Sun, May 13, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Brands flock to Spanish special needs designers

By Sophie Davies  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BARCELONA, Spain

In a typical Barcelona office scene, two workers chat about last night’s soccer match before a meeting. However, these are not your average employees — one is autistic and the other has Down syndrome.

La Casa de Carlota, in the Spanish city’s trendy El Poblenou neighborhood, is an advertising agency with a difference, employing people with autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities as designers.

“People with Down syndrome are very naive ... they have an imagination that is very natural, fresh,” Jose Maria Batalla, who founded La Casa de Carlota in 2013, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The innocent and spontaneous way they approach their designs sits very well with the firm’s clients, he said, which include food companies Nestle SA, Danone SA and San Miguel Corp, as well as local municipal projects.

Meanwhile, people with autism “see the world in a very special — surrealist — way,” Batalla said, referring to the developmental disorder associated with poor social, emotional and communication skills.

La Casa de Carlota is a rarity anywhere in the world, but it is particularly novel in Spain, where few companies aim to both chase profits and generate social change.

Social enterprise is a term that is rarely used in the European country, although it does have a tradition of tackling social change through foundations, cooperatives and other nonprofits.

The sector has grown since 2011 because of cuts to public funding and unemployment caused by Spain’s financial crisis, as well as a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit, said Social Enterprise Espana, which represents about 100 such businesses.

After a briefing, everyone sat down for a two-hour session to design posters for a competition organized by city hall to promote Barcelona’s municipal food markets.

Within minutes, the table was a patchwork of felt tips, chalk, tracing paper, photographs and glue as the team made initial designs inspired by photographs of a nearby market.

Quim Jane, a 28-year-old with Down syndrome — a genetic disorder that often affects speech and motor skills — filled his paper with feathery black lines, all the while chatting with his neighbor.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a bold market sketch emerged. The pleasure he took in his work was obvious.

“I have been coming since the very beginning, when the studio began and there were just three of us,” he said proudly.

“At this stage, it’s total chaos,” Batalla said. “They make mountains of images... These then go to the rest of the design team and we select the most interesting ones to use later.”

The studio also employs professional illustrators and takes international design students as interns. The finished images, which tend be unusual and child-like, contain elements of different people’s designs.

“I like trying everything, I do as much as I can,” said Odile Fernandez, who has Down syndrome and, like most of her colleagues, had never worked before joining La Casa de Carlota.

She moved quickly, joining cut-up bits of photographs with elegantly drawn black lines and small bursts of color. Satisfied, she discarded the drawing to one side and took a new blank sheet of paper and started a second design.

Batalla hopes that the work of the studio — which is registered as a limited company — can help to counter prejudices about who is and who is not employed in an office environment.

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