Icograda Congress Report: Design School, Cuban Style

All this week, CR’s Mark Sinclair will be blogging from the Icograda World Design Congress in Havana. In this first post, he attends an open day at the city’s Instituto Superior de Deseno Industrial, where (above) delegates were greeted by the students
El Instituto Superior de Deseno Industrial is Cuba’s one and only design school. Based in Havana, the ISDI is in the central part of the city, west of Habana Vieja, the old town, where most foreign visitors to the Cuban capital spend their time and tourist’s pesos.

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All this week, CR’s Mark Sinclair will be blogging from the Icograda World Design Congress in Havana. In this first post, he attends an open day at the city’s Instituto Superior de Deseno Industrial, where (above) delegates were greeted by the students

El Instituto Superior de Deseno Industrial is Cuba’s one and only design school. Based in Havana, the ISDI is in the central part of the city, west of Habana Vieja, the old town, where most foreign visitors to the Cuban capital spend their time and tourist’s pesos.

Away from the more densely packed (and crumbling) buildings of the Vieja area, the Higher Institute of Industrial Design is housed in a grand colonial structure where, since 1984, Cuban art students have been taught graphic design, illustration, fashion design, animation and industrial design. It’s a prestigious (if not to say expensive) institution to attend; attracting students from all over the country’s provinces. It’s also where a fair amount of Cuba’s commercial identity and logo design output is actually created.

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Various film posters designed by the school’s students

During a personal tour of the institution from one of its young graphic design tutors (part of an open-day coinciding with Icograda’s world design congress, currently taking place in the city) it’s also clear that the work on show could rival that of any graduate exhibition in the UK.

But standards to gain entrance are high. As part of an aptitude test, students must pass rudimentary design examinations – such as producing geometric studies of objects from memory. If an applicant is successful, then the new student will start to work in drawing and typography classes. And some of the drawing and lettering work on show at the open day was exemplarary – with dynamic Op-Art-like designs jumping off the walls in black ink, all done by hand.

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Posters interpreting some of the work of leading Cuban graphic artist Alfredo Rostgaard.

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More student posters

There are, as befits Cuba’s vibrant tradition, a whole range of film posters on show here, as created by the students. Indicative of the country’s abhorrence of waste (more a necessity than an environmental concern) one of the ideas discussed on the tour is a book project where a range of “classics” from the Western canon (Joyce, Twain etc) were reprinted on newsprint, and then sold at 20 pesos each. Even some of the 3D prototype shapes on display were made from disgarded materials.   

While much of the student work on show is accomplished by anyone’s standards, particularly compared to their fellow students in the UK, the difference is (and, of course, it’s one among a world of other differences between the two countries) that, of the array of identity and logo work that adorns one wall here (there must be over 30 or 40 projects), all of it has been used, or is currently in use, by Cuban companies or institutions. Incredible, really, for a design college – but then, of course, a notion of the “real world” in Cuba is to be taken with an appreciation of the political climate. While these identities have, apparently, been designed for a range of different clients, there is in fact only the one; the Cuban government.

But since the revolution, according to the school’s dean, the ideals of 1959 have driven the teaching of design as a discipline in Cuba. While the ISDI found a suitable home in the mid-80s, by 1989 the school found itself affected by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the economic crisis that followed. Ten years later, the school renewed its efforts to maintain its programme and, through the efforts of both academic staff and students, it carried on despite the poor conditions.

2005 saw significant investment from the Cuban government to finally refurbish the facilties and, by May of this year, the institution was up and running with a host of new technologies in place. In his welcoming speech to us visitors, the dean claimed that the government remains keen to foster design in Cuba. Based on what we saw at the reinvigorated school, they are succeeding.

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