Tyler School of Art
As I was getting ready to take a shower today, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed a single white chest hair. At almost twenty-five, I’m not really concerned with age, so instead, I just pondered upon the single, individual, and lonely white chest hair, alone in the midst of many other dark brown hairs, different from the rest.
As an MFA candidate at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, I have several characteristics that set me apart from my classmates. Out of seven Graphic and Interactive Design majors, I am the only male, I am the only Jew, and I am the only foreigner. In true Jewish-guilt style, I use these differences to jokingly victimize myself whenever I sense the slightest hint of pseudo-discrimination. This is all in fun and games, but the truth is that I have a cultural background which is different from that of those around me.
In 2003, two years into engineering school in my home country of Venezuela, I was given the opportunity to move to the US and pursue my dreams of becoming a graphic designer, thanks to a weird twist of fate catalyzed by political turmoil in the nation. I have always considered my Jewish identity to be primary, while my Hispanic identity has more often felt foreign. I do refer to myself as “Hispanic” in lighter conversations, but when I first moved to the US, I always checked the “Caucasian” box without hesitating. I did so because of my upbringing in a traditional Jewish family with strong roots in a close-knit Jewish community. On top of that, my grandparents were all born in Europe, so I had more Jewish and European values instilled in me than Hispanic.
However I identify myself, I can’t ignore that I spent my first nineteen years of life in Latin American. My entire professional training as a designer happened in the US, but the environment I grew up in provided a host of cultural tidbits that shaped me and shaped my aesthetic.
My life here has provided experiences that show how much my native culture was instilled in me, with the most obvious differences between it and US culture including language, popular culture, and human interaction. In developing text for my work, it is not unusual for me to get frustrated when the witty copy isn’t understood, only to realize it’s only funny when back-translated. No matter how many times my classmates mentioned Monty Python as a source of inspiration, I could never recall it because I never saw it. And once, while talking to a friend, she suddenly pushed me away, yelling, “Whoa!” because I was too close to her. When I later learned about the differences between cultures concerning talking distances and personal space, it clicked.
The differences I experience in my work are common among other Hispanic designers. Typography is something we often have to deal with, as each culture has its own preferences. Some like sans-serifs over serifs (those little sticks on the ends of letters). But accent marks are probably the biggest deal-breaker. Recently, while commenting about a logo design, a well-known Mexican-born graphic designer read parts of decoration as if they were accent marks over the words. More than once I have gone through that too.
Although I subscribe to the ideals of graphic design as visual communication in the most objective manner as possible, it is impossible to detach myself 100%. For example, my use of bright colors is not the typical American or European palette. One of my teachers once said that design isn’t about having a style, but about having a voice. While I adapt to each project individually, my voice definitely has bold Hispanic tones.
In a profession dominated by white men, being a minority isn’t always the easiest. I personally have never experienced any issues, as my European ethnicity and my almost-absent accent allow me to blend in well. But it is a fact that non-white designers are heavily underrepresented in the design industry. This can be troubling when we consider that the Spanish-speaking population in the US is growing at great speeds. At my old job, we received translated text from clients that didn’t make sense when compared to the intended message. Can designers effectively design for a population whose language they don’t understand?
Fortunately there are great initiatives that promote diversity within the design community, such as AIGA’s Diversity Task Force. Meanwhile, minority designers can bask in their uniqueness and use their super powers to make the world look more interesting.
Going back to my single, unique white chest hair, today I saw something I had never seen before. Upon further inspection I realized there was something different. Just mere fractions of a millimeter away from my lonely hair I noticed a second white hair. I guess none of us are is as unique as we think we are.