Reflections on Doha: Four Years of Design at CMU Qatar

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By: 
Alexander R. W. Cheek

I stepped off the Qatar Airways flight and into the middle of the desert. Although it was only 5 pm in Doha, the sun was just setting in a sandy haze as I looked off the top of the airplane steps. It’s hard to say what hits you first, the dust (which coats everything) or the heat (around 120° that evening). Either way, it felt like I had landed on Mars.  

When I landed that day in 2009 it was the most stifling time of year: mid-August. I was a few months graduated from English and Design’s CPID program and had taken a faculty position to extend the School of Design offerings on the Qatar campus. In the year prior to my arrival, Rosemary Lapka ‘07 had established our presence with courses in communication design and a sustainability initiative. She had returned to the States and I was stepping in. The only person I knew there was the dean, Chuck Thorpe, who happened to be on the same flight over. After Chuck and I parted ways on the tarmac I wondered how I ever wound up this far from Margaret Morrison in every possible respect. 

Ten years ago, Carnegie Mellon was invited by Qatar Foundation to become a part of a new “multiversity” campus made up of American Universities and selected programs from each: Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, an engineering program from Texas A&M, and later a communications and journalism program from Northwestern University. University College London also came, as did HEC Paris. CMU was initially invited to bring programs in computer science, business administration, and later information systems and biological sciences, all at the undergraduate level. As an administrator once told the story, three proposals were put forth by Carnegie Mellon each with differing scales of involvement. Small, medium, and large, the expectation was that the most reasonable mid-sized proposal was the one that would be chosen. Naturally, being Qatar, they chose the big one.

Carnegie Mellon University Qatar building, left, and Texas A&M Qatar, right, both by Legorreta+Legorreta.

“The big one” is what became a full-service, degree-issuing branch campus modeled after the university offerings and experience in Pittsburgh. Currently, it houses nearly 60 faculty and 400 students. Teaching, research, student affairs, an entire operations arm, admissions, marketing, and community outreach all extend the Carnegie Mellon initiatives and brand to the Arabian Gulf. It is bankrolled — all expenses paid — by Qatar Foundation, which in turn is fueled by Qatar’s massive natural gas and oil reserves that lie within the small country’s political boundaries. QF’s founding visionary and chairperson is Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the second wife of the recently-abdicated Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. The ruling family, specifically Her Highness and the former Emir, specified education and human development as a pillar of their country’s vision with a goal of “[building] a bridge between the present and the future” — the future being 2030.

Left, the Camel Souq; Right, West Bay skyline, Doha.

In this pursuit, development and rapid change to the rough, dusty landscape is what you see on the road from Education City to the city of Doha and in all directions out. The CMU-Q building was designed by Legorreta + Legorreta, an architecture firm from Mexico. It’s positioned in the middle of campus with neighboring buildings by Arata Isozaki & Associates, Coelacanth and Associates, and Rem Koolhaas’s OMA.

Ten kilometers from Qatar Foundation is Doha itself, a vibrant city that has many sides to it, most of which are never seen by the expat. There’s gritty Doha that developed out of a fishing and pearling port with narrow, sometimes dirt roads in the oldest parts. There is the Doha of the immigrant where entire neighborhoods might look more like Pakistan or India. There are the encampments where migrants from Nepal, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka are bunked in tight quarters, bringing scrutiny to the country by human rights organizations and international media. There are the massive track developments with walled compounds that stretch out across Doha’s ring road system. Dusty date palms burst out over the closed gates with maybe a Range Rover parked out front. Inside is most likely one or a group of homes for an extended family with an entryway majlis that serves as a living room. There’s Arabian deco Doha with concrete-constructed low-rise apartments, water towers, petrol stations, government buildings, and roundabout art. All show their age from the harsh environment but are still architectural wonders for someone like me. And there’s contemporary Doha frequently profiled by Western media where the architecture, landfilling, and urban megaprojects shape an image of modernity to everybody whose head just turned in that direction.

Thousands and thousands of people come by the month to build, to make money, to pay debts, to raise their families. Many are brought under unscrupulous terms and fall into place in the rigid hierarchy. Two million people live in Qatar today (twice that of 2006). Vastly outnumbered, only 250,000 are Qatari. In these urban fabrics, imbalances, class structures, overlapping cultures, and head-spinning development, tensions exist in stark terms. Frustrating and incredibly difficult at times, these conditions are what make the place so damn interesting.  

Summer 2007 and I was in Pittsburgh. Shelley Evenson was hosting a backyard party for the grad students and faculty. Dave Kaufer, Dan Boyarski, and I casually chatted and they suggested I consider Qatar after graduation. The two were instrumental in establishing Design’s spot in Qatar during early development. My response, though intrigued, was reserved and non-committal. It just sounded too nuts. A year and a half later when Acting Head Steve Stadelmeier and I were signing an agreement he asked, with a tinge of skepticism, “Are you sure about this?” I signed for a year but stayed for four.

