Interview with legendary graphic designer about his work in Mexico City.
I lived with my Grandparents during WWII and I remember the big red flying horse on the truck that brought the winter oil. I also remember the many military pins and arm patches my Dad brought back from Europe. These early experiences were probably my first graphic influences. After the war I remember going to Yankee baseball games with my Grandfather. As I got older I enjoyed making model trains, planes, and playing sports. Making models was a forerunner to studying industrial design. I wasn’t great at sports but the Yankees got me interested and playing gave me first hand experience that helped in my Olympic work.
Tell us about how Paul Rand got you inspired to become a graphic designer.
I met a student who was studying graphic design at YALE where Rand taught. It was the first time I became aware of graphic design and I wanted to do it.
What were some of your favorite logo designs in the beginning of your career?
The logo I designed in 1961 for Challenger Sales, the vinyl fabrics distributer for Ford is one of my early favorites. In that same year I designed an hourglass logo for the American pavilion at a Zagreb trade fair. It was my first experience putting a logo into 3D.
Was being appointed the winner of the graphics for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico your biggest achievement up to that point?
I have to say yes to that. It was a magical experience but maybe getting accepted as a student was just as big. My grades in High School weren’t good and I had to go to a Junior College and maintain a B+ average. I did that and finally got into Pratt – if I didn’t get in I might not have become a designer.
What was your impression like of Mexico when you first arrived? Did you find the environment to be stimulating and ripe for creativity?
My first impression was that New York was a baby, a young city. I fell in love with the richness of Mexico City, the history, the colors, the people.
What was behind the motivation of the offsetting of the lines in the “Mexico68” logo?
Constructing the number 68 around the geometry of the 5 ring Olympic Symbol started the whole process. After spending a lot of time at the Museum of Anthropology I realized the geometry of the rings and the 68 suggested many of the pre-Hispanic images I became familiar with. I then developed the Mexico68 logotype, based on the numbers 6 and 8, and ultimately the complete Olympic68 typeface.
What role did the Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez play in the process of making the graphics for the Olympics?
Looking back I think he was the perfect Director for the project. Prior to the Olympics whenever he designed a Mexican Pavilion at international fairs the result was a contemporary structure but you knew it was Mexican.
He was an Architect who understood design so when I went to him with an idea for the graphics his approval or disapproval was quick and well informed. We accomplished a very effective overall graphics system in a relative short period of time.
We developed a contemporary Olympics that created a sense of place - Mexico.
After completing the work for the Olympics you stayed in Mexico for a period of several years. What was this experience like?
I had a chance to apply what I learned designing the Olympic graphics to other projects. The best example is the Mexico City Metro. I designed the logo and basic station icon and sign system 47 years ago. Today there are 12 lines and the original system has been carried on by Mexican designers and is still functioning well.
After the Metro I designed posters, stamps and a mascot for the 1970 World Cup held in Mexico. The whole experience, the Olympics, the Metro and the World Cup was not only a terrific experience; its lessons enabled me to have a long and successful career as a graphic designer.
How did you happen to start working on the new identity graphics for the Metro in Mexico City?
It started with having an idea for the Metro logo and finding a way to show it to someone at the Metro. At that time I was also working on the Camino Real hotel graphics for Arq. Ricardo Legorreta. Ricardo introduced me to Eng. Bernardo Quintana and Arq. Angel Borja at the Metro. They liked the logo and as soon as my work was complete with the Olympics I started working at the Metro.
Mayan and Aztec cultures relied heavily on pictograms to tell their stories. Was this an inspiration for the icons for the metro stations?
Generally speaking I find that Mexico is a very visual culture. Early pictographic systems were inspirational as well as the wonderful and clever examples of painted street signs, and of course the traditional forms and colors found in Mexican folk art.
During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City there was a lot of public dissent and violence occurring in the streets. Were you ever a witness to such events during your time there?
The Olympic design office was in Pedregal so I was a bit isolated from much of the early public dissent. I first became aware of it when my wife told me she was seeing troops and tanks in the street.
When it comes to government sponsored projects do you have much freedom in the creativity of the work, or are there many opinions and ideas that one must take into account?
Every project is different and has it’s own virtues and problems. Personally I have been fortunate, I’ve had the experience of working on well-conceived projects with intelligent people. I hope it continues that way.
What were some of the things that you learned in Mexico that you took with you when you returned to the States and created your office in New York?
I was convinced that icons, icon systems, and strategies were important and underdeveloped. For a long time icons were thought to be for illiterate people, now, across the globe, we all use them to navigate our computers and iPhones.
I still love designing icons and finding new ways to put them to work.
Do you ever go back to Mexico and see how your work is holding up in the streets?
Every chance I get I go!
I recently rode line 3 of the Metro from one end to the other. It was encouraging to see how effective the line maps over the car doors made it so easy to coordinate with the icons on the station wall and tell which stop I was at and what was coming next. It’s a strategy we developed almost 50 years ago and it is still effectively working today.
What advice would you give to young designers who are looking to improve the quality of life in their community through graphic design projects?
I know a lot can be accomplished through graphic design and couple of things come to mind from my own experience.
First of all, I try to show up and not have an attitude. I usually get off to a better start on a project when I make an effort to see what and who I am dealing with. I try to leave any pre-determined attitudes at home so I get a more realistic sense of what is involved.I am often talking to people who are not designers so I try to talk about the specific things that can be accomplished through design in terms that can be understood by people who are not designers.