There is no Red Cross in the Middle East (it's Red Crescent). Even a snowflake can be considered bad intention, because you can find multiple crosses in it. Several other symbols are not to be used as a visual device, such are the David's star, US flag or five pointed red star. Directional symbols pointing from left to right signify backwards direction, since Arab script is to be read from right to left.


Enjoy or exciting are words that can be interpreted as sexual descriptors therefore to be avoided. Words like create and greatest should be used with caution, since they are associated with God.

Arabic calligraphy is a very creative art, where words can be written down by an endless number of forms. One has to be careful how an innocent logo would be interpreted. At one point Coca-Cola was going to be banned in Saudi because if you read the script in the mirror it can be read as No Allah, No God, but eventually that decision was overruled.

It may seem as these rules limit creativity, but in reality they just push creativity to its limits and I'm grateful to be exposed to such a different culture.

If you know of any interesting visual guidelines in your area that are different from the mainstream, please comment.

Commenting on this Blog entry is closed.

Stephan Geyer's picture

I live in Dubai, when i first arrived here 3 years ago I kind of expected the same...

All in all I find working as a Graphic Designer in this mutant culture of ideologies/consumerism a very interesting and creativity building experience, wouldn't you agree? ;)

Enrique's picture

This is a very interesting write up. I assume that the American writing is just you translating? (on the actual photo's)

thornysarus's picture
930 pencils

Thanks for the insight Ivan. Designing for and marketing to different cultures is an exciting prospect and one that I'd love to get into someday.

I've run into trouble working with other designers and artists in other parts of the world either due to cultural issues or simple politics. For example, I worked with an illustrator in North Korea about a year ago, only to find out that I couldn't pay him directly (like through PayPal or similar service). But, I do find it all very fascinating.

Here in the states, I've witnessed a political correctness backlash. It seems that we've all had just about all the sensitivity training we can stand, and it's about time in my opinion. I mean, a client of mine (national retail chain) seems to think that every race and creed should be represented well in some area of their stores at any given time. It's just policy. Then on the other hand, another division of the SAME store is re-branded and exclusively marketed to the "urban" (or black) market. Go figure.

Little does the public know, these design trends, marketing campaigns, etc. that are targeting a particular race or (sub)culture are usually (or always in my client's case) being developed by white, suburban, soccer moms and good-ole, red-blooded, Southern (White) males. And the clincher is... They buy it hook-line-and-sinker.

Stay Real, Yo.

Peace, out... ;)

Terrell Thornhill

e-zign Design Group

Greg's picture
305 pencils

Ha ha ha ha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

my blog:
my work:

nixter's picture
9 pencils

I do think it pushes you to the limits. I am sure you forget sometimes when you are designing too!

Ian Corey's picture

It's easy to forget in a world teeming with news reports of demise in the Middle East that there is peace enough for Scooby-Doo, Lays (can you really say lays?!) and Graphic design. Thanks for waking me up, Ivan.
I would really like to see that No-God-No-Allah phrase written in Arabic calligraphy so I can, in order to settle my own curiosity, scrutinize their similarities.

Waleed's picture
540 pencils

I don't think you can even show females in outdoor street ads here (Saudi Arabia).

That reversed Coca-Cola can read, if you really strain your brain and squint your eyes and think negatively: No Mohammed No Allah. Extremists worldwide still think that the name Coca-Cola was chosen and written in this font deliberately to insult Muslims when the brand-name is reflected in a mirror.. Many found this type of logic to be hilarious..

I'm noticing a very slow and cautious progress towards a more relaxed and thinking community. As opposed to a community anchored down by false believes invented by a few insane minds & hearts full of hatred.

Oh well, I don't want to divert the thread, just wanted to add my opinion as a local.

A comment on the eye thing, some believe you're not allowed religiously to show a duplicated human figure as only God can create people (yeah, I know, sigh). So, they alter the human image to make it less than what God created.. This is only implemented on outdoor ads.. Very weird in my book..

Ivan's picture

Thank you Waleed! I was looking forward to your corrections and opinion.

Spring Dew's picture

Now I'm really curious about the eye thing, and trying to fit my own experience around it. During Desert Storm, I was stationed at King Fahd Military Airbase and used to eat in a dining hall in that facility. There were many prominent paintings of women's eyes on otherwise completely veiled faces. They were beautiful works of art. Now I wonder why eyes were depicted there but not in outdoor ads. Maybe art vs. commerce? The former can be ascribed as admiration of what was divinely Created, as opposed to the latter, I suppose ... ?

