Lorena Howard-Sheridan – Diseño Gráfico
Lorena Howard-Sheridan is a Mexican-American designer and educator based in Austin, Texas. She majored in Graphic Design in the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and later went on to acquire a degree in Visual Communication from the Basel School of Design. Lorena is the one of the Principals at Salted Caramel Books, a small publishing house specializing in books for Spanish speaking kids that live in English speaking countries. She is an Adjunct Professor at Centro, a school of design in Mexico City, and a faculty member of the Masters in Graphic Design Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has been recognized by Quorum (Mexico), BoNE (Best of New England), and Independent Publisher Awards. She has lectured internationally on the subject of Vernacular Mexican lettering and recently published a beautiful book on the subject titled Sideways Glances.
GDW: How do you think your upbringing, cultural heritage, and education have impacted your work? You studied design both at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland? How were these experiences different? Did anything stand out in terms of the educational program?
LH-S: Education at my University in Mexico City was effective, for I was able to enter the working field and eventually make a living. College instilled a sense of professional autonomy in me. Unfortunately, the program was weak in terms of instructing the craft of graphic design. We sure had a lot of studio classes, but not enough training in how to do the actual work. I couldn’t tell if my projects were working or not until they were finished (and/or graded)… isn’t that crazy? It’s a common dilemma for our type of profession: we live in a world that rewards assertiveness, so it is easy to oversee that in design you need to be able to work by trial and error and to not know what you are going to make before you make it.
Yet around the 5th semester into my major, I had one single studio class with a Basel School of Design ex-student, and it changed the game for me. It seemed a strange class in comparison to the rest: the projects were simple but ended up looking very professional; things would happen on the paper that I hadn’t thought about before: we were finding ideas, as opposed to having them previously! We worked with simple sketching techniques (photocopies or by hand, no expensive silkscreen or type transfer sheets), until both the concept and the composition were ready. The studio happened through a self-guided process, leaving the guessing part out. We even got to have a say in our grade.
Ten years went by from the time I took that unique course to the day when I finally left for Switzerland, in search for more of that pragmatic education. It was an excellent choice for me. Keep in mind that Basel is a medieval city in central Europe, where this kind of program can’t help but to borrow wisdom from the medieval practice of apprenticeship: the knowledgeable master teaches the trade to the younger, whom will subsequently pass the torch to the coming generations. The Swiss were already frantic with visual research for interactive technologies, so there was a nice combination between tradition and curiosity for the new.
Lots of people talk about their grad school years as a rough time, but for me it was wonderful. I spent three years dedicated exclusively to my work and my friends, and in exchange for nothing: there were no grades, no homework or deadlines until the last year. I learned to look at work as a pleasure; I got trained in that intangible body-mind bond that you can only acquire through the practice. And most importantly, I learned how to postpone the requisite of assertiveness that the professional field values so dearly, and trust in the process.
At the school there were people from many countries and all continents. Most of us were lonely foreigners and our command of German was rather primitive, so we grew very close and would have endless conversations about our cultural backgrounds. We were teaching each other what our—culturally induced—blind spots were. It was then that, by comparison, I could finally see my nationality and others expressed onto graphic work without the interference of stereotypes. Our real differences are way more subtle and intriguing than regional costumes give away; they manifest through abstract properties of the work or in the synthesis of concepts; a simple choice of words for talking about a graphic piece can be revealing. By the way, the US has also had a significant impact in my trajectory. I have had to adjust and adapt to atmospheres permeated by diverse discourses, and trying to figure each one out has been another well of education.
GDW: You recently published your book “Sideways Glances: Vernacular Mexican Lettering,” what were some of the things that drew you to formalize your research? Can you tell us about your process creating the wonderful collages included in the book?
LH-S: Mexican street lettering became my scholarship subject as I started teaching typography in the US. In all honesty, I picked the subject because I thought American students would enjoy looking at the funky images, but had no idea that I would learn so much from connecting the traditional type assignments to my hometown ice-cream flavor list. Designing the book pushed me to test my own observations, like a spoonful of my own medicine. It was a very introspective process, and helped me reconcile with a part of my “visual upbringing” that I had not been quite able to—consciously, intentionally—connect to as a graphic designer.
GDW: Have you ever considered designing type inspired by Mexican lettering? Do you think that systematizing such a free, organic form of writing would diminish its value?
LH-S: All the time! (Although I am more inclined to lettering than typeface design). Writing systems are like species: they evolve and adapt to languages, technologies and individual interventions, while—even if imperceptibly—affecting them all. Street lettering is a very public animal, like a letter-form potluck: typographers, calligraphers and letterers alike draw inspiration from one-another; together we learn and teach each other how to read and write.
