The New Maya Language of Frida Larios

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Until the Spanish Conquistadores plundered Mesoamerica in the 16th century, Maya civilization flourished for more than 3000 years. The Maya created monumental architecture and highly developed systems of mathematics, astronomy, and picto-syllabic writing. If you’ve visited archeological sites in Mexico or Central America—say, Chichén Itzá, Tulum or Palenque—you’ve seen the hieroglyphs carved into the ancient stones: dots and squiggles and time-worn profiles of faces and outlines of shapes of plants and animals.

But other than posters and t-shirts of the iconic Maya calendar, there probably weren’t any materials available at the site that helped you understand the structure and meaning of the Maya writing system. Washington, DC-based graphic designer, writer, and design educator Frida Larios is changing that.

Frida-El-Salvador-workshop;maya writing system

Frida Larios at a workshop for children at the Joya de Cerén site museum, in El Salvador, March 2014. She designed the museum’s exterior graphics, which were painted by art students.

Larios has created what she calls “The New Maya Language.” This system of symbols, in her words, “celebrates and preserves the dead written language.” Like a graphic anthropologist, Larios has dug into the roots and complex structure of the Maya writing system and formulated a new one intended to honor it and bring it into contemporary life and culture. She is developing applications in information and product design, including signage and educational materials for archeological sites, logos for local companies, her own line of apparel, home accessories, stationery and toys, and a children’s book.

“The Maya were the original graphic designers,” she says. “They followed a strict grid. Although every symbol was pebble-shaped, they had to fit each one into a little square. They were commissioned by the king, and they were multimedia artists who carved, painted, and wrote. Their writing was a work of art manifested through different media: stone sculpture, ceramics, murals, calligraphic manuscripts, garments, and utilitarian products. Paintings on pottery vessels show that in their society, the designer was the literate and enlightened one.”

Born in Costa Rica and raised in El Salvador, Larios was sent to bilingual (Spanish-English, Spanish-German) elementary and high schools, then attended Escuela de Artes Aplicadas in El Salvador. She earned her B.A. from University College Falmouth in England in 1999, and her M.A. from Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, London. Her 2005 thesis project was a case study of the Joya de Cerén UNESCO World Heritage Site in El Salvador, where 40 years ago archeologists uncovered the preserved remains of a pre-Hispanic farming village that was buried by a volcanic eruption in 600 AD.

Traveling and researching in Central America, Larios met her husband, Tyler Osburn, a photo-journalist, in Copán, Honduras, where his parents own an inn. For two years, the couple lived in Honduras, where Osburn photographed indigenous communities and Larios opened the design studio where she still works for several months each year.

3 Libro New Maya Language Cover; maya writing system

The cover of Frida Larios’s thesis book features the pictoglyph for “Town on Fire.” The display type is set in Kakaw, a face Larios designed with Gabriela Larios and Miguel Hernández.

5 Origins; maya writing system

This page from her 115-page thesis book features a photograph of the stele at the main plaza in Copán, Honduras, that demonstrates how Maya characters are formed and read from top to bottom, left to right.

The thesis document opens with a foreword from the field director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum and site maps of the Mesoamerica region. Larios describes the ancient Maya writing system—“they wrote about their gods, rituals, politics, relationships, time and its measurement, and events in history”—and presents her original series of 23 pictoglyphs that describe life in the Joya de Cerén village and its destruction and re-discovery. These “logo-legos,” as she likes to call them, are constructed from two or more parts “that are strong individually, but become even more meaningful conjugated as a whole.”

Glyphs; maya writing system

These 23 pictoglyphs—a term Larios has copyrighted—include Date on Stone, Planting Seeds, Crop Harvesting, Village, Ceremonial Temple, Family at Home, Vessel with Beans, Boy Eating Tamale, Erupting Volcano, House on Fire, Village on Fire, and Archeological Team.

9 Planting Seeds; maya writing system

Beans + Harvest = Planting Seeds

6 Volcano Erupting; maya writing system

Fire/Smoke + Mountain = Volcano Erupting

Fire/Smoke + House = House on Fire; maya writing system

Fire/Smoke + House = House on Fire

7 Family at Home; maya writing system

House + Woman + Son + Man = Family at Home

The pictoglyphs almost tell the story by themselves, but Larios, the mother of two young boys, has taken it a big step farther. She has created a trilingual (Spanish-English-Maya) children’s book, “The Village that Was Buried by an Erupting Volcano,” in which the main character, The Green Child, is a little boy “who loves to help his father sow maize.” The Secretary of Culture of the Presidency of El Salvador published an edition of 1,000 copies in March, 2014. She traveled there to inaugurate her design for the exterior walls of the Joya de Cerén site museum, and is currently looking for a U.S. commercial publisher.

11 El-Salvador-workshop-Boy Reading

At the the Joya de Cerén workshop in March, a young reader peruses “The Village That Was Buried by an Erupting Volcano,” written and designed by Frida Larios, with contributions by Andreas Pohancenik of Practice + Theory, a design firm with offices in Vienna and London.

“The Green Child” puzzle is custom-made by Larios to fill orders placed on

Like the Mayans, Larios is a multitasker. Currently working as design consultant, writer, design educator, Ambassador for ICOGRADA’s International Indigenous Design Network, Larios is as passionate and excited about her commercial work based on the Maya language as she is about her research, children’s book, and toys. A whole line of her New Maya Language products, including art prints, t-shirts, tote bags, and stationery is available on the Society6 site, a place where an international group of artists sell their wares.

13 Signage 1

This color-coded wayfinding system was commissioned by the Honduran government for its customs and border-crossing points. The type was set in Larios’s original typeface, Kakaw.

14 MuseumSignage

“Why use international ISO 7001 norm standards pictograms if content relevant to local culture can be used?” asks Larios. She developed these wayfinding pictograms for archeological sites across the Mesoamerican region.

15 New Maya Logos-

Logotypes designed by Larios for Honduran clients: Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve; Sendero Maya, a mountain biking event and music festival; La Reina Maya honey; Spa Ichel Natural Therapies Center; Hacienda San Lucas bed and breakfast; and Muyal, a line of body care products.

“I love working with New Maya Language on the commercial side,” Larios says. “Clients in the region know me. They say things like, ‘We like your style and would like to use it to identify our brand’ and are easy to work with. It’s so great to be emotionally connected to your work.”


Additional Resources:

Want to read more from Shapiro? In “No Sign of the Dove,” she explores show Israel’s hardworking design students do it all—while influenced by the political and emotional ferment in Israel.

  1. Larios is creating signage and educational materials, logos and more based on “The New Maya Language.” If you’re looking to refresh your own logo development skills, check out the workshop Designing an Attention Grabbing Logo.

  2. If you’ve already designed some wonderful, effective logos this year, consider entering them in HOW Logo Design Competition & Awards.