Waleed's picture
540 pencils

We have an entity here that is responsible for enforcing the laws of Islam, some call them "Religious Police". I really admire their contribution in fighting drug traffickers and distributors in Saudi Arabia. However, I find the majority of them lacking civilized manners in communicating with people, and some of them don't even know Islam properly.

That entity TOLD ad firms to CUT parts of people, as showing the entire body of a living creature is not allowed in Islam, otherwise they will tare the ads down. Taking a closer look at the ads and Islam, we'll notice that it's rare to find a full human figure in an ad.. Not to mention, Islam didn't ban photography. Islam prohibited the full body figure presentation in sculptures and painting and nothing else.

People need to research and understand more, but unfortunately the majority are too lazy to do that, so they just hear and follow blindly.

Please feel free to ask anything you like, and I'll do my best to answer (to the best of my knowledge)

Dalis Moustache's picture
9 pencils

Thanks for illustrating this with before and after pictures, it's really interesting. And there was me thinking the US was strict! I was unaware of issues like pixellating the eyes and the typography issues. Great article.

Hiten's picture

Hey Ivan,
amazing stuff you've showed us. . indeed .
Since you know so much about the advertising industry in the middle east.
ans since im on vacation here in Dubai. Just wanted to know if there are any companies in this country of which you know offer internships to students.
would just like to gain some work experience as I too am studyin Communication Design.


As for the adverts in Dubai.
and as compared to what waleed has to say About Saudi. Dubai is much more like open- minded towards it.
but Again in the different cities like Sharjah here.
Ladies Undergarments cannot be displayed in the open due to islamic reasons.

good work Ivan


Ivan's picture

I don't have any specifics to give you. Just go ahead and ask around. They will not reject you if you're willing to work for free or very little compensation.

Waleed's picture
540 pencils

since im on vacation here in Dubai. Just wanted to know if there are any companies in this country of which you know offer internships to students.

Try the companies in Dubai Media City, that would be the first place I would look..

Best of luck,

PIMPTRIX's picture
264 pencils

Really nice article. You are definitely dealing with one of the toughest cultures out there.

"Life is a dream in which you don't remember fallig asleep or waking up. Make the dream worth dreaming, don't just sleep in the idea of waking up." - PIMPTRIX

Abdul's picture
576 pencils

I wrote a reply yesterday, pretty long too but it didn't let me post. Some errors kept coming up!

Anyway, just for now, nice read. And yeah, the Coke thing was just hilarious.

Ivan's picture

I wish we could find out what happened. What kind of error was it?

Abdul's picture
576 pencils

Can't remember exactly, but it was like two lines long and had 'SQL server' or something, and 'my_line(numbers)' and that in.

It's working fine now though.

Ivan's picture

I do want to hear your view on this subject.

Gody's picture
58 pencils

That was a great write up on the what is acceptable and not acceptable in the middle east. I knew about the skin not to be shown deal but even the use of words and showing eyes I was not aware of. So I learnt something new about the middle east today.

So did someone actually sit you down and tell you what you can and cant do for publication or was it more of something you saw and learnt like the eyes pixelated and what not in publications.

That very interesting stuff to know.

Ivan's picture

I did get help from coworkers, but there are no guidelines as such. Maybe this is what urged me to note these things down.

The Lounsbury's picture
1 pencil

First, interesting and fairly well done overview. A media colleague directed me to this, I may add. I am a financier by trade, not creative in the proper sense of the word. That aside, while a philistine in these issues, I have spent a good decade all over the region and speak, read and write Arabic with reasonable fluency.

However, if I may, some criticism. The first point is your crash course is on Gulf / Khalij prejudices / limitations etc.; not general or generic to the Middle East. The Sham / Levant certainly is far more relaxed on the issues you cite above than the Gulf - although given market issues - i.e. buying power, yes, much Arabic language media does play to Khaliji/Gulfie tastes and prejudices. It's important to understand however, those are not general (however much the Gulf likes to think it is the 'true source' of Islamic morals, etc).

Certainly the Maghreb none of the above is of any real relevance and one sees in local publications (in Arabic, made and done for the Maghrebine audience), shall we say little of the above in terms of limitations.

Lebanon is relatively similar, Jordan somewhere in between. Syria of course is a basket case.... Egypt, well, my pathological dislike for Egyptians prevents me from making rational comment.

