Paloma Ávila knows the power of networks. The graphic designer set up her own studio Half & Twice in Madrid following a stint in the corporate branding world as a way to pick projects closer to her heart: those that champion sustainability, community and diversity. The studio has worked on branding for a New York-based boutique production company and a progressive fashion brand. “I started my own studio because I didn’t see many opportunities to work at a design studio in Madrid and build my own future,” Ávila says. “I wanted to try and learn by myself.”
Throughout, building a community has been a focus. Ávila has helped to launch the Madrid chapter of Jessica Walsh’s Ladies, Wine & Design group as well as Meet a Designer, which brings together the capital’s design community. Ávila did not know she was going to specialise in this kind of “participatory design”, but says that it’s helped to foster a sense of community in the Spanish capital though some topics – especially money – remain taboo.
The graphic designer has also noticed a change in the perception of her industry. In the past four years, Ávila says that design has become much more integral to public campaigns run by the city, for example. “It was never like that before,” she says, explaining that the council now counts on design studios and professionals. “If people are able to see design in the streets, they can start to recognise good design,” Ávila adds. That will help bring recognition to the industry, she believes.
“To see that change gives me hope,” she adds. “When I was studying design in school, I could see that Spain was not a country that gave value to design.” During these years, Ávila says that it was difficult to see good design behind any significant public campaigns. The lack of homegrown interest in design is one of the reasons why she works with so many international clients. It’s been hard to convince Spanish clients about the value of design when discussing potential work, according to Ávila.
It’s an identity that she designed for Spain’s Ministry of Science and Innovation that perhaps best illustrates the studio’s ethos. It was for a special project for Observatorio de Mujeres, Ciencia e Innovacion (Observatory of Women, Science and Innovation) which promotes gender quality in the scientific sector. The government ministry already appreciated the value of design, she says. “Comparing this with my past experiences gave me much more hope,” Ávila says.
Inspired in Barcelona’s international ambitions
The country’s other design centre is Barcelona. While many people are familiar with the city – from Gaudí’s architecture to its restaurant scene – Barcelona Centre of Design (BCD) aims to promote its creative scene to international audiences. The organisation hosts design events throughout the year, though in 2020, most of these were inevitably cancelled. Last year, it launched Inspired in Barcelona, an online platform which seeks to champion Barcelona-based work. Though the branding had been in use for several years, the digital element was a reaction to the lockdown and impossibility of physical events.
BCD executive director Isabel Roig says that the organisation wanted to recognise the importance of creativity to the city, from small talent to bigger projects. The directory is continually updated, which Roig says is key to showcasing new work. Roig points out that the range of projects is reflective of the city’s diverse specialisms, from graphic to industrial design. In March, product design studio Anima’s Davinci Pen was highlighted. The anodized titanium and aluminium refillable ballpoint pen shows that “less is more, and simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, according to the website.
One of the BCD’s primary aims is to promote Barcelona-based design to international audiences, from China to America. It’s a sizeable task but Roig says that the city’s diversity should help it achieve international recognition. She does however echo Ávila’s opinion that the value of design is a work in progress in Spain, especially in comparison with Nordic countries and the UK.
Inspired in Barcelona is supported by the city’s council and also puts on installations which are directly relevant to the city itself. For example, A Gathering Bar is a meeting point which “represents the relaxed and pleasant lifestyle of Barcelona”. The bar installation hopes to showcase experimental design across culinary culture, from the way we eat to how we cook. In that way, it draws attention to elements that might not be as immediately obvious, such as food presentation.
Design could also be an opportunity to redress one of the city’s biggest issues: tourism. While the industry has boomed in Barcelona, it has hampered the originality and carefree-spirit which made the city popular in the first place. In 2017, 30 million people visited the city. It’s become such a problem that a term has even been coined: parquetematización, which roughly translates to the act of becoming an amusement park or theme-park-isation.
Roig says that the pandemic has given the organisation time to rethink this issue. The drive to highlight the work of smaller talents could help to provide a less touristy view of the city, for example. “It’s a good opportunity to see what we have and what we want in the future,” she says. “We’re trying to reimagine a tourist strategy more in line with culture and creativity.”
“The school is not a building but a way of reflecting”
At one of the country’s leading design schools Elisava, students are being taught to anticipate the needs of a changing world. The academic director of the Barcelona-based school Albert Fuster says that the school resists being an “incubator” but rather teaches real-world reaction throughout education. “We believe that the school is an agent of change, rather than an island,” he adds. A good example of this was the school’s Design for City Making exhibition – co-presented with design academic Ezio Manzini – which aimed to show how design was integral to inclusive and sustainable urban planning.
All this is underpinned by the school’s inspiration in Kairos, the Greek god of opportunity. “You have to be open-minded and to know what to do according to the moment,” Fuster says. This ethos is particularly true of the final years of education, once a lot of the foundational work has been done. Students are put in touch with researchers and companies (such as Adidas) where their skills can be used.
Another way to promote this line of thinking is through cross-discipline learning. In the third and fourth years of the BA years, “transversal” projects take place where students from different backgrounds work in teams for a shared goal, Fuster explains. Usually, these design challenges are set by industry contacts, across a number of fields including NGOs. “We address design challenges with a wide understanding of what design is,” he says. This echoes Ávila’s comments about the Spanish design landscape, which frequently mixes disciplines like photography, graphic design and typographic design.
“The school is not a building but a way of reflecting,” Fuster adds. What exactly does design education reflect in Spain? He says that in Barcelona there had been a tendency towards nostalgia, with many hung up on the creative explosion that followed the city’s Olympics in 1992. While he believes that Madrid has started to value design in the last decade – thanks largely to the number of companies located there – more widely Spanish companies are seeing the importance of designers (which is crucial for students’ prospects).
“We are really aware that companies and institutions understand that designer contribute not only the next logo or packaging, but also values,” he says. Such values are crucial for businesses, like open-mindedness, critical thinking and creativity. “If designers don’t have these, then who does?”