Winter 2002

Mexican designers seek an identity (text in full)

A! Design International Conference

Guanajuato, Mexico
29 August – 2 September 2002

Ten guest speakers flew to Mexico from different parts of the world, spoke about ten different design-related subjects and showed work with completely different styles. Yet despite their varying backgrounds, most had a central theme in common: a passion not only for the forms of design, but also for the world it can help shape and contain. They spoke not only about aesthetic preoccupations, but also about responsibility, ethics and the social possibilities of visual communication.

The highlights of the event were talks by Oliviero Toscani, Megan Galbraith, Eduardo Danilo, Enric Satue, and Michael Wolff. Over four days, they presented their work and talked about the thoughts that fuelled it. Subjects ranged from packaging to technology, typography to illustration.

Satue, Spanish designer and historian, explained that as brands are part of urban culture, it is important to embed all work with a minimum intellectual level. ‘In London,’ he said, ‘Shell and London Transport do as much for the city’s image as Big Ben or the National Gallery; designers must look for continuity from a cultural point of view, since they are helping to shape the image of their city and nation.’ True: we live inside a landscape of symbols, and designers have a greater influence – and responsibility – than many might suppose; even those who sell cat food.

Though only 23, Megan Galbraith held her own among the other speakers. Part of MIT’s Media Lab, she has combined her love of art and maths under the tutelage of John Maeda. ‘We cannot call ourselves designers or engineers; we are both, and neither. Our goal as a research group is to realise new forms and spaces through the use of technology and computation. We are exploring the interactions between visual and physical elements, human emotions and understanding.’ She showed her own work, and that of her colleagues. Most impressive was the mapping of the human genome into a visual database, which not only provides a better tool for scientists, but is also beautiful to look at. The genetic variables correspond to different design elements, such as colours, shapes and forms. Instead of working in a linear manner, information can be grasped holistically, by observing how the image changes as the variables change.

In a two-hour lecture, former Benetton creative director Oliviero Toscani talked about having something personal to say. ‘Why sell shirts when you can talk about things that really matter, like Aids and war, love and death. There are important conversations waiting to be had, and we visual artists can be the ones to start them.’

‘Mexican design needs a vision, a strategic discipline,’ said editorial designer Eduardo Danilo, the only Mexican speaker at the event. There is a precarious balance for people who come from cultures such as Mexico’s, with such a rich symbolic and iconographic history: they must strive to create a language that is both international and unique, while taking care not to fall into stereotypes. So where should designers turn? ‘We cannot get away from international influences. But we can interpret styles and generate unique ideas born out of those influences.’

Rafael Pérez, responsible for the A! Design event, agrees that Mexicans have spent too much time copying instead of innovating. But by bringing mostly international speakers to such an event is Pérez not undermining the conditions for innovation? ‘We must broaden our minds and transform our thoughts,’ he says. ‘We must learn from their thought processes, and then develop our own.’

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