Back to our Roots to Become Different

El Salvador, Frida Larios, Indigenous, Indigo, Madrid, Montreal, New Maya Language

Article featured in Yorokobu Design Magazine July-August 2010 print edition in Madrid, Spain.

By Marcus Hurst

Indigo promotes a coming together between designers and indigenous culture in search for distinctive elements in a world that is day by day more homogenous.
“Globalisation is standardising everything.  We share languages, in many cases, English.  A uniform design aesthetic is starting to impose itself.  In an environment where the local and global breathe next to one another we cannot forget about our roots”, said Russell Kennedy, Icograda (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) President.

PORTADA_YOROKOBU_09_JULIO_2010 INTERIOR_YOROKOBU09_JULIO2010INTERIOR_YOROKOBU09_JULIO2010INTERIOR_YOROKOBU09_JULIO2010Since 2006 Kennedy is one of Indigo’s promoters, an organisation that helps study and experiment with indigenous design.  The aim is to explore different ways of highlighting and exploiting its identity without appropriating its customs.

“It is a very delicate subject because a lot of the times it has many political and colonial connotations.  With Indigo we have wanted to create a network of designers that explore this field.  At first, it was born to study the aboriginal peoples and the American Indians.  Upon advancing with the project we realised it is a theme that can be applied to any part of the world.  It has special relevance in Asia where countries are trying to establish a differentiating element.”

According to Kennedy, cultures’ over-protection prevents evolution. “In Australia, on the other hand, there is the belief that indigenous cultures need to be protected above all and the museums do it very well.  But sometimes this obsession doesn’t allow for their culture to change and evolve.”

The New Maya Language
Frida Larios is one of the designers who actively participates in Indigo as an ambassador.  In her case, she has done by exploring ways of redesigning Maya art and design and translating it to our present context.

In what year did you start the project? It started in 2004, when I was studying my masters in Communication Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London.  I was the first Salvadorean woman to study there – ¿How could I not look for my own roots within an institution, and city, with marked avant-gardé tendencies? The Maya are one of the founding six pillars of the civilised world.  Nonetheless, there is a lack of recognition of their intelligent and advanced hieroglyphic language’s art form, within Mesoamerica – a term used for the shared Maya geographical area within Central America – itself, and beyond its boundaries.

How has it evolved? The project is a unique system, in content and style, which rescues the dead written language created by the Maya civilisation across Mesoamerica 300 BC.  The New Maya Language’s vision is the recreation, re-composition and contemporary life’s application in different media: art, product and fashion design, brand identities, information design, navigation and education in archaeological sites and public spaces, children’s toys.  It has been warmly received by public and private entities in Central America.  Through its applications, it aspires to promote culture, education and play.  These three characteristics are its developmental roots.  Whether it is by instigating conceptual thinking through a 0 – 12 year-old boy or girl’s game, through a t-shirt design or, simply by being appreciated through my artworks, which to-date have been acquired by collectors around the world.

Do you continue to explore indigenous art application in design? This is a project that has as much application ground as desired – it can even be expanded to other hieroglyphic languages.  Hence, my goal is for it to always remain democratic, accessible, not only to northern hemispheres’ academics who are the ones who command the hieroglyphic writing knowledge, but to common Mesoamerican citizens.  Above all, and this is one of the shared objectives with my fellow INDIGO colleagues, I want it to be inclusive of native inhabitants so that they have the opportunity to recreate themselves in it.  A lot of these populations are illiterate and my New Maya Language, in a certain way, even touches their emotional fiber.  It is a language without words that makes them feel included in a world where the letters of the alphabet are their uppermost barrier.

What does a designer have to consider when inspiring him or herself in indigenous art and communication? Does he or she have to avoid appropriating his or her culture? In my case I illustrated how it came to light, decoded it so that others could understand where each line, each form and each concept came from.  First by explaining in my book, the original Maya hieroglyphic language to then arrive to what I can call my own, or of my own intellectual property, and the formula for each pictogram’s creation.

Before being historians, mathematicians, or astronomers, they were artists.  Their writing not only gathered the political life and other relevant affairs, but it was also a work of art in itself manifested through different mediums: stone sculpture, ceramics, murals, calligraphic manuscripts, garments and utilitarian products, etc.  There is not much difference between a practicing artist or designer in our days, right? Except that our profession is not as valued as in those old times, in which – like Mayanist Michael D. Coe says – “artists could even be kings.”  It was indeed a royal profession.  When a designer attempts to develop indigenous-iconography based designs, he or she must preserve the ancestral artists’ spirit at the time of creation, highlighting, and not merely reproducing, their own culture.

