Matias Delfino, Designing for Peace

wv6lLsdhJh-2TtIY7D4mdULYYBAXeIkrdwVJhJrtESk,QvKF9TxC1527HwcrNUV-unt8wjQOxb124qERn55Yb9kMatias Delfino is a Brand Strategist and Graphic Designer working for the United Nations. Hailing from Buenos Aires, he’s combined his natural talent for design with his desire to affect social change, making the UN’s most important initiatives and campaigns visually compelling to people speaking different languages in 193 countries. An active ADC Member and down-to-earth creative, Matias shared his story with us.

ADC: You’ve been working with the UN since 2000. Did you always know you wanted to establish your career with the organization? How did you get started?

Matias Delfino: I always knew I wanted to do something meaningful for others. I grew up in a family with great role models. My mother was a schoolteacher who worked with children with mental disabilities and my father was an architect who specialized in hospital architecture (and still does to this day). Having that as a foundation probably helped me to realized I also wanted to work for a good cause.

The turning point came for me almost 20 years ago when as a young graphic design student at the Universidad de Buenos Aires I was assigned a project for UNICEF. The campaign was to raise awareness about young mothers who were abandoning their babies at alarming rates because they felt that without economic resources or emotional support they had no other alternative.  The subject touched me in a way no other assignment had before. I completely immersed myself in researching the topic and I ended up visiting the United Nations Information Center in Buenos Aires, where I became fascinated by the creativity of its posters, among other products. That experience sparked my decision to come to New York four years later for an internship at the United Nations, without imagining of course that I would end up becoming a staff member just a few months later.

ADC: What is the project from your time at the UN that you’re most proud of?

Matias: Since I’ve joined the United Nations, I have worked on more than 170 projects, each of which has made an impact based on the subject matter and the target audience. One the projects that people tend to find particularly effective is a poster I conceived for the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. The inspiration for the design was to merge a symbol of atrocity and one of hope. The transformation from barbed wired to intertwined roses depicts a commitment to the future and conveys a message of remembrance. This poster has been used on a yearly basis during the annual commemoration of the Holocaust, and it’s had such positive feedback from around the globe that it ended up becoming a postal stamp.

Some other well-received projects are the poster created to promote the United Nations Day Concert honoring Peacekeepers, and the logo designed for Rio+20: UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Held last year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this was biggest conference ever organized by the UN.

ADC: What are the foundational principles that guide your approach to every campaign design? Do you have any design “commandments” that you’ll never break?

Matias: When starting to work on a campaign, I personally find it useful to always remember that what I am about to design might somehow affect peoples’ lives. It is indispensable to deeply understand and engage with the subject matter with which you are working to come up with an effective piece.

When shaping a trans-cultural message the goal is to make sure that the message can be equally understood by people from different parts of the world. According to the multilingual mandate of the United Nations General Assembly, our messages are usually translated into the six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian, though many times they are translated into even more languages by the United Nations Information Centers around the globe.

In my opinion, even though I don’t consider myself great at drawing, there is not a better way to extract an initial idea from your brain and bring it to the real world than sketching with a pencil and paper.

ADC: As the only Latino working on the UN Graphic Design team, do you feel a special calling to represent your home country of Argentina or Latin American issues? 

Matias: Every issue I happen to address as a United Nations graphic designer is equally important regardless of the target audience. After thirteen years of working at the UN and living in New York, I feel like a citizen of the world (beyond my Argentinean nationality). Despite this, there are certain issues such as Human Rights and Democracy that I can specifically relate to, because of Argentina’s recent history. Coincidentally, Argentina just celebrated its first 30 years of Democracy.

ADC: Are you a sketcher or do you ideate on the computer?  What is your process from first concept to printing/release?

Matias: Pencil is designers’ best friend! In my opinion, even though I don’t consider myself great at drawing, there is not a better way to extract an initial idea from your brain and bring it to the real world than sketching with a pencil and paper.

Creating a UN message involves dealing with different players before you even get to the distribution phase, including translators, proofreaders, illustrators, photographers and printers among others. But first I have to work with my clients to find out their wants or vision for the design. From there, I go through my process of conceptualizing, developing the message working through various ideas and sketches. That stage usually involves a certain level of back and forth with the clients till it gets finally approved. Not an easy task considering that the final approval might require he agreement of several decision makers.

ADC: Do you have any designers you admire or work that consistently inspires you?

Matias: When it comes to other designers, I admire and am inspired by my colleagues at the UN Graphic Design Studio. Coming from different countries such us Lebanon, Serbia, Germany, Syria, Sweden, England, Bosnia, Canada and the US, they all bring a unique perspective from their own culture that has helped to ensure that the message I am trying to convey is universally understood.

I also find it useful to keep a pulse on the work of young designers for which I usually go to several events, like the ADC Young Guns winners exhibit I was lucky to attended in November.

ADC: What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you in relation to your work?

Matias: My very first assignment as an intern at the United Nations was putting together a banner with a smiley face and the word “smile” underneath, one banner for each of the six official languages of the UN. I asked twice about the reason for such a strange request but my English was very limited back then and I couldn’t really understand what was explained a couple of times. I didn’t have enough courage to keep asking so I remained intrigued by this for quite some time until I forgot about it.

A year and a half later I find myself at the doctor’s waiting room killing time by going through some very old magazines when I saw an article about the opening of the United Nations Millennium Summit, the historic meeting among world leaders held in New York back in September 2000. The article was accompanied by a crowded picture that caught my attention. The photo caption read “Head of states representing the 189 member states of the organization during a joint photo session. The participants were simultaneously shown signs with the word smile in multiple languages.”

Never too late to realize that I had the ability to make the most powerful people in the world smile at once!

To keep up with Matias and all of his work at the UN, visit and follow him @matias_delfino

If you’re an ADC member and want to share your story, upcoming event or a new project, or would like to tell another ADC member’s story, contact for more information!

Photo credits: Augusto Rabellino, John Gillespie