08 November 2006
Darren Stebeleski
Darren Stebeleski

I am not sure about what I was looking for when I went to Cuba. Knowing what I knew about the history of the Cuban poster, I think I was hoping for this kind of utopian socialist society, where designer was regarded as the highest of all professions. The purveyor of propaganda. Now, keep in mind, Cubans refer to all types of advertising as "propaganda", forsaking the usual Spanish translation "publicidad", which I think is really great, for why beat around the bush?

I had seen the posters at the height of Cuban poster design in the late 1960s. Posters by such design icons as Nico, Alfredo Rostgaard, Rene Mederos, Raul Mart nez, Elena Serrano, Felix Beltran, et al. These were heroes of mine for the incredibly striking imagery they had turned out over and over, with limited resources due to crushing poverty, thanks in no small part to the US blockade. Then, suddenly, after the late 1970s - nothing. No more beautiful posters touting the sanctity and nobility of the Revolucion. No more posters extolling the virtues of the goal of a 10 million ton sugar cane harvest. What happened? I felt that there was an interesting parallel to Canadian graphic design to be explored here, in that I feel Canadian design seemed to reach its zenith in the late 1960s and has, for the most part, fallen off ever since.

Before leaving for Havana, I had been in touch with a couple of contacts there and I tried to make contact with these designers on the first day. Unfortunately, the types of luxuries in terms of conducting business that we take for granted in Canada, are sometimes non-existent in Cuba. For example, on the first day I could not find a working telephone. Apparently, due to hurricane damage and telephone company inefficiencies, the lines are often out of service. I decided to try to walk to my colleague Hector Villaverde's office, and attempt to call him along the way. Taking photos of signage and murals, being a pasty shade of Winnipeg white, and wearing shorts (to Habaneros it was an icy +28sC) proceeded to make me stick out like a sore thumb, and I was hit from all sides by tour guides of convenience, prostitutes and general hustlers. The first payphone I tried sucked the $10 USD from my phone card then went dead. Plus, I could not shake this slippery tour guide/sudden best friend named Luis, no matter how incredibly rude I became, so I hopped into a cab and headed back to my casa particulare and peace.

Other days turned out to be much more fruitful. I made contact with Hector, and he gave me the lay of the graphic design landscape in Havana. We showed each other samples of our work, and he toured me around Habana Vieja. Hector is the President of Prografica, the local graphic design resource organization, and as such, he was able to set up a group meeting with a few local designers that Friday. As well, he was able to arrange for me to meet Daniel Cruz, a professor of typography at the Instituto Superior de Diseno Industrial (ISDI) the next day.

I met Mr Cruz for a drink at my casa particulare, and we talked about design in Cuba at great length. He spoke of the need for Cuban designers to be all things - photographer, writer, illustrator - as well as designer, out of sheer necessity. He talked about the stringent requirements to get into ISDI - almost 1,000 students apply, all are tested, then finally, 100 are eventually chosen for study. Though the rate of attrition is incredibly high, it also seems to be incredibly effective in terms of producing quality students. When I visited ISDI the next day, I was astonished by the work that I saw. The students were producing work - without the benefit of computers - that, quite frankly, made me feel like I had no business calling myself a professional. I have never seen student work so intelligent, so clean, or so perfect. Daniel had shown me some first year work, and sort of sloughed it off, saying "Oh this is just first year, they don't know how to make a poster yet", but they were beautiful pieces, filled with humour, visual puns, incredible illustration and a wonderful sense of typography.

A great exercise the design students partake of, is one in which they form student groups within which they will work on collaborative art projects. One of the requirements of the exercise is to create a banner for the group, and I happened to see one of these for a group called "kamaleon". With eight students in kamaleon, each student took a letter of the name and based a single poster around it. Together they form a banner - separately, they are these great individual art pieces.

The school seemed really well rounded (quotes by great figures of literature on one blackboard, mathematical equations on another), however, I found it interesting that the industrial design student projects all had a military function. I was informed that there is no product industry in Cuba, therefore industrial designers work on projects that prepare for the "American invasion that will never come". Because of this fact, industrial designers, when they graduate, are forced to find work as graphic designers, since there is virtually no work in their field. Daniel's girlfriend, for example, is a fashion designer by training, but she must work as a graphic designer, as there is no textile industry to speak of.

Unfortunately, I met almost no students, as they were all out at studios doing their practicum, getting their only experience on a computer. After seeing the hand drawn work at ISDI, I wondered if the computer would perhaps only serve to taint their process, as the projects that I had seen were so perfect. And yet, despite the fact that the school had such limited resources, that the conditions could be described as squalid (the building itself was in a state of serious disrepair), that simple materials are in such short supply, part of me wanted to leave my job and come down to Cuba and go to school to learn how to design again.

