Art Center College of Design | Pasadena, California | Leading By Design

Rafael Davidson

Product Design '62

Rafael Davidson was born in the Canary Islands, Spain, and moved to Mexico toward the end of World War II. After attending Art Center, he worked on the design of General Motors' exhibit for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, and on Ford's Mustang project.

In 1967 he returned to Mexico as head of Zeerhut/Veeder/Shimano Design, the first industrial design office in the country. Later he opened Davidson and Associates, was design director of Landor Associates, and vice president of Young and Rubicam in charge of its subsidiary CYB (Cato/Yasamura/Behaegel) in Mexico and San Francisco. While in Mexico, he won more than a dozen design prizes and awards. He also designed the renowned line of “Mexico Exporta” postal stamps.

From 1987 to 1998, he lived and cruised on a sailboat and taught during summers at Art Center and the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. In 1999, Davidson was given a Life Achievement Award by Quorum (Design Council of Mexico). He lives now in Benicia , Calif., and combines sailing the Sacramento Delta and teaching part-time at the Academy of Art University of San Francisco.

Art Center: What do you see as a designer's responsibility?
Rafael Davidson:
The first cliché that comes to mind is social responsibility, but I don't really believe that. I think that social responsibility is often misinterpreted as the right (or even the moral obligation) to push your own beliefs and values onto others “for their own good.”

I much prefer the Zen Buddhist attitude of being yourself and getting involved and connected with others, with respect and a spirit of compassion. I believe that a designer, most of all, should be creative and true to himself or herself. In other words, a designer should design.

AC: What skills do you think designers need?
Creativity, sensitivity and the ability to communicate one's ideas. A fourth one will be needed in the future: intercultural understanding. My students don't know what I'm talking about, so I tell them, “In the United States, if you have an appointment with a client, and you are 10 minutes late, you lose your appointment. Even if you are brilliant or a genius, your client has an agenda and a schedule to keep. You are late, and you are out, that's it!”

Mexican “punctuality” just doesn't cut it in the U.S.or in France, Germany or Switzerland. That's an inter-cultural detail that can ruin your career.

AC: The role of designers has changedthey can now be involved with ideas all the way through to production. Do you think this is an important trend?
Very important! When I was at Ford, working on the Mustang project, they would not allow designers to talk to the engineers (they were in separate offices).

I think that if we had been able to work with them, and solve the problem of a too-tall radiator, the Mustang would have had a sloping hood, which would have looked a lot nicer.

AC: What advice do you have for incoming Art Center students?
Accept and follow your passion. Take creative risks and trust your intuition. Be ready to work long hours and get little sleep. Protect your health in spite of all the hard work and long hours. Enjoy the wonderful and special energy of the people and the place around you.

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