— Maria Rogal, 2007. Published in Muse, the news magazine of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Florida.
During spring break 2007, five students* in the graphic design student-run studio “Mint” flew into Cancún with their instructor, Doug Barrett, for a seven-day trip. This wasn’t the usual spring break in México. Their purpose was to join me in southern Mexico and visit two cooperatives that Mint began working with to design their corporate identity in February. As a Fulbright-García Robles Scholar in Mexico, one of my motivations is to further binational understanding, and involving students in this process while I am here is an incredible opportunity that puts the spirit of the grant into action.
This all began when Alex Racelis and Alison Brovold, who are working with Cooperative Cuauhtémoc in southeastern Mexico, visited me in Mérida. I shared with them several of my student projects, including the 2006 Wixárika Calendar designed for the Huichol community in Jalisco, Mexico. We discussed the cooperative’s need for brand design to bring the juice to an international and sophisticated market. Racelis, who is completing his PhD in environmental ecology at UC Santa Cruz and is on a Fulbright-García Robles PhD grant, and Brovold have been providing technical assistance and guidance to cooperative members, with whom they’ve had a long term relationship. Less than one year ago, members were planning on cutting down their orange trees because for many years there was little profit selling oranges. Racelis, Brovold, and other colleagues proposed the idea of processing the juice, which would yield more than ten times the profit of oranges alone. The cooperative decided to pursue this route. In the fall, Rogal approached Doug Barrett, Mint’s spring 2007 instructor in the hopes that Mint would be able to take on this project. Barrett, wanting to support international education, responded with a resounding “Yes, let’s do it.”
In December 2006, I met members of the Lol-Bal Che Honey Cooperative in Santa Elena, Yucatán. I have been working on projects in this area with the state’s Institute for the Development of Maya Culture and, through my work with this organization, I was able to see first hand the limited opportunities for economic development in the many rural, and mostly Maya, communities. Many people are forced to immigrate to the resort areas of Cancún or to the United States as their only way to earn a living. This cooperative was trying to make a difference for its more than 40 members and their families.
During my initial meeting, I visited their new honey processing plant, which was in the final phases of construction. The leader of the cooperative, Manuel Magaña, mentioned the plant was equipped with state-of-the-art processing technology and they planned to export their products to Europe in the near future, yet had not begun marketing their product. I thought that this project would be an excellent compliment to the juice project for so many reasons, but particularly because both are in the same region of Mexico, both are Maya cooperatives, and our work would directly support economic development in the communities. I discussed this with Santa Elena’s Municipal Secretary, Concepción Tec May, and he was very supportive in so many ways to make this a reality.
It was clear that both the juice and honey projects would provide an excellent cross-cultural learning opportunity for students and a much needed product for the clients. Barrett was particularly enthusiastic about providing this challenging opportunity for Mint students.
In January 2007, Racelis, Brovold, and I began working to gather information from the clients to begin the project. Even before I presented this information to the students in February, they wanted to come to Mexico to visit the clients and gain a better understanding of the context. It’s not something that designers always do – get out of the studio to do field research – and particularly important when designing for foreign clients and an international audience. So, it was no surprise that the students were compelled to visit because I’ve always known them to be intellectually curious and integrate this into their work.
Barrett and I worked with the School of Art and Art History administration to make this trip happen. Once again I found tremendous support for this innovative opportunity. Using Mint’s earning from other projects, we were able to fund approximately 2/3 of our travel budget and each student purchased their airfare and meals during the trip.
This trip was planned so that students could meet with clients, learn more about their business and their respective fields of juice and honey production, gain insight into Mexican culture and the economy, and present their initial project ideas. Knowing this, they could design better and understand the needs of the client as well as the market. During the visit, students met with their clients face to face and visited orange farms and honey apiaries. Students presented their initial designs, which included a competitive landscape analysis and concept statements for each of the five design directions they presented. They left the clients with a bilingual document of the aforementioned materials as well as physical prototypes.
The meetings were a learning process for all involved – it was the first time the clients worked with designers and our first experience with cooperatives. Each client meeting was different and provided much room for learning and reflection. Because there are so many cultural differences, particularly in terms of building trust, we relied on those who knew the clients best – Racelis, Brovold, and Tec. The latter was instrumental in moving the honey project several steps forward by working behind the scenes to build trust. As we continue working with both of our clients, we continue to build trust and this is critical to any good working relationship.
