13 November 2006
Robert L. Peters, FGDC (part one of three)
Robert L. Peters, FGDC

Part three of three

In October 2007, La Habana, Cuba will host the 2007 Icograda World Design Congress. Prografica, Icograda's professional Member, and the Consejo National de las Artes Plasticas (CNAP) are partners with Icograda in organsing this event.

A selection of identities from contemporary Cuban designers.

In the July 1969 issue of Cuba Internacional, graphic designer Felix Beltran eloquently explained Cuban design ideals: "We must bear in mind that a new society is being established in Cuba and graphic art plays an important role in communicating the message to this society...If I were asked what the most important thing in Cuban graphic art is, I would reply that it is the transmission of its content to the people; for it is through Cuban graphic art that we can perceive our social objectives, our ideology, our political and economic perspectives."

Though numerous books have been published on Cuban posters in ensuing decades, none was as influential in raising awareness of its eclectic phenomena as the oversized 1970 digest The Art of Revolution by Dugald Stermer and the late Susan Sontag. In the book's brilliant introductory essay, Sontag delineates the common purpose of all political posters: ideological motivation. "Commercial advertising imagery cultivates the capacity to be tempted, the willingness to indulge private desires and liberties. The imagery of political posters cultivates the sense of obligation, the willingness to renounce private desires and liberties... In this revolution, a revolution of consciousness that requires turning the whole country into a school, posters are an important method (among others) of public teaching."

Sontag's description of the posters' zeitgeist and ideals is insightful and pointed. "The elan and aesthetic self-suffciency of the Cuban posters seem even more remarkable when one considers that the poster itself is a new art form in Cuba. Before the revolution, the only posters to be seen in Cuba were the most vulgar types of American billboard advertising. Indeed, many of the pre-1959 posters in Havana had English texts, addressing themselves not even to the Cubans but directly to the American tourists whose dollars were a principal source of Cuba's earnings, and to the American residents, most of them businessmen who controlled and exploited Cuba's economy...Cuban poster art does not embody radically new values. The values represented in the posters are internationalism, diversity, eclecticism, moral seriousness, commitment to artistic excellence, sensuality the positive sum of Cuba's refusal of philistinism or crude utilitarianism."

Cuban poster art was launched by the Revolution: the use of posters grew with the need to communicate political ideas and information to large audiences (about the nationwide literacy campaign of 1961, for example), and acted to enlarge moral consciousness and to attach a sense of moral responsibility to an increasing number of issues. Posters provided a voice for newly-formed cultural organizations such as the Cuban Cinema Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC), the Organization of Solidarity With the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), the Cuban Artists and Writers Union (UNEAC), the Casa de las Americas (with its own poster-making workshop) and the Editora Politica, the official propaganda department of the Communist Party.

Though rooted in Revolutionary ideology and visual culture, Cuban poster designs did not follow any prescribed "official style," but could generally be described as eclectic, distinctly modernist, simple (in keeping with the Revolutionary ethos of modernity) and often using abstraction. Limited reproduction options made silk-screen printing the medium of choice, in part due to the lack of functional lithographic presses and paper for printing, following the beginning of the economic blockade. It's evident that the hardships and challenges encountered by Cuban designers contributed to the creativity and innovation apparent in the propaganda art of the 1960s, described by author Veerle Poupeye as: "...far more imaginative than the dull socialist realism of the Soviet Union or China," and by Dugald Stermer as "(avoiding) the simplistic, primitive neo-classicism of Soviet Socialist realism...and, the stylistic excesses of the 'heroic worker' school." Without a doubt, Cuban posters represent the best-known visual body of work, and the medium most closely associated with "distinctively Cuban" communication design to this day. Daniel Walsh, co-founder of the U.S.-based Cuba Poster Project, has called Cuban posters "the single most focused, potent body of political graphics ever produced in this hemisphere." (See The Cuban Poster Crisis in CA #251, September/October 1994.)

