Teaching the "quirky" art of graphic design to poor Filipinos

Things can look pretty bleak if you’re a Filipino artist living in poverty.”

Ferdinand Center for the Creative

So goes Ferdinand Center for the Creative, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing graphic design education for young adults living in poverty. Seeing that many young Filipinos without formal education or a social support structure end up in the fields earning just around $2 per day or–worse–opening themselves up to abuse in the sex trade, the organization organizes classes to teach young adults the necessary skills to eventually work as graphic artists in the creative industry.

The group also conducts a program called Kalye Ferdinand, a skills-building program for streetchildren focused on English language skills, computer skills, arts and crafts, and which also comes with a feeding component. As the organization says in its website, “Solving the literacy problem goes a huge way towards solving the rest of the world’s problems, and it gives street children a head start against educated children, who already have a head start in every other way.”

"Kalye Ferdinand" at Ferdinand Center for the Creative
"Kalye Ferdinand" at Ferdinand Center for the Creative | Photo courtesy of Lester Nelson

Intrigued about the idea of a non-profit center teaching graphic design, we caught up with Lester Nelson, Executive Director of Ferdinand Center for the Creative, and asked him about the organization’s roots and how it plans to make a difference in Philippine society. Thankfully, he gamely answered our questions in spite of a high fever!)

Ferdinand Center for the Creative is a great idea whose time has come. What was the impetus for setting up this organization? Did you have a personal experience in the Philippines that led to a Eureka moment that, in turn, led to the establishment of the organization?

Several years ago, I became good friends with a photographer in the Philippines. I’d run a design firm in the States for about a decade at that time, and I really wanted to figure out a project I could work on together with him. We both agreed we’d try to film a documentary delving into the lives of a few families struggling in poverty, showing their daily lives and the unique positions they’re put in versus the kind of lives my peers and I in the States knew.

Lester Nelson, Executive Director of Ferdinand Center for the Creative
Lester Nelson, Executive Director of Ferdinand Center for the Creative, during a stay in the Philippines

I became really close to these families, considering many of them part of my own family. A couple of them were talented artists, and when they found out what I did for a living, they showed great interest in having a job like mine, but felt discouraged, like they’d never have the opportunity to follow their own heart’s desires in the way I’d been so lucky in life to be able to do. I made a decision then to extend my stay in the Philippines after the documentary was finished, buy them both iMacs, and do my best to teach them everything I knew about graphic design and branding.

Well, some of them were working in the sex industry in order to put food on their families’ plates, and we (the photographer and I) decided we couldn’t film the documentary without hurting their families—and I definitely wanted no part in harming any of them. They truly were some of the most gracious and loving people I’ve ever known; people who’d go to any length to make me feel welcomed and accepted. So we cancelled the documentary that day, and I started brainstorming ways to continue to help the people I cared about here, and make my stay worthwhile. I decided on growing the idea of teaching graphic design to these two students into a center where I could teach many people, and do my part to help out.

How did you bring your board members together? I noticed that their family names don’t seem to be Filipino. Do any of you have any ties to the Philippines that made our country the logical choice for your advocacy?

You’re right that none of our board members are Filipino. We are setting up a second board of directors in the Philippines that will be all-Filipino (aside from myself), but there’s not a single Filipino-American on our board in America currently. So what’s up with that? Well, I come from Alaska. Our “headquarters” are in Alaska (and not in an expensive office building, but in my parents’ home. When this project started, I sold my furniture and appliances, most of my belongings, and moved back into my old bedroom at my incredibly supportive parents’ house. Our meetings are usually at each others’ homes or at cafes. We have a tight budget). Alaska, as of the July 2008 census, has a population of 686,293 people. That’s for the entire state; a state which spans the width of California to Florida. That comes out to one person per 1.03 square miles.

