Tell us a little bit about your career as a designer. How did you get started in the field?
I have been practicing graphic design and illustration for the last 26 years but considering that my father is also an illustrator and a visual artist, I have been in the field of design and illustration for as long as I can remember. My father’s studio was my playground, so I grew up playing with art supplies. I graduated from The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), with a BFA degree with a major in graphic design and a minor in printmaking. After graduating, I interviewed all over the place including several design studios in Austin and San Antonio to no avail. I ended up being offered my first opportunity as a designer at an advertising firm in El Paso, Texas named Mithoff Advertising. There I learned a whole lot, including that I did not want to do advertising for a living. I learned that design and illustration were my true vocation, so after two years, I ended up applying to graduate school and was accepted to Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Going to graduate school on the East Coast was one of the most exciting things I did as a young designer because it opened my world to new possibilities and places. After obtaining my MFA, I moved to San Francisco to work at a small boutique graphic design firm, from which I was fired if I might add, but right away I was hired by Parham Santana Inc. in New York City. There I learned everything I now know about branding design. After almost three years of working at Parham Santana, I was offered the opportunity to apply for a tenure-track position at my alma mater (UTEP), and I was fortunate to be granted the position and have been teaching there for the last 20 years.
Your design work has appeared everywhere from books to posters and even packaging! What projects excite you the most?
In my opinion, all projects are interesting, but I have always found poster design to be the most exciting because it is, perhaps, the most challenging. As in all forms of visual communication, the poster will only be effective if it manages to communicate with its audience in a persuasive and provocative way which convinces them to buy tickets to attend the opera, to invite incoming freshman students to Reading Round-Up, to choose or not a political candidate, to incite someone to overthrow a tyrant, or to raise awareness about some social problem. It is in the latter case that I think the poster is used at its best. It is in the design of the social poster, where the designer puts all their knowledge into practice for the common good. It is here where the designer can create without compromise and where they help to communicate and promulgate ideas that inform the public on issues that concern us all.
Tell us about your process in designing this year’s Reading Round-Up artwork.
I start all my projects in the same way. I start by trying to understand as much as I can about the challenge at hand. In this case, once I felt that I had understood what the Reading Round-Up event was about, I sketched about 20 rough ideas, meditated on them, and chose about 10 to send to my client. Of those 10, the client chose two and asked me to refine those ideas. The one that was chosen was an illustration of UT’s emblematic tower made up of books. I am glad that this was the chosen design because it resonates with me in a special way. Back in 1989, I traveled for the first time to Austin as a chaperone to my sister, who had been admitted into the master’s program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. I still remember clearly being blown away by the magnitude of the tower and by the oppressive humid heat that left me feeling dizzy after a long walk around the UT’s campus grounds.
What advice do you give to your students at UTEP who are interested in a career in design or illustration?
A recurring question asked by my students at the university, or sometimes when I travel and offer design workshops is, “What should we do to stay current and relevant in the design field?” And my answer is always the same: be aware of what is happening in your city, your country, and throughout the world. We must not forget that design, as well as any other cultural expression, should be at the service of the community. Of course, it is important to be aware of the newest technologies, of trends in design worldwide, and of the history of design; but, most of all, it is imperative to know what events are happening in our society, whether of a political, environmental, social, or cultural nature. These are the details that directly affect the making of design. In order to create any work, for any client, the designer ought to be not only aware of client expectations, but also of how she or he will convey eloquently that visual message to a population affected by these same details.
What’s your favorite book?
My favorite book is the one I am reading at the moment when I am asked. I really enjoy biographies. I am currently reading The Life of Hernán Cortés by Christian Duverger, and The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Amy Ellis Nutt and Frances E. Jensen. Just before these two, I read Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
Where’s your favorite place to read in El Paso?
My favorite place to read is my living room and my studio.
Left: Early Draft of Reading Round-Up Artwork, Right: Final Version