Graphic Design Culture in El Paso, TX – Juarez, Chihuahua.

I remember one time during my senior year in high school, my math teacher asked me what I would like to study: “Graphic design,” I said proudly. What he answered was “Why? Don’t waste your intelligence on that career! Decorating rich people’s houses when you have the brains to be an engineer.” Right then and there I laughed, because his answer reflected a profound ignorance of what graphic design is. My teacher, a brilliant professor, was confusing graphic design with interior design. Years later, during my first laboral years I realized that, just like my math teacher, people in general don’t have a clue about what we graphic designers do. They seem to have the impression that it’s a job that their 15 year old nephew who is great with computers can do better, faster, and cheaper. This generalized lack of knowledge of what a graphic designer’s job is subtracts value to our profession, and while it’s true that we don’t save lives like doctors, it is also true that everybody has communication needs that must be resolved graphically. Therefore, it is a job that requires a great amount of research and thought put into it, it requires knowledge of color psychology, ergonomics, communication, marketing, computer software, photography, illustration, typography, composition, print techniques, etc. All this acquired knowledge allows us to pay the bills, feed ourselves and our families, fill the gas tank in our car, have a life just like everybody else. But what is really going on? What makes graphic design good or bad?

Let’s suppose you want to sell hot dogs. You need people to know you sell hot dogs, ergo: you have a communication need to solve. How do you solve it? Sticking a simple handwritten fluorescent poster that says “Hot Dogs” to your cart or location will solve the primal need: communication. But will this same fluorescent poster allow you to grow into a franchise? The answer is an obvious “no”. Franchises require a consistent image that make clients be sure that they will get the same quality no matter which location they choose. In other words you need to give a sense of confidence and professionalism. This is why we need graphic aesthetics. A good design will accurately solve your communication problem with visual elements that will make your potential clients trust your business. No matter how big or small. It will give you a potential to grow as large as you want because let’s face it: we humans are visual creatures and we will instinctively prefer something that looks better, regardless of the quality of the actual product or service.

But back to topic, this is probably one of the hardest articles I have ever written. It’s not because I don’t know anything about this subject but quite the contrary… because I have lived it. Therefore, I did not want this text to be polluted by personal judgment and I felt the urge to ask some of my colleagues to tell me about their experiences and I was quite overwhelmed by what they have told me. We’ve all had dreadful clients, ugly bosses, nagging sales workmates, unfair competition by fellow colleagues or agencies, unpaid or underpaid jobs, and many other atrocities… but guess what! Clients and non-designers are not the only ones to blame on this situation, we designers have a lot to do with this situation.

Graphic design is a relatively new industry in our border. Speaking with my colleagues who migrated to bigger cities like Mexico City or Guadalajara seeking better opportunities in the field, I got to confirm my perception that graphic design in our border does not keep up with the quality that you can see in those bigger cities. Why is that? First of all: competition. Despite the fact that we do have incredibly talented designers in our border, and even though it is a rather popular choice for a career option nowadays, they still outnumber us, and we don’t tend to compete as fiercely as fellow designers in the big cities. Competition forces peers to constantly improve for the simple fact of having something better to offer to potential clients. Second of all: the size of businesses. The bigger the city, the better the possibilities that a big brand will establish their headquarters there, and therefore all marketing and graphic design decisions will be generated in that city. Most likely: the bigger the brand, the more graphic design quality they will demand. Juarez, and El Paso are still considered medium-sized cities and as a result have not really developed brands that have transcended national or internationally (other than the border area), and since graphic design is not yet a big concern to many local businesses simply because they don’t yet understand why they need it, they tend to seek functionality over quality (and sometimes not even that), when it should be a perfect blend of both. And here is where I can say that everything bad about our graphic design is not entirely for clients to blame… It’s us! To be able to compete in quality we need to acknowledge that maybe we’re not the best designer ever.

One of the things that I remember most from my teachers in college was the constant reminder that we are not artists that work for themselves, we are designers who work for others, and that is precisely one of the things that we tend to forget the most! While it’s true that we know more about the rules of graphic design, it is also true that our client knows best about their own needs, they know their business better than us and we really need to listen to them… even if they don’t always know what they want. That way we can really translate their communication needs into appealing and functional graphics instead of trying to force our Behance or Abduzeedo looking design into their requests. It takes a lot from us to get rid of our egos and know-it-all attitude, but if we want to improve and be able to compete with bigger cities, we must fight it. All the best local graphic designers I know have gone through that self-analysis process and have achieved great things afterwards. Another issue is that graphic design has many faces, some designers are good for web, some are great with editorial, some others are superb illustrators but another common problem is that we are often forced to be as versatile as we can or we simply won’t make any money. This doesn’t let us focus in what we are best for and specialize in that particular area in fear of not landing any jobs.

But not everything is sad. Good news is that graphic design demand in our border is growing steadily, and this equally goes for Juarez and El Paso. El Paso found a big opportunity when Juarez was going through that awful period of violence during 2008-2011. Many business owners in Juarez were facing crisis and resolved to open locations in El Paso. Both for security for themselves (this represented the opportunity to migrate to the neighbor city), and for economical growth. This represented a bigger chance for designers in El Paso, despite the fact that graphic design in Juarez is cheaper, and designers in El Paso often find themselves losing contracts to designers in Juarez. El Paso is growing fastly, and this will keep bringing better opportunities for their designers. The violent period in Juarez also represented a huge crisis for advertising agencies and freelance designers in Juarez since most businesses chose to hide themselves from potential extortionists, and just like those who chose to migrate to El Paso, many young professionals migrated to bigger cities but later, when the violence was no longer an issue, they came back with fresh concepts and ideas and opened new businesses in Juarez since 2012. This new young businessmen and women needed graphics that reflected their visions and this represented a new boom in the city not only economically but graphically. This are clients that are more open to pay what graphic design is worth, and pay it on time, they are more willing to listen to designer’s opinions, and having seen what bigger cities offer, they tend to demand better quality. This has represented a slow but steady improvement in the graphic design culture in our border.

Another positive thing to say about our graphic design culture it’s that many designers have felt the need to make design and artist collectives to work together on different projects in favor of culture and art for our community in general. Some have put their efforts in developing an urban art culture through murals or photography. Some others, especially universities have invested their efforts and money in bringing successful designers into their graphic design congresses or events to give their “TED talks” to inspire their graphic design students and alumni and open the conversation about how the real world really works. This is huge! It represents a change of dynamics and an open attitude to improve and collaborate. Like I said before, there are areas of graphic design that we excel and others that we can barely keep up with work, but if we team up with other designers who are strong in areas we could better develop we can provide a much better service. I am happy to now be part of a team that fits this description. After all, unity is strength.

But going back to that hot dog poster example, how far are you willing your business to grow? Will your current image keep up with your goals?