We’re three hours away from the largest city, Anchorage, which itself has a little over 279,000 people in it. It’d be excellent if we were in Anchorage, instead of three hours away, so we’d have a larger pool to choose board members from. It would be even better if we were in a place like Los Angeles (pop. 3,694,820—almost six times the population of the entire state of Alaska!). However, even if we did have a larger pool of candidates to choose from, I’d still choose the same members we currently have (but make it a larger board and include people from the Filipino-American community as well). We didn’t try to exclude the Filipino community when we chose our board, we just tried to pick people with lots of passion, compassion, and expertise, and I’m proud to say our board is loaded with lots of that. In a small town of 4,000 people, they’re gems. And they care a lot about this project.

Why teach design, in particular?

Well, you’ll notice it’s called Ferdinand Center for the Creative, not Center for Design. Currently, our plans are to teach graphic design, and that’s because I’ve worked twelve years in that field. It’s what I know best, and it’s what I’m most passionate about. I can talk your ear off for hours and hours about typography, grids, color theory, etc. Just ask anyone who’s been unlucky enough to go on a road trip with me.

We have larger goals for Ferdinand in the future, though. Near-term, we’re setting out to accomplish what we think we can achieve. Start small. Teach design. But in the future, I’d like to see our center be a place where a group of students can study creative writing, and if they stay with the course to the end, they’ll get published. Another group of students could study design, and at the end of the year, partner with the writers to design the book covers. Another group could study filmmaking, also working in partnership with the writers and designers. Music could be taught. All the different creative fields can work together so harmoniously, I think, and I’m excited for whatever the future may offer.

But that’s not near-term. That’s a goal I never mention on our website or in our promotional booklets because our focus right now is design. Who knows when we’ll reach those other goals—I hope we can eventually, because I think that would be really beautiful.

As a designer, what do you think is the role of design: (1) as an economic activity, (2) as a tool for the students’ self-actualization, and (3) in uplifting a country for which poverty seems to be the norm?

When the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) opened in the ’60s, they had this really great launch video made by Disney that opened with a quote from Lee A. DuBridge. “No nation—and no community—can flourish, or possibly even survive, unless it provides full opportunities for the encouragement, the development, and the full utilization of the intellectual and the artistic talents of its people.” I have that quote hanging up in my office.

Design has so many meanings and is so multi-faceted. Architectural design. Fashion design. User interface design. Automotive design. Our focus is graphic design, and I think it’s just as important as any other type of design.

Good graphic design illuminates ideas. In the marketplace, graphic design helps consumers make decisions.

The first encounter you have with a product is usually its packaging design.

There’s a big debate that’s been going on almost as long as the war between religions and nations, and that’s Is design art? The people who say design isn’t art usually say that design is about business strategy. There’s rules that govern design. It’s very true, but I don’t buy that as an argument.

To me, graphic design is art plus business strategy. The intersecting of two worlds, cooperating to make products that consumers want to buy.

The skills needed for graphic design are also very flexible. A student with these skills could become a packaging designer. A web designer. An illustrator. A branding consultant. Or a mix of all those jobs. The skills give you power, and the first time you see one of your designs in a magazine, or on a package at the store, you get flooded with feelings of indescribable magic.

As far as uplifting a country for which poverty seems to be the norm, the most honest answer I can give is, “I’ll wait and see.” It’s definitely an experiment that greatly interests me.

I think the Philippines could well be known as one of the great design countries in the future. It’s already got some of the best practitioners of art and design that I’ve met; studios with individual voices like Idealsandvgrafiks.

Switzerland’s a great design country, well known for their international typographic style of minimalism, grids, and clean sans-serif type. I think the Philippines could go the other way. When I walk down the streets, I see numerous examples of outstanding design, done by people with no formal design education. Beautifully rendered hand-drawn letters on fields of vivid color. There’s a cooperative mish-mash of styles. Things are more often done the old-fashioned way here, using skills that aren’t even taught in American design schools anymore. Skills that are dying, and I’d hate to see them die. I think these are skills that can set the Philippines apart from the rest of the design world. It’s one of my favorite aesthetics; a style I struggle to master in a lot of my own works.

What do you hope this center will achieve? How do you see it lifting people out of poverty?

