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Life & Work with Shirin Raban

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shirin Raban. 

Hi Shirin, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
I am a multicultural and interdisciplinary designer. I was born in Madison, Wisconsin during my father’s Ph.D. studies. At 10 months of age, my family moved back to Tehran, Iran, where I grew up with lots of cousins and family interactions. When I was six, I had the opportunity to experience life in Sweden for an entire summer, where my dad was teaching on a year-long Sabbatical. This trip changed my life as I learned about other worlds and people at a very young age. I learned about freedom there. Then, when I was 11, I learned about oppression when the Islamic Revolution happened in Iran. As a teenage girl who was mostly confined to home, my expressive outlets included writing, painting, and making dolls, doll homes, and doll clothes. Little did I know that I would be designing packaging for Barbie clothes as a real job. In high school, I was a biology major by the encouragements of my parents. 

After high school, my family escaped Iran on foot through the mountains of Iran and deserts of Pakistan. My parents had to go through a few months of refugee experience in Austria. But since I was an American-born, I flew to Israel to visit my grandparents and after a couple of weeks, I entered Los Angeles to live with my dad’s sister. She put me back in high school so that I would wait out the non-resident tuition fees and possibly get married to an eligible Persian suitor. Luckily my parents arrived, and I was able to go to Santa Monica College. I continued as a biology major before I transferred to Cal State University Northridge, I changed my major to art. Sometime in between, I did marry a young Iranian man, my now husband of 33 years and the father of my two wonderful sons. He has been very supportive of my education and career goals throughout my journey. 

I have been working since I set foot in the United States. In high school, I worked at the Public Library, and then I took any design job or project that I could get my hands on. It did not matter if it was during the holidays or on weekends. Our children grew up watching my husband and I work and study. And I think that experience set them on a highly educated path. 

I began as a paste-up artist and worked my way up to becoming a designer and art director. I have experience in various industries from publishing to entertainment, food, and everything in between. I worked at American icons such as LA Times, Mattel, Sabon Entertainment, and Korbel Champagne. The experience helped me become an independent creative director who created branding, packaging, and advertising for ethnic and boutique food companies such as Sadaf, Golchin, Okami, Chef Select, the Daily Shake, and Serengetti Tea. 

A few years later, I got my Masters in visual anthropology from USC, I added my ethnographic and film knowledge to create commercials and promotional films for clients in the food industry and cultural/educational institutions. Among these are a commercial for Sadaf foods and a promotional film for the UCLA Art and Architecture Visual and Performing Arts. 

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
I don’t think life is ever smooth for anyone. Every person has to go through a journey and each of these stories can make an incredible movie. One that you are glued to from the beginning to end. The issue is that we are born into societies and civilizations that inject in us rules and regulations that preach normalcy and ideal lives. In my Iranian society, I was trained to think that I should wake up at this time and go to school at that age and get married with this sort of person and have that type of education and these many kids, etc. On top of that, I became an immigrant. One who moved from a place with one set of rules to a new place with lots of new rules at odds with the old ones. 

As an artistic kid, my struggle was not being understood. As a teenage girl, being forced to wear a long sleeve tunic with pants, socks, and a large scarf while riding my bike was very frustrating. But in Los Angeles, my struggles happened because I wanted to honor my Iranian ideals and become a full-fledged American all at the same time. That was a heavy weight to carry as an artist, a mother, a working professional, and a human being! I was running at the speed of light without understanding my whereabouts. The result of it was a lot of lessons that I learned the hard way. 

I remember that at my first creative design studio job, I would not submit my time sheets until my supervisor asked for it. One time she was furious and confronted me about it. I simply told her that it was rude to ask for money. On another instance, when all my classmates at CSUN researched design studio internships, I was at a loss as I had no idea where to begin. I just needed time and experience in order to find my way within the design realm. It took me decades of work, the encouragement of kind mentors, and taking over 50 courses at UCLA Extension and Santa Monica College in color, fashion, typography, painting, photography, film, writing, handmade books, designing experiences, and more before I became a conceptual designer and a teacher of design. And after all that, at 46, I went back to school to study for my master’s degree in Visual Anthropology at USC. I graduated the same year as my sons graduated from high school and college. 

The truth of it is that because of my self-curated education, I became a strong teacher that has already taught more than 15 courses in the design area including history, professional practice, branding, packaging, and design thinking. I also work with students on a one-on-one basis and create experimental visual storytelling workshops. The teaching and spending so much time in the classroom has allowed me to learn so much from my students and feeds into my practice of design and filmmaking. My work and education has made me a more insightful mother and family person. 

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I am a documentary filmmaker and brand strategy designer who teaches branding and visual storytelling. In everything that I do, I bring my backgrounds in design, art, ethnography, and film to define problems before I design visual solutions. I am passionate about helping to project the authentic voices of my clients, students, and film subjects. I am known for being a caring community person who strives to create common ground in all of my activities. 

Throughout my career, I have redefined myself over and over. Some of the favorite projects I have worked on include creating “Between the Shells” documentary about the work and life of my favorite artist and role model, Jalil Harooni, master shell artist. Collaborating with the Korbel Champagne Creative team in creating new branding and labels was an incredible opportunity that shaped me as a more mature designer. The new branding for Serengetti Tea was influenced by this experience. I have enjoyed working with clients such as the Daily Shake, to design their healthy drink branding. My experimental visual storytelling workshops push forward the creative practice of my students and myself. And right now, I am enjoying the process of creating a new feature documentary, “My Lost Iran” about a high-ranking Jewish General in the Royal Iranian Army who survived mass executions and more during the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and yet continued to serve until a decade later when a shocking event compelled him to leave his beloved country. 

Where do you see things going in the next 5-10 years?
I believe the essence of humanity is in connecting through the exchange of ideas and storytelling. For my creative practice in the next 5-10 years, l’ll hopefully continue filmmaking and introducing new interdisciplinary workshops on personal story and creative voice.

In terms of the big picture of things, one needs to look to the past to understand what the future may hold. From the beginning of time, storytelling happened through gathering around a fire, writing on cave walls, making hieroglyphs, and grandmothers telling stories to their offspring. The Industrial Revolution brought machine life to the forefront. But the Digital Revolution created a novel way of global connection between people through electronic games and the internet, that went way beyond sending letters or calling on the phone. And the Pandemic pushed this remote communication into full gear with lightning speed.

Today, as a mother, I tell my childhood stories to my children through filmmaking. I am even going one step further to include my children in the films in order to learn their grandparents’ stories. As a design educator, I am involving my students to use all sorts of mediums in their branding including 3D renderings, 3D printing, and film.

So, the relationships that are being created on a global scale and the information that is being exchanged are at a very high level. However, I feel all of this is happening at the expense of the loss of personal touch and meaningful togetherness during everyday moments. On my Zoom classes, most students turn off their video display and show very little interest in real-time interaction with others who are present in the forums.

I hope we can find it in ourselves to periodically take the time to create in-person gatherings and smell the roses so to speak. To laugh and to savor life together outside of the virtual realm.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Tool Box LA

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