Design + Activism
In an interview with Renee Taillon Provisional RGD, Fidel Peña RGD, Creative Director and Partner at Underline Studio, reflects upon finding a voice as a designer and designing for a cause.
Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a designer. Is it something you always saw yourself doing?
I discovered graphic design by chance a year after I moved to Canada. I bought a copy of Applied Arts Magazine and was blown away by the fact that people could get paid to do something that I thought looked like so much fun. That’s when I knew that I had to become a graphic designer.
If you were to give your 20-year-old self advice, what would it be? How do you think it would change the way that you design?
Don’t be shy or afraid. Be confident in your abilities. Make sure you are always open to learning from other designers and don’t be afraid to share your work and receive feedback.
How did you find your voice as a designer?
It took me twenty years of working in graphic design to find out that I needed to use my skills to communicate what is important not just to myself, but also to the communities I belong to. Once I discovered this, I started voicing these issues through design and quickly realized this was a very important part of who I am. I can’t even imagine being only a commercial designer now.
Do you have any recommendations for designers who have political messages in their work? Who inspires your work most?
My recommendation would be to design in the style you feel most comfortable with. Style is like handwriting, uniquely yours, so take advantage of that. Design only about issues that deeply affect you, not from a distance, but from a personal level. Don’t speak for others and always be very honest. Tibor Kalman and David King are designers I deeply admire.
When you started designing the newspaper series, was it to raise awareness around the political / social issues happening in Central America, or were there other reasons? Have there been any unexpected results from designing this series?
Yes, my main goal was to raise awareness about these issues. I honestly could not believe that these issues were not more widely known when I started talking to colleagues and friends about them. In this homogenized, First World, middle-class life that most of us live in, it’s very common to ignore the existence of those who are not like us — the oppressed, the migrants, the poor. By creating images about these issues, I try to bring forward the lived experience of those who are completely ignored and forgotten. Connecting with wonderful people outside of design who are also doing this type of work has been an unexpected but very fulfilling experience.
What is the role of designers in addressing social issues they care about?
Our role should be the same as an author’s would be in the visual or literary mediums. We should be careful with what we publish, research our topics thoroughly and speak with full honesty.
How do you find time to create and promote your socially-minded projects?
I honestly don’t know. When I feel or think that an issue is very important and pressing, I try to respond to it graphically with whatever free time I happen to have. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails. When I think it works, I share the results.
Do you have a topic you love to research that isn’t related to graphic design?
I love to read. Like the writer Roberto Bolaño once said, “I even read the scraps of paper I find on the street”. But seriously, I read whatever I find interesting and I also read for the mere joy of it. When reading new authors or books, I often discover topics that I want to know more about. For example, this year I discovered the work of Ivan Illich and Alasdair Macintyre and both have greatly influenced a lot of the work and reading I’ve done lately. I also love to read fiction and poetry; contemporary novelists and poets in particular like Daniel Borzutzky, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Valeria Luiselli and Javier Zamora influence a lot of the work I am currently doing as well.
What is something you look to for visual inspiration that isn’t the norm?
Walking, paying attention (when I can) to my surroundings and reading.
We always end with a fun question, if you had to listen to one band for the rest of your life, who is it and why?
Soda Stereo. They’re an Argentinian rock band from the 80s and 90s. I listen to them way, way too much.
Fidel Peña RGD is a graphic designer, creative director and the co-founder of Underline Studio. His work has received numerous accolades from across Canada, the US and Europe, including from D&AD (UK), the ADCC and the Type Directors Club (NY). Fidel uses his voice in the design community to bring atrocities to light that would otherwise go unseen; this can be seen in a series of posters created for Underline Studio.