Thoughts on some distant yet indelible impressions
There’s an English-Spanish dictionary stacked in a bookshelf somewhere in my living room. It’s 370 pages, all browned and frayed at the edges, bound in a sturdily worn green hardcover. It belonged to my grandfather — his name embossed in gold capital letters is still visible. It once had a protective plastic cover that has now given in to the passage of time. Like most printed dictionaries, it no longer gets the attention it once did, but I’ve kept it all these years because it is one of the last extant artifacts from our home in Mexico before my family moved to San Francisco.
That trip to the States is draped in a fog of memory. When the time came to pack for the move, I was more cargo than co-conspirator; I had no say in the matter. I was 11 years old. I packed what I could, thinking this was a summer-long vacation that later became simply the rest of my life. I do not remember consciously grabbing the dictionary. But its mere existence, its quirky survival, points to a bit of foresight. Evidently, I knew I’d need to broaden my English vocabulary someday.
Over time, the dictionary receded from view, and its usage slowly waned, becoming less and less essential as I started to pick up the language in school. I went through middle school, high school, and design school, carrying the dictionary from place to place, even as it got submerged and outnumbered when art & design books started taking more prominent space in my bookshelves. It became distant, unconscious clutter — lost and inaccessible unless explicitly recalled. It was something I kept only because I’d always had it.
In 2017, in the move to my current home, I stumbled into it once more, for the first time in a long time. It had suffered the fate of many printed dictionaries in our times — buried in a basement pile, mostly forgotten. Out of curiosity, I flipped through it. In the opening pages, I found some scribbles I must have drawn as a kid — a practice stab at my signature, a hasty profile of Inspector Gadget, a tiny gesture drawing of a figure kneeling. Of course, I don’t remember making any of those drawings or why I had felt it was necessary to draw directly on this dictionary, but it did not surprise me to find them. It was nice to travel back in time and reminisce about my pre-adolescent, cartoonish interests.
At the back of the dictionary, I’d also drawn, in something of a neat column, a series of marks. At the top, the 1988 Seoul Olympics logo, a beautifully crafted abstract mark by Hyun Kim and Yang Sung-chun. Then, right underneath, a more abstract pattern I cannot quite place — perhaps a TV Network symbol I saw between telecasts? Then, down below, the 5 Olympic Rings and a goofy rendition of Hodori, the tiger-humanoid mascot of the games, just peeking up from the edge of the paper.
The subject matter — the 1988 Olympics — happen to bring a nice, tidy timestamp. I was ten years old, drawing logos from TV, and doing so in an English-Spanish dictionary, two years away from unknowingly making a permanent move to America. Of course, uncovering scribbles in an old book is never surprising, but this particular act was. Drawing these symbols never left a conscious mark in my memory. Of all the things I remember loving to draw as a kid—cartoon characters, mostly—drawing logos is not one of them.
The work I do now — and have done professionally for twenty years — is rooted in brand building, with a strong emphasis on designing logos. I love drawing logos. And the story I generally tell students — and myself — about how this interest started is that it all began in high school, in drafting classes where I was exposed to the craft. That’s what I’d always seen as the beginning of my career choice — a somewhat random and serendipitous sequence of events during my teenage years, but at least a sequence I partly remembered. The worn-out pages in this long-forgotten dictionary had adjusted that perspective.
I then remembered something else, a different artifact of those last few memories in Mexico. A year or so before our trip to San Francisco, my parents had visited an uncle in Milwaukee. They brought me a few gifts, most notably a Milwaukee Brewers seat cushion, one with the classic Brewers cap logo. Of course, this was a time when anything from America had considerable sway—especially to a nerdy kid living in the small town of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. But still, I remember that cushion fondly, dragging its weirdly comical, square shape all over the house and plopping it on the floor to sit and watch TV or play marbles.
This souvenir did not make it on the trip to the U.S., but with some internet searches, I found something that resembles what it probably looked like. Seeing it on screen, with that Brewers logo thrown right in the middle, made me smile and speculate further. Perhaps that was the first time I noticed an interesting mark? That Brewers logo is a classic, cleverly using an M and a B to make a baseball mitt. It was recently brought back after a few years of less-than-inspiring alternate uniforms, and it still brings me joy when I see it up close or when a new broadcast crew points out the hidden letters to a new audience. It’s baseball’s FedEx arrow—somewhat invisible at first, then glaringly obvious forever afterward.
It’s possible that seeing that mark made a deep impression on me back then, especially since I was becoming more and more consumed by baseball at the time. I don’t remember, though. I have no memories of winking along to the mark’s cleverness or telling anyone about it. There was no “A-ha! this is what I want to do!” moment, no epiphany that would eventually lead me to graphic design. I don’t know if I noticed this neat visual trick on my own or if my parents pointed it out as they gave the cushion. Regardless, the mark’s effectiveness feels like it’s always been a point of reference in my head. Like the mysteries of all things learned at a young age, it doesn’t matter how it got there. What’s important is that it’s there, at hand, in a neural pathway long ago stitched together.
When preparing to teach a course, I aim to find projects, artifacts, or reference points that students may enjoy — things they may respond to or at least vaguely remember one day. Things that will, with any luck, lodge themselves in their memories for future retrieval. But so much of this work falls outside of our control. Exposure does not necessarily lead to insight, and insights do not require a conscious record. I am a professional designer and educator with many years of experience now, and yet I cannot confidently trace my own initial interest in design. It’s entirely possible that my interest in logos began, not by design or instruction, but through gimmicky baseball souvenirs from Wisconsin and long-forgotten replays of the Olympic Games on TV.
In The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes: “Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control…that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes.” As I looked at these goofy little scribbles, I felt this ‘disillusion’ materialize; I felt how tenuous and illusory our grasp of memory could be.
And yet, design as a craft and a career choice is one I renew time and time again. It has been a fully-fledged conscious endeavor for over two decades now. So while some time-traveling speculative rumination is fun to engage with, it’s also important not to overemphasize it. Had I become a zoologist or an Olympic athlete (ha!), I could make the same conjecture about how these scrawny doodles of Olympic rings and tiger mascots would end up having an impact later in life. So no, they do not feel like predetermined destiny, but they are still comforting. They exist and have been there for many years now, all jittery and stacked, embarrassing and revealing at the same time. And they will remain in this lovely, decaying dictionary as if drawn with long-lost phantom limbs — no longer physically tangible but decisively present. And, like any strong memory, they remain ready to be brought back into the forefront if ever needed.
“Every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination,” notes Gerald Edelman in a lecture recalled by Oliver Sacks in his book Musicophilia. To remember how our decisions have been made over time — to try to remember how we’ve become who we are — sometimes takes a little imaginative detective work. Often this leads to dead ends and vanishing clues, but sometimes it leads to insightful evidence, ambiguous as it may be. Strong impressions can often leave indelible marks, even if they are hard to define confidently, even if their initial source is tenuously blurry or forgotten altogether.