Do you think Latin American countries should deepen in their roots to reinforce design with an individual identity instead of obsessing with what Anglo-Saxon countries do? But of course. There are parameters at the time of designing, or international design standards, which in fact, were born in the Anglo-Saxon world.  But this is very different to searching for inspiration in European styles that breed from their own history and tradition.  Why not look for inspiration in what is ours, which by the way is very different to the rest? Indigenous cultures had magnificent artistic development, sourcing themselves in their natural and social environment, respecting it.  If we Central American designers, had been able to continue until our present days with that legacy – a development defrauded by many conquests during the course of over 500 years – the roles would be reversed and it would be the western world looking for reference in our culture.  Today, we would be kings.

You can download the Spanish published PDF version here:

Yorokobu – Volver a las Raíces para Ser Diferentes – versión Español.

Or comment on the article on the INDIGO website.

New Year with New Pizza Language


Starting the year with a light and hands-on post–by rolling dough for pizza. My friend Laura gave me the recipe when I was staying with her in Italy.

Paul, my brother-in-law, made a delicious Maranzano tomatoes salsa with marjoram.  Ingredients were added on the flat bases and were stone-baked in his special ceramic smoker.

Pizza numero uno composition: mozzarella, cheddar, mascarpone, bacon, and, rosemary. Pizza numero dos: mozzarella, prime-rib strips from new year’s eve dinner, shallots, and, rosemary.

And here are the pictures–of course Tyler and Yax helped with the preparations.

2010 in review


The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured imageA Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 5,200 times in 2010. That’s about 13 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 31 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 66 posts. There were 102 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 22mb. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was June 17th with 195 views. The most popular post that day was Honoured to be named an INDIGO Ambassador.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Honoured to be named an INDIGO Ambassador June 2010


Frida October 2009


My New Maya Hieroglyphs in children’s text book in France June 2010


Museo del Hombre Hondureño March 2010

WildHeart Vision


It all comes back to indigenous design – at least in my world.


New Maya Language© pictogram turned logo for WildHeart Vision

WildHeart Vision is a multimedia production company that intends to gather the greatest archive of ancient indigenous wisdom documentaries from around the world.  WildHeart Vision might become one of the Helsinki 2012 World Design Capital partners, so they asked for a testimonial linking innovation and indigenous-inspired design.  This was my quote related to my New Maya Language work used in their proposal:

The Maya hieroglyphic language did not only record the political and transcendent affairs.  The script was carefully conceived and designed by multi-talented artists and wisemen, themselves carriers of the knowledge they wrote about, expressed through different media: stone murals, steles and sculptures, ceramics, utilitarian products, jewellery, and books.  There seems to be little difference with practicing designers today, except that our profession is not as valued as in ancestral times.  T heir profession was indeed royal. Like Michael D. Coe says: “Maya artists could be kings.”

Design as life


The National Museum visit helped me expand my understanding of Finnish culture.

Finland has been the spine of the Nordic modernism international- influential style.  It started rising since the 18th century and by the mid 20th century a solid Finnish modernist movement was in place, even though the country had remained relatively agrarian and politically neutral until this time and didn’t enjoy the quality of life and economic dynamism that it boasts today.

The works of the world-acclaimed Alvar Aalto and other notable Finnish architects shaped and reconstructed the face of Finland since after World War II.  This sway expanded beyond architecture to inspire a 20th century interior and industrial design revolution that took over, specially northern, Europe during the 1990’s–epitomised through publications such as Wallpaper (English trend magazine). Then Europe overcame it, Japan naturally mastered it – so far so-called “minimalism” is still expressed, and quite frankly worn out, around the world today as a symbol of sophistication.

With a population of 5.4 million, according to a Le Monde (French newspaper) review, there is a suggestion that

“Finland has more great architects in relation to population than any other country in the world.”

Beyond design, I would say contemporary Finland feels and is much less Viking than its Scandinavian neighbours and more Russian / Eastern than the rest of Europe. Surely a bridge between the west and the east, it maintains a balanced philosophy in key areas: culture, politics, economics, health and education.  Finland has been ranked the second most stable country in the world, barely affected by the global economic fall.


Marimekko a landmark of Finnish design

Design has definitely been an integral part of Finland’s embedded innovation culture that has led to prosperity.  With global-leading brands such as Nokia, Kone and Marimekko, first class education such as University of Art and Design Helsinki – it is not surprising that it will become the World Design Capital host in 2012.

Dream Homes – Dollhouses at the National Museum


This small exhibit was taking place at the National Museum and I found myself more interested in this than the permanent ones.  Curiosity killed the cat.

The oldest known dollhouses, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, were neither utility objects nor toys, but were instead meant to be viewed and admired in curiosity cabinets.  Curiosity cabinets depicted the universe with displays of oddities and strange objects, and a small dollhouse represented command of the miniature world.

