There is a great deal of talk about globalization and the importance of being culturally competent. While study abroad programs may increase global cultural competency, not all students are able to take advantage of these opportunities. Introducing international projects in the classroom provides students an alternative way of experiencing other cultures and working cross-culturally. These projects also allow for moments of radical departure from expected routine. It's an opportunity to shake things up, foster an understanding of the "other," and inform the students' design practice.
The 2006 Wixárika Calendar project is an example of design research and pedagogy specifically concerned with combining design, intercultural and ethnographic methods to responsibly represent a marginalized culture's oral tradition of time. As a graphic design educator and researcher, this project was of interest to me because it could demonstrate the didactic value of design and allow the participants to explore what it means to be socially responsible while working across cultures. With a tangible calendar as its outcome, it is both a realized proof of concept and a paradigm for similar projects within international graphic design and intercultural communication practices. This project is unique because we are a tri-cultural design team with different belief systems, values, and economic positions; we relied primarily on the internet as a communication tool to overcome the barriers of distance; and we challenged cultural stereotypes and expectations during the design process and in our design solution.
In July 2004, my colleague Sarah Corona, professor of communications at the Universidad de Guadalajara, proposed that we work with Wixárika community leaders in San Miguel Huaixtita to design a calendar that would communicate their understanding of time—one that has until now been an oral tradition—with the objective of fostering intercultural understanding and respect.
The Wixárika, more commonly known as the Huichol, are an indigenous ethnic group living in the Sierra Madre Occidental in western central México. Residing in small communities, they continue to center their centuries-old practices and beliefs around the life cycle of maíz, their primary subsistence crop. Due to their undocumented oral history and geographic isolation, their beliefs are largely unknown to contemporary Mexicans. As many Wixáritari (plural of Wixárika) understand western practices and values, they increasingly migrate to urban centers in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit to study and work, often finding their cultural traditions and practices devalued and misunderstood. This is particularly evident in issues that relate to time. In contrast to the fixed western calendar, Wixáritari's beliefs and practices are aligned with nature's continuous cycle and careful observation of natural signs. As each culture's conception of time is based on different values, tensions develop.
The resulting 2006 Wixárika Calendar is a collaboration between the Wixárika community of San Miguel Huaixtita in the state of Jalisco (México), Sarah Corona Berkin (Universidad de Guadalajara) and University of Florida graphic design students (BFA 2006) Cassie McDaniel, Avery Smith, and 14 others enrolled in my spring 2005 junior-level Image and Illustration course. Between February and November 2005, we worked on this project to visualize the Wixárika concept of time both in Florida and in Mexico.
"We positioned ourselves in an intercultural framework—one that tries to break away the hierarchies and lends itself to a humanistic and inclusive approach."
When we began this project, a primary concern was our social and cultural responsibility to the Wixárika community. This concern was at the foundation of our decision-making processes—in the ideation and design phases—in the visual and written language of the final calendar. Corona gathered the narrative specifically for this project from community leaders. We began the project with a proof concept for one of six seasons. We considered how the primary target audience (Mexican and Wixárika youth) would use the calendar, which, in turn, guided both the calendar structure and visual language. Our communication objective was to visually represent the Wixárika (Huichol) concept of time, heretofore an oral tradition, based on the customs of San Miguel Huaixtita. However, the underlying conceptual framework was intercultural communication. This predicated our intention to situate both the Wixárika and western cultural conceptions of time on the same plane, thereby equalizing their positions and creating a mutual understanding of different cultural belief systems. An added benefit was to further explore how we, as graphic designers in the United States, can communicate with and for others. We positioned ourselves in an intercultural framework—one that tries to break away the hierarchies and lends itself to a humanistic and inclusive approach.
To realize this project, Corona visited the University of Florida graphic design program in February 2005 to explain the major issues and concepts. After research and discussion, we developed prototypes of different ways to visually represent the Wixárika calendar. Corona has worked with the San Miguel community and through interviews has established that their concept of time is not marked by precise dates and time as we know them, but is based on natural events that are rooted in their agricultural tradition. It is not an understatement to say that their survival was for centuries dependent on their ability to read and make sense of natural signs such as the arrival of a bird, the beginning of a rain, or the blossoming of a flower.
Our fundamental questions as we began this project were: How can we ethically and responsibly represent Huichol concepts?; and How can we use our design skills to engage and speak to the "other"? The key concepts of reciprocity, education, ethical communication, and comparativeness guided our project development. Our primary target audience included Mexican and Huichol students (13–18) and their parents and teachers.
We considered how to use communication and design methodologies to teach Mexican, including Huichol, youth concepts central to the Huichol community ("others" in this region), and how US North Americans can ethically and responsibly represent Huichol concepts in Mexico. Additionally, the international component of this project required students, most of whom had never been to Mexico, to think outside the box in terms of representation, language, economic and cultural disparities, and "otherness." For the students, it was the opportunity to expand their research abilities and stretch their design thinking—putting research into practice through this collaboration.
We spent two class periods with Corona during her visit to the University of Florida. During the first meeting day, Sarah presented a lecture to the University of Florida community and, after the lecture, spent time in the graphic design studios with Melanie Davenport o respond to questions on the project. The students then selected partners and began developing ideas for the projects. During the second meeting, students shared their initial ideas with Corona and she provided feedback on concepts and direction.
