Ibraheem Youssef: Standing On Guard For Thee

ADC Member chats about his career and his mission to shine a light on great Canadian design

Happy Canada Day! Today our neighbors to the north celebrate their country’s 148th birthday. The Great White North has a special place in ADC’s hearts; so many people in our community, our membership base and even our staff have ties to Canada.

And so, to honor (honour?) our Canadian friends, we chatted with Ibraheem Youssef, an art director, designer, creative director and ADC Member who launched a special project to elevate Canada’s robust design community.


Happy Canada Day! Let’s take it back to the beginning…

IbraheemMy mother is Canadian and my father is Egyptian. I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I lived until I was about five, then lived in Toronto for another four or five years. Around that time, my dad was like, “OK everyone, you guys need to understand where I’m coming from.” We immigrated to Cairo, Egypt, where we lived for thirteen years.

That’s quite a jump, from Maritime Canada to Toronto to Egypt.

(laughs) It certainly was! It was a completely different experience, almost like shock therapy. I didn’t know any Arabic growing up in Canada, and it took me about two years to pick up the language enough to communicate effectively.

At one point when I was growing up, I started drawing. I used to create these magazines and comic books, and I’d sell them to family members. I think that’s where the whole looking at my art in an entrepreneurial sense began. I kept doing that up until I was 15. I’m sure my family was just thinking, “Oh, it’s kind of cute that he’s doing all of this,” but actually, my mom kept all of the art I was making. I have all of them with me right now and some of them are quite good, especially closer to the later years when I was taking my art quite seriously. Looking back on that, I could see how that started the whole thing of tying business with art.

Did you decide at that point that is what you wanted to go to school for?

I always knew that I wanted to do things related to my talent. I never at any point said, “I want to be a doctor,” or, “Oh, I want to be an engineer.” That was never the case. I got into The School of Fine Arts in Cairo, where I did painting and sculpture and other classical art. I was for about three years before moving back to Toronto without actually graduating. I applied at the Ontario College of Art & Design. Unfortunately they said that my three years of schooling in Cairo wasn’t even worth a single year at OCAD, and that I’d have to start my education from scratch.

Ouch, nnother four years of school?

Exactly. But I don’t look back to it in a negative sense. I had a great education at OCAD, one that was more design focused. If I didn’t go to OCAD, it would have been a very different life for me in Toronto. The people I met there, I’m in touch with a really good chunk of them today, and in this industry, your personal network is almost everything.


Ibraheem (upper right) in his OCAD days

At some point your path started steering towards advertising, which can be a very different beast than design…

Yeah, I think it was halfway through OCAD when I began leaning more towards advertising. I felt like I had a good, strong design foundation, but design seemed to be more about craft, whereas advertising was more about ideas. And so in my final two years of OCAD, I focused on the advertising world. I was fortunate enough to secure an internship at Leo Burnett during my third year of OCAD, and after graduation I landed an internship at Lowe Roche. I really credit Lowe Roche for fast tracking my industry learning. You learn a lot at college, but when you’re in an agency like Lowe Roche was, you are put on the highway of learning and you’re just picking everything up.

I remember the Lowe Roche fifteenth anniversary was happening, and Geoffrey Roche came up to us interns and said “I want you guys to make French fry trays for the party. In our heads we were like, “What the fuck? We’re advertising interns and you want us to make French fry trays?” We were frozen for a second because it was just a bit of an odd request. Geoffrey had all of these old ads from the 1990s mounted on foam core. He grabbed a board, pulled out a big yellow X-ACTO knife and just like that he perfectly sliced it into the shape he wanted. I remember thinking, “Oh, this guy’s serious. We’ve got to make some French fry trays.”

It was at that moment that I realized that advertising is a lot more than just making good ads. And it’s just something you don’t pick up in school. You really learn on the job.

“In our heads we were like, ‘What the fuck? We’re advertising interns and you want us to make French fry trays?'”

I worked for a number of years at an agency called Bos (now DentsuBos), which was one of my best working experiences. It was a perfect combination of everything: the right amount of people and great creative leadership — so great that even four years I left, they recommended me to a New York headhunter that convinced me to move to Boston. After two wonderful years at Boston’s Hill Holliday — easily the largest agency I’ve ever worked in — I pulled up stakes and traveled for couple months round the world, freelanced for a year and now I’m working at JWT in Hong Kong. The advertising industry has been amazing for expanding my horizons.

