Rethink Syria

Janis Vetsch
Jul 16, 2017 · 12 min read

A case study on using user-centric design to shift social narratives

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The intent of this brief was to create a tourism campaign to take advantage of one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world. The brief asked for an engaging and impactful tourism campaign that showcases a ‘hidden gem’ travel destination. As part of the campaign, we are asked to create a responsive website and additional assets to provide a holistic online and real-life campaign strategy.

The purpose of this project was to allow for creative freedom to create a beautiful and user centric product as part of our last project at the design & tech school, RED Academy, Vancouver. As part of our program, we focus on developing user centric designs that provide efficient solutions to our user to improve their lives ‘pixel by pixel’. However, I believe that just creating effective design solutions for the sake of beautifying the world is not enough. I believe that design has the unique power to shift narratives and create social change.

Design has the power to reframe, rebuild and challenge us to rethink.
Design can shift our perception in both negative and positive directions.

Therefore I set out to use this project to shift the negative narrative about Syria and the Middle East. For too long media and popular culture, in North America and Europe, have painted the middle east for a region that has nothing to offer but war and destruction. The brief asked us to showcase a country that we consider a hidden gem, and before the uprising and war, Syria would have been such a place.

This project strives to highlight that the fruitful streets of Damascus, the rolling hills of Kessab, and the rich history of Aleppo are still part of the Syria that once was and can be again. The war and social challenges in Syria are not to forget or ignore, however, many organizations are preparing to rethink, reshape and rebuild the country. These organizations strive to ensure that the over 11 millions Syrians that have been forced from their homes can soon return to their communities.

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To ensure that the project achieves its goal to reshape people’s perception of Syria, it required in-depth research into the country and its historical, current and possible future state.

During my research, which included both domain research of immersive tourism related websites and general research about the geography and places of significance in the country, I came across one of the main reasons I felt a project such as this is important. Most of the information available in regards to Syria solely concerns itself with the war and the revolution. Barely any online information focuses on the rich history going as far back as the kingdom of Palmyra in the time of the Roman Empire.

The title and tagline of the project plays a vital role in the communication of its purpose, so it became a major research focus. The initial title “It’s Syria’s turn, …” was inspired by the graffiti kids that are said to have sparked the revolution against the regime by spray painting “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad, …” on a wall outside their school in Daraa, in southwestern Syria. The possible title “Tomorrows Syria” was meant to be a call to action that inspires individuals about the fruitful future Syria can have. The last idea came back to the core intent to “Rethink Syria.”

As I do not have any first-hand experiences of Syria, I wanted to ensure that the messaging of the project showed a Syria fuelled by people that called this country home rather than another skewed Eurocentric perception of it. For that purpose, I contacted two friends who have family in Syria and had either lived and traveled to the country recently.

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Possible titles

The first person who was able to shed significant insight into this project from a personal perspective, was a student from the University of British Columbia that frequently travels to Syria to visit her family as recent as the summer of 2016. Through conversation with her, I learned a tremendous amount about the beautiful spirit of the communities that are present in Syria even during the war. I asked my friend what she thought of the three possible titles, and she urged me to attempt to remain neutral in regards to the revolution due to its complexity. In regards to “Tomorrows Syria” she stated:

“To say “Tomorrows Syria” could be beautiful again fails to acknowledge the people lives and existence of the country that continues in the context of war.”

I was grateful for this comment as it highlighted that I also had to challenge myself to “Rethink Syria” and the way I approached showcasing it. Another result of this interview was a change in the composition of the wireframe. Initially, the wireframe immediately revealed that the places featured are in Syria. However, the conversation brought to light the importance of reducing the impact of individuals preconceived notions of Syria. Hence the order of the wireframe was reversed to reveal the country of origin of these beautiful locations bit-by-bit until it reaches the final call-to-action.

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Wireframe iterations

The next step of my research and to further understand what features should be included in the site, research into my target audience was crucial. The target audience of this project had to be wealthy enough to be able to possibly donate to projects, that are aiming to rebuild and reshape Syria, but at the same time have a passion for social change and social justice.

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Target Persona

The final part of the research was focused on the organizations that would be highlighted. After in-depth research into the variety of organizations, I decided to focus on three small organizations and projects that are at the forefront of rebuilding and reshaping the country’s future.

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The first is The Aleppo Project which is an open collaboration at the Central European University to plan for the future of Aleppo. The collaboration utilizes the knowledge of people from all walks of life such as former residents & urban planners to establish a plan to rebuild the city.

Another organization that has been providing vital services to empower the future generations of Syria to rebuild their communities and foster peace has been Project Amal ou Salam. This project was founded by a Canadian-born Syrian, Nousha Kabawat. She is the director of the Syrian Center for Dialogue, Reconciliation, and Peace in Toronto and established this project to provide education to displaced Syrian children within Syria as well as in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

The third organization Violet Syria is a humanitarian organization that provides both emergency response and immediate implementation of long-term health and education projects in the northwestern province of Idlib. Currently, they have over 600 staff members deployed in the city of Idlib to rebuild the public infrastructure with a goal to complete this enormous undertaking by the end of the summer. Violet Syria was recognized by the World Health Organization for their “extraordinary efforts in the humanitarian response to the easter Aleppo medical evacuation” and has lost several staff members in their efforts to rebuild Idlib due to airstrikes.


Using the information gathered in the research, a set of moods was established that aim to convey the intent to “Rethink Syria.” The moods are inspired by the personalities of the Syrian people that have been described to me by the individuals I interviewed as:

Resilient・ Empowering・ Personable

Authentic ・ Diverse ・ Inclusive

With these moods and emotions in mind, two separate art directions were established to convey the current beauty of Syria and the vast future opportunities:

The first art direction showcases a light color palette that pays close attention to the architecture and spirit of the Syrian people. It aims to evoke a sense of bright and inviting colors with an organic and generous use of space that is complementary to the daily rhythm of its communities.