But you make a good observation: will the attention that vernacular lettering is getting affect the practice—and how? Will it turn into a self-conscious trade, ruining its spontaneity perhaps? That History is in motion already. We’ll need to wait and see.GDW: What can you say about the current state of design (graphic design, more specifically) in Latin America? Who is doing really exciting, interesting work right now? What should we be paying attention to?
LH-S: I have mixed feelings. Graphic Design was virtually imported as a “first world” profession into Mexico, and—I reckon—into other Latin-American countries as well. And while we have everything we could want for a great design practice (architecture, music, folklore, traditions, an expressive visual culture, etc.), we seem to still be doing a lot of catching-up. Many design programs are mislead by the illusion that graphic design is learned through software courses. In the professional field, the designers’ potential goes to waste while someone of higher rank with no design training (who “knows better”) takes relevant graphic and communication decisions. Of course, this unfortunate practice can happen anywhere, the question is: how much is too much for the general integrity of the profession? As a result, there is a proliferation of dull imitations of—bastardized—international style, overshadowing the cultural effect of better, more genuine approaches.
I believe we owe this situation to a reduced conscience of the purpose and potential of our practice: the expectation is for design to mimic the standards of big international markets, instead of emerging organically from every day life and thorough research. There is little awareness that visual communication is a mirror of society, and as a consequence graphic design becomes cosmetic, sometimes elitist, and sadly misses the chance of being a tool for the well being of all members of a community.
But I am optimistic, because I believe that this situation is gradually and inevitably shifting. The Web and the Internet have brought about some substantial change already, increasing the ranks of the middle class—if not financially, at least intellectually, which is not a small thing. There is access to a lot of information and much of it is retrieved through quality design and communication experiences. The audience is raising the bar as they respond more effectively to better kind of work, and good designers (and their advocates) are listening. It’s everyday more common to learn about design initiatives directed to lower-income communities, and about research based on specific idiosyncrasies. I am putting my money on young people.
Personally, I enjoy and admire the work of Germán Montalvo and Alejandro Magallanes. My opinion is that, each in their own way, accomplishes the task of portraying what I wouldn’t hesitate to call a true Mexican style.
GDW: Do you think Latin American design is well represented in the design world?
LH-S: We must keep in mind the delicate situation that, if we are expecting—or are expected—to constantly deliver design that looks folkloric, popular, tropical or else in accordance to touristic standards, we will be forever locked outside of a true global community of design. Yet, when a Latin-American designer works successfully for a project and his or her nationality is irrelevant, I find that to be excellent representation of Latin-American design. So my answer is yes.
GDW: As this interview will also be published in a blog for women in Graphic Design, as a teacher, do you feel that women are equally represented in Graphic Design education? What changes do you see or hope to see in the future for professional women in Graphic Design curriculum or in terms of professional practice?
LH-S: When I started college, women were an overwhelming majority among the students of graphic design, while design-related business were mostly owned and/or ran by men. These numbers have been steadily balancing out.
Design has no gender. Yet for all the gender-equality that has not yet been achieved in the professional field, I find that in graphic design something curious tends to happen: women have the slight cultural advantage of not being under too much pressure to make a linear career, so—as long as it is financially feasible—, many set to explore alternative paths to fulfill their vocations. They combine design and art, activism, mind and body health, research, you name it: design can be of service to all fields of life. Especially interesting—from my point of view—is the field of design education, which has proved to be an excellent platform of influence for designer women. There is also a considerable number of marriages between designers, in which one partner takes a heavier load of the business side and the other ventures deeper into education; think for example of Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, or Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell: the community of design benefits so much from all aspects of their yin-yang-sort-of arrangements.
There are many ways of having a rewarding professional life with or without having an ostensibly successful career. That is the kind of awareness that I would like to see reflected in graphic design curricula: the micro-stories of people that had taken the opportunity to invent their personal version of a professional life. That goes for women and men alike. A way to make Monday a day to look forward.
GDW: You are one of the principals at Salted Caramel Books, a bilingual publishing house – what do you love most about your work there?
LH-S: It is a small company—and new—which gives us room to experiment, stretch the meaning of the word “publishing” and find excuses to dig into our guilty pleasures. Most people don’t realize the insane amount of work and effort that goes into a publication. But there is a stage in every project, when it begins to take a clear shape and become its own entity, revealing an outcome that couldn’t be anticipated; that moment is pure bliss.
GDW: Are you currently working on any new projects? Or what has been your favorite project through out your career?
LH-S: Permanently. The system that works for me is to have a few ideas floating around, and work on each intuitively: get hooked or take a break, mix and match. The quality of the work will be better if there is freedom to explore without rigid expectations; by wandering a bit and sketching a lot. When a new project with a timeframe comes along, that pool of work often serves as a springboard.
My favorite projects all have one thing in common: they happen in collaboration with other people. I feel profoundly seduced by the complicity of wishing to produce splendid work. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that I am attracted to teaching, too.