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  • Freshly baked: U.S. students brand a Mexican panadería

    The curiosity about different ways of life, the discovery of new sources of inspiration, and the desire for adventure are all incentives for leaving the comfort zone of our daily lives and embarking on travel. How can we find the essence, the true self of a given culture? This quest seems to be in the mind of designers who definitely travel differently. Designers notice signage and advertising, collect unusual objects, tear posters, draw and photograph more than their travel companions, and even roam through trash in search of that little piece of something they’ve never seen before. The symbolic, representative objects that embody a culture fascinate us for their aesthetic and semiotic value; we crave the “un-designed,” the vernacular that talks and communicates through its spontaneity and uninhibited use of form, type and color.

    Mexico, is a country where designers can clearly see and experience the layering of cultures that started with the Spanish colonization and continues today with its accelerated integration into global culture; it is an ideal place where designers can be inspired and challenged by the intense hybrid mixture of identities we Mexicans call “mestizaje.” I wanted to share this culture with my students, and I saw the imminent need to educate them about “Latinos,” a demographic group for which, I believe, they would be designing eventually. As a result, in the winter of 2006 I took twelve graphic design majors from Ohio University to central Mexico on a study abroad program and embarked on what would be a life changing experience for all. Ten weeks absorbing the local culture to the fullest, taking hundreds of photographs, designing and binding books, printing in an eighteenth century workshop, designing on the sunny terrace of our house, making paper in Oaxaca and going from pain to pleasure with raw chicken vendors, smells and wrestling matches. (fig. 1)

    “I had never seen a peacock in full plumage, but on a small dirt road off the beaten path, I experienced one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life. For me that is what Mexico was: a series of surprises?” — Jim Thomas, graphic design senior

    The cultural amalgamation that happens in Mexico can be seen through its historic and artistic landmarks but also in every day places, situations and objects such as cemeteries, weddings, markets and particularly food. Bread, as a cultural signifier in Mexico was the topic of a letterpress/ typography investigation done during the art and design study abroad program using the names of traditional Mexican breads and rolls as the point of departure.

    Bread as metaphor

    Bread has a long lasting, cultural importance: it embodies culture in the way that it is made, shaped, bought and consumed. In bread one can see the rituals, the concept of time, and the nurture of a given culture. It establishes a persistent and indissoluble connection between past, present and tradition. “Bread is similar to wine in that it is often understood to evoke something larger than itself, the regional soil, the character of the place and people who make and eat it.” 1  

    Bakeries or “panaderías” have a long tradition in Mexico, and they are the historic result of three cultural layers: French, Spanish and Mexican. Every neighborhood has at least one “panadería” where a wide variety of breads and rolls is made daily to be consumed at morning, noon, and night. Traditional bakeries are large, open spaces with rows of trays filled with bread in all shapes; one takes a tray, a pair of tongs and picks the bread that is then individually counted and placed in a brown paper bag. For generations, the daily visit to the bakery has been a ritual that marks the rhythm of life. People choose the bread carefully, taking into consideration the family’s preferences, and they treat their baker with respect and loyalty.

    As with many other forms of small businesses, local neighborhood “panaderías” are in danger of extinction due to supermarket chains that have added large bakery sections to their stores as well the expansion of large baker franchises that have evolved into “bread boutiques.” Today traditional, neighborhood bakeries struggle not only with the loss of clientele but with the fact that young Mexicans prefer processed, packaged and branded products.

    Mexican bread names and sayings that use bread as metaphor reveal history, tradition, and humor; they are an example of the Mexicans’ talent in playing with language as well as for their obsession with form, ornament and excess. They demonstrate a familiarity with the premise that things, people and events do not have one fixed, final, true meaning. “Maybe our meticulousness, which is a constant in our own being and is what gives coherence and antiquity to our people, stems from the love we profess towards form.” 2 

    A buen hambre, no hay mal pan/ For good hunger, there’s no bad bread Donde hay hambre, no hay pan duro/ Where there’s hunger, there’s no hard bread Las penas con pan son buenas/ Sorrows with bread are joys ¡Pan comido!/Eaten bread! (Easy!) No solo de pan vive el hombre/ Not only from bread does man live

    Some popular Mexican bread names:
    concha/shell
    baile/dance
    gachupín/Spanish immigrant
    trompón/blow on the face
    moño/bow
    media noche/midnight
    cuerno/horn
    piedra/stone
    conde/count
    reja/fence
    caracol/snail
    chamuco/devil
    chancla/slipper
    regañada/scolded
    monja/nun
    pachuco/Mexican-American teenager
    hueso/bone
    suspiro/sigh
    pañuelo/handkerchief
    volcán/volcano
    yoyo/yoyo
     

    The project

    The assignment started out as an open typographic investigation through the use of lead type and letterpress which are readily available and in use in many small print shops in Mexico. The final project and pragmatic application of the investigation was unknown at this point. The initial goal was to work experimentally with type as a physical object, learn the basics of printing on a traditional letterpress and come in contact with the local culture through the subject of bread and the work at a letterpress workshop.

    Since a final goal was not meant to drive the formal research, the process and constant analysis of solutions during critiques became crucial. The pragmatic project outcome was to come from being in contact with the Mexican culture which was new for all of the students, and we allowed the experience of the context to inform the final application of the investigation.

