Rafael Esquer believes his first big break came the summer before he turned 10. While most children played, he got a job pushing an ice-cream cart through the streets of Huatabampo, a city on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Under the hot Sonoran Desert sun, he sold ice cream and popsicles every day that summer. His grandmother saved his 10-percent sales commission for him so he wouldn't spend the money right away. Esquer didn't want to stray from his goal: a pair of tennis shoes he had seen other neighborhood children wearing. He had asked his father for them, but with six children and a civil servant's income, his father refused. Esquer would have to earn the shoes on his own.
“At end of the summer, when I had enough money and went to buy them, I felt so empowered,” Esquer recalls. “I felt, my God, I could do anything I want if I were disciplined and had vision. It was one of my most powerful moments of clarity.”
With that lesson as the foundation, Esquer has built a successful career in communication design. His imaginative designs have graced the bodies of Olympic athletes and album covers of renowned musicians. Millions would come across his work for the City of New York in their daily lives. But first, he had to find the discipline and vision to become a designer.
On his early aspirations:
When I saw Picasso's work, it just looked like something fun—I wanted to do that. I knew for sure that I wanted to travel, learn from other cultures, be challenged and have friends from all over the world.
Esquer grew up a son of a teacher who moved his family wherever schools needed to be built. He remembers how hard his father worked to convince rural Mexicans of the need for education. A Spanish speaker, his father would go door to door in far-flung villages with small populations that often only spoke in obscure, indigenous dialects. Once his father had helped them build schools and hire teachers, the Esquer family would pack up and move to the next town. In these formative years, Esquer lived in no fewer than 20 houses. He began drawing to entertain himself, and for a boy who was always the new kid, drawing also became an instrument of social survival. He drew as a way of reaching out to the new children he met. He found that if his classmates liked what he drew, they generally liked him, too. Art and design, however, were not yet a part of the future he saw for himself. He always thought he would teach, like his father. Then, his father had a stroke when Esquer was in his teens, and his mother not only took control of the household but gave him permission to pursue his own path. “My mother then told me, you don't have to be a teacher. You can be anything you want.”
After being “freed” from what felt like the family business, Esquer latched on to the idea of becoming an architect. In 1986, he took a 36-hour train to Mexico City to take his entrance exam. But there would be no young architect-in-the-making. On the way, Esquer got lost and didn't arrive at the right examination center in time. To avoid returning to Sonora, he enrolled briefly at a photography school. The next year, his fascination with typography drew him to study graphic design at Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana.
What he collected as a child:
Rocks. I was mesmerized by their colors, textures… their uniqueness.
Esquer might have continued to live in Mexico City and study design there, but then two new Macintosh computers arrived at his university's design lab. Those machines opened his eyes to what computers could do—only problem was that he barely understood the words on the screen. In 1989, he moved to Los Angeles, intending to stay there just for a year to improve his English. One year turned into many more. To support himself he worked the graveyard shift at the 7-Eleven on the intersection of La Brea and Sunset Boulevard. Esquer has no regrets. “It was a great learning experience. Working at night, you just see all kinds of characters. I became friends with prostitutes and lost actors coming in to look at magazines in the middle of the night. It gave me an understanding of people I'd never have been exposed to otherwise,” he says.
He took graphic design classes at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College and got a job as a designer at a Hispanic alternative weekly; within two months he was promoted to art director. In 1993, he got into the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena. In 1996, while finishing his degree, he won a student typography competition and flew to New York for the award show. There, he ran into a former Art Center classmate whose referral helped Esquer to land a job offer. Thrilled by his first taste of the city, Esquer accepted. “New York felt like home,” he says. “It felt like revolution was in the air all the time.”
On diversity in design:
It amazes me, everywhere I go—whether to give a lecture or judge, in any city in the country—young Latin designers (students or young professionals) come to thank me. There is a lack of role models for minority designers.
That stint at interactive advertising agency Poppe Tyson got him to New York, but it was his work at @radical.media that won him accolades, including a National Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in 2004. Impressed by Esquer's ability to help win pitches, @radical.media's CEO and chairman Jon Kamen gave him carte blanche to step in and elevate the design group's work. “[Kamen] told me he wanted to make the best design studio in New York. So I hired people and made my team. They gave me a lot of freedom.” Esquer's projects included the art directing the packaging for Bjork's single Cocoon and a TV spot for George Harrison's album All Things Must Pass. Collaborating with Oscar-winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka, he created racing suits and uniforms for the 2002 Winter Olympics. New Yorkers who've dialed the municipal information hotline will recognize his logo for 311, and his versatile Made in NY logo has helped to brand the city's industriousness. The work that he's most proud of from that time may be lower in profile, but greater in meaning. Esquer designed canvas laundry bags that @radical.media sent to clients and friends of the company so they could be returned, filled with clothes for charity. The response was so overwhelming it became an annual holiday project that spanned six cities internationally.
The laundry project reminded Esquer of how much he missed actual hands-on design and projects that were truly his. In 2004, he left @radical.media and founded alfalfa studio. “One of the reasons I work on my own is to be able to really work on those things I want to do. Real design comes out of problems and finding solutions for them,” says Esquer. “We [designers] are so privileged as to have the power to communicate to the masses and affect the world.” Among Esquer's many projects is alfalfa-seeds.com, a web-based graphic T-shirt line with profits going towards scholarships for minority design students. “When I go to give lectures, I find I'm usually the only Latino there. All these minority kids would come up and thank me. It made me wonder why more people like me are not doing this.” It's not surprising then that Esquer now also teaches design classes for Spanish-speakers at the School of Visual Arts. The son of a teacher has achieved success as a designer in New York, but despite how far he's come, the influence of the family business—of civil service and education—is still intact. “I'm optimistic,” says Esquer. “It's hard to be a business owner and run your own studio. I could be very comfortable somewhere else, but I believe in what I do. I believe it can make a little difference.”