Sign up for the newsletter to get the best stories each week PLUS early access to issue #01 of the new Eye on Design magazine.

5 Novel, Subversive + Unforgettable Works by Latinx Graphic Designers

From book covers to album art; Rodrigo Corral to Rebeca Méndez.

When should you call a piece of graphic design “boundary breaking”? The term gets thrown around a lot these days, but what makes a piece of design actually deserving of the label? There is boundary breaking in the literal sense, as in moving across bordered terrain. And then there is design that spectacularly shifts norms, creating a new aesthetic geography and language.

Graphic design today, perhaps, is especially boundary breaking when it does both: when it moves between cultures, can speak across terrains—and when it shatters and subverts the status quo of visual communication.

Across Borders: A Look at the Work of Latinx Designers, a digital exhibition organized by designers Jessica Arana and Julio Martínez in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture and AIGA, showcases an array of such boundary breaking works. Pulled from the AIGA design archives, the pieces in the show celebrate the contributions of Latinx designers to the field of communication design over the last 50 years. Designs by the likes of Rodrigo Corral, Pablo Medina, Claudia de Almeida, and Rebeca Méndez are made accessible on the site, presented in a harmony of slides and informative pull-quotes.

As the show’s introduction text states: “Whether it’s designing highly influential book covers, developing title sequences for legendary films, or creating bold illustrations that elicit political discourse, designers with Latin American roots have made indelible contributions to the field of communication design.”

Today, we’ve curated our own Eye on Design mini-selection of the work presented in Across Borders: a series of five memorable pieces of graphic design history produced by designers whose contributions have shaped the contemporary visual landscape, in the USA and beyond.

1
Björk “Cocoon” CD (2002) by Rafael Esquer

I was 10 years old when Björk’s “Cocoon” was released, and I vividly remember the single’s cover sitting on my parents’ CD player, oozing red and white like an alien’s skull—soon to be the source of countless nightmares. As I grew older the robotic yet strangely organic web of a typeface drew me back to the CD to discover more: who was this gorgeous androgynous creature on the cover, what were the words surrounding its silky face, and how on earth would the mysterious song sound when I put it in the player?

This was my introduction to Björk, who would soon become a close ally. For others, this was an introduction to the artwork of Rafael Esquer, a graphic designer ally to many. “It amazes me, everywhere I go—whether to give a lecture or judge, in any city in the country—young Latin designers come to thank me. There is a lack of role models for minority designers,” Esquer has said.

Now the founder of Alfalfa Studio in the heart of New York’s Soho district, Esquer grew up in various towns and villages across rural Mexico, where his father worked as a school teacher. After moving to Mexico City to study graphic design, he won a prize that brought him to the U.S. He’s since created racing suits and uniforms for the 2002 Winter Olympics in collaboration with costume designer Eiko Ishioka (which almost look like Björkian creations in themselves). New Yorkers who’ve dialed the municipal information hotline will recognize his logo for 311. Esquier excels in the fantastical, as well as the vigorously practical.

2
ArtCenter College of Design Catalogue (1995–96) by Rebeca Méndez

Graphic designer, artist, UCLA professor, and dedicated activist Rebeca Méndez is widely recognized for challenging the status quo of design and design education. It’s been said that she considers boundaries to be open-armed invitations: she subverts the norms of corporate client work, and travels across continents in dogged pursuit of research initiatives. This year, Méndez became the first Latina to receive an AIGA Medal, and she currently works between Los Angeles and her hometown, Mexico City.

After graduating from ArtCenter College in 1984, Méndez went on to serve as design director for the school, where she helped produce more than 300 projects each year, from annual catalogues to the institute’s first website. This is her 1996 catalogue: a vibrant, choppy spectacle of webbed typography, gorgeously layered collages, exciting computer-generated images, and complicated paper cuts. Charged with creating a contemporary design studio for ArtCenter—which was still using outdated technology, while forward-thinking Méndez had already embraced Macintosh systems 10 years prior—Méndez designed the catalogue to vibrantly attest to the newly modernized department, and its revamped, postmodern undergrad program.

The catalogue is famously chopped in two halves in various places, so that the top half of pages can mix-and-match with the bottom half of the book. Typefaces bleed and warp into other typefaces, making it appear as though the letters are lifting straight off the page. Nothing in the book is still or solid—representing, perhaps, the slippery re-networking of perception and new design opportunities made possible by modern technology.

 

3
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007), designed by Rodrigo Corral

Rodrigo Corral’s book covers cut to the bone. They strike like lightening with their crisp simplicity and exacting elegance—as does this particular cover for Dominican-American author and Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz. As well as heading his own studio, Corral is the artist behind stacks of covers by the likes of Sartre, Borges, and Bolaño. He’s both celebrated by the design community and beloved by the publishing houses and authors for whom he creates.

Díaz’s novel tells the story of an overweight Dominican boy growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, who is obsessed with the fantasy of falling love. A curse has plagued Oscar Wao’s family for generations, and Díaz uses this metaphor to meditate on storytelling, diaspora, and the effects of experiencing life under the rule of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo.

A splatter of graffiti paint becomes an unsettling silhouette on Corral’s cover design, transforming and rearranging itself like sullen shapes in a cloud. It captures the tone of magic realism at the fringe of Díaz’s text, as well as the transformative nature of Oscar’s fantasies.

4
O Livro Amarelo do Terminal by Vanessa Barbara (2008), designed by Elaine Ramos

Elaine Ramos’ design for the book O Livro Amarelo do Terminal captures the energy and atmosphere of the biggest bus station in the world, Sao Paulo’s Terminal Tietê—which is where this story by Brazilian journalist Vanessa Barbara is set.

Loudspeakers, songs, newspaper headlines, magazine covers, warning signs, and dense crowds fill the narrative’s scenes. As such, Ramos created a chaotic design counterpart: lines on the front and back cover hurry across the page with movement, while yellow paper references dirtied train tickets and cheap information leaflets. The cover’s collage of tickets, newspaper cut-outs, and other striking graphic elements create a vibrant, kinetic composition.

Ramos herself was the design director at the publishing company that released O Livro Amarelo do Terminal, called Cosac Naify—an important publisher in Brazil dedicated to visual arts that has recently shuttered. Ramos has also curated exhibitions on design, published a history of Brazilian graphic design, and runs her own studio. In 2016, she co-founded Ubu, a new experimental art, design, and literature publishing house, along with three close friends.

O Livro Amarelo do Terminal by Vanessa Barbara, design by Elaine Ramos (2008)

5
Dr. Strangelove opening credits (1964) by Pablo Ferro

As music swells and purposeful aircrafts float in the sky at the start of Stanley Kubrick’s beloved 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, the first visual indication that we’re in for a loopy, satirical romp is actually the playful title sequence. A mix of squat, long, and lean letterforms allow the footage behind the names and words to peek through. This artful sequencing was created by hand, with grease pencil on glass, by Cuban-born, Los Angeles-based designer Pablo Ferro.

Dr. Strangelove opening credits (1964) by Pablo Ferro

 

Ferro’s loose, airy letterforms and slack compositions, superimposed delicately over the stock aircraft footage, appear as if they are the thin lines of a jet trail. They represented a distinct departure from Hollywood title design of the time, when geometric and clean designs by the likes of Maurice Binder and Robert Brownjohn was the leading aesthetic.

His opener designs for Kubrick—as well as Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) and Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995)—became classics of the genre: dynamic and urgent, introducing a film, setting the stage, and vibrantly bringing to life the motion inherent to motion pictures. 

 

Share: Twitter Facebook Pinterest Email

From the Archives