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Visual Translation: International Language of Design

Award-winning designs by Camille Espinas, Julio Aguirre, Esalee Andrade-Guerrero and Isaac Sanchez address social issues and modes of communication.

The international design competition Forty-five Symbols, presented by The Phaistos Project, asks graphic designers to create a set of symbols that translate contemporary concerns into a visual narrative. The project is inspired by the Phaistos Disc, an ancient clay disk covered in 45 mysterious symbols that has piqued the curiosity of historians, scholars and artists alike since it was discovered in the early 1900s. 

“We believe that studying a time capsule from the past has the power to spark new ways of thinking,” explains The Phaistos Project.

The annual competition, open to emerging designers from around the world, received nearly 100 submissions this year. Out of the six winning submissions, four came from University of Houston students. The designs created by School of Art students Camille Espinas, Julio Aguirre, Esalee Andrade-Guerrero and Isaac Sanchez address social issues, from Latinx culture to artificial intelligence, through sophisticated and compelling visual systems.

“The transfer of knowledge is a core mission of graphic design,” writes a member of the jury, responding to Espina’s “Curiosité Killed Die Katze.” “As a visual translator, the designer makes complex information or unfamiliar content accessible through the means of visual language.”

Espina’s project addresses how meaning can get lost in translation with idioms, figurative phrases specific to a language or culture. From German’s “you have tomatoes on your eyes!” to Portuguese’s “pay the duck,” Espina illustrates idioms from across the globe using lighthearted, playful images. Accompanying each symbol, she includes the idiom in the original language, the literal English translation and a breakdown of the actual meaning.

Aguirre’s “Dos Mundos” explores the influences of both ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures and Spanish conquistadors on modern Mexican culture. 

“Mexico is a country rich in history, tradition and culture,” says Aguirre. “There has been a constant struggle to finding a cohesive identity throughout the course of history…Mexico has evolved and become a unique country with an identity that pulls influences from the best of both worlds.” 

Andrade-Guerrero was also inspired by Mexico’s cultural traditions. The 45 symbols that comprise “Baile Folkórico” reference folk dances from Mexico’s five federal states, Nuevo Leon, Jalisco, Veracruz, Guerrero and Zacatecas.

The jury described her work as akin to a stop-motion sequence that comes to life, allowing viewers to experience the choreography as an almost sensory experience. “Andrade-Guerrero successfully translates cultural gestures, notations and body language into schematic representations of skirts, and makes the Mexican identity something tangible in this work.” 

Rather than looking to the past, Sanchez projects a future mode of communication between machines and humanity in “AI Generated Language.”

“Today’s robots are equipped with machine learning, which is adaptive and can change course in order to achieve a desired outcome — in some cases, even generating its own language,” says Sanchez. He describes his set of symbols as a “directory of terminology” that could be used in a future imagined world where artificial intelligence has surpassed human intellect.

The winning projects will be featured in an upcoming publication and exhibited as at the upcoming 28th International Biennial of Graphic Design Brno 2018.