Written by Rebeca Méndez
Since I can remember, I have always spent hours observing nature, asking “Why do living things and physical phenomena take the form they do? What are the essential mechanisms of nature?” I was born and raised in Mexico City by parents educated as chemical engineers. They taught me to see the world from a physicochemical point of view and on occasion even brought out multiple chemistry tomes when they needed to further explain a complicated concept. They instilled in me respect and love for the natural world, but most importantly for the nature of matter: its composition, organization, and behavior, its cycles and systems. In other words, they taught me to relate to the world through its design.
This lesson was instilled in me early on through my family’s summer vacations spent deep in the jungles of southern Mexico in pursuit of obscure Mayan archeological sites. During extensive expeditions, we would spend two or three months every year camping in the jungle experiencing its overwhelming presence and sounds. I could separate the loud oscillating din of cicadas from the soft roar of the howler monkeys, and feel the dense humidity that overwhelmed every facet of the environment. During these trips, I sensed the vitality, the vibrancy, the presence of everything around me. These experiences profoundly shaped my captivation with design—particularly when we camped among Mayan temples, such as Uxmal, surrounded by powerful iconography and glyphs. I would make rubbings on paper, fascinated by this ancient form of symbolic storytelling. Mayan glyphs became the doorway for my interest into graphic design.
Fundamentally, design is storytelling, but it is also a way of organizing—to classify and give structure to an otherwise vast abstract pool of elements. We know it is through our organization that we will make sense of this world, understanding who we are and our place within it. Historically design has always been a principal concept within the Mexican consciousness, beginning with the Olmec civilization (ca. 1200–400 BCE). Understood to be the first society to emerge within Mesoamerica, the Olmec are credited with the invention of the calendar and the concept of zero. The early emergence of these sophisticated and complex sociocultural systems in Mesoamerica signaled not only the manifestation of highly evolved design, but also refined design thinking. I have always believed that my design work is the expression of the various cultures and peoples that form me as a person. My life is a historical yet continuous narrative that involves a multicultural and multiethnic amalgam, reflected through my capacity to allow chaos and multiplicity to coexist with order and minimalism. Before the word “design” even existed the Olmec understood that at its core design was system making, and I find it fascinating to consider how the genesis of our design evolution began millennia ago with America’s first civilization and the concept of zero.
It may seem that I was destined to be a designer. The idea of working with people to help make sense of a world filled with disorder, to create stories, and to communicate through graphic imagery should have been a clear path for me. Yet, I came to design circuitously, because initially I wanted to become an astronaut and my primary choice of study was physics and mathematics. As it happened, friends talked me out of these areas of study. It was actually my cousin who at the time was studying design in Mexico, who introduced me to industrial and graphic design. The fields were so new that no one could talk me out of the idea. The opportunity to explore the unknown was why I ended up in design, and it remains a driving force in my practice. At the time, I did not know much about the discipline, just that it seemed like a creative, contemporary field with a balance of both the irrational and rational mind—two thought processes that I have always straddled.
I began my studies at Art Center College of Design at a fortuitous time. In the early eighties, I was among the first generations trained to use computers for design—we were the bridge between analog and digital. Since my early years as a student and throughout my thirty-plus-year career, I have seen firsthand the incredible transitional growth from analog to digital. I began with my airbrush, Letraset and Super 8 film, and now work with augmented and virtual reality. The exponential growth of our computational power continues to change the design field and how we tell and experience stories every day. Indeed, since the beginning of time it has been society’s ability to design and produce new systems of experiencing and connecting with each other, and with the world at large, that has shaped our evolution as a species. So as a designer, artist, and educator I consistently strive to energize humanity rather than keep us isolated, depressed, or weak. I aspire to engender moments that access our imagination, our capacity to visualize, invent, and create a sustainable future for our environment and ourselves. Because if our imaginations have been entrenched in fear, we cannot invent the future, and a civilization without imagination is paralyzed.
Rebeca Méndez is a designer, artist, educator, and winner of the 2012 National Design Award for Communication Design. At UCLA, she is a professor in the Department of Design Media Arts and is director of the CounterForce Lab, a multidisciplinary research and fieldwork studio dedicated to creative projects focused on the social and ecological impact of climate change.
Rebeca Méndez Selects (October 5, 2018–July 10, 2019) is the seventeenth installment in the exhibition series that invites designers, artists, architects, and public figures to examine and interpret the museum’s collection. This article was originally published in Design Journal Spring 2018.