Imitating reality, the items in dollhouses were miniature replicas of real objects.  Dollhouses are therefore valuable sources of cultural history, as the objects in them may sometimes be the only surviving examples of the interior decoration of past eras.  Until the second half of the 19th century, however, dollhouses remained a luxury item available only to wealthy families and their children.

Play is children’s work
After the Second World War the architect Elsi Borg designed a miniature home called “Leikkilä” for the Kotilliesi women’s magazine.  With this publication, the practice gained a supposedly educational approach for the children to learn about the world of adults.  For example, girls, and girls only, could learn about the responsibility for housework and chores, even though it was the “boys”, fathers or grandfathers, whose task was to construct the dollhouses.

The exhibition featured thirteen dollhouses from the 19th and 20th centuries.  There is a claimed comeback in designing and building the dollhouses in Finland. So by the end, the exhibition showed some modern dollhouses designed and made by Diakonia College’s preparatory programme for vocational training and elderly people.

“My dream home is an urban apartment where I would live with my fiancé.  Music is important to me.  My dream home also reflects my freedom form the church.” Rattmaster, a 17 year-old says of her mini living-room design (shown at bottom).

I found this exhibition quite kitsch and somewhat egotistic since, the children who should be the real “home dreamers” where just left to “see and learn” from them – I am saying this from an outsiders point of view and don’t mean to upset the culture.  You do have to admire the true work of careful craft they involved though, and a certain beauty and charm.  My favourite part were the young students’ dream home designs, they somewhat seemed more down to earth and real.

Made in China or designed in China?


I read this very interesting article on the International Herald Tribune by Alice Rawsthorn that presented the brand identity work of graphic designer, Central Academy of Fine Arts (where I exhibited my work at ‘Beijing Typography’ last November) graduate, Liu Zhizhi. His work and ideas are a parallel with my Amsterdam via KLM post that puts in perspective how design is a motor for the creation of national symbols that speak to contemporary citizens and is not just part of museums or ruins.

Liu Zhizhi has created a logo for Brand New China, BCN like he calls it, which is a new shop at a new hoping-to-become trendy shopping centre, Sanlitun’s Village North, probably the next 798 District (see previous blogpost). The botanical drawings depicted on the logo are mint, grains of sticky rice and a leek, all of them representatives of a traditional Chinese home kitchen and which first letters in Chinese are BCN. He has also used beautiful printing and paper-making techniques, typical of Chinese craft to devise the shop’s image.

“An important difference between China and the West is that we respond to things instinctively,” he said. “Westerners often want to understand things by rationalizing them, whereas we just feel and know. Our relationship to visual culture is intuitive and fluid.”
“You can see that in the BNC identity, but there are other very obvious Chinese elements in it,” he continued. “Not so much if you look at the symbols individually, but when you see them together. For example, the two main images, the mint and leek, are facing you flat on the page. The way the space is filled up is very Chinese, too. You can see both of those elements in traditional Chinese painting.”

Through his work, even though a drop in the ocean of all the Chinese sub-standard design out there, he intends to revive the visual excellency that his artists’ ancestors developed through centuries.  I think there is simplicity in his design, nonetheless, the narrative behind it is very unique and culturally rooted.


China designs


Visual identity designed by Liu Zhizhi©

Amsterdam via KLM


On my brief passing via Amsterdam, the Dutch made sure me and everyone who does gets a sentiment for their “Dutchness” or shall I call it “Delftness”. This is not a critique as I think it was a refreshing take on expressing traditional and somewhat clichéd icons with a modern twist.

I wish I had said hola to my friend Nicolette who owns one of my paintings.

Economy with a taste of First

Economy with a taste of First

Giant Delftware

Giant Delftware

Typographical lamp

Holland Boulevard

Frida and her beach volleyball


I don’t only dedicate to inventing a new maya language – I also have a hobby and passion since 1996 – beach volleyball.

My all-time partner Ana, an architect, and I were dedicated part-time beach volleyball professionals as well as pursuing our own careers until 2001 when we won a beach volleyball gold medal for our country El Salvador at Central American Games. Since then we have been on and off playing when our families and work allow.

Ana and me decided to practice and play together again for the on-going Golden Beach International NORCECA Grand Prix where the sponsor has set-up a sand court in the middle of the best shopping mall in San Salvador.

This time the press published a nice article about our come back titled – “Back to the sand – The pioneers of El Salvadorean beach volleyball re-encounter for this grand event.”

I will let you read the article published by La Prensa Gráfica, in Spanish though. We beat Trinidad and Tobago today but it’s a tough competition and we are doing it for fun and for El Salvador of course.

Double page-spread honouring our career together.