Teaching Designers to Write

Peer-reviewed conversation and paper.

Presented at Decipherthe AIGA Design Educators Research Conference (Sep 2018).

Co-authored with Dori Griffin. Published in Book of Proceedings.


Like many academics in the design field, we—Dori Griffin and Gaby Hernández, co-chairs of the session Teaching Designers to Write—face challenges in our scholarly writing praxis. Our own experiences as writers who address design issues and as studio-based teachers of design-related writing skills led us to propose this session collaboratively. In designing the session, we responded both to our own individual situations and to years of informal encounters with fellow design faculty in similar positions. How might we help students develop the fundamental writing skills needed for success in their chosen profession? What deficits in our own educational experiences have become evident as we build opportunities for our students to acquire design-specific writing skills? How might we utilize these realizations both to craft better learning experiences for our students and to articulate needed support systems and relevant tools for design faculty? Our post-conference report seeks to document the conversations among participants and the themes which emerged during the session.

Modeling Community-Based Design Collaborations

Peer-reviewed paper.

Presented at Make—the AIGA Design Educators Conference (June 2018).

Published in Book of Proceedings.


Design continues to evolve as a profession inherently connected to social good that places itself in the center of local, national, and international development. In order to accurately respond to current design trends and its inevitable future shifts, we first need to learn from our immediate surroundings, as local issues reflect similar ones with global effect. It is then critical for design education to identify learning opportunities that explore “wicked problems,” enabling future designers to be part of and even lead collaborations where design can drive change through the development of innovative, context-based solutions in our own backyard. As Amy Johnson and Rukmini Ravikumar point out, “we must teach design students to observe and analyze the visual qualities of environments, think with elasticity, learn to innovate, cause change and practice with an unflinchingly passionate work ethic” (2011). The roles and skills of designers continue to change very quickly (Blair-Early 2010), which compels design instruction to prioritize the practice, testing, and combination of old and new skills. Imagining our own communities as design laboratories offers new opportunities for many design programs and schools that cannot accommodate changes quickly enough, as community interactions oblige design students to develop new abilities related to social engagement while practicing more traditional design skills.

Transforming Design: Indigeneity and Mestizaje in Latin America

Peer-reviewed conversation.

Presented at the Design Research Society (DRS) Biennial Conference in Limerick, Ireland (June 2018).

Co-organized and co-led with María Rogal and Raúl Sánchez. Published in Book of Proceedings for Conversations, page 59.


This conversation explored how the discipline and profession of design might be epistemologically decentered and, in effect, decolonized. Focusing on their experiences working with Indigenous and mestizo communities in Latin America, the convenors discussed the need to reconceive design theory, research, practice, and education. Their goal was to begin a process of leveling the playing field on which Indigenous and non-Western perspectives encounter the discipline’s legacy epistemologies, which are rooted in Western modernity and its attendant coloniality. During the session, they fostered a conversation that laid out the conceptual and practical difficulties that lie ahead but that must be addressed in order for the field to expand its historically narrow borders and adopt broader, deeper, and sustainable perspectives.

Look Around You, Look Inside You: Exploring Heritage in the Design Classroom

Peer-reviewed paper.

Presented in poster format at the International Association of Societies of Design Research (IASDR) Biennial Conference in Cincinnati, OH (Oct 2017).

Published in IASDR 2017 Book of Proceedings, page 1606-1613.


How can students at a federally-designated Hispanic-serving institution understand and express culture and diversity through art and design? In order to address this inquiry and to exemplify a method that introduces students to critical thinking in the context of design, I am presenting a case study based on the primary results of a project implemented at an introductory graphic design class, which is part of a multidisciplinary arts program. In this project, students learn basics of design research and auto-ethnography in a studio setting, in order to explore heritage and culture, their context of living, family history, and personal connections with their past, present, and future. Results from this discovery stage inform brainstorming, sketching, design, and production of a book that contains multiple visual explorations on “Heritage.” Some of the most memorable and productive conversations and interactions between students took place not only during the development of the project, but at the final project presentation, exposing their capacity to develop greater tolerance and a more empathic view of the other, to be open to reanalyze their context and personal interactions, to better evaluate the design abilities of their peers as they respond to their own individual approach to the topic, and to develop a better and safer sense of place in the classroom.

