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Seriously Playful: Interview with Digital Designer Reza Alavi

By Charles Purdy

Working with his younger brother (and fellow designer), Amir, Los Angeles–based digital designer Reza Alavi creates bright, beautiful work: games, animation, augmented reality projects, and more. He’s passionate about technology—always exploring new software and new tools in the development of his creations, which are utterly modern but also recall classic video games and Japanese pop culture, both of which have long inspired Alavi.

Alavi has been designing for more than 25 years; he got his start as a young man in Iran. As a new graduate of design school there, he was encouraged to enter design competitions—and soon won a prestigious one: the 8th Tehran International Poster Biennial poster-design competition. This was his big break, and Alavi says that it “opened all the doors”—leading to having his work published in magazines across Europe, as well as to an invitation to study in the United States, where he finished two master’s degrees (one in film directing and one in motion media interaction design).

The Alavi brothers designed the popular iPhone game Super Duper Punch, using Adobe tools: Alavi says, “I designed the characters—and how they fight and move—in Adobe Illustrator, and then I took those files into After Effects to add motion.”

He completed his second degree at SCAD Atlanta, and then stayed in that city for his first job, at an experience design agency called MaxMedia. At MaxMedia, he worked on designs for AT&T (motion graphics, data visualizations, infographics, and so on). After a few years in Atlanta, he moved to Los Angeles (continuing to work for MaxMedia, remotely) to be closer to his family.

Still in Los Angeles, Alavi will soon be starting a new job, for Microsoft Xbox—meanwhile, he and his younger brother, Amir (who currently works as interactive engineer for Snapchat), also put in long hours working on their own digital creations.

Alavi creates animation in many styles, such as these abstract shorts. 

A FAMILY AFFAIR

The Alavi brothers work together and live together—they come home from their respective day jobs and begin work on their passion projects in the evening—and those projects are all about having fun. “Even before we started our own studio, we used to joke that we were like Mario and Luigi—with a quest to save the kingdom from boredom,” says Alavi.

Alavi’s ZooKazam is an educational AR app designed to help children learn about animals.

The pair are both designers and developers, but the elder brother takes on more of the designing while the younger brother takes on more of the developing, according to Alavi: “When we’re working on a project, I do the designs, and then he gets his eyes on them, while he does the coding, and then I get my eyes on them. We keep giving each other feedback as we go.”

One of their first projects was an online interactive art-toy boutique called Moshama.com, which they launched in 2013. It featured eight categories of art toy, and gave other designers a canvas with which to create their own toys. 

Exploring augmented reality for this project led to another project that is still ongoing: ZooKazam, an educational AR app that helps children learn about animals. The app has been downloaded more than 800,000 times.

As their company has grown, the pair has added coders based in India, but Alavi says the two have no plans to go full-time with their family venture. “We’re happy to have it as a side business,” says Alavi. “Everything we’re doing—it’s what we want to do, and if we made it our full-time business, we would have to make more compromises about that.”

Character designs from Super Duper Punch. 

SUPER DUPER PUNCH

Early on, the pair knew they wanted to make games, and they started by researching the games they love: “We’re love retro games like Atari and Nintendo games, and we love Japanese pop culture,” says Alavi, “so we decided to do a boxing game—but in a different way, more like an arcade style.”

Super Duper Punch is an iPhone game—a top seller and chosen as one of the “15 Weirdest Games” on the App Store, among other awards. “We wanted to make something that could have come out on the early Atari consoles…but with a pinch of our twist and taste,” explains Alavi. “There’s a certain simplicity that’s missing from many of today’s games, and we wanted to bring that back without sacrificing design or gameplay, with bright, blocky graphics and intuitive controls.”

Alavi’s designs—like this one for the the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam—are notable for their gorgeous colors.  

Code-based art is another for Alavi enjoys exploring. 

The characters in Super Duper Punch were developed in Adobe Illustrator CC and motion-tested in Adobe After Effects CC, and then they were further developed with the Unity video game engine.

BRIGHT COLORS, BRIGHT FUTURE

Although Alavi’s graphics are inspired by retro designs, they have a bright, modern color palette, which Alavi says dates back to his youth in Iran. “Graphic designers in Iran, they don’t use colors. All the posters that you see from our country, they’re gray and khaki. In school, I was told that bright colors are not in our culture…. I’m interested in cultural differences, and I challenge myself to use colors in a bright and bold way and show that as an Iranian designer I can use color in my work.”

Animation projects make up a large portion of Alavi’s portfolio. “This project, Cinco de Mayo, involved some interesting research,” says Alavi, “because I didn’t know a lot about the holiday. I had some Mexican friends who helped me a bit.”

He prefers to be forward-thinking in his use technology, too. He was an early adopter of Adobe XD CC. “When XD came out, I started using it right away, and we are using XD and Sketch to do our prototyping now…. I still have Photoshop version 1.0 on a CD, so I’m an Adobe person from the beginning. I wanted to get started with this program from scratch. I love working with it, because you see that it’s building up every day.”

Alavi says, “I still do posters for galleries and competitions sometimes, by request, but these days I’m more about new technologies and software…. I like to be up to date. I’m always trying to learn more new stuff.”

Find out what new stuff (including a game that is currently under wraps) the Alavi brothers are up to by visiting their portfolio site