The second art direction is using a warmer color palate and focuses on the history of the country through the use of important historical sites such as Palmyra and the Umayyad Mosque. It aims to use the warm tones to create an inviting sense of mistery.

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The first art direction was chosen for the campaign as it was encompassing of all the visual language elements that are related to the established moods. The second art direction fell short in truly covering the countries geographical and population diversity. In addition to that, the second art direction unconsciously created an ‘arabian nights’ feel that wasthe opposite of what the campaign is trying to achieve.

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In line with the first art direction, a color palette that uses a combination of four monochromatic tones was created. The four colors encompass the diversity of the country’s geography: oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts.


As this campaign aims to bridge the gap between the past, present, and future, a serif and sans-serif font pairing was chosen for the latin alphabet. The primary font, ‘Noto Serif’ is a typeface created by Google to ensure greater accessibility across different regions and languages. This typeface is paired with the minimalist sans-serif ‘Muli’ to provide a modern balance.

The Arabic alphabet allowed for a pairing using traditional and contemporary typefaces that created a similar effect. The primary font ‘Amiri’ aims to be the Arabic equivalent of a serif typeface and is a revival of a classical Naskh style typeface commonly used in the 20th century. It is paired with a contemporary Arabic typeface ‘El Messiri,’ which is designed to have an extensive glyph set that supports the Arabic, Farsi and Urdu languages.

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The logo of the campaign had to showcase both Syrian sovereignty and diversity. However, due to the many disputes around different flags in the revolution and ongoing war, a logo based on any symbolism of any flag would be irresponsible.

Therefore the logo consists of the outline of the country, which was used to mark the sovereignty that is continuously being challenged throughout history and the now. This outline is then multiplied in a rotational matter and screen blended, to encompass the vast amount of different perspectives and communities that make up the country. In addition to the primary logo, a logo system is created, using different color schemes within the palette to show the variety of landscapes and colors the region has to offer.

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The campaign utilizes illustrations to show the different locations rather than photography. The purpose of using illustrations over photography was to minimize the impact of the previously mentioned preconceived notions people hold about the Middle East and Syria.

We are exposed to photography about everyday world events and become complacent in accepting the images without much inquiry or imagination.

Hence the campaign uses illustrations that are created through thorough research into the locations and attempt to show unique and beautiful perspectives. The use of illustrations is powerful as it allows our minds to wander and imagine. To further help the imagination grow the illustrations use a balance of detailed architectural style with ‘thick lines’ inspired by Aaron Draplin. The thick lines are described by Drapling as “modern, yet playful and accessible. Light-hearted, but breathtakingly complex.” I felt this prefectly encompassed what I wanted the illustrations to convey.


Hand in hand with the choice of locations and illustrations each section of the site features a poem by Nizar Qabbani (1923–1998). Qabbani is a Syrian born poet that wrote a mix of romantic and political pieces inspired by his upbringing in Damascus and the tragedies he had to endure through out his life. He was a revolutionary in his own right by using his poetry to condemn human rights violations such as the Qana massacre (1996) when Israel Defense Forces fired artillery shells into UN compound in Lebanon that killed 106 people taking refuge in the compound.

Each location is accompanied by a poem by Qabbani and invites your imagination to feel like it is standing in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque or at the shore of Burj Islam.


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The overall campaign strategy combines a strong online identity with a combination of promotional materials and installations. The focus of the strategy is to empower people to take the initiative to rethink and reshape what their perception of Syria and the Middle East is. To explore and find out about the campaign, promotions would target areas of the city that are frequently visited by the target audience. These installations and materials, such as bus shelter ads and wall murals, will encourage the audience to follow the campaign into the digital sphere where they can further engage with the content and ultimately learn about the featured organizations.


As mentioned previously the website content features poems that are related to the location that has been illustrated. The desktop site has been designed to allow the user to seamlessly engage with this content without any distraction of a menu. As the user scrolls down the page, further features and affordances become available to them. With that approach, the site aims to allow the user to fully immerse themselves in the beauty of the locations and the poems.

As you view the desktop prototype I encourage you to read the poems, I hope they bring some joy to your day.


The mobile site features a similar composition of content using a combination of location specific areas and poems. However, the mobile browser environment provides us with a different set of affordances and native UI patterns. Therefore the navigation bar was changed from a side navigation to a top navigation; however, its location specific color change remains.

Due to a significant amount of content on the last section of the page I had to come up with a design solution that would allow the content the same information architecture hierarchy in a mobile format. To do so, I used the arrows to show affordances and changes in scrolling behavior.

As you view the mobile prototype I invite you to closely watch for affordance solutions.


The mobile site features a similar composition of content using a combination of location specific areas. This project allowed me to not only to develop a design solution that aims to affect the narrative about Syria positively but further allowed me to uncover and address some of my preconceived unconscious notions about the Middle East. It was an interesting experience to realize that even when you attempt to be aware of your privileged position and preconceptions, you can easily succumb to the exact pitfalls you are trying to dispel.

I am thankful for the individuals that helped me create this project. Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your experiences about this beautiful country.

My biggest hope with this project is that it does the Syrian people and spirit justice. I hope it allows users a small glimpse into and an opportunity to see Syria for Syria.

Future Opportunities

I hope to enhance my previous experience in web development to develop this responsive concept site into a fully developed website. Through amazing feedback from the individuals that helped me create this project I have created a list of items that will be worked on and improved for the development of the site.

If you have any feedback or concerns about this project, please feel free to reach out to me.

Stay tuned for updates on this project!

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