Ronald Shakespear: Making the City Legible
SEGD's 2008 Fellow on design, cities, and storks
Ronald Shakespear has described his profession as “making the city legible.” With his sons Lorenzo and Juan and daughter Barbara, his design consultancy Diseño Shakespear has completed numerous wayfinding, branding, and design mega-projects in Buenos Aires, from the city’s underground to its hospitals and zoo.
While most of their work has been in Argentina, their reputation is global, with published projects in design journals such as Communication Arts, Ottagono, Taschen’s Latin American Design, Print, and Novum. The firm’s work has been exhibited at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the AIA Branch House in Richmond, the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, DC, and at the Triennale di Milano.
Throughout his 50-year career, Ronald Shakespear has played the role of educator as frequently as he has that of designer. He has lectured in Latin America, Canada, Europe, and the U.S., but his most enduring teaching relationship has been with the University of Buenos Aires as head professor in the Division of Architecture, Design and Urbanism. As president of Asociación de Diseñadores Gráficos de Buenos Aires (ADG), and founder of Espacio Diseño, the first permanent design exhibition in Buenos Aires, he has had a prodigious impact on the city’s design community and its next generation of designers.
You enjoy sharing insights from a wide variety of sources, from Alan Fletcher to Marilyn Monroe. They are always delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking, but how do these narrative sketches convey your philosophy?
Design is a complex event, which we need to consider from the perspective of other disciplines and knowledge. Establishing connections helps us see and understand. I feel comfortable with connections. My stories and my books are about that. Design is not an island. It is a sea. I use stories as inductive metaphors, because I think they may inspire people.
How do you begin a project? Where do you start?
When tackling a problem, I always start with the audience, the people. Understanding an audience involves deciphering their codes. They help me define the problem. Finally, design is for them.
I have always started—naturally—from intuition. The method, the research, the process, comes later, in order to verify that intuition.
Where does creativity come from?
Dora, my mom, is 96. She is convinced that I sit alone every night, with a glass of whiskey, my eyes becoming all blurry, and then—out of nowhere—the fairies appear. They are naked, by the way. And that is when the magic begins. The ideas. The images. I must say I have never seen a fairy. Especially not a naked one.
And yet, a lot of people believe that this is “creativity.” The word is probably the most common and absurd expression in this trade. I have always thought that “creativity” is a euphemism to describe a rare magic attained solely by a small number of people, a discriminatory term that praises an ability or training—or both—that tends to produce innovative events. People coin certain cultural pet phrases that help them explain what is inexplicable.
Many of your projects are at the scale of the city itself. How do you decipher the needs of the audience when it is the population of an urban environment?
Urban features are many and their complexity is enhanced by iconic diversity, architecture, overlapping cultures, constant changes, and semiotic noise in the city landscape.
Intangibles always make the difference. People’s abilities to perceive the urban landscape might be similar in many cities. Traveling provides pleasure and knowledge. Signs must help people to find their way in the city, but just as important, they build the identity of the place.
I need time to learn so I must visit cities as many times as I can. I’ve been in more than 25 different cities and I find similarities in people’s voices, in how they refer to their subways for example: the Tube in London, Metro in Paris, Subway in New York, and Subte in Buenos Aires.
Beyond directing people and identifying places, what is the role of signage in an urban environment?
A sign is not a panel with images, figures, and letters. Signs are instruments of information, identity, and stimulation.
Sensible and intuitive signage systems are created by designers who understand the complexities of public spaces, the particular environment of the project in question, and the expected performance and functions of the signs. Designers of signage systems are, in effect, deciphering the audience’s codes.
Signs are active expressions of identity that go beyond just giving directions and solving basic circulation and communication problems. They are instruments that help build a house style, a tone of voice, a dialogue with the audience. They are part of the citizen’s daily life. Signs not only are there; they must act as if they have always been there.
They must become visible when the decision of a destination has to be made, do their job, and then become part of the surroundings again.
You've cited Jock Kinneir’s assessment about large-scale wayfinding engagements: “These projects are a test sent by destiny for us to prove our ability to remain.” How do you find the design solution that will endure?
Jock Kinneir had a deep significance for us back in the 1970s. The epic narrative of his program for the UK highways turned him into a reference for us. The way he managed his relationship with the traffic engineers, architects, and urban planners was as significant as the pragmatic representation of the “Road Ahead as a Vector Sign,” from a historical point of view, perhaps his most remarkable contribution at the time.
“Man speaks in small letters. He shouts in capital letters,” Jock Kinneir used to say.
It has been said that humankind has the public signs it deserves, although it is almost a sure thing that the Roman Empire did not deserve something so beautiful as Trajan’s typographic frontispieces. Facing such an assignment, adds Jock Kinneir, is a moment of truth for any designer, because it challenges his skills, integrity, and power of permanence.
--By Leslie Wolke, segdDESIGN No. 21, 2008
“Ronald had to literally invent the profession of design 45+ years ago in Argentina—the country was young and geographically ‘in the world’s back yard.’ This forced him to create not only a new visual language for his country but learn and educate his clients along this long road.”
“He believes in the power of 1 to 1 scale and the permanence of metal. His signs are there to stay in the urban environment. He has this unusual ability to make monster-size signs blend with the local culture. A big ear, he says. A big ear to hear the local lingo of the common folk, rescue it, and put it in the public space. His greatest accomplishment has been making the public space publicly ‘owned’ through making it readable.”
“Some clients will ask me for a boat. What they actually need is to cross a river.”