Diseno grafico
Following decades of difficulties, censorship and national economic ruin, Cuban designers are now experiencing greater artistic freedom than at any time in the past 50 years. The majority of designers work for publishing houses and ad agencies, though freelancing has become increasingly popular as well, and over 300 designers are registered as "independent creators." The art scene is also thriving as never before, bearing the fruit of deeply personal, vibrant and politically-involved expression, and benefiting directly from the favorable cultural climate and the booming tourism sector (with its desirable source of foreign currency). Many designers and artists live with family members in small homes (reflecting the pervasive housing shortage), though some have independent studios. It's fair to say that artists and designers do better nowadays than those in many other sectors, especially those such as teachers and doctors in state-controlled employment who have to depend on fixed, subsistence-level incomes.

Most of Cuba's younger designers are graduates of the Institute of Industrial Design (ISDI), an autonomous university formed in 1984 under the auspices of Oficina Nacional de Diseno Industrial (ONDI). The school's rector, Dr. Arq. Jose Cuendias Cobreros, defines ISDI's primary aim as: "to solve Cuban problems through design, and also to open a space for Cuban design," by and large involving non-commercial activities. On a recent visit to the school, I viewed information design projects by students such as the creation of an identity for the Cuban national census; publication of low-cost literary works for mass distribution (classics printed on newsprint); public information campaigns regarding mosquitoes and Dengue fever; the "Cuba si" tourism promotion; hospital signage systems; and interface design for a comprehensive primary school learning system housed in a CD library, especially developed for children in remote villages where solar-powered computers provide equal literacy as for urban kids (1.3 million students grades one through six are now using these tools).

The Cuban Prografica Committee is a nonprofit organization representing the most experienced and accomplished Cuban graphic designers (though its membership comprises only a small percentage of the country's 1,000 estimated practitioners). Formed as a subset of the National Plastic Arts Council of the Ministry of Culture of Cuba (UNEAC) it has been a member of the International Council of Graphic Design
Associations (Icograda) since 1997. Hector Villaverde, Prografica's president, describes the design climate of the past decade: "Economic growth in the mid-'90s in areas such as tourism and the oil and mining industries has increased the amount of work available for graphic designers, and the development of high-quality products for export is something recent in Cuban society. The introduction of new technologies in Cuba, although at a very modest level, has made a major change in graphic design - one that is welcomed by designers. Multimedia, the Web and interactive design are just starting to become a factor in Cuba."

Prografica is now working on an ambitious initiative to create a "House of Graphic Design and Typography" in the historical center of Old Havana, an area that housed printing shops during the city's zenith of typographic art during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The "House" will act as a themed cultural center, an exhibition venue for design and patrimonial graphic works and as a focal point for the profession. Cuban designers look forward with anticipation to the visits of colleagues throughout the world in October 2007 for a week of design events being planned in Havana around the Icograda World Design Congress. (U.S.
designers are particularly welcomed, a fact underlined for me in discussions with the Cuban Ministry of Culture - their only concern is with Washington's continuing intransigence in not permitting American citizens to freely visit Cuba.)

Relatively isolated from American influences (though at the same time embracing world culture), modern Cuban graphic design has developed unique traits and characteristics. Unlike consumer-oriented countries where design is primarily used to sell or advertise, visual communication in Cuba serves as a means of conveying information, promoting political consciousness, and as public expression. I have had the privilege to meet with many graphic designers in Cuba, and they have warmly welcomed me into their homes and studios. I feel a deep empathy with the desire for progress and change that many express and I can't help thinking that for the future, Cuban designers may well have unique (and hard-earned) lessons to offer the rest of the world. Lessons about simplicity and sustainability, how to live more fully with less and how to embrace passion increasingly rare traits in an over-indulgent world of opulence and excess.

About the article
This is the third of three parts of an article that originally appeared in Communications Arts (May/June 2006). It is reprinted with permission.

You can download the complete PDF of this article by clicking here.

About Robert L. Peters
Robert L. Peters has visited Cuba several times in recent years - he co-organized and chaired the Havana Design Week in 2001 (held in the Che Guevara Memorial Hall, Casa de las Am ricas), and has been involved in advocacy regarding the Icograda World Design Congress to be held in Havana in fall of 2007. He would like to express thanks to Prografica and to the designers who contributed their work for this article. Special thanks to Santiago Pujol, Hector Villaverde and Pepe Men ndez for their collaboration, assistance and support.