Communication Design Fundamentals, required for students in Information Systems, is the primary reason Design is there at all. As in Pittsburgh, the course was developed specifically for those outside the Design School for introductory exposure to typography, composition, color, and the development of messages for print and screen. When I taught it as a grad student, two of my sections were a mix of students from across the Pittsburgh campus and the other two were specifically for the Master of Human-Computer Interaction and Master of Arts in Professional Writing programs. Knowing that the Qatar students would be I.S. students allowed for a tailored syllabus that integrated into their type of work, much like that of the MHCI and MAPW classes.

Left: Students at IxDA Interaction ’13 in Toronto. Right: I.S. students and graduates, some of whom took seven design courses

The I.S. curriculum involved technology applications both front-end and back-, but still needed design’s emphasis on human-centered, holistic approaches and its ability to ‘humanize’ the technologies they were developing. This integration was what began four years of developing an intricate scaffolding of a design curriculum for this very specific group of students. It wasn’t my expectation or intent from the start, but in the subsequent years I built a set of design classes that reflected the broad, transdisciplinary approach that Carnegie Mellon is known for. 

I found the students in Qatar to be not unlike those in Pittsburgh. There was a geekiness to them, a healthy disregard for disciplinary boundaries, and minds to balance the breadth of the liberal arts and the mastery of a discipline. Women constituted slightly more than half of the student body. It was a close-knit bunch despite their diversity of backgrounds. Coming from across the region, about 39% today are Qataris and the rest from the broader Middle East, North Africa, Asian Sub-Continent, even some from as far away as Europe. Many of these non-Qatari students actually grew up in Qatar, the children of parents who also expatriated to find new opportunities abroad. For those who grew up in Qatar, Qatari or non-Qatari, the prospect of attaining a college degree close to their family was an attractive one.  

Left: A photography, architecture, and design exhibit in the East-West Walkway, Spring 2013. Right: Ten Meters of Thinking workshop with guest speaker Paul Hughes, Fall 2012.

With such a small student body, not only were they close with each other but they were close with their teachers. It was easy for me to develop bonds with students that benefitted their learning; they spent countless hours simply hanging out in my office talking shop. The students who began with CDF went on to take many more design courses and it was easy for me to track progress across their design studies. I could easily create explicit crossovers between disciplines, pulling communication design into service design, product design into organizational change.

Not only were the students close to one another, but the faculty were close. We worked together, played together, applied for grants together, took holidays together. I personally learned more than I ever expected from my colleagues. Being in close proximity to minds from history, philosophy, public policy, business, and CS enabled me to articulate back to the students a relevance for design and its relationship to their other courses of study. Quite frankly, it was easy to draw connections when you know precisely what they’re reading and discussing in the classroom next door. In chemistry, for instance, Professor Terry Murphy and a group of students constructed an air quality monitoring station on campus, the first of its kind in the country. In tandem, two design students prototyped an interface that displayed current conditions and trends. Not just giving surface treatment to brute data, they turned all of it into a science lesson by explaining how the different types of particulates in the air can affect people and where those pollutants come from. It was, in many ways, the best of CMU concentrated. 

My delivery shifted from Pittsburgh to suit the audience and my objectives to suit the environment in which they would apply this knowledge after they graduated. Unexpected knowledge gaps were encountered that often required reconstructing lectures, projects, and discussions on short notice. For writing assignments it wasn’t unusual for me to spend more time with students discussing their interpretation of a text, helping to develop and frame arguments, followed by work on essay structure and style. In my office, far more hours were spent around the whiteboards with students working through ideas and guiding the generative activities that designers do in small groups. It’s been said that Qatar and Pittsburgh are “same same, but different.”

Precisely how design readapted itself to suit such an audience and environment was a question I spent quite a bit of time considering. These were future technologists, after all. Though they would be very much involved in designing, how much emphasis should I place on the traditional design arts? How much time should be spent on pixel-level detail? And how do I begin as I establish design in their minds as something considerably different from pixel-level detail alone?

What emerged were classes that started off in a way that more closely resembled a liberal arts class than a design studio: initial emphasis on the dialectics and rhetoric rather than the grammar and poetics (credit due to former CMU Professor Richard Buchanan.) The questions we asked did not seek answers but instead a discussion around value, purpose, and people.

  • Before making anything, how do we see what we have in front of us? How do we analyze the designed world?
  • How can a ‘design perspective’ frame situations holistically?
  • How does an integrated design approach better suit stakeholders and the needs of society around us?
  • What’s the nature of an experience?
  • How can technologies be developed in order to better connect with users and shape interactions?
  • How can design bring about order to a complex world while also advancing social justices?
  • How do certain design decisions potentially affect others here and abroad, now and in a hundred years?
  • What are some of the ill-structured and wicked problems in Qatar and its ever-changing landscape?
  • How do we approach these problems in humanistic ways?
  • How would we approach these issues in design as opposed to your other classes? How might these approaches integrate for positive change?
  • How do socio-cultural value systems, local and regional tensions, and high levels of inequality factor into development of Qatar?

This prepared students to think more about how design thought and action could be applied to Qatar’s urban landscape, growth in its service sector, and evolving domestic and international policy. Off campus we explored some of the very visible places in which design is shaping an advancing society: Qatar Museums Authority, Al Jazeera, Lusail City, Msheireb Downtown, Souq Waqif, even IKEA and Starbucks. 

