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Our Typography Ambassador in Havana

With President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in March, Americans have been seeing and hearing more about Cuba lately. The TDC’s own Diego Vainesman — former TDC president and now special liaison to South America — recently broke ground in Cuba by becoming the first American to teach at Cuba’s design university, ISDI (Instituto Superior de Diseño). He also gave a talk about the TDC while he was in Havana.

Diego Vainesman in Havana

Diego Vainesman in Havana

Diego answered some questions from Doug Clouse about his trip:

DC: What was the general feeling in Cuba? Are people excited about the changing relationship with the US?
DV: Responses were mixed: some people felt that the recent presidential visit was a good photo opportunity for Obama, others felt that it should have happened earlier, while others welcomed the changes that might come about.

Diego's visit coincided with the Labor Day parade in Havana.

Diego’s visit coincided with the Labor Day parade in Havana.

DC: Is there a history of type design in Cuba?
DV: Cuba hasn’t caught up with the rest of Latin America yet. However, a comprehensive typography program is about to be established at ISDI. Also, many talented Cuban typographers/designers/illustrators are working outside of Cuba.

DC: Did Cubans know about the TDC?
DV: Some professionals knew about the TDC. They were thrilled when I spoke about Herb Lubalin, Erik Spiekermann and some other TDC medalists.

DC: What is the design scene like? Are there many people interested in type?
DV: My trip coincided with a poster biennial and after my workshop I would go to galleries and museums to look at the amazing posters created by Cuban artists and designers. You have to understand that ISDI is the only design university in La Habana. Most, if not all, of the professionals in the country graduate from this school. After graduation, they have to do social service, which is a way to pay for their education. Male graduates work for two years and do one year of military service, while women work for three years. It seems that it is going to take a while until typography becomes more relevant. Nonetheless, many people are interested in type. While most of the typographic workshops and classes come from South America and Europe, there are great typography teachers at ISDI, which has a very impressive program.

Cuban posters

Cuban posters

DC: I wonder if there is a lot of type and lettering in the environment. Is there much media and advertising? How were the internet connections?
DV: There is not much media or advertising at all. In order to get on the internet you need to go to some hotel lobbies, or parks that are close to important buildings. Most of the time it worked out, but a couple of times I couldn’t get any connection. There is a large amount of vernacular typography — left over signage from the beginning of the twentieth century — that is still untouched. Some new businesses paint the façades of the buildings but leave the old type!

Special thanks to professor Germán Luft and his graphic design students from the Centro Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Havana, for providing photos of Cuban signage."

Special thanks to professor Germán Luft and his graphic design students from the Centro Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Havana, for providing photos of Cuban signage.”

DC: Did you create the workshop topic or did your hosts request a specific class?
DV: I have been teaching this workshop in different countries for the past three years. The workshop is basically a “Logo to Go” situation. I used to teach a design class at Parsons School of Design in New York. During that class we would spend six weeks developing a logo and its applications. I realized that when students would face their first real work situations and were asked to design a logo within three days, they would freeze. Therefore, I came up with this workshop: during the first day students draw comps by hand, on the second day they make digital black and white designs that include typography, and on the last day they produce full-color finals. Some of the students in Cuba came up with fantastic typographic solutions.

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Logos by workshop students Mariela Marin Mazola (St. Petersburg) and Biadice Quiñones Davidson (Cuzco); first sketches on left, finished logos on right.

Logos by workshop students Mariela Marin Mazola (St. Petersburg) and Biadice Quiñones Davidson (Cuzco); first sketches on left, finished logos on right.

DC: Who were your students?
DV: The university is divided between industrial design and visual communication. It is a five-year program and my students were from the fourth year. My workshop is for 25 students but in Cuba I had to deal with 50 students plus ten teachers, so I had to divide the workshop into two large groups.

One of the workshop groups

One of the workshop groups


A student in the workshop

A student in the workshop

DC: Tell me about the talk that you gave.
DV: I spoke about the Type Directors Club at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an old factory that became a cultural center. Both professionals and students were in the audience. I covered the TDC’s history and showed the winners of the 62nd TDC design and type competitions. People were mesmerized by the work! I always take this talk to the countries I visit, to promote the typographic excellence that the TDC is all about. Many people become very nostalgic and ask questions about the design “legends”.

Talking about the TDC

Talking about the TDC

DC: Do you have any more plans for working in Cuba?
DV: Absolutely. I had a great experience and the school wants me to go back. Regardless of agreeing or disagreeing with the political situation, I feel that as designers we have a moral duty to exchange our experience/knowledge with others. Pick a country that you think you could help the students and… just go there. Doctors Without Borders does it, why not designers?

Thank you Diego!

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