Design without limits

—Juan Carlos Fernández

Here, now, we are celebrating half a century of this university’s graphic design degree and it feels strange: we don’t know if we should be celebrating a young child or an adult. The number of years makes us appreciate its maturity and strength but we know too that it is a profession that is still in a state of infancy. Added to the confusion is the feeling that despite its young age our profession has certain vices already, something we need to address. We know it from our industry’s constant clamour to recognize our importance.

So, to refer to graphic design as a “new” profession is like taking hold of a double edged cutter. On the bright side, it offers us the advantages of a recently born new discipline, which gives us tools, security and optics that no other job has offered from its origins. On the dull side, it cheats us and allows us the false right to exercise a profession that monopolizes techniques and ideas that have existed since the dawn of humanity. It is due to this last deception that we feel frustrated, when even printers are able to design or clients begin to create their own materials without consulting us. 

I venture to say that graphic design was man’s first profession, not - as so often is claimed – prostitution. We learnt from an early age how to open our minds and trace magical hunting scenes on cave walls, or cut notches in clay tablets, first as a way of counting and then to tell stories. The design inherent in ceramics, architecture and textiles is universal. Every culture has portrayed its history using beautiful and specific graphic elements, which now form the basis of their cultural heritage visible today. In the same way, design has always been an important element of shields, flags and armies, and over time has become more commercial in style, making the jump from the painting to the poster and from personal exchange to a supermarket shelf. 

Once a trade, now a profession with a modus vivendi, graphic design has moved on rather more abruptly than the “continuum” of expressions since its origins up until today. It’s here that design and prostitution begin to come together again, especially now when our search for respect is competing with a sense of erosion of our potential. Clients want us to work for nothing or through competitions… there is no respect, there is no allegiance. 

The fact that this degree course is only 50 years old leaves us with no doubt that in the time up to 1968 civilization could easily exist without us, or at least we who have graphic design degrees. Half a century is a very short time to expect everyone to stop improvising every time they need to “design” something or “create” a PowerPoint presentation.  

The generation I belong to started at the Ibero in the same year the first Mac was produced, in 1984. I finished my career when Adobe Illustrator came out, in 1988. We witnessed, therefore, the precise shift between being the few who know, to being surrounded by many who think they know. With so many designers and digital platforms our specialization is becoming practically obsolete. In our day, we learnt the secret formulas for setting type, for signing off on a colour proof or for checking a bleed. Today, anyone can create beautiful things in just a few minutes while we spent hours without sleeping working to create the best we could, going backwards and forwards between suppliers. To make the shift from our first tiny office in the attic to a more formal set up meant eliminating all those concerns like how to pay for drawing boards, or hiring people who could draw or a messenger who could deliver the art boards. Now we just send everything at the click of a button on our telephone while we enjoy a coffee, somewhere, anywhere, at any time. 

Yes, we lost out to the advantage of learning merely to hit a button with a flick of a finger. Our generation was the last where just to smell ink stimulated our sense of appreciation; where the smallest error meant that it would be necessary to repeat the work entailing hours of our time deep into the night. The Control Z button didn’t exist then; we had to start all over again. That certainly taught us to think better before tracing or drawing, to look after our paintbrushes and to know that it’s not possible to achieve something without a lot of effort and time. Beneficial things we learnt whose worth we recognize every day. 

Many professions have blurred boundaries and we designers have chosen one where the benefits are not so clear, unlike doctors who operate, lawyers who litigate or architects who build. Our work kills, imprisons and destroys in a subtle, almost perverse but also harmless way, that hardly makes our work indispensable from one night in 1968 to a morning in 2018. It’s our responsibility to show the benefits. 

We shouldn’t see the world with the superficiality of ink on paper; we have to delve deeper and discover what the designers of past ages have bequeathed us. We must trace the animals of rock paintings to understand the hunting spirit; we need to clothe ourselves in textures and colours to feel the magical and the important; we have to hoist a flag to see it come to life. Additionally, we have to go beyond the confines of the work environment to be able to contribute even more. If we were to remove the accent off the “ñ” of the word “diseño” for a moment we would end up with the same letters in Spanish as “siendo” which in English means “being”. This is a gerund that invites us to “be” designers and live every 24 hours as a designer. We must apply our knowledge of symmetry to find the right balance, and our sense of colour to find harmony. We have to make an effort, be constant and, above all, ethical. 

The good thing is the pride we feel when we think nostalgically about the lessons learned; the bad thing is that we feel that those lessons are not appreciated nowadays and it’s necessary to play the game as it’s played today. The prostitution of our career is evident when we aim to offer our clients a fleeting relationship through which to solve their immediate design needs, rather than trying to establish a deep long lasting relationship which would exploit everything that design has to offer – everything that we learnt during our course here at the Ibero. If we can persuade our client not to see a logo as just an element of identification, rather as an exercise of discovery and visualization, then we would feel vindicated. If we can demonstrate that the selection of a typeface is the same as choosing a voice, if we can convince him that the choice of colour is closely linked to symbolism, if we can show how the printing of a business card is like tattooing a face, if we can tell him how a new name is linked to his destiny… we will have managed to impact his vision positively, that same vision he uses to assess a Pantone colour or to define the future of his company. 

Society is supersaturated with designers. Unfortunately not all of them have the ability to design with quality. But it’s preferable to have more designers than not… we only have to look around us to see how design permeates everything in our life. Let’s look for the right frequency, let’s infect each other with the need for excellent, quality design, let’s ensure we produce good design with the purpose of doing good. 

50 years are sufficient to have something to look back at but too few years to be able to correct our course. We have learnt to reconcile the best of analogue with the best of digital; and we multiply every cross-generational effort in order to create a unique blend that respectably represents our country’s geography and history. We must take advantage of the potential of the time we have on this planet in order to leave a legacy of visual testimony that can be celebrated in the foreseeable future. That’s the only way that we can ensure that design, apart from being the oldest profession, is the most worthy, attractive and beautiful profession in existence.

Juan Carlos Fernández

Founding partner and creative director

Accomplished conjuror of symbols and metaphors, tireless creator of ideas. He created Ideograma in 1999, today he is in Montreal inspiring, directing and motivating our creativity. Author of the book Crealogo (

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