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Daily Inspiration: Meet Al Hassan Elwan

Today we’d like to introduce you to Al Hassan Elwan.

Hi Al Hassan, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
Back in 2007 Cairo, 13-year-old me played Spochan, a not very well-known Japanese padded-sword-combat sport. I was about to turn 14, which meant I’m going to move to the big leagues and fight in the 14-18 age group in tournaments. One training day, I had a match with Sara, she was around 16. After she kicked my ass, I vented about being insecure that I’m not ready to move up to the next tier. She said, “It’s always better to be the last horse in a horse race than the first donkey in a donkey race”. Till this day, I cannot verify if it was an idiom or if Sara had made it up, but it really resonated with my-then-mullet-rocking-self. It’s relatively similar to a lot of universally known idioms like “if you are the smartest person in the room, leave the room”, but something about being in a race struck a chord. I cannot pinpoint when and how I was properly introduced to the notion of the ‘avant-garde’, but that’s the earliest I can remember. And my understanding of it is very closely tied to how the term originated; the military vanguard who dive first into battle, taking the biggest risk for the most valuable progress.

Now I know this anecdote can feel like it has nothing to do with what I do, but I can explain why it’s an important element in my lore. As a Creative Director, brand strategist and multidisciplinary designer, a quick overview of my career over the past six years shows that through my studio pew., I’ve led creative endeavors across the globe for tech giants like Google & YouTube, built brands from scratch for the hottest startups that earned them billions in investments, and mentored teams of designers and creatives from diverse backgrounds. The one constant I could trace in all of those experiences was my unconditional pursuit of the avant-garde; the devotion to being ahead of the curve, being on the cutting edge, on the experimental frontiers of the future – where true innovation happens. This is where stories matter the most because that’s when they’re different and often unpredictable. No one wants to hear a story if they know how it ends.

This quest for the avant-garde is also why I moved to Los Angeles. I set up my branding practice here with my partner and wife, Nourhan Wahdan and we’re always open to adding our flair to interesting new projects. I also recently completed a Master’s degree in architecture with a focus on media studies from SCI-Arc and founded POSTPOSTPOST, a brand that produces films, publications and fashion on the edges of the cultural vanguard while simultaneously building an art movement. I’m currently directing its inaugural film, which is produced by Liam Young, and creating its accompanying publication that hosts different perspectives on cultural commentary and critique.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
I wish I could say it was. I would say most struggles I’ve been through can be lumped into two categories; global mobility as a POC and everyday work-life balance. Moving is not easy when you have to navigate a lot of unfair geopolitical regulations and systems imposed on borders. Of course, having your own practice will always have its glamorous allure for anyone on the outside, but on the inside it can become very gruesome. Thinking nonstop about business operations, taxes in a new country, 45-minute client phone calls that could’ve been an email, and generally just securing a future on your own, 24/7 with no lunch breaks can get pretty daunting. Passion helps keep things afloat – although not always reliable. Looking back on what has been achieved in retrospect is often more helpful.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
I lead the full arc of creative endeavors; from ideation to execution. I specialize in branding and creative direction that have a critical edge and visual pep. For a while, pew. was known as the agency that brought YouTube to Cairo – as the experiential event we’ve created for them generated a lot of buzz. When the brand we designed for SWVL lit up the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, it had a similar explosive effect. But most of our success wouldn’t manifest if it wasn’t for our team’s dedication and way of thinking.

At pew., we have developed our own process and honed it over the years – it can almost be its own IP. We believe it meets market needs and fills an industry gap as there aren’t a lot of players who focus on strategy with the level of expertise and specialization we do and also produce visually captivating imagery. We also offer an alternative for startups and scaleups, who usually don’t get the same level of care from legacy agencies with teams of 150+ and need partners that can be more hands-on and closely direct their branding and marketing work. Our creative process has proven to be a market favorite. In a 3-4 week timeframe, we help our partners develop brands that truly resonate with their target audience and stand the test of time. The market unfortunately relies on the “everything-agency” model which ultimately comes at the expense of specialization and proper brand building. We’ve seen firsthand how other agencies can get caught up in surface-level solutions or strategies that don’t fully address the underlying objectives of a brand. We have been successfully challenging the status quo of the creative vs. client adage by our collaborative, yet lead by our expertise, strategic approach.

I enjoy my work the most when I can apply my experimentation-first affidavit. Like many of my peers, I’m too concerned with the deconstructive ‘why’ of every creative decision. Is the work more valuable if it’s enlisted in some lineage of thought? Speaks the timeless language of influence; influenced and influential? Is it discursively significant? Does it add to the conversation that the contemporary so-called intelligentsia are having? Experiments beyond the boundaries of medium and the status quo of form? What makes it seminal? Formative? Canonical? Memetic? Asking these questions are main drivers in my creative process.

I also have beef with anyone who thinks design should be pretty.

Can you talk to us a bit about the role of luck?
I would say luck has definitely been on my side when it comes to timing and having an invaluable support ecosystem. Back in 2012, during my college days, I entered a graphic design competition. Little did I know that this is where I would meet my partner and co-founder, Nourhan Wahdan. We worked as a team for the first time, we hit it off instantly and discovered that we had excellent chemistry. That was what sparked our entrepreneurial journey as pew. design bureau.

But if we rewind a bit, the sole reason I was qualified to enter that competition was because I had a DeviantArt account, if you remember that. My best friend had saw it and that’s why he told me about that competition. If we rewind a little more, the only reason I had worked on DeviantArt was because I was a huge wrestling fan as a teenager. I had been teaching myself graphic design skills since I was 13 years old because I just wanted to create graphics of my favorite wrestling superstars. I remember feeling compelled to open Photoshop for the first time in 2008 because my favorite wrestler, Undertaker, had just made a comeback, and I wanted to commemorate that event in a Windows XP desktop wallpaper graphic.

And if we rewind a little more, Undertaker’s role in my luck would be minuscule compared to my mother’s. This desire to create might not have been nurtured to its fullest potential if it weren’t for my mother’s unwavering support since I was a child. She recognized my artistic inclinations and wholeheartedly cheered me on despite it being generally frowned upon where I’m from for little boys to be into artsy things. Whether I was drawing on paper, walls, or even school desks, my mother saw my potential and consistently pushed me to believe in my talent. Her constant support and enthusiasm fueled my confidence on a core level – and that is something I will never stop feeling grateful for.

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Image Credits
Film shots DP credit to Madison Stonefield BTS image credit to Chunren Shih

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