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Florencio Zavala

What's been your overall design trajectory?

In my junior year at the University of Florida I discovered the work of Shepard Fairey. I was already pursuing a design degree, but suddenly a new direction emerged. The lines between art and commerce were blurred and I wanted to be a part of the movement. It didn’t take much and lucky for me I have a sister who lives in San Diego, where Shepard and fellow artist/designer Dave Kinsey set up shop under the moniker Blk/Mrkt. I reached out, landed an internship and that summer spent my days working in the studio and nights crashing in my sister’s one bedroom apartment. Come senior year I had a renewed drive and poured myself all-in to the program, heading up the exhibition committee and serving as president of student design club Vox Graphis. This put me in a key position to curate the visiting designer program, bringing former mentor Dave Kinsey out to speak and jury the show. After school things all fell into place. Blk/Mrkt moved from San Diego to LA, opening up a number of positions for the company and I joined in the fall of 2001.


[In 2003-04] my wife was pursuing grad school at California Institute of the Arts, exposing me to an environment like nothing we had experienced at UF. The design program at CalArts had a mammoth reputation, led by heavyweights such as Lorraine Wild, Ed Fella, and Jeff Keedy. I was particularly drawn to Ed and his quirky postmodern sensibilities. If I was ever going to pursue an MFA this was the place. I applied and was accepted to the 2015 MFA class, which began two of the most difficult yet rewarding years in my career.


I wasn’t done with Studio Number One though. In 2007 Shepard asked me to return to the studio and serve as ACD and Studio Manager. I jumped at the chance, leading the teams on campaigns for Dewar’s, Honda, Red Bull and Coca-Cola.


In 2009 I left Studio Number One to pursue freelance and eventually found myself teaching at Otis College of Art and Design. As much as I enjoyed the freelance life, I missed the studio environment. In 2013 I embarked on my first foray into advertising, joining BBH in their LA office as Design Director. My first six months were spent developing the brand guidelines for Google Play, which evolved into a range of print, digital and OOH executions, including massive takeovers in New York Times Square, Chicago and Los Angeles.


In 2015 I joined MullenLowe, where I am currently VP, Head of Design across Acura, Patron, California Avocado and EVA Airlines. In 2016 we launched the first comprehensive rebrand of Acura in over a decade.

When I met Florencio Zavala this past April, it was a welcome change of pace to the high-intensity frequency on which I was buzzing, having presented my MFA thesis just days before. He asked the room questions. I thought it was to get to know the group he’d be workshopping, but I got to know more about myself than anyone else in the room. The questions were a reminder: take a moment for yourself and ask, why are you doing this? Florencio reinvigorated the room by asking us to look inward for answers. When margins got to ask the educator and VP, Head of Design at MullenLowe to share some of his reflections, he revealed the same strong sense of sincerity and energy he’d asked us to engage with months before.

Why do you think you chose design as a career?


Like most designers, I see the world in a particular way, constantly processing my surroundings. It’s like a filter you can’t shut off. I imagine it the same way a photographer sees through their viewfinder—always cropping, or in our case adjusting kerning on a random piece of wayfinding.


I’ve always had a gross fixation with design artifacts, in particular pop culture ephemera. From trading cards to comic books and graphic novels, videogames, movie posters, toy packaging, concert t-shirts—basically anything with a hyper graphic sensibility captured my attention.


My interest in design also seems deeply rooted in my family influences. My mother instilled a nurturing sense of empathy—her life has been dedicated to education and serving those with special needs. Her father (my grandfather) was a painter and romantic. His studio was impeccable yet eccentric, highlighted by his jazz cassette collection, vintage erotica and miniature bull figurines. His obsession with aesthetics and symbolism is a shared family trait. On the other end of the spectrum is my father, the airline man—disciplined, punctual and articulate but very warm and sociable. He thrives best in the company of others and I’ve always admired (and tried to exemplify) his ability to connect with people.

“Fail fast and often. Get weird. Be critical. Think in terms of systems.”

Do you think of yourself as a designer with a particular style?


I definitely have my preferences, but it’s changed as the projects (and culture) have evolved. Print died and came back to life. Digital doesn’t settle. Social is still in its infancy.


A previous client once told me “anticipate apathy”. Logic says you will only get better at things over time, but you have to be skeptical of your own expertise. Mastery is more about relevance.


How has being an educator affected your perspective as an artist?


Teaching is integral to my profession, whether in the classroom, the studio or in an agency. For one it forces you to articulate your own process and methodologies. This is as much about the craft as it is about confidence. Teachers, by nature are in leadership roles. Creating an environment where creativity can thrive, accelerating the work of others and participating in contemporary design discourse is essential to any of these environments.

Do you have a particular process when working on a design project? How has the process evolved in response to working within a team?


I know I’m not covering everything but here are some choice bits from my personal manifesto:

Start with questions. Define an emotional target. Create constraints. Fail fast and often. Get weird. Be critical. Think in terms of systems.


With teams these rules still apply but the role I play changes. Sometimes I provoke. Sometimes I drive. Sometimes I question. Our process is really transparent and open. We operate more like a collective than a pyramid. Responsibility is shared, often working in pairs or larger teams. That group accountability allows for leadership to transfer fluidly. Nobody is ever in a vacuum and every victory is owned by the team.


How do you think diversity impacts graphic design and other creative fields?


Simply put, diversity provokes new perspectives and leads to inspired thinking and making. It’s essential to the creative process.

july 2017
art education
graphic design

I wouldn’t consider raising two daughters as [in my margins] but it definitely fills the majority of my schedule outside work. Being a father has put everything into perspective for me. It’s a daily challenge and well of inspiration and happiness.


Aside from that we just launched a new speaker series at MullenLowe called The Contenders, which “celebrates those who use creativity for good—to positively impact communities and improve the lives of others”. Our kick-off event featured the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who schooled us on the history of the LGBTQ movement in Los Angeles. More good things to come in the Fall!

Edited by Alicia DeWitt

“You have to be skeptical of your own expertise. Mastery is more about relevance.”

What's in your margins?

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