Carlos Alberto Masvidal: "The National Design Award is the Olympic gold"

In school the teacher complained he was always drawing in class but Carlos Alberto Masvidal Saavedra's path to receiving the Cuban National Design Award was not easy.

As there was no Design degree in Cuba when he was young and History of Art was not available at all universities, Masvidal studied engineering, until he applied to be an illustrator at the Juventud Técnica (Technical Youth) magazine: "There began one of the funniest times of my life, where I also made many friendships. Juventud Técnica was what made me famous in a popular way – there are still people who stop me on the street and ask: 'Are you Masvidal the JT?' They are a generation now in their 40s that I managed to hook with the illustrations".

At the time of the Special Period from the early 90s many publications ceased to exist, and others reduced their pages and their frequency. Masvidal worked for a time at the newspaper Granma and the Abril Publishing House, but there were not many creative outlets for him until Habaguanex appeared, which later became part of the cultural project of the Office of the Historian in Havana (a highly praised and creative huge project to regenerate Old Havana) which included the station Habana Radio, Editorial Boloña publishers, the project Rutas y Andares, and many other initiatives of Old Havana that thrived on creativity, innovation and development.

"I really admire the project of Eusebio Leal (who heads the Office of the Historian of Havana) and the people who put it together, because it has managed to do something different," says Masvidal. "Leal knows how to appreciate things well and uses the resources that he has in order to improve things. The fact that everything I designed became reality is an incalculable treasure. Time flew by because, as John Lennon said, 'life is what happens while you're working.' "

Today Masvidal has an outstanding professional career having received over 40 awards. He has designed magazines, books, newspapers, tabloids, visual identities and campaigns that include digital and print applications, including TV spots, websites and stands. His work has been aimed at a broad range of clients, has given lectures at national and international events and universities, and has been a jury at several fairs and festivals.

He talked recently about his artistic concerns, the importance of the award, and the current state of design in Cuba.

You have worked in many aspects of design. Do you have a preference or inclination for a particular one, or do you enjoy them all equally?

I like them all, but I tell you what the trick is. I keep on varying my work. There is no design more effective or gratifying at the moment than publicity, but it destroys you and it is very ephemeral. When I stop doing that, I'm going to work on a book, which is quieter work, not so spectacular, but takes time and is much more methodical. Each type of design focuses you in a different way, so the best way to rest from one is to design something different.

There are some designs that must comply with certain standards or requirements and others in which, perhaps, can give greater opportunity for creativity and innovation. In this sense, which have been more complex?

Each design has its own hand; when it comes out well, you can't fit inside your own body; when it doesn't go well, you want a lightning strike on your head. Identities and logos for me are very complex, because it is a synthesis of important design and you are not always lucid enough to do it well. You can organise the Cultural Program of the Office of the Historian, but a logo, identity or poster is different.

Books are also complicated because they depend on the author and publisher. Recently they gave me the Integral Book Design Award for a work by the Boloña publishing house dedicated to the centennial of Miramar. It was beautiful, pleasant and easy to read, but it was not easy because we had to deal with five architects. I have heard a lot that the important thing about a book is the content and in this world, and at this point, we are a visual society and in flux, where content and form must be thought about; If more and more new generations read more online, you can not present a printed book with a cover that is not attractive.

According to your criteria, what is required of good design?

Design functions to express content; it is not an end in itself, because we are not visual artists, but within that way of expressing the content, yes it can be art. To design you have to have art and culture, because you are a code manipulator, you must know them and know how to use them.Often you are a victim of trends and design according to what prevails in the moment, then you begin to discover how to carry that content beyond the trend. It is very complicated, but at the same time it is the most fun thing in the world.

Designing is like bread: to make it, you add the yeast and you have to leave the dough to rest, later you uncover it and it might be very good or not. The difficult thing is not so much to design, but to manage that design and convince the client.

The first time that Juventud Técnica came out with my cover design, I would pass it on the bus and say: "That looks good". But 40 years later I am doing the animated screens in the Historical Centre (of Old Havana) and I stand still to the side to see the reaction of the people. Those are the little reminders that I'm still alive.

You have received multiple awards throughout your career. What does the National Design Prize in particular?

On the day they gave me the prize, I almost did not go, because I was the eternal nominee: this was the fifth time. I arrived at 5:30 at the Malecon sea front and for the first time in ten years I just sat there, but in the end I decided to go to the award ceremony. I had seen all the people of the ONDi days before and they had not mentioned it. Then they announced that this year they had processed only two nominees: José Menéndez Sigarroa and myself. When they said my name I went cold, because I did not expect that. Everything was fine, but I did not have time to call any of my family and friends to be there.

What I can tell you is that when I was 20 I was crazy about this prize, and now that I have the prize, I'm crazy about being 20 years old (laughs). It is a relief to know that I finally got it, because the National Design Award is the Olympic gold. I had won world championships, Pan American, Central American, but I lacked the gold of the Olympiad. The first time I was nominated in 2007 I was the happiest guy in the world, when they gave me the Raúl Martínez National Book Design Prize.

The prize is a point in time, but you are not. You are the result of your family, your friends, your schools, those who helped you and those who did not, whom you helped. Then, when you get a prize like that, you feel you have to talk about all those who helped you, and the prize is also a recognition of all those people. If there had been no Office of the Historian with the ability to creatively bring people together, establish a positive cycle of work and a space where beauty works, I would not have this award. Fortunately, I fell into a place where conditions were propitious to grow. And if you are an honest person you can not stop thanking those who helped you.

The prize gives you the peace of mind that you worked and managed to be where you wanted to be. The bad thing is that you raise the bar too high. I still do not believe that I am the National Design Award, I am Masvidal who has to go out every day to fight on the street just like everyone else.

How do you assess the current state of design in Cuba: its strengths and weaknesses, the challenges it faces, etc.?

Design in Cuba is as never before, there is a huge amount of good people, but you can not take away the design of the economy and the development of the country. We are making a factory of good designers who are falling in a sack, and that sack is broken and emptied every time, that is, they leave the country, which does not have the economic possibilities for each one to develop his work and his capacities .

With globalization and the internet there has been something very good, and that is the reference level, which is faster and better: now any designer can look at the the web and see how it is being designed in other parts of the world. Young designers are much more up to date and in general design has improved a lot. But there is still no design industry in Cuba, least of all for an industrial designer.

On the other hand, we are evolving because in the past the whole design of the television was poor and today you can find some bad stuff, but also other very good things. Also, the self-employed are beginning to use design, not only on a table in the street selling guachipupa drink, but places with spectacular design. In that I perceive a channel of realization, because whoever did that understood the necessity of design.

Link to original article and interview in La Jiribilla in spanish