Editor’s Note: Over the past 50 years, Diseño Shakespear has had a transformative impact on design in Argentina. Founded by Ronald Shakespear, the Buenos Aires-based consultancy has left its visual imprint on several of Argentina’s most important public facilities, including wayfinding systems for the Buenos Aires subway, hospitals, the Temaiken Zoo and sports centers. This has earned Shakespear a global reputation, recognized in design journals, exhibitions in Europe and the U.S., and induction as a Fellow in the Society of Environmental Graphic Design in 2008. Between 1985 and 1992, he served as head professor at the University of Buenos Aires Division of Architecture, Design and Urbanism, and now with his sons, Lorenzo and Juan, and daughter, Barbara, serve clients through Diseño Shakespear. Here, Shakespear acts as our “foreign correspondent,” talking about the state of design in Argentina.
What makes the history of Argentina’s design industry unique and challenging?
The history of graphic design in Argentina cannot be understood without taking into account the context, the country’s history and, more recently, its social and economic policies. Argentina is a sovereign and federal state, fully cosmopolitan, and based on two founding ethnic groups — Spain and Italy- as well as minor migration movements from countries such as Poland, Germany, Peru, England, Paraguay, Bolivia, Wales, etc. A series of de facto rulers, economic breakdowns, historically rampant inflation, have made working in Argentina difficult for everyone and particularly difficult for designers, whose work depends mostly on factors associated with a nation’s prosperity and stability.
Rampant inflation is putting it mildly. Until 1990, Argentina’s inflation rate reached breathtaking proportions, culminating in 1989 when inflation hit almost 5,000%.
Yes, my close friend Jorge Frascara [Icograda’s Past President] says that when one refers to Argentina as a difficult environment, it is necessary to provide some illustrations for foreigners. For instance, in 1976, inflation was 500% per year, oscillating between 19% and 38% per month. Printers’ estimates were only good for 48 hours. Estimating the cost of jobs for clients required impossible strategic skills, political and economical knowledge, and a huge nose to assess the future. Getting paid was just as difficult.
How did that affect your design studio?
Our projects — the way they are, the way they could have been- are a reflection of those circumstances. Those circumstances have encouraged us to work harder in Argentina and led us to extend our work to other countries, particularly within the region, where business and professional procedures are very similar to those prevailing in my country, and so is the relationship with clients.
It is impressive that your consultancy survived and thrived in that environment over the past 50 years.
Shakespear Design has been constantly transforming and evolving. When I started working in the late 1950s, design was not part of Latin America’s collective memory. Some pioneering work was being done in Argentina, thanks to the efforts and talent of a number of designers and a few specialized publications, but it took many years for design to be acknowledged in our society and become part of the university curriculum. Our formation as a classic graphic design studio shaped the origin of the profession in this country and rendered the word “design” a meaningful word in a place where it had no clear meaning and inspired generations that now speak for themselves. By the standards of the day, when I initiated my studio, there was little or no information about graphic design as a professional practice. Argentina, as always, kept its eyes on Europe more than anywhere else, and I was no exception to this. Meeting Alan Fletcher, a relationship that flourished with the pass of time, in the times of Fletcher Forbes Gill, as well as seeing the work of Jock Kinneir, the German masters (Aicher, Muller Brockmann, Hoffmann et. al.), Milton Glaser, and a few more, shaped and consolidated my vision but, above all, confirmed my intuition.
Does Argentina have a graphic tone of voice?
We used to say that Argentine design provides solutions for Argentina’s problems. I’m not sure that our “tone of voice” is original. Globalization is everywhere now. If design is not good at helping people live better, then it’s no good at all.
You have been active in international design organizations, particularly Icograda and SEGD. Has this helped build your global reputation?
Icograda has placed us on the map. SEGD is my second home. They both introduced our work around the world. Being natives of the far South, it has always been difficult for us to gain recognition and these two institutions have been very kind to us doing so.
How does the client fit into your overall approach to design?
Our professional value as designers is not only about good ideas and mastery of form, but also about understanding complexities. In cases like wayfinding systems, of our many daily obsessions — vandalism, erosion, perception distances, placement, type, color or technology, to mention only a few, our relationship with the client has always remained our main concern. Building up a reasonable relationship with a client and the people involved is also an act of design, a part of the project that surely defines its future. Some clients ask me for a boat, when actually what they need is to cross a river. I cannot think of design without my client. Defining an audience involves deciphering their codes.
Is there a lesson that you tell your students?
There is one story I like. In the year 53 B.C., Marco Casio invaded Parthia with a 40,000-man army, and the goal of expanding the Roman Empire. It was a disaster. This was mainly due to the design of the Parthian bow, a weapon made with a laminated spring, with a range and power that made the Roman legions defenseless. Twenty thousand Romans died, 10,000 were taken prisoner. The Parthians did not prevail because they had a better general, they prevailed because they had a better designer.