September 28, 2022

How My Heritage Influences Diverse Design

Ana Hernandez, Principal, AFH Design, celebrates the importance of diversity during National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Ana Hernandez

By: Ana Hernandez

As a long-time partner of Canopy, we invited Ana Hernandez, Principal, AFH Design, to share her story, design philosophy, and advice with our audience. AFH Design was a recent Top Honours recipient of AZA’s Exhibit Award for their work on Por el Camino de los Andes (Along the Andes Trail) Fundación Zoológico de Cali in Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

I grew up in Colombia, in a town called Cali, the capital of salsa music, where you learn how to dance in order to survive your teenage years. That was fun!

Growing up, I never thought I would leave my country, let alone live and work in another country with a different language, but sometimes life throws surprises at you. That’s fun too!

I’ve been in the States since 2005. My work is designing zoo exhibits, and you don’t get more specialized than that. When I arrived in Saint Louis, I looked for opportunities but didn’t find any. I decided that if there isn’t an opportunity in zoo design, I’ll create my own, and I opened AFH Design in 2007. Since then, I found people that have given me opportunities for which I‘m very thankful, but I have to admit I also had the door closed on my nose many times.

I always say that I’ve been able to succeed because I grew up in a country where you have to fight for opportunities. That helped me to get where I am now. Colombians are resourceful, have a great sense of humor, and are creative because you must figure out how to accomplish the best you can with so little. I keep this in mind every time I approach a new project.

For the first half of my career in Colombia, I felt accepted as a female architect. In the U.S., in a new environment, I’ve been made to feel different as a woman of color. In general, diversity in the design field needs to be expanded.  

Many studies show there are few people of color in the design field. All institutions would benefit by having a more diverse design team because diversity brings new and innovative ideas and approaches to a project. People in positions of power should look to provide more equal opportunities to people of color and women to bring new perspectives to projects. We are a minority in many organizations including AZA. As zoo designers, we create experiences; we want to create that inspirational moment that can change a person’s mind. Creative designers can envision animal encounters that change the way we see nature.

I always consider the cultural aspect in my work, the intersection of people, customs, and space or environment. Design is a tool to communicate the creation of a unique space or “place.” Space can express a connection between what we want to communicate and how it’s related to the guest. Culture as a cognitive structure many times is the best way to tell a story. This is key in every project I design.

In my experience, diverse design teams produce impactful exhibits that are more meaningful to our diverse audiences. As a woman and a person of color, when I witness people experiencing and being impacted by a well-designed exhibit it’s a very rewarding moment of satisfaction.

As a woman and Latina, I want to tell the future generations what I wish somebody told me. Never give up. Being different and having an accent can work more to your advantage than your disadvantage. As designers we can communicate our ideas, our designs can show clients that we understand the project, that we can address all their needs but also, we can propose new and innovative ideas that allow projects to speak for themselves in an impactful way. As a diverse team of designers, bringing our own backgrounds and heritage to the table allows us to do all those things better.

I celebrate this month of Hispanic heritage, recognizing that I am who I am because of where I come from. There is not a day in my life that I forget the value of growing up in one of most biodiverse countries in the world and in a city where the salsa dance rules, and I’m not that bad!

Celebrate your heritage too!

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