Design from the Soul with Abdal Latif Whiteman
In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews designer, musician, and student of traditional crafts, Abdal Latif Whiteman
Recently I had the pleasure of holding a copy of Ian Abdal Latif Whiteman’s brilliant memoire Average Whiteman. He had shared an early draft with me some years ago, and I was so happy to see it finally in print.
As one of my greatest sources of knowledge and inspiration – both as a designer and spiritual seeker – it was a joy to read about his numerous adventures through music, faith, design, and more; some of which I’d enjoyed hearing first-hand during our conversations in years gone by at his sun-soaked home in Orgiva, just south of Granada in Andalusia, Spain.
At 76 years-old, Abdal Latif’s life-worth of stories and wisdoms have benefited me greatly, and every conversation we’ve had over the years has built my feeling of gratitude to know and benefit from his friendly, thoughtful insights. I think of him as a kind of rockstar – mainly because he actually was, including a performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 with his band Mighty Baby – an event that also featured the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors on the bill.
It was during that same year that Abdal Latif began his spiritual journey, after one of his bandmates embraced Sufism during a visit to Morocco. He later went on to become a professional graphic designer, which is how I came to appreciate his iconic work in the early 2000s: work that has adorned countless well known publications, and in my view, inspired an entire graphic design language.
Some time before the launch of his book, I had the opportunity to speak with Abdal Latif over Zoom – a far cry from Andalusia, but a great pleasure nonetheless. The difficulty was that I almost didn’t know where to begin, with so many points of connection in our shared topic areas. We soon found a starting point, however, with Islamic calligraphy – one the many creative pursuits in which Abdal Latif has achieved remarkable accomplishment.
“I studied with Mohammed Zakariya, and I've had contact with him for the last 30 or 40 years,” he told me.
“He taught me a lot because there was a real method and science to the way he worked. Even in the most fastidious way, like polishing a piece of paper for 50 hours before you write on it.
“He told me, ‘The best pen you ever make is one you make yourself. The best ink is the ink you make yourself, the best paper you use is the one you make, or at least you prepare yourself," and so on.
“Then, the first thing you do is you clean yourself, you prepare yourself. You clean your desk, you clean your room, you clean everything. Everything goes into the preparation before you start anything. It's interesting that the rabbis, the scribes who wrote the Torah, before they were allowed to write, used to have to take total immersion before they could write. I think Japanese calligraphers did the same thing as well.”
“The first thing you do is you clean yourself, you prepare yourself. You clean your desk, you clean your room, you clean everything. Everything goes into the preparation before you start anything.”
This idea of preparation really resonated with me. The practice of approaching creative work in the right state and with the right mindset is something that I have long aspired towards; not only to aid and deepen the design process, but also to pay it a certain type of respect – a certain type of love. Respect and love for your materials, your responsibility, your opportunity, your craft, and all the people who will come into contact with your work.
It's an approach that is timeless, and has inspired what my design team are trying to express as Heart-Centered Design; Spiritual principles that were understood implicitly in the past, but now perhaps requiring a more conscious application in modern design practice. This includes design with Niyyah (intentionality and purpose), Ikhlas (sincerity and consciousness), Ihsan (beauty and craftsmanship), Rida (contentment and gratitude), Amana (service and trust), and Barakah (blessings and optimism). These are concepts that Abdal Latif has lived by and experientially understood for many years.
This type of preparation reminded me of a story I’d heard relating to an album that Abdal Latif recorded in 1972, with his post-Mighty Baby band The Habibiyya. The band would apparently sit in the studio doing dhikr (repeatedly saying or chanting words or phrases in remembrance of God) for an hour, while the sound engineer looked on, confused.
“I read that we fasted for three days before recording,” he added. “I don't remember the fasting, but the idea is that you’re trying to get around yourself. ‘Ourself’ is the biggest obstacle we have.”