The glory days of Bos

The glory days of Bos

But you’ve never lost touch with your design sensibilities. It’s funny, because your work shows up on all sorts of design blogs — we remember your Tarantino poster series doing the rounds on even mainstream blogs. But that’s your “just for fun” side, right?

I work in advertising and I love design, but more importantly, I fear boredom. I hate the idea of boredom, which is why I need to have six or seven projects on the go. Whether it’s posters or working on custom mailers to send to my friends or whatever. I don’t know what it is, but just things to keep me interested.

I’m also very hard on myself. I look to others for inspiration and motivation, but I always think that I can do better. I never think, “Oh, man. I just did that project and that was the shit.” I never have that thought because I feel like there’s always things that can be added or tweaked. And it’s really hard to put something down and just think, “All right, that’s good.”

I think that it’s really healthy to have that attitude. As creators we’ve all got our egos. I don’t think having an ego is entirely a bad thing, as long as you can keep yourself in check.


One of your side projects has really caught the attention of the design community, as it touches upon the value of great design — not to mention the Canadian spirit.

Yes. For those who are unaware, on July 1, 2017, Canada will be turning 150. Well about a year and a half ago, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) posted an article talking about five logos that Heritage Canada is proposing to use for the celebration of the Sesquicentennial. These five logos were crap by any stretch of the imagination, worse than the lowest of Clip Art.

What enraged me wasn’t necessarily the fact that they were crap, It was more so the fact that the article was talking about these logos as if they were amazing. It was like, “Hey, we’ve got these logos. We’ve spent $40,000 circling them around focus groups. What do you guys think? What does the public think?” It was the way they worded it that made it seem like this is the status quo, that this is Canadian design to celebrate 150 years of history. It bothered me profusely and it bothered a lot of my peers too.


I remember it was popping up all over Facebook and Twitter. People were interested in talking and debating. At one point I asked myself, “You know what? We should make a website. Somebody should do this.” But then I wondered why I just didn’t do it myself. I put something together really fast, just a splash page and “coming soon”. After that, I reached out to around 40 or 50 Canadian designers whose work I respected and greatly admired, and asked them to come up with a better Canada 150 logo, if only to show the world that we can indeed to better. We got fourteen submissions in the first wave.



I never thought it would go anywhere really. I just wanted to do it just to prove a point. I remember I tweeted a link to the project to the GDC, Canada’s graphic design certification body. They came back at me saying, “We don’t do what we do for fun. We’re designers. We don’t just doodle and scribble.” They really belittled me and the project, but by the next day it all just exploded. I had to shut the site down and upgrade the server, the traffic became so high. Eventually it was on national news on TV and newspapers, Fast Company and Creative Review picked up the story. It was incredible.

It showed that people do care about design. Canadians tend to be complacent and keep their opinions to themselves, but it has been so rewarding to talk to your peers and feel like the industry is coming together to do something better about the status quo.

So we are two years away from Canada’s 150th birthday. What’s been the government response?

(laughs) Initially, nothing formal. “We shall take this into consideration.” but nothing beyond that. They have been checking out my Linkedin page though.

But, more recently, they launched a student competition to design the logo for the 150 event, and the winning design not only was an amatuer updated rendition of Stuart Ash’s classical 1967 centennial logo, but the competition itself sent all the wrong messages regarding the status of Design in Canada. As Designers, we are a group of professionals, and our field should be treated accordingly. We offer a service that we spent years practicing and honing our skills for. To base the logo of such an important milestone in Canada’s history on a student competition, is akin to throwing a student competition to design a hospital or a highway.

Unfortunately we’re living in an age where computers have allowed anyone to think they can whip up a logo in two seconds. People now think that designers are just people who know how to use Photoshop. As creatives we have to take that back and not accept what you know isn’t right. Stand your ground and keep it classy. That’s the Canadian way.


See more of Ibraheem’s work at ibraheemyoussef.com or connect with him on Linkedin.

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