The day after visiting ISDI, I went back to Prografica for a meeting with some local designers. We showed each other work and then followed that with an informal discussion. They were most interested in knowing about the way we work in Canada, about business, and about the fact that my three person studio was the norm for a small studio in Canada. For the most part, all of these designers worked at home alone as freelancers. Their other option would be to work for a government department somewhere on an in-house team, such as the Cuban Tourism Department. These sorts of jobs, however, are frowned upon by most designers as being stifling and uncreative. This interested me, as even though these jobs may be more lucrative, the designers that I met were more interested in the creative freedom their freelance situations afforded them.

My discussion at Prografica that day, and touring ISDI the previous day, had answered the questions I had set out with. What had happened to all the great Cuban design of years past? Nothing - it has remained, as vital and compelling as ever, and the future, from the looks of the student work, seems to be Cuba's. The only difference between the situation now and the late 60's, is that the government does not sponsor poster production in the way it used to. The government graphic design money now all goes into the tourism industry, Cuba's biggest business, and as such, the really good design rarely breaks away from Cuba's shores.

An interesting part of the Prografica discussion centred around film posters, and the differences between the ones produced by our cultures. They asked if I felt a poster with a picture of Mel Gibson on it (ours) was better than a poster which told the story through illustration (theirs). I told them that it was the feeling, at least for myself and my friends, that in recent years film posters have become a blight on our visual landscape, and often will simply feature a photo of the star, banking on his/her popularity to sell the film. And though this situation is slowly improving, I told them they were still simply light years ahead of us in this respect. Their film posters are artful, they tell a story in a second, providing one with a complete notion of what the film is about. The designers are not necessarily forced to produce these out of necessity, because they have no photos of the star to work with, but most often it is simply because that what the Cuban populace has come to expect from a film poster. The designers I met with recommended that I see the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC) lobby for a really good taste of Cuban film poster design, as the walls and ceiling are lined with the some of the best. I did just that and I came away thinking that there is such a valuable lesson to be learned from Cuban poster design. I think that if production studios would give designers a chance, that if they would simply provide them with a copy of the film and the directions: "Tell the story in a poster", the results would be so much bolder and intelligent than anything we have recently seen. They should rely on the ability of the public to be able to read Mel Gibson's name, and not have to use a portrait of him to sell the film to us. Imagine how artful posters such as that could beautify our landscape rather than detracting from it?

This leads me to the biggest lesson learned during my time in Havana, which was that even thought the city was in a state of serious, serious decay (it has been compared to London during the blitz, and justifiably so), the visual landscape is not harmed further by the addition of loads of bad advertising, hideous billboards, and a complete overload of corporate imagery. In fact, the landscape is only beautified by the addition of the work of Cuba's incredibly talented designers. I feel, that in terms of the corporate images and the mediocre cookie-cutter design that we are bombarded with daily, we have lost something. We have become caught up in a connection to things, but not things that mean something. A lot of our design is just selling purely for the purposes of consumption and not actually for the public good. It was inspiring to see designers who make on average around $15 US a month eschewing corporate jobs in favour of working for the small art galleries, the tiny publishing houses.

The price that we pay to live in our economy is that we have lost our connections to art, to culture, to things that will matter in the long run. It is unfortunately a price that is also exacted in the work of our students. All too often I see the work of students coming out of our schools (and personally, I was no exception) as being far too trendy, owing more to videos and Nike commercials than to the work of the past masters of our profession. There does not seem to be the knowledge of design history, nor the urgency or the vitality in the work in North America that is possessed by the students at ISDI. There is a quote I once heard attributed to Czech president Vaclav Havel, back when he was a dissident playwright that is analogous to this situation. He was pointing out the difference between life in the United States and the struggles of people under communist rule in Czechoslovakia, when he said "Over there, everything goes and nothing matters. Over here, nothing goes and everything matters.". I think this statement appropriately illustrates the problems facing Cuban and Canadian designers. The question is, what will we do to ensure that in the future, everything that goes, matters?

In November of 2001, the partners of the Winnipeg based graphic design studio neuhaus, Callum Beattie and Darren Stebeleski, were offered an opportunity courtesy of Wayne Baerwaldt, then curator of Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg. Mr Baerwaldt and a group of Canadians involved in the arts were travelling to Havana, Cuba as a cultural exchange delegation in January of 2002. The possibility of including a designer as part of the group was brought up, and due to neuhaus' love of Cuban graphic design, the offer was quickly accepted. It was looked upon as a fact finding mission, with its goal being to investigate the current state of affairs in Cuban graphic design. The delegation, in addition to Mr Baerwaldt and Mr Stebeleski, included such notable figures as: Noam Gonick, filmmaker; Laura Michalchyshyn, Senior Vice President of Dramatic Programming, Alliance Atlantis; Rick Gilbert, a production designer in the Toronto film industry; and David McIntosh, an academic specializing in Latin America, film and economics, and who is also the programmer of the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto.

About the Author
Darren Stebeleski graduated from the University of Manitoba School of Art Graphic Design program with a BFA (Honours). Upon graduation, Darren worked in graphic design in Calgary, Alberta for 9 months before returning to Winnipeg. After returning, he worked at an advertising agency for 3 years before ultimately co-founding neuhaus with Callum Beattie in 2000.