The objective of the client meetings was to learn first-hand about their business goals and received feedback on the initial project work, which students would work on when they returned to Florida. Rachel Newell, a junior in Mint, writes “I expected the trip to Mexico to be non-stop traveling – which it was. I thought we would met with clients in a formal setting. We would sit down at a table and discuss the designs, then call it a day. But it was so much more. We had so much more interactions with the clients than I had anticipated.” The clients literally spent hours with us showing us their process, explaining different types of trees, the layout of the milpa (the traditional Maya farm), how they worked together, and so much more. We ate orange after orange at each different grove, ate dinner at one member’s house, and spent time with them at the town fair after. We donned protective beekeeping suits to participate in the harvesting of the honey, chewed fresh honey from the wax, and learned about the importance of environmental conversation. Magaña made sure no one was allergic to bee stings before they invited us to participate in the process and I , at least, felt somewhat lucky that we left with just four stings between all of us that day. Mint designer Anaïs La Tortue commented, “I expected the setting to be different: conference rooms for our presentations, for instance. It was actually really nice to be in the farmers’ own space – in their homes, in their field. It felt natural to present our work in the clients’ own space because it seemed that everyone was at ease.”
Visiting the archeological heritage site of Uxmal, just a day before Presidents Bush and Calderón, gave us the opportunity to see one of the most aesthetically and architecturally significant sites in Yucatán. This would also be a resource to draw from for our project. We also had several unique opportunities during our trip: our cars stopped and searched by the Mexican Federal Police in anticipation of the presidents’ visit, climbing to the rooftop of the four story church in Santa Elena to survey the countryside, hearing a 90-year old Maya storyteller recount his grandparents tales of the Caste War of the Yucatán, not to mention driving through the many little towns on our way between the two states.
Our clients responded constructively and positively to the work and, most importantly, provided us with insight to improve our work. They were so pleased with this collaboration that they expressed their desire to make this a long-term relationship with UF. Racelis describes this process as so effective and rewarding for all participants that he proposed we work on other projects next spring. It is obvious and exciting that there is a lot of work that can be done here. Most importantly, this is one way to increase bi-national understanding because we have so many misperceptions of each other. Senior Ciara Cordasco, who is the group leader for the honey project, wrote “The people were really the best, I couldn’t believe how hard they work for everything and they’re intensely proud of their skills. I admire their drive and personality. Graphic design requires a great deal of self-critisim and re-evaluation, which is healthy in the design process, but can sometimes be destructive. Now I try to look for the best aspects of my work and develop from there, instead of dwelling on flaws.”
The seven day trip included visits to the cities of Playa del Carmen, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Señor, and the client site of Cuauhtémoc in the state of Quintana Roo as well as the archeological heritage site of Tulum. They then moved to the state of Yucatán where they visited their client in Santa Elena, traveled to Maní where Diego de Landa burned Maya manuscripts, and the archeological heritage sites of Uxmal and Labnah. The group returned to Playa del Carmen, one of the fastest growing cities in the hemisphere due to tourism development, to end their visit. When Barrett and the students left at 5:30AM on Thursday morning, I hoped that their perspectives on Mexico were changed. I think they were.
Newell writes, “Being able to meet the folks in Mexico was a great honor. It put this project into perspective. Meeting the clients allowed me to better understand how the products are made and how they will actually be sold in Mexico and internationally. To walk through the orange groves and then the stores where the juice will be sold allowed me to truly understand the full cycle of the product. It was inspiring to see the passion the clients have for their product and the pride that comes from making it themselves. After seeing, hearing, tasting – I have such a better understanding of what this particular region of Mexico is about, which will definitely aid in creating a design that will be unique and make the owner’s of the products proud.” Cordasco adds, “I was a sponge on this trip. I absorbed as much as I could. I’m sure years from now I’ll remember new things that happened while were road-tripping around the Yucatan. This trip didn’t make me conciously change my design, but everything I see and do somehow influences what I make, and those unpredictable changes are the most exciting.”
During the visit we took many notes, photographs, and video to share with those who couldn’t come. All of this resource gathering will better enable all of us to continue working on the project. Cooperative Cuauhtémoc is using the design briefs the team prepared as part of their proposal to secure funding for construction of a juice factory. When I left them two weeks ago, they were mentioned how the presentation of work inspired them and made this seem like a reality instead of just another idea that may not come to fruition. Don Walberto couldn’t stop smiling and expressing how he wanted the students to come back. He couldn’t believe their generosity. At the same time, we are impressed with theirs as well.
Barrett writes, “Meeting the people made the project seem so much more important, you begin to realize that these people’s lives can be changed by what we are doing in Mint. They were so excited to have us there and really enjoyed showing us their work. The students also gained valuable insight into how they can make a difference by the types of projects they pursue. I think Mint’s involvement has been important and we will be able to make a positive impact on these people’s lives and help make a sustainable economy.” This binational collaboration is an important first step for all involved and the beginning of something big for our design program at UF.
* student participants on the Mexico trip:
Anaïs La Tortue