Photo, Maggie Macnab
The last week of October I had the extraordinary experience of attending the Icograda International Design Congress in La Habana, Cuba. Over 600 designers, teachers and related professionals gathered from 57 countries to discuss the current state of design, how we teach and how we learn. Cross-pollinating ideas between peers always infuses creativity, but Cuba provided the unlikely backdrop of international connections within a communist country. There was no visual pollution from advertisements (although there was a minimal amount of political propaganda, it was nothing like what we Americans wade through every day), no storefronts other than a few bars, restaurants and hotels (no McDonalds, Starbucks, or Gap—a very different experience for the majority of us regardless of country), and very little traffic because few can afford to buy and fuel a car. Minimal visual noise provided focus, and the radically different culture submerged us in non-linear thinking.
The most salient point I took away from the conference was how we, as creative solution seekers, might shift the current course of humanity. How we might design solutions broad enough for cross-cultural application and common enough to act as inspirational touchstones for anyone who wants to initiate and implement change. It was clear we were all there to learn from one another and explore how our thinking process might redefine and influence the direction of the current course. This is wayfinding on a global scale.
One of the many brightly colored buildings and typical colonial architecture.
I couldn’t attend every presentation because seeing Havana was also a priority, but I’ve included some of the highlights I came away with. The first two days of the conference covered design education. Carole Goodman, associate professor of graphic design at Queens College, City of the University of New York, discussed the importance of providing a culturally neutral curricula to allow students to explore their individual perspective of interpretation and expression. A spectrum of acceptability supports the individualism necessary to invent a personal range of motion, as well as to inspire the use of diverse solutions for personal and world issues.
Laura Chessin, whose background as a musician is integrated into her teaching (“print design should move through the frame with visual rhythm”), is in the graphic design department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Laura teaches with the Reggio Approach, in which students learn through experience rather than accumulating a storehouse of facts, a natural for minds whose job is to think expansively. This supports “pure intelligence,” or the knowing that comes of intuitive immediacy. Being able to translate intuition into conscious action is an important skill for those of us who deliver creatively accessible solutions to staid problems.
Other topics included applying anthropological methodology to our perception of other cultures, sustainability as a collaborative approach to design, developing an international cross-cultural design educational model, and interdisciplinary relationships between anthropology, ethnology and design. These subjects came from educators spanning Australia, Brazil, Peru, Qatar, South Africa, France, Chile, Cuba, and the US and UK. The interest from these international design educators was clear: how to use our cultural diversities as a creatively unified strength to address real world problems.
The international conference took up the next three days: designers—well known and not so—addressed their work within our profession, the world, and how the two might enact positive change. Some of those presentations included:
Paola Antonelli (US and Italy), Chief Curator for the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA, was a keynote on the first day. She looked at the humanization of information and technology through design, from the rather odd use of the essence of departed loved ones to power your laptop, to commercial posters as art in a MoMA exhibition.
Shigeo Fukuda of Japan, known for decades as a poster designer with an optical illusion twist, showed slides of the impossible realized in three dimensions. Shigeo demonstrated that just by shifting perspective, the impossible is accomplished.
Shigeo Fukuda, 1975, "Lunch with a Helmut On," 848 welded forks and spoons that cast a shadow of form, Shigeo Fukuda, 1987.
The Rwanda Healing Project, which I unfortunately missed, was a very moving presentation from everyone I spoke with about it. Alan Jacobson (US) helped develop this community-based two-year, multi-dimensional art project. It engaged survivors of the Rwanda 1994 genocide that left one million dead in one hundred days, the largest mass genocide in modern history. This was a real world example of design process being used to improve the human condition through education, healing, building leadership, and community.
Monument and bone chamber, Rugerero Genocide Memorial Park
Pablo Kunst of Argentina presented the ten principles of design, loosely based on the Ten Commandments. Most people (at least those tribes and cultures that have survived for any length of time) have recognized the necessity to restrain from our less desirable traits such as greed, wanton sexual encounters, and coveting our neighbor’s goods. Pablo delivered his presentation on solid design principles with a balanced mix of humor and passion.
Lise Vejse Klint (Denmark), is program director of INDEX: Design to Improve Life (http://www.indexaward.dk), a non-profit organization in Copenhagen that encourages awareness of the human and commercial potential in design to improve life. INDEX pursues this goal through the global network by giving the largest design purse award in the world (€100,000), presents international design exhibitions, hosts summits for world leaders on design and innovation, and publishes and distributes knowledge about Design to Improve Life. 2007 design winners included a high end, attractive electric car, a leg prosthetic for land mine blast victims at a cost anyone could afford, and a tongue sucker inspired by the 2005 London bombings in which many people died from choking on their own tongues before paramedics arrived on the scene. INDEX is creating real and useful solutions to problems by removing much of the r&d cost and time large for-profit corporations incur.
