Interview: part 1
Ronald Shakespear is a prolific graphic designer from Argentina. He founded Diseño Shakespear about half a century ago, specializing in corporate identity and wayfinding. He kindly agreed to be interviewed about his work and life, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the graphic design practice in Argentina.
You founded Diseño Shakespear 50 years ago. You must have been in your early twenties. What prompted you to start your own studio?
I worked in several agencies here, but I must say that I rejected advertising. So, as soon as I could, I started my first studio with Gonzalez Ruiz, my partner at the time. Later on, I founded Diseño Shakespear with my sons Lorenzo and Juan.
I am 71 now and I love design and photography and this is my way of living. I wake up early in the morning and start writing with the sound of Mozart. Nothing to do with prompting people to buy anything.
Never ask for permission is the title of the new book I'm working on. It is named after what Orson Welles told me when I visited him, without an appointment, in Madrid, near Juan Peron's house. Then Orson invited me to the bull-fighting ring to see the last run of Curro Girón (who, after the fight, gave Orson the bull's ears as a present). Unforgettable.
Back home, I went to visit Jorge Luis Borges for a photo session at his office in the National Library. There he was our national poet. I took my favourite shot ever. A privilege life gave to me.
Sign of Design: Memory of a Practice was my first book. It is not a book about theory. It is a reflection of a 50 year long path on the practice of design and a personal look into the urban scene and the way design influences the behaviour of people. Designers decipher the audience's codes.
Were there any studios or designers in Argentina that you admired at the time, or did you look abroad for inspiration?
There were a few but I used to look to people not directly related to the design field, such as Juan Carlos Distefano and Romulo Macció, both painters, who introduced me to the practice of visual communication.
I was well aware of Pentagram, Otl Aicher, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Armin Hofmann, Lance Wyman, Massimo Vignelli, Herb Lubalin, Paul Rand and many more. They set the pace. I don't want to forget Jock Kinneir, the magician who said to me when working for the Buenos Aires Wayfinding Plan: 'People speak in lower cases. They shout in capitals.'
I first met Alan [Fletcher] in 1964 at Fletcher/Forbes/Gill in London. Every visit to London ever since has been the intense expression of a marvellous friendship that started under the influence of our common trade. I have fond memories of Paola and Alan during their visit to Buenos Aires in 1987, and the kitchen at their home in Notting Hill, dry Martinis…
But one day Alan decided to go. Evidently, the Great Designer had called His favourite artist to His side. I sometimes talk to him. There was so much that was left unsaid.
You tried to meet Herb Lubalin in New York, in the 1970s. Can you tell us about this experience?
I don't want to seem more nostalgic than I really am, but I adored Lubalin (and still do) and tried to meet him in NYC many years ago. I failed. But he left a bunch of Upper & lower case magazines for me that I have treasured in my library since that day.
When passing through customs, at the Buenos Aires airport, back home, the officer in charge said to me, 'Are you going to set up a newspapers kiosk?'
I understand Lubalin wanted to be a painter when he retired. Unfortunately he left the building before that. I'm still trying. I usually dream with Lubalin's Mother and Child logo. He was a poetic genius indeed.
You have described your profession as 'making the city legible', for instance when designing Buenos Aires' public and underground ('Subte') signage systems. Does your studio collaborate with other studios or designers/researchers to accomplish these large-scale projects?
'It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem', as Chesterton would say. Design has changed more over the last 20 years than it did over the previous 500 years. It has become an extremely dynamic discipline, primarily devoted to giving satisfactory answers to an increasingly dissatisfied audience.
We have a well trained staff to take care of these megaprojects with us, but usually we call some old members of the team to help us, mostly in research and documentation.
Diseño Shakespear is a family business - you run it with your sons Lorenzo and Juan. Can you tell us about the roles in the studio? Family-run studios in England are rare, is it something common in Argentina?
No, it's not common here either. Lorenzo initiated his own bunker last year and now Juan is my boss. Both my sons studied at the University of Buenos Aires.
Jorge Frascara, ICOGRADA's Past President, knows us very well and kindly wrote the following about my sons and studio a few years ago:
'Lorenzo is a machine, a machine of ideas, stamina and efficiency. Maybe he got some or much of his superb design and management skills during his time in the London office of Pentagram. Maybe he developed his self-reliance during his time in Chile, setting up office there for a while. Maybe he just digests everything around him in a self-feeding way; from Alan Fletcher to a good Argentine steak, from playing with his father as a child to working alongside him, from listening to wild music, to reading with sensitivity and insight. If one reads Lorenzo's CV, one pictures a design superstar in his mid 50s living in the super-industrialised North. But he's 38, and works in Buenos Aires, a delightful city, but not an easy market for a significant design practice.
And then there is Juan: a rock; a rock-bed for the studio. He directs the industrial design area in Diseño Shakespear. He has the stability of the person that understands the importance of materials, processes, business, and people in the designer's task. The third dimension is his turf. Trained partly at the University of Buenos Aires, but mostly in the forge of design practice with Ronald and Lorenzo, Juan has designed and directed projects of large scale that would make many senior designers shiver. However, he, at 35, is a powerhouse of ideas and production capacity.
But when one refers to Argentina as a difficult environment, it is necessary to provide some illustrations for foreigners. When I left Argentina to come to Canada in 1976, inflation was 500% per year. Printers' estimates were only good for 48 hours. Estimating the cost of jobs for clients required impossible strategic skills, political and economical knowledge, and a huge nose to assess the future. Getting paid, was just as difficult. I was working as a free-lance graphic designer, and it was a challenge not to ruin myself. In a situation like this, how does one run a studio, with a bunch of employees to pay at the end of the month? Diseño Shakespear did it. Downsizing, outsourcing, strategizing, you name it, they did it. And got better at it. Then, in 1981, the national economy collapsed. Industries went belly-up thanks to the most destructive economic policy in the Argentine history to that point, masterminded by the military government of the time: a fictitiously high value for the Argentine currency, paired with the lowering of import taxes to a ridiculous minimum. The consequence? Destruction of the textile, electrodomestics and automotive industries, since everybody was traveling and buying goods abroad, from electrodomestics in Miami to Mercedes and BMWs in Germany.
How can a large design studio survive without a local industry? Diseño Shakespear managed. Don't ask me how.'