“Watch List” is a series of interviews with interesting and engaging young designers I know. Jason Ramirez is the second of these interviews, but many of his concerns as a designer are similar to those I discussed with Hilary Greenbaum in the first interview, particularly when it comes to making design that is personal, narrative, or both. Jason’s interdisciplinary projects often find him wearing many hats, from form-giver to fact-checker, activist to archivist. Three of these projects are visible here. More of Jason’s work will be online soon.
Rob Giampietro: Do you think there’s a strong social aspect to design, that goes from the most corporate things, like ad campaigns, to the most handmade things, like yearbooks?
Jason Ramirez: I do. Though with my initial activities with design, I was not aware of that to the extent I am today. After high school, I entered university with plans to study the biological sciences with an emphasis on a pre-med course of study.
RG: Is there a scientific aspect of design for you now? Do you find your interest in science and design are somehow two halves of a whole?
JR: Actually a certain aspect of formal thinking has been an Achilles Heel in my exploration of design. Thinking that design is rooted in rules and logic. One of the biggest challenges for me as a designer has been to acknowledge that these “rules” may not always apply in design. I have often found myself questioning the way something “should” be made.
RG: The ethical instead of the logical way to make design.
JR: Yes. And the personal.
RG: And is that what you were seeking to understand better when you came to Parsons?
JR: Looking back on my experience with design to-date, there was a significant gap in time between when I entered Parsons and when these ethical and personal feelings toward design started to arise.
RG: The personal side of making design definitely comes up in your thesis project from Parsons, “No Me Olvides.”
JR: I remember the summer before my senior year thinking, “I need to have some strong thesis ideas before I get back to school.” But with that, also understanding that whatever I devoted my time to for two semesters should be personally fulfilling. Engaging my curiosity and enhancing my knowledge of a topic were important. I just wanted whatever I chose to pursue to be personally rewarding. So I came up with a list of topics that were of interest to me at that point in my life, many of which had strong ethical underpinnings, but the one subject that fascinated me the most was that of my paternal grandmother’s life. It is her narrative that provides the framework for “No Me Olvides.”
RG: Because it was quite personal, did you have some apprehension as to how best to present your grandmother’s life story?
JR: Yes. The project was constructed from interviews with her, and it was important that the tone of the format reflect the fact that she is such an important and influential person in my life. But it did concern me at times. When it did, I tried to remind myself that another reason for perusing this project was to understand her story—that of a Mexican-American woman living on both sides of the U.S. and Mexico border at different points in her life—in the context of my own life. I hoped it would help me to better understand my own identity as a Mexican-American.
RG: Talk about the actual format of the book a bit, can you explain how it works on a basic level?
JR: It’s actually a set of two books. One book represents my grandmother’s experiences in the U.S., while the other represents her experiences in Mexico. The books are concordant, and meant to be read simultaneously. Her narrative follows the format of the books, navigating each book as dictated by her story. In addition to the interviews, her narrative was also based on autobiographical writings, or reflections of her life. Each of those two elements are essentially memories, so even though the narrative follows a chronological structure, her memories relate to time in a non-linear way. For example, an experience she may have had in Mexico might make her compare her life then with what her life had been like in the U.S. In effect, parts of her story span both books simultaneously. My grandmother gave me full license to explore near every nook and cranny of her home for materials!
RG: I think it’s interesting to use the concordance format for the story of a crossing, both a physical crossing of the Rio Grande, and the crossing of cultures. I also think it’s interesting because the concordance is such an “official” form, used by bibliographers and museum directors, and here it’s being used for something that is very far away from that context.
JR: With this project there was the concern of how to appeal to a larger audience, as we discussed before. To address that issue, I literally framed her experience with events that happened within both countries and the world during the time period covered. The intention was to add a broader context to her story, an understanding of how her life was influenced by the wider world around her. So while her story is extremely personal in nature, the project assumes a collective significance; it becomes a represention of the struggles with acculturation experienced by many Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans during this period on both sides of the border. This means one could easily view this concordance as being not too different from the ones you mentioned before-a type of “official” history told through a personal narrative.
RG: What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?
JR: Since the project was produced and exhibited, the feedback has been quite positive.
RG: And how does your grandmother feel about it? Has she seen it?