Mobility for Each One, by Sébastien Dubois, an INDEX 2007 Award Winner
Tongue Sucker, by Philip Greer, Lisa Stroux, Graeme Davies & Chris Huntley, an INDEX 2007 Award Winner
Everything I experienced here was great, and the events sponsored every night by our gracious Cuban hosts were truly terrific—from the Cultural Diversity poster exhibit
Enrique Smith, Cuba, Carlos Ramirez, Mexico, Silvio Giorgio, Ecuador
at the elegant National Museum of Fine Arts, to meeting the Cuban design students and seeing their work at the Superior de Diseño Industrial Graphic Cuba.
Design Institute Superior de Diseño Industrial Graphic Cuba, photo by Stuart Alden, Samples of student work. We also saw displays in critical thinking for design, animation shorts, and a swimsuit fashion show.
The full Congress schedule is downloadable. Most of us got out each night, too—all the better if you had someone fluent in Spanish with you (thanks to Oscar and Adán). On Saturday night in Habana Vieja there was music on nearly every block and we ate grilled lobster and shrimp outside a microbrewery, the only one I saw. They had a live band and everyone at the table bought the cd. The travel education of this conference alone was worth the price of admission—this is how we learn about designing for the world. The Icograda World Congress is held every other year and the next one will be coming to Beijing in 2009. This is a good thing because it will take us that long to digest what we just experienced.
The last night, from my eighth floor room at the classic 1930s Hotel Nacional de Cuba, I watched storm waves breaking over the Malecón–the seawall that separates the ocean and main thoroughfare in Havana. It’s from the United States, the locals said. They laughed when I pointed out that even America can’t control the weather. That afternoon I had sat on the lap of a John Lennon sculpture in the memorial park dedicated to him, and had seen images of Che on posters and in sculpted relief all over the city. The occasional horse and wagon lumbered by, more often doing mundane daily work rather than hauling tourists. Politics had not entered my mind for the most part—everyday was jammed so full of sessions and the endless steam of meeting people and having conversations about design, the processing of it all was nearly impossible. And the nights were filled with parties, exhibits, dinners and walks down winding roads lined with massive colonial architecture, much of it varying states of deterioration, with stairways leading into an unfathomable experience of life. I couldn’t even think any longer about what anything meant.
Life has changed drastically in a very short time. During the liberation of Cuba America was in her boom years, and just a few decades later we are coming to grips with rapidly narrowing options brought on by the shortsightedness of right-now gratification. We are in the center of a mass extinction that few of us register, and it was only when I returned to my homeland and was bombarded with the sticky gunk of consumerism that I realized I had glimpsed the final days of country whose virginal status of commercialism will become obsolete once the current rule is done. In a way, I’m grateful for the embargo. There is something unholy about a Starbucks in the Forbidden City, for instance, and it was quite refreshing to be without advertisements in one of the last remaining forbidden places. After all, experience is the thing—things are not the thing. All of us at the conference recognized we were experiencing something rare and fleeting. The memento we took away was the impression of a fading Cuba, coupled with the empowering possibility of what might happen if we consciously choose our next reality.
“Guilty: the government of the United States protects terrorism.”
A barrio in Havana
The starkness of the poverty there has a kind of beauty because it tastes like truth, even when it’s hard to swallow. Everywhere was the reminder of the cost a renegade country pays. The people of Cuba work hard for very little and many of them would jump at the opportunity to experience our version of freedom. People, as I have always contended, are simply people, put under the burden or elevated by whatever they happen to be born into. A few extraordinary individuals who have risen from common means—the revolutionaries—break through to invent another reality. Communism or capitalism, any ideology is weighted by the inevitable subsequent structure that quickly becomes top heavy. Flexibility is essential for a species in movement and the cage rattles just a bit when you choose to be conscious about what you think and do. To be conscious puts you on a direct path with the right now. It’s the height of a revolutionary act to make your moments conscious ones and all of us are capable of it.
“A better world is possible.”
As David Berman, an Icograda board member said while opening the sustainability sessions, commit to just a few hours every week in whatever way makes sense for you. Designers make the intuitive usable, and we can also put thought into action by remembering what we are here to do: honor the idea by practicing the intention. That is the revolution, and as always has been the case, it comes from the inside out and from people like you and me.
For further information…
Icograda, the world body for professional graphic design and visual communication
Information about this year’s World Design Congress:
AIGA, AIGA’s mission is to advance designing as a professional craft, strategic tool and vital cultural force.
Sustainability, ethics and the design process as catalyst:
Design Cares Web site
Design For the World Web site
Abstract Dynamics Web site
Action Pixel Web site
Memefest Web site
About the Author
Specializing in symbol and logo design for 25 years, Maggie Macnab is known for her corporate identity design and graphics. She has been in business since 1981, is an instructor of logo design and symbolism as visual literacy for designers at the University of New Mexico, and is past president of the Communication Artists of New Mexico.
Maggie writes articles on critical thinking in design and her work has been published in many magazines and books. She is currently developing a visual literacy resource with a focus on the origin, development and appropriate use of symbols in visual communication (www.eyeku.com) to enhance advertising by creating more value with effective graphics.