    The decision to develop the project into the identity for a “panadería” became obvious when the students started buying and eating bread as part of their daily routine while in Mexico.

    It also came about as a reaction to their astonishment at how many businesses and products in Mexico were not “branded.” They were surprised that graphic design for small enterprises and organizations seemed to be “handmade” and based on the real and basic premises of the given product or service. (fig. 2)

    As a final result, the visual identity for a traditional Mexican bakery was developed. The main challenge faced by the students consisted of coming up with a solution that gave the bakery a competitive presence when compared to its supermarket and franchise counterparts, but still conveyed the idea that this was a local, traditional bread of quality. The project challenged expectations and preconceived ideas about how to make a “better” design or a more competitive solution without losing the vernacular, the local flavor, and the audience’s expectations of a traditional “panadería.”

    The process

    The names for the different bread forms were the center of the project and functioned as object representations that produced meaning through basic design decisions. The students were presented with a list of words “foreign” them, a sample of Mexican bread names and were given a brief background on the subject as well as the characteristics of each type of bread: sweet, savory, flaky, powdery, chewy, soft, rolled, glazed, twisted, etc.

    Due to the fact that the group did not share the Mexican cultural or linguistic code, they had no previous word/object/idea relationship to base their solutions on and therefore did not attempt any mimetic or illustrative form of representation. This approach allowed them the freedom to interpret the names freely through the choice of typeface, contrast in size, alignment and character substitution. The letterpress provided the opportunity to handle type as a physical object as well as set boundaries by limiting type choices and stimulating them to improvise while working with the limited and often incomplete sets of fonts that were available. Once the type was set and locked on the press, further experimentation was done by changing the color, the background and the kind of surface such as opaque, glossy, thin, thick, cloth, etc. (figs. 3 and 4)

    The printed results gave way to thought and discussion about what the letterpress as a technique had contributed to the meaning of the given words. At the same time, students discovered affinities with aspects of the Mexican visual culture and aesthetics that they perceived such as spontaneity, contrast, boldness, and the use of texture.

    Numerous critiques, in which local friends of the group were included, provided ideas and feedback on possible directions towards an application of the typographic solutions.

    A primary concern was that the original designs and formal characteristics were to be preserved as much as possible. Other elements could be “added” but only in a subordinate role. The most important question was, what are these words telling us beyond a bread name?

    A round, soft, slightly sweet, and powdery roll that is meant to be stuffed as a sandwich called “Pambazo” was chosen as the name to be given to an existing “panadería” that was located in downtown Puebla. That establishment simply stated what it sold—bread—with the word “PAN” painted on a wall. A black and white illuminated sign displayed the word at night.

    For the development of the identity, the letterpress printouts were scanned and manipulated to test and adjust letter spacing, color, and the addition of the word “panadería.” The applications for the identity were defined after the students visited several “panaderías.” They watched how the bread was made, how it was displayed and bought, as well as talked to owners and bakers about their needs and concerns. On-site research was crucial to their design solutions. When applied, the identity had to be flexible enough to be successfully and economically reproduced on a variety of materials, as well as varied and playful in relationship with the actual object or context it was placed on. (figs. 5, 6, 7 and 8)

    The visual identity for “Panadería El Pambazo” was mainly applied on stationery, printed items such as orders, invoices, business cards and labels, as well as a “brand” on labels for bread bags, loaves, desserts and cakes. All the applications were printed and produced by the students as part of the letterpress and bookmaking class. They bound paper order pads, and they silk-screened aprons, bags, and mugs. They also used an ink jet color printer for posters, labels and cards.

    In producing prototypes for the applications it was important to preserve the “rough” and “imperfect” character of the original letterpress prints: this quality maintained the identity as a friendly, and approachable business as well as giving the traditional letterpress a practical and contemporary value.

    Some conclusions

    The “Panadería El Pambazo” project presented an ideal opportunity to question the role of graphic design in conceiving a visual identity that dealt with local vs. global aspects of visual representation. The balance between the design students’ skills, creativity and ideas on how a bakery “should” look, and the actual needs of the project was a challenge that re-affirmed the importance of research, understanding of context, and function in design. At the end of the process we could attest that the final solution did not follow the dominant aesthetic and paradigms of other bakeries whose identities have been “designed” to fit the global and corporate marketing trends that exist today.

    An unexpected benefit was that the resulting project challenged and motivated the bakery owner and its employees to improve their customer service and general quality.

    Labels on bread trays, aprons, name tags, mugs and printed brown paper bags gave the workers at the bakery a sense of pride that resulted in them enhancing the business in ways that were not directly related to graphic design.

    The food, the people, the language, and the travel were all ways through which the students immersed themselves and absorbed the culture, all of them in different degrees. But one development was common for all: the awareness and assimilation of the local, visual culture into their own personal aesthetic and visual vocabulary. Their design work changed dramatically. This assignment in particular made the students accept cultural relativism and the need for questioning their own certainties, for observing and understanding “otherness,” and for imaginative visual “translations” when faced with working in a different culture.

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    Notes

    1 Bertolli, Paul and Alice Waters. Chez Panisse Cooking. New York: Random House, 1988.

    2 Paz, Octavio. El Laberinto de la Soledad. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1994.

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