I think educational facilities oftentimes prune the weirdness, the quirks, the creativity—the willingness to take risks—out of students. Students become cookie cutter images of each other. A student raises his hand to answer the teacher’s question. The teacher admonishes the student for being wrong. The next time the student thinks he knows the answer, he keeps silent.

To succeed as an artist, as a designer, you need to keep your weirdness. Creative people are unbelievably weird. They take risks. They fail a lot, and they keep getting back on the saddle. That’s the nature of creation, it’s what makes design so much fun, and it’s what we want to keep in our students.

Looking at it another way, the very weirdness that a lot of educators rebuke are the very gifts given to those students to help them succeed in life. That’s what I believe. Whether you’re a religious person or not, I believe we’ve all been given gifts in life that we should utilize, gifts that differentiate ourselves from each other, and merely being different scares a lot of educators, I think.

Thankfully there’s a lot of amazing educators out there. But for every teacher that recognizes and celebrates their students’ individuality, there’s another teacher who tries to sand them down into their image of what their students should be.

(So to answer your first question, we hope to take weird kids and make them employable without losing what makes them great.)

We believe graphic design can be an incredible agent of societal change.

Our students will take on pro-bono design work for local NGOs, which helps everyone involved. Cash-strapped NGOs, working to make the world a better place, get free design work, and our students get real client experience and designs they can include in their portfolio.

A rice farmer from Bataan, one of the prospective students of Ferdinand Center for the Creative
A rice farmer from Bataan, one of the prospective students of Ferdinand Center for the Creative

We’re also working to make deals with design firms and creative agencies to get our students internships upon graduation. Not normal internships. These are contract-based, two-month “paid” internships. But the payment isn’t money. The payment is a positive future for the student. The student will undoubtedly do a lot of work that the regular employees hate doing, and the first month’s payment comes in the form of an official job title. The student will have a real title to put on their resume; work to put in their portfolio. At the conclusion of the second month, the second payment will come in the form of a choice for the employer: They can (a) hire the student, or (b) write a recommendation letter for the student. Just having a good recommendation from someone well known in the industry can do wonders for getting a foot in the door.

What can we in the Philippines do to help? What are the different avenues for getting involved and what are your current targets? (Is the school already built? If not, what is your target date for opening the school?)

What we need most right now is money. Lots of money. We have land to build a school on already, but it takes a lot of money to build on that land. The building itself is estimated to cost around 2 million pesos.

Any target date I give for opening the school will be a very, very rough estimate. We currently do not have the funds to start building.

What can people do to help us? If they have the ability, we’re currently accepting donations on our website. I’m also working to redesign and rewrite our promotional booklets for a Filipino audience. We need people who can go door to door to raise awareness of what we’re doing, and what we need in order to succeed.

After the school opens, there’ll be countless openings for volunteers to come and help. People who’ve applied to be students, but weren’t able to be accepted our first year will have the opportunity to volunteer for us, and we’ll offer free single-serving classes to all interested volunteers.

But right now, we don’t have those opportunities for volunteers. Right now, what we need is money, and people to help get us money.

If you’re someone who can help us fundraise, email me at [email protected]. I’d love to work with you!

Niña Terol-Zialcita

Niña Terol-Zialcita is a “Communicator, Connector, idea Curator, and Changemaker” who uses the power of words and ideas to advocate causes and promote the Philippines at its best. She is ProPinoy.net’s Deputy Editor, as well as Editor-in-Chief of asianTraveler, the longest-running travel magazine in the Philippines. When she is not writing, blogging, or traveling, Niña is conducting writing workshops with Writer’s Block Philippines, hanging out at art galleries and cafés, and performing poetry with her husband, percussionist and performance artist Paul Zialcita. She is also the author of the book "[r]evolutionaries: The new generation of Filipino youth and youth organizations".

  • Kim Propp Belcheff ,

    It would be awesome if we could do some kind of collaboration project in Bohol. If you are interested, please let me know. Thanks!