Photo: Dylan Vitone at Msheireb Downtown Doha, a massive redevelopment project in the center of one of Doha’s oldest districts. Nearly 20,000 construction workers are on a site that covers 76 acres and will cost more than US $5 billion. 

The familiar texts and frameworks supported all courses: Aristotle’s Appeals, Dewey’s  “Experience”, Norman’s Design of Everyday Things, McDonough & Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle, Buchanan’s Four Orders, and even his “cross of pain.” At times pretty dense, but through proper scaffolding and course integration, undergraduates were able to build the right muscles for design inquiry.  

Design application was still equally imperative. Each classroom also had to be an environment in  which we made things, even in the theory-heavy courses. From interpretation and abstraction towards prototyping and implementation, students gained tangible, pragmatic skills. (Carrying a suitcase through customs full of post-its and sharpies happened more than once.)  

In Interaction Design and Technology, a course co-taught with I.S. Professor Divakaran Liginlal, the two of us shifted emphasis between design process and technical development. The first half of the semester involved research methods to understand audience and draw out possibilities through co-design, prototyping, and wire framing. The semester’s project: How can technology create new experiences around news and information in Qatar? It picked up on an existing initiative by the government that began with the founding of Al Jazeera. The semester blended research methods, communication design, service design, technica implementation, critique and validation.  

In Design for People and Planet, students developed their own direction on an ill-structured problem. Issues ranged from environmental to societal, from those that had an impact on campus life to the country at large. One such issue addressed the state of traffic conditions in Qatar. It’s the second thing you notice when you arrive in the country — after being blasted by the heat and dust. Traffic accidents in Qatar are amongst the highest per-capita in the world and seatbelt use is tragically low. Seeing kids bounce around in the backseats of cars and SUVs can stir up a fiery rage as you fly through roundabouts at 80 kph. When Leto Karatsolis-Chanikian experienced this rage (presumably), she raised it for a topic in class. There’s a wickedness to the traffic problem but she reined it into a manageable one-semester project. What I expected for deliverables were as flexible as the topics were wide: projects could be tangible or intangible and take the form of products, services, environments, comprehensive prototypes, or strategic plans. Leto, after weeks of development, produced seat belt sleeves that made buckling up more playful for children.

Leto Karatsolis-Chanikian’s poster for her seatbelt sleeves, Hezami. “The name Hezami”, she wrote, “means my belt in Arabic. I chose this name because [it’s] a product for Qatar and the Gulf region geared toward the Arabic-speaking community. There is such a huge adoption of European and American products that bringing it closer to the local culture in a sensitive way could make the product stand out.”

Tasneem Jahan developed informational pamphlets and posters for migrant laborers informing them of their rights (English version shown). Others included how to find medical care, how to get around the city, and how to find embassy and consular services.

We built chairs out of cardboard, conducted Karen Moyer’s type hierarchy project, created city maps that expressed personal narratives, hacked iPads, read poetry, and co-designed a library and café. Two teams of service designers worked with Mathaf, the new modern art museum, to build community outreach. The business students helped to redesign corporate approaches to products, services, vision, and strategy. I joined the English classes occasionally and regularly sat in on information systems and business courses to provide perspective and criticism on their other work.  

Kristin Hughes joined us for two weeks; Dylan Vitone for three. Professors Kelly Hutzell and Rami el Samahy from the School of Architecture would arrive each spring and courses would be even more in unison. To me, it was never just about fostering a culture of making, but structuring one of holistic integration. Everything connected. We were never too far from Margaret Morrison and yet we were as far as anyone possibly could be.  

The holistic approach that I took and the synergy that emerged couldn’t have happened without proper scaffolding, the relatively small student body size, the offering of a wide-range of electives, and the fact that they kept coming back for more. Students whose degrees otherwise stated CS, IS, or Business, graduated with design as a new lens on the world and how they can shape it. One student went to intern at Disney in Los Angeles, another to Qatar Foundation to continue development at home. Others have pursued graduate studies in design and HCI.

They told me at my last graduation that design had changed their worldviews. What I didn’t say back was that they changed me. I never would have guessed it when I first landed on Mars. I never expected to become so captivated by Middle East and South Asian cultures in ways beyond just karak and shisha addiction. I never expected such a positive embrace from technology and business students. I never expected the desert to be such a stimulating place.  

To integrate design and to change perspectives, first you integrate with them: their disciplines, their environments, their cultures. Then it becomes interesting beyond belief.  

A post-script. It may interest you, design-minded reader, as to how design translates into Arabic. Tasmeem (تصميم) and its multiple variants quite literally mean purpose, intent, will, determination, and resolution. In typical Doha fashion, it’s also the name of a cake shop at Dar AlSalam Mall.

Alexander Cheek [CPID ’09] was based in Doha from 2009 to 2013. He currently lives in Cambridge, MA where he serves as CDO of Macromicro, a data visualization company.

Date Published: 
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
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