After two weeks of work, we sent Corona a PDF file with concept statements and prototypes for one season. She, in turn, presented these to the group of Wixárika teachers with whom she was working, and they selected the concept that they felt was strongest. We had expected to do many more iterations, but according to Corona, the teachers felt several of the prototypes had potential but leaned heavily towards the circular model. Then, they discussed the importance of presenting the concept to community leaders to receive permission for producing and disseminating the calendar, which would fix their beliefs in western minds. Several weeks later, the community leaders also selected the circular calendar as the one they would like to produce. Their selections were due in part to the narrative nature of the illustration and the relationship of the symbols to those that the Wixárika use in their own handicrafts—largely understood by the Mexican population. We used a known language to communicate an unknown concept. The prototypes and accompanying PDF document are on our website "prototypes" page.
While Corona's visit to the University of Florida proved a wealth of knowledge, we also learned about the Wixárika and the many interpretations of their culture by westerners from journals, books, and web sites. However, nothing would inform us and ensure the appropriate cultural responsibility as significantly as our research trip to Guadalajara and San Miguel Huaixtita in summer 2005. This visit, which emphasized on-site research and fieldwork, was pivotal in informing us about the complex Wixárika culture, practices, artifacts, and environment. Spending time with our colleagues in San Miguel Huaixtita and meeting to clarify questions on what was important in the calendar narrative enabled the Wixárika to arrive at an agreement on, and provide us an understanding of, the significant events and activities. Our decision to leave the studio to conduct first-hand field research, relatively unique to the graphic design practice, was critical to understanding this research project. Through this visit, we began to understand the lived reality of the Wixárika, and this informed our design in an exponentially positive way. Before the calendar went to press in October 2005, each project participant agreed that it responsibly represented the Wixárika community of San Miguel Huaixtita's understanding of time.
The 2006 Wixárika Calendar consists of two parts: a circle that illustrates the Wixárika narrative alongside western dates, and a rectangle that encases the circle, allowing the user to rotate the circle and cycle through the year. This format not only signifies how the Wixáritari conceive of time—in a continuously repeating cycle—but the two windows present both Wixárika and western perspectives simultaneously. Pivoting around a circle of the five colors of maíz, the calendar reinforces how the Wixáritari depend on maíz for survival. A small arrow in the western calendar window allows one to set the precise date while the Wixárika calendar window represents a broader span of time—signifying a range of possibilities. This larger sized window for the Wixárika narrative places emphasis because it is less understood, and it is a highly complex visual narrative. The front of the calendar supports the interior illustrations and is comprised of two primary iconic illustrations: the sun and a two-headed eagle, symbolic of the Wixárika culture. The sun is an abstract illustration conceptually linked to the Aztec calendar, thereby reinforcing its position as a calendar but situating it in contempory society. Additional rays and patterned elements are created in multiples of five—a culturally significant number. The interior illustration depicts the most important events and activities of the year, with the bold palette drawn from historic and contemporary Wixáritari textiles. The back of the calendar tells the Wixárika story of the six seasons and is written in the first person since it is their story. To reach the broadest possible audience, and as evidence of the tri-cultural collaboration, the narrative is written in three languages: Wixárika, Spanish, and English. The calendar is a documentation of the Wixárika belief system, so Wixárika appears as the first language. This ordering also respects the Wixárika as an indigenous North American cultural group, subverting the expected linguistic and ideological hierarchy. By including the extensive, written interpretations of our narrative illustration, the calendar becomes not only our visual interpretation of the Wixárika traditions, but an academic, valid attempt to promote intercultural awareness. This project exemplifies, as one colleague wrote, "a terrific piece of design research made concrete," turning it from experimental research into a unique, intercultural project with popular impact.
In order to realize this "proof of concept," we received generous funding from the University of Florida's Center for Latin American Studies and School of Art & Art History and the Universidad de Guadalajara's Cátedra de Biodiversidad and Departmento de Estudios de Comunicación Social, beginning a relationship between the two universities. Since November 2005, this project has been distributed free of charge to all members of the Wixárika community in San Miguel Huaixtita, select public schools, universities, and cultural organizations in Mexico as well as in the United States. Given its positive reception to all audiences, and particularly at the Mexican Secretary of Public Education, we are developing teaching materials to accompany a reprint of this calendar for national distribution in 2007.
Postscript from a student designer
As a graphic design student, this project has shaped my outlook on design more than any other. Collaborating with people of two other cultures outside of my familiar language, customs, and traditions, and the difficulties we encountered in doing so, has made me realize that design is very much embedded in culture and has a significant role outside of visual problems and aesthetics. As my first printed piece, I learned about printing, preparing mechanical files, working within a budget, fundraising, and professional practice in design research. Beyond these technical lessons, I have absorbed the idea that design has the potential for whatever you want it to be. My peers, many of whom concentrated on getting their foot into the corporate doorway, learned that design can be applied for the social good too—especially for a community or group of people that is less privileged in their resources and economic situations.
Being able to visit the community for which we were designing this calendar was an experience that cannot be reproduced in books or photographs. We were able to participate in and observe some of the sacred places, events, and rituals of the Wixárika people, as well as interact with them on a comfortable level in their home environment. Getting to meet our "client" made responsible design even more of a prerogative for us. We often questioned our decisions and our very identity as designers, striving for a humanistic and inclusive solution to this visual and cultural problem.
Because of the scale and originality of this project, I was able to present our process and results at the University of Florida Undergraduate Research Symposium, beginning what I hope to be a long career of going beyond the expected and being able to communicate these innovative solutions to others. Despite the difficulty of working tri-culturally, and the thoughts that were inevitably lost in translation, the benefits for each participant in this type of project naturally outweigh the difficulties of working in unfamiliar languages and environments.
Notes on Prounciation
In the Wixárika language, the "w" is pronounced as a "v"; the "x" is pronounced as a slightly rolled "r". The word "Wixárika" is pronounced "vi-rrA-rika"