I note I agree with Waleed the Saudi commentator supra that the Coca Cola item you note really was in the real of Urban Legend among the whackos. No normal Arabic speaking Muslim has ever read the classic Roman character Coca Cola calligraphy as approaching No to God - and I agree you have to squint, turn your head side ways and potentially drive a nail through one of your eyes to get it to read that. It's right up there with the Xian fundies who see messages against God in equally silly places. At the time I recall my Arab Muslim colleagues found the claims to be risible and amusing (if also somewhat sad).

Well, there we are, nice job, but I would urge you to edit it to note that your comments reflect the market dominant Khaliji market and are not general to the whole Middle East - although they are valuable given the Khaliji influence.

Fuelrock's picture
78 pencils

That was an interesting read to say the least. I've always known the Middle East was as modern a world as there is but you can sometimes forget that when you live in the United States and hardly see that side of things on the news.

It's nice to know that they are relaxing their rules a bit but it's also encouraging to see that you are finding the bright side of designing there. Best of luck and keep us posted on any new discoveries that you make.

RebelDesigner's picture
41 pencils

I'm currently working in Riyadh, SaudiArabia. and what ever you said about middle east specially Riyadh it is absolutly right. and I agree when you said it simply expands creativity more, and this is the best part of it... I've made several logos and making logo might be easy job out there but in middle east its not only english its arabic as well which is one good mind bending job but I love it and this is what makes us more stronger as compared to those who are making it in english only.

I made one idea for the product which is used for VAGINA CLEANING, I believe you can imagine how hard it can be in riyadh where you have so many restrictions, but I made it and it went on there bro cover, leaflets, and other marketing stuff. I would like to upload it when I'll know how to upload it in same critique

teapot_the_first's picture
1 pencil


I am a translator up here in Canada, and I have been studying Arabic for some time. The mirror Coca Cola writing actually read La Muhammed La Makkah, which translates into There is no Mohammed There is no Makkah. it does NOT say La Allah La Ilah as you stated.

Surprisingly, the calligraphy is very clear and shows little ambiguity... It isn't surprising to me that they would have banned it, with all the conspiracy thepries running the streets.

Loved the pictures and the comments about them. I didn't know about the eyes thing.

Denis MacEoin's picture
2 pencils

I don't think you can have been learning Arabicv for very long. By no stretch of the imagination can the reverse image of Coca Cola be read as you say. For one thing, there is no recognizable la. There is no Muhammad. Makka is ropey. No normal Arab would read this at all, since it doesn't really resemblance even the more elaborate Arabic or Persian scripts.

Doaa's picture
1 pencil

I never heard of something like that before but I know that in Saudi Arabia they have lots of restrictions. But I just wanted to clarify something, not all the ME impose the same polices, you may see these situation in Arab countries (which i mean the Gulf ones) and Iran, although i don't know much about their way of life , as honestly i never heard of that ; the eyes pixelation or covering them, i just can't understand what's the problem with the eyes. anyway, Here in Egypt we don't face these problems , you don't have to pixlate the eyes or cover them , your are free to dress the way you want , you don't have to edit magazine covers or anything else, actually that's the first time to hear something like that, but i just wanted to clarify that not all the ME countries are alike; culture , background habits and ؤustoms and traditions all influence the county's policies. you excluded Israel, actually other countries beside Israel don't impose these policies i guess as Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and of course Egypt as I know quite well, so this is not a general rule on all ME countries.

But quite a good article about your experiences and so thoughtful of you to share it , thank you.

Ivan's picture

That's true, plus these restrictions change with time. Sometimes they loosen up and later they become more strict.

Denis MacEoin's picture
2 pencils

May I just ask why, when you refer to the Middle East, you exclude Israel. Take a look at any map. It has been there for 60 years. Psychologically, however, it is very different to the rest of the Middle East (though it's a lot less Western than it used to be). Is this what you meant?

ealshabaan's picture
2 pencils

it does not exist in the maps that are produced by Arab country.

ealshabaan's picture
2 pencils

you have a nice article, but i would like to "correct" some info you have there:

"..At one point Coca-Cola was going to be banned in Saudi because if you read the script in the mirror it can be read as No Allah, No God, but eventually that decision was overruled.."
the mirror image can be reads No Muhammad No Mecca that is
لامحمد لامكة
in Arabic.'s picture
532 pencils

Old but very interesting post, thumbs up!

monkey1979's picture
680 pencils

agreed. Good article Ivan.

living on dreams and custard creams.

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