10 Days in Havana

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Mariana Somma, Field Advisor, Experience Designer, Entrepreneur November 21, 2016

The Fresh Eyes Cuba project is a 14-week intensive studio course, organized around a 10-day immersive trip to Havana, Cuba, the core cultural experience which will inform the design briefs and outcomes of the studio. This studio will allow faculty and students to experience the exceptional ecosystem of innovation and creativity that Cuba presents in this historic moment in time as the diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S. are re-established.

A key part of the project is cross-cultural collaboration with the communication design students of the Instituto de Diseño (ISDi), Cuba’s only design school. Faculty led all of students in a 4-day workshop that allowed both student groups to learn through sharing different perspectives and cross-cultural exploration.


The Fresh Eyes: Cuba trip was an incredible week for all of the students and faculty as we experienced Cuban life and culture and collaborated with top design students from the Instituto de Diseño (ISDI), co-designing and developing impactful pop-up interactive installations in the heart of the university plaza.

Despite delays due to hurricane warnings, the Fresh Eyes crew made it to Havana safely on October 9 and had a few days to get the lay of the land. From exploring the streets of Old Havana by foot to a Neon Lights Tour of the city in beautiful vintage cars, there was something extraordinary about the sensory experience of vibrant colors, thick humidity, the smell of sweet cigars, and the distant sounds of Dos Gardenias echoing the music-filled streets. Outside of Havana, the students hiked the Cuevas de Santo Tomas, beautiful caves 2 hours outside of Viñales, and visited an organic farm where we shared an epic meal filled with tostones, lechon, and humungous avocados.


When the group returned to Havana, everyone was excited and nervous to start the 4-day workshop at ISDi. Seven student teams were formed with 2 ArtCenter students and 3 ISDi students, each team a mix of graphic design, fine art, film, media, and product design disciplines. Both the ArtCenter and ISDi Faculty did a great job pushing the teams to think outside the box and push creative boundaries throughout the workshop. And the final exhibitions were just that- based on the concepts of the ISDi students, the teams created beautiful “pop-up” interactive installations about being heard, sharing poetry, art and dance, and expressing what Havana represents to their personal growth as artists and comrades.

The magic of this collaboration was truly the bond and synergy the students had, and continue to have. There was never a sense of competition or division, rather a curiosity and excitement to learn about and from each other and get to work. The ArtCenter students had the opportunity to explore Havana from their Cuban peers’ perspectives, and hung out as much as possible outside of the workshop hours- from going over to a local students’ house to play dominos and listen to music, to walking the famous Malecón boardwalk with all the locals, and even a bit of dancing at the Fabrica de Arte art gallery and nightclub.


Finally, one cannot talk about Cuba without mentioning the stress, and relief, of feeling out of your ‘digital’ element. Not having internet, a phone, GPS, Uber, or Yelp was a new experience for some, and one that could not be ignored. For example, we had to go to 5 different stores just to get an internet card that costs $5 USD for one hour. Then we found this only works at very specific yet randomly located ‘hotspots’… and that’s if we could even log on and stay on long enough to check email. Even simple things like checking the address of a place before meeting, or just texting your friend to coordinate- these were not options. I am happy to report that no one lost their minds by not being able to Snapchat or check Instagram. Sadly, just as we were getting comfortable with the freedom of not being plugged in, we faced the reality (and agony) of coming home to all of the unread emails waiting for us.

Now that the students are back and sorting through the thousands of pictures and videos, I am eager to see how they share their experience in the final exhibition coming up on December 7th!

mari_headshotMariana is the field advisor for the Fresh Eyes: Cuba program with Designmatters. She has a background in experience design strategy, HCD consulting, teaching, and design thinking workshop facilitation.  She is part of Incúbate, one of the first programs between US and Cuban entrepreneurs, in collaboration with the Aspen Institute, The Richardson Center for Global Development, and Fringe Diplomacy. Mariana is a senior partner at San Francisco based consulting firm Employera, and lectures in design-thinking and innovation at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley. She has facilitated design-led business solutions for companies including Turner Broadcasting, and Nike Foundation, Mphasis, and PSI.org. Before that she was a designer with architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM). Mariana holds an MS in Industrial Design from ArtCenter College of Design, and an MBA from Claremont University.