JR: Yes, she has seen it. She is quite proud of the project. My entire family has been proud. One family member went as far as to suggest that a set of the books should be donated to the Topeka Historical Society. She has been fairly involved with the organization to promote the Mexican American experience in Topeka and Kansas. She’s a close cousin, and I consider her a contributor to the project. She was responsible for interviewing my grandmother in the mid-nineties. She also wrote an paper presenting portions of our grandmother’s narrative in three different formats. I have borrowed heavily from her research, and my role with her work has been to extrude more from the interviews, enhance them with additional materials, and present it all in a single, coherent format. There is still more work to be done.
RG: I think it’s important to see any project, especially a thesis project, as an avenue to a wider (and hopefully ongoing) discussion. Very little design exists for itself. It exists more generally as a trigger to action. I want to talk now about another of your projects, the booklet you made about historic assassinations.
JR: Well, I was browsing magazines one day at the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York and came across what I thought was a beautiful magazine from Italy, lots of bold and classy typography and photography, largely black-and-white, and all in Italian. I didn’t understand one word in the magazine. But I came across a spread with a beautiful, old black-and-white photograph of an Italian figure that had just been shot to death. I was staring at this photograph in complete awe-the crop of the image, the contrast, and the “vulgarity” of the subject matter. It made me think about why people are killed, or at least why some noteworthy people are killed, or assassinated. I started thinking about noteworthy people in twentieth-century American society that have been assassinated and why.
RG: I found while I was looking at your book I was thinking back to when I first saw Warhol’s silk-screened paintings of car wrecks and disasters, which are also both kind of beautiful and horrifying.
JR: Exactly! Those are images-Warhol’s-that I’ve become familiar with the past two years and have been fascinated by them. When conceiving of the project, I immediately thought of what might be deemed as the most noteworthy assassinations of the twentieth century: JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X. Each was involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. So I set out to find photography and text that held meaning to who they were and what it was they were fighting for, and why those struggles might have contributed to their deaths. The booklet was ultimately put together using images and excerpts of text that were found in the New York Public Library image collection. One of the constraints I placed upon myself at the onset of the project was that I wanted to introduce a minimum of computer-generated typography, so much of the typography in the book is scanned from pieces of text culled from the collection.
RG: It seems like storytelling is such a major interest for you.
JR: It’s funny because I don’t bill myself as a storyteller in the literal sit-around-a-campfire sense, but it is nonetheless an important aspect of my work.
RG: I think you’ve used the alphabet as a storytelling medium, too, in your urban decay typeface project.
JR: Perhaps. How do you see it?
RG: Well, the cracks and decaying, there’s a time element to that. Wear and tear, you know. I think the material, pavement, is very narrative. It’s quite humble, but it’s also sad and emotive, sort of lost or overlooked.
JR: I was trying to say a lot with this typeface. I’m not convinced that the “final” format says enough, but ideas of time and humankind, and their effects on the urban environment were at the heart of it. At the time I was taking quite a few photographs of weathered urban surfaces: chipped paint, rust, graffiti. So all of this was at the forefront of my mind at the time.
RG: One of the great tests of a conceptual typeface like this is putting it to use. You’ve got an ABC specimen here to show, but is there something more specific you’d like to write with your typeface?
JR: I’d like to find someone else’s perspective on the same ideas and typeset that. Just a short passage, not a long diatribe. Maybe something from Jane Jacobs…
RG: What really makes a project like this work is absolute dedication to finding exactly the right set of things. It must have taken you forever to do that in this case.
JR: It seemed like forever, but it only took about two weeks. Two weeks of staring straight down at the ground. It’s funny, some people do not initially believe each glyph to be authentic. A graphic designer who recently reviewed my portfolio suggested that I even include a caption that the images are in no way Photoshopped!
RG: I think it’s important that you didn’t Photoshop them, but I also think, if you really look at the typeface, that shows.
JR: I agree and I hope so.
RG: What’s next, Jason?
JR: That’s a big question! Since I left Parsons in May, I have focused my energies on scouting about for opportunities in publishing, specifically book cover design. I have spent much of my time making introductions to book cover designers and art directors whose work I admire. It’s been quite exciting. I feel quite lucky to have had this experience at all.
RG: Well, given this interest in book jackets, it looks like one way or another there’ll be more storytelling in your future.
JR: I sure hope so.