Hernández, Maria Gabriela. Look Around You, Look Inside You: Exploring Heritage in the Design Classroom. Re:Research, University of Cincinnati, 2017, p. 1606–1613, doi:10.7945/c24h5p.

Design Research, Storytelling, and Entrepreneur Women in Rural Costa Rica: A Case Study

Peer-reviewed paper.

Presented at the Design Research Society Biennial Conference in Brighton, England (June 2016).

Published in the DRS 2016 Book of Proceedings.


This paper describes a project that explores design research practices and empathic design to produce context-specific knowledge to inform and facilitate visual storytelling, in collaboration with the Women’s Association of Chira Island, a rural ecotourism association from the Pacific of Costa Rica. While their pioneering ecotourism projects have gained national recognition, its members have faced multiple challenges, including reassessing gender and social roles and furthering their capacity to support development in the community. Their experiences and stories became their most valuable asset, triggering the need to communicate them to benefit similar populations. The contents of this project were developed during three field research visits and two years of collaborative design work, employing “time,” “space,” and “voice” to contextualize the stories. This investigation resulted in printed materials and videos designed for mobility and easy reproduction to be used by the association as tools to inspire women in similar rural areas.

Hernandez, M.G. (2016). Design Research, Storytelling, and Entrepreneur Women in Rural Costa Rica: a case study. Proceedings of DRS 2016, Design Research Society 50th Anniversary Conference. Brighton, UK, 27–30 June 2016.

Long Distance Relationships: Design and Time Dynamics Across Borders

Peer-reviewed paper.

Presented at New Ventures—The AIGA Design Educators Conference in Portland, OR (Sept 2014).

Please contact me for full paper.


The impact of Social Design and Design Research in international settings is many times restricted by our misunderstanding of the cultural and economic dynamics of the collaborators/clients, as well as their use of time. Design students, professors and professionals in the United States who are first introduced to these cross-cultural design activities, often experience frustration and disappointment after working in the field and returning to their studios, due to emergent but unavoidable communication and time organization challenges they were not prepared for, that unveil cultural and time management differences with their international collaborators. In such moments, our conviction that time is money is disputed, exposing designers to the need of changing their time-based problem-solving mindset, while exercising empathy. Thus, it becomes clear that designing in such settings requires the construction of clear organizational structures for all participants, inclusive, useful, and viable communication channels with collaborators at all ends based on each other’s daily activities and access to media, as well as high doses of patience and flexibility, in order to meet deadlines and produce successful work in a timely manner. In this paper, I elaborate on this topic by exploring specific projects I’ve developed with disadvantaged and rural communities outside of the United States (specifically in Costa Rica and México) that presented situations that challenged time management, due to the constraints of working from distance, as well as differences in access, knowledge, and use of communication technologies. Lastly, I propose different ways to approach time management differences that can draw to closer relationships with international collaborators, as well as better developed, more accurate co-designed solutions for context-specific problems.


Firmalt: A Mexican Design Agency with International Appeal

Published In March 16th, 2015.


You only have to look at the clean, strong logo of Firmalt, the Monterrey-based branding and design agency, for an example of their attention to detail and love of structured processes. Founded in 2012 by industrial designer Manuel Llaguno and civil engineer Francisco Puente, Firmalt has applied that rigor—balanced by a sense of play and keen eye for color—to great effect for a range of fashion, food, and corporate clients.

“Every single client we’ve worked with has a certain vision for their company, something they want to communicate,” Llaguno says. “We form ourselves around our clients instead of forcing clients to align within a specific aesthetic.”