Sometimes ‘getting around ourselves’ demands great effort and years of study and practice. Other times, all it requires is a good knock to the head. Which is exactly what happened to Abdal Latif as he started his spiritual journey.
“We were in Germany on tour, and I went into my bandmate Martin’s hotel room,” he recalls.
“I thought he was looking under the bed, but he was actually praying. I knew nothing about anything then. I thought, ‘oh, Martin, you’ve lost something?’ And then I thought nothing of it.
“Then on the way back to England, we were in this gig wagon with the equipment, and I was sitting in the back. The van braked and these books fell on my head. It was two volumes of the Yusuf Ali Qur’an. It was like I couldn’t escape!
“That was sort of the frontier of everything. It seemed kind of strange and difficult at the beginning, but it opened the door to knowledge.”
This door led him to a deeper understanding of his craft as a musician, with regular visits to Morocco where he would record music and attend gatherings of knowledge, recitation and remembrance. Now he regularly sings in the style of beautiful traditional melodies, called qasidas, which come with profound layers of beauty, wisdom and inner perception.
“The heart is actually the consciousness,” he started to explain.
“Your consciousness is seated here (pointing to his chest), it's not in here (pointing to his head). Your heart detects many things when it hears and sees. When it hears a group of people singing, it can locate each single voice in, say, a choir of 20 people, and it has this incredible effect on the heart – a special beauty. It's why people love choirs.
“When you amplify that through a microphone, it just becomes homogenized as one thing. So you lose this special quality, which was in these beautiful rooms that they had.”
I immediately understood this challenge, which has become prolific for designers in the digital age: How to recreate something so visceral, personal, corporeal and spiritual as a digital experience?
Abdal Latif used an example from jazz musician Miles Davis to explain that despite the challenges, we can try to learn from the underlying principles of the traditional craft, and attempt to create something new and unique, using the ‘flaws’ as openings for new pathways.
“He said, ‘there’s no such thing as an accident’. And if you’re a musician, and you improvise music, you understand that. Because it’s the ‘mistake’ that actually kicks off ideas. There’s no simple formula for creating things in a spiritual context – you just have to go with the flow. You have a technique, but then you look for the opening – look for the mistake – and you go with that.
“There’s no simple formula for creating things in a spiritual context – you just have to go with the flow.”
“I was talking to Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) when he visited us in Orgiva, and he was talking about writing songs. He talked about the ‘hook’ – the thing which is different that captures your imagination.”
This thin line between action and surrender is a familiar one to me, as it surely is to most creatives. And it’s true to say that ‘mistakes’ are often the start of something new and exciting. My team and I experienced this recently with a video game concept that we’re currently working on. What started as a bug in our programming sparked a whole new direction for the game – unexpectedly widening our vision for the gameplay and characters.
Passion for the craft
Despite his renown as a musician, however, it is perhaps as a designer that Abdal Latif is most well known. I asked him about his journey through professional graphic design, and he shared stories from his early roles, including his first serious job working for an architectural firm.
It was here that he first saw the evolution of technology and its impact on traditional crafts such as typography, but it wasn't until his next job at the Islamic Texts Society in Cambridge that he learned how to align tradition and tech.
He explained that he worked with a book designer named Brian Keeble; a “really skilled typographer in the classic mould”, who asked him to read a book called Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type, by Geoffrey Dowding, to help him learn about typography. Not just read it, but “digest it, eat it”, he recalled.
"Brian resented the computer but taught me all he knew about typography and how to get it to work in a computer. It was an eye opener for me."
From there, he saw so many rapid changes, until “finally you could do a whole book using. the computer”. Perhaps not so momentous to young designers and typographers today, but a major shift for those who lived through it.
“Having seen that whole development was probably good training in being able to think about designing things,” said Abdal Latif before giving a brief history lesson on the beginnings of modern typography.
