BETWEEN FRIVOLITY AND SENSIBILITY, THE STATE OF DESIGN IN SPAIN

08 November 2006
Theresa Van Ert
Theresa Van Ert

What we know design is, can be controversial to what the Spanish people might think design is. How designers are perceived from the view of the Spanish public is the conclusive outcome to all three of my interviews.

"A man goes to the barber on a cold winters day. As he turns to hang up his coat on the nearest coat hanger, the barber says to him, "Oh no, not that coat hanger, that one is a design." - Andre Ricard

How design is perceived in Spain
Andre Ricard, President of Design for the World and an industrial designer since 1958, has a special interest in design theory. He says, "The way people in Spain feel about design is best described as design being frivolous. A short article in the newspaper can be more effective than a design publication. Newspapers are perceived by the media as more serious design; decorative, playful and artistic. Although design has an important role in society, the audience in Spain finds it difficult to see where the balance lies. Designers are considered to be 'artist' and artists can be anyone as it is said that we all have an artistic talent within each of us. Therefore, a large portion of the Spanish audience and many clients find it difficult to grasp the distinction between art and design. It seems that the sense of communication inherent in design is lost on (or have never been found by) the community of Spain."

Alex Gifreu and Pere Alvaro, founders of Bis Design Studio, agree that design has never been regarded as a serious profession in Spain. Although their design studio has been successful since 1997, locally they are still referred to as the 'young Spanish designers.' The perception may be based on the timeline of experience rather than on successes. One of the challenges facing local designers is to convince Spanish clients that design is an important communication tool for the success of their business.

Although designers from all over the world face this problem, Bis seems to find it more difficult convincing their local clients than their international clients. Because designers are still categorised as artists, Spanish clients do not always understand why design is so expensive and cannot see the long-term benefits. They are less knowledgeable about the importance of design.

Rachel Pelta from Visual Magazine and ADG-FAD board member says, "Spanish enterprises do not integrate graphic design with its day-to-day activities; design is still not considered as a fundamental part of competitiveness and is looked at as an artistic activity incompatible with enterprise management." Design is not regarded as a technical science; it gets unfavourably compared to 'respectable' sciences. "It is mainly big enterprises and public administrative offices who contract graphic designers. Smaller companies do not realise the incidence of design in their business. They never think about it because of the small size of their enterprise and high prices for quality design is also a factor."

The design boom of the 90's
According to Andre Ricard, a cultural design movement influenced by art movements from around the world preceded the design movement of the 90's. One example of what was introduced to the design scene was the Bauhaus period - a trend characterised by simple shapes. Secondly, Cubism was popularised by graphic designers. Posters were created in this style and were seen by the public long before they were exhibited in museums. The fusion that developed between these two disciplines made sense.

In 1992, the Olympic Games were hosted in Barcelona, which introduced Spanish graphic design to the rest of the world. All artistic endeavours were put into place and design became a haven for Spanish creativity. Andre emphasises this, "Where most countries have a balance between sensible and frivolous design, in Spain design relates to the not-so-serious!" Maybe this is why the design boom from the Olympics did not have a lasting effect. Once the Olympic Games were over, the design period deteriorated.

Bis Design Studio agrees that the starting point for design in Spain was in 1992 because of the Games, Barcelona became known to the rest of the world. The organisers of the Olympics needed graphic designers, and realised that they needed to learn more about the field. England, the USA and the Netherlands became points of reference for graphic design influence and inspiration throughout Spain at that time.

Another design influence of the 90's was the 'dot com' era in which Bis, like many other Spanish designers, did not participate. Instead, they waited until after the crash, then looked for clients who had a real need for web design and who did not only choose it because it was the trend of the time. This has proved a wise choice for Bis as their web clients have become a stable part of their design business.

Although the Spanish graphic design influence did not remain strong, nor crossed the borders of Spain after the Olympic Games, the international influence on Spanish design remained. And globalisation soon emerged. Bis began taking on international clients from England, Belgium, the usa and The Netherlands. It no longer mattered to Alex and Pere where they were located because their clientele reached beyond the Spanish borders. However, the question is, "If graphic design has become subject to globalisation, why hasn't Spain had an influence in the rest of the world?"

When asked how Bis finds clients, their response is that they rely on 'being publicised'; being out there for the rest of the world to see and learn about. Through magazines, competitions, promotional and non-profit work, they have made their name as a successful Spanish design firm working globally. Taking advantage of the Internet allowed Alex and Pere to have a design studio everywhere - for instance in Figueres, the scenic coastal hometown of the Spanish painter, Dali.

Rachel Pelta says that the economic situation of Spain has a direct impact on Spanish graphic designers. The Olympic Games brought a greatly successful period to Spanish designers, but after the Games design studios were forced to close or reduce the number of their employees. Most Spanish designers do not have the foreign language skills, international recognition or know how to penetrate the market abroad. "We can say that the technical equipment of graphic designers in Spain is sophisticated, although it came later than in other countries. But it is significant that Spanish graphic designers have a low presence in the website development market."

Education and Spanish Design
According to Andre Ricard many new designers graduate each year and flood the design market, which increases the lack of respect for design as a serious industry. Years ago design was taught specifically at well trained design institutes. Although this is still true, there are many design courses that pop up within the educational network that do not meet professional graphic design standards. Graduates of these design courses are competing in the labour market with professional designers and offer their services below the practicing design standards. Sharing clients result in less work for professional designers.

Although Bis is considered an international Spanish design firm, both Alex and Pere are grounded to Barcelona because they are both professors of design. They use an interesting perspective of methodology for their style of teaching. The technological boom has been both a blessing and threat to graphic design in many ways. One apparent influence is through the educational system. Both Pere and Alex say that less time is spent teaching students how to use computer programs (although classes are still offered), which allows more time for theory and a thought approach to design projects.

They say giving something back to their students by allowing them to really think about design and not just producing design, is fulfilling. The downside of technology is that information is readily available and is much more accessible to students. They seem to know more than their professors, and this is a challenge to Pere and Alex in their role as educators. They have taken advantage of this and teach graphic design without software, which allows for the exchange of points of view and deviate a little from the classical academic style.

Rachel explains that, "The Spanish designer is a professional with experience, and normally combines his or her profession with teaching." Within the educational system, there are private and public education institutions (depending on the Ministry of Culture and Education). Most of the private education institutions are in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia. Recently more private schools have opened their doors. Some offer adequate design education, while others offer computer courses that are labelled as 'design courses.'

Private schools do not offer officially recognised diplomas and are less accessible because the courses are expensive. Public schools only recently started offering official design diplomas, which were originally only offered by Fine Arts Faculties. This has increased the credibility of graphic design in Spain somewhat. There is, however, still a great need for intervention by graphic designers in the public education sector because many professors are being appointed without practical graphic design knowledge.

How can Spanish designers succeed
Becoming less frivolous and more sensible will earn Spanish designers more recognition in Spain and will contribute towards design being seen as an important part of business. They should concentrate on creating design that makes sense. By organising graphic design as an essential part of business and by taking it seriously, Spanish designers will be able to convince their clients of the importance of design.

Success should not be limited by the Spanish economy and market; it could be ignited by globalisation. This means they can follow the example of successful designers who participate actively in the international market and still keep their local clients and professions as Spanish educators of design.

Rachel Pelta mentions that the success of Spanish designers is largely based on keeping overhead costs low. These low expenses allow design studios to survive in the fluctuating market. Another reassuring aspect of the state of design in Spain is that there is great loyalty between the majority of studios and their clients: more then 85 percent always use the same designers.




For more information, contact:

Theresa Van Ert
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