“The beautiful thing about typography is that everything about type originates from someone having designed a letter by hand. You must look up Aldus Manutius. He was a printer from Venice in the late 15th century, and he was kind of a genius. He introduced the idea of small printed books into Italy. In that time, to have books on anything you had to be rich, and you probably had hand copies or a very specially printed hand copy. Very, very expensive.
“What Aldus Manutius did was introduce the whole Greek canon of knowledge into the Italian Renaissance. And to do that, he had to create a new kind of printing. He employed a man called Griffo to design a font for this book for a cardinal called Cardinal Bembo. Now, if you look up Aldus Manutius, you'll see examples of this creation of this font, which is not that different to what we're using now, 500 years later.”
I’m geeking out by this point, listening to someone who clearly has a passion for the craft of typography. I own a number of books that Abdal Latif has typeset, and there is undoubtedly a special clarity and craftsmanship that is the signature of his design work.
I asked about Arabic, which has its own unique history through printing. I recalled there was reluctance to embrace printing in the traditional Islamic world, at a time when the flowing, organic scripts of calligraphers could not be reproduced in the same way as Latin or English texts.
Abdal Latif shared his own reservations: “I don't like Arabic typesetting at all, but it's the only way you're going to get a lot of stuff for free, somewhere across the world. A lot of my work has been to do with academic texts and translations, using all these very tiny, fiddly little things like diacritical marks, and I think it requires some obsessiveness. But some people are so obsessed with pixel accuracy that they miss the point. And this is important if you're in a creative process, you can get so obsessed with accuracy that you lose the inspiration. A lot of stuff I do on screen, I just guess it – I don't measure it, I just go with what feels right.”
“If you're in a creative process, you can get so obsessed with accuracy that you lose the inspiration.”
The idea of inspiration and intuition led us back into the spiritual side of design. When it comes to designing with beauty with ihsan, there does seem to be an intuition – an inner dimension to the whole process.
“Love is the core emotion of Islam,” said Abdal Latif. “And it's a difficult word to use because it's so misinterpreted. But when things are done with love, it manifests. We're here to beautify things and leave some beauty behind us. You beautify the prayer, you beautify your room, you beautify the work you're doing, your garden, your clothes, whatever.”
“When things are done with love, it manifests. We're here to beautify things and leave some beauty behind us.”
As we prepared to end our conversation and say our goodbyes, I asked him for some final advice to share with the incoming generation of designers, entrepreneurs and aspiring creative professionals. Naturally, he brings up music.
“Singing. I could talk a lot about singing, because singing is a thing that really helps spiritual, mental and physical health. There's nothing more amazing than being in a room with like 200 men singing. But it's one of these core activities which has been lost by human beings.
“You can see the health of the country by how much they sing. You go to Senegal or Sudan, they sing all the time. The Moroccans sing – they are brought up singing as children. So I recommend singing to anybody who wants to have a healthy and happy state. It's all about breathing, you see. The secret of singing is breathing.”
I smiled as I recalled my own experiences joining groups of singers in gatherings of remembrance around the world. He’s absolutely right.
For his final piece of advice, however, he almost paradoxically turned towards a quieter, more individual experience. One rooted in his faith and the practice of Prophet Muhammed (Upon him be blessings of peace).
“If you want something to change your life, get up in the night and pray,” he said.
“There's three things the Prophet encouraged people to do, which are to give generously, feed people, and get up in the night to pray. That time is absolutely beautiful – everything is still. And that's what creates a kind of stillness in your heart.”
From rousing choirs to meditative night prayers, there’s a lot that can benefit us as designers in Abdal Latif’s advice. Active community and inward reflection are both important facets to develop; each bringing their own insights, openings and advantages as we strive towards beauty, excellence and purpose in our work and in ourselves.
Peter Gould is the founder of Gould Studio, and advocates for Heart-Centered Design to inspire meaningful products & brands that align with spiritual aspirations. He teaches The Heart of Design program and is currently writing a book on the subject. For more interviews, news and insights, please sign-up to the Gould Studio newsletter.