Big Story 10

Brands flock to Spanish special needs designers with 'surreal' talents

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a typical Barcelona office scene, two workers chat about last night’s football match before a meeting. But 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 Poblenou district, 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 - or The House of Charlotte - 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, Danone and San Miguel, as well as local municipal projects.

Meanwhile, people with autism “see the world in a very special – surrealist – way,” he 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 southern European country although it does have a tradition of tackling social change through foundations, co-operatives and other non profits.

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, according to 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 to promote Barcelona’s municipal food markets, organized by the City Hall.

Within minutes, the table was a patchwork of felt tips, chalk, tracing paper, photos and glue as the team made initial designs inspired by photos 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 to 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,” said Batalla. “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 photos 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.

“They are working with students, other designers – very professional people – they’re not people with Down syndrome just talking to other people with Down syndrome,” he said, adding that it is important they feel involved in normal life.

“In the time of Walt Disney ... it wasn’t normal that a woman worked in a design studio, it was prohibited,” he said.

“Well, 50 years from now, it might be normal to have people with Down’s working in design studios too.”

La Casa de Carlota opened a second design studio in Colombia three years ago.


There is no formal definition of what constitutes a social enterprise in Spain, according to the European Commission.

“A good number of people and organizations don’t know what a social enterprise is,” said Javier Goizueta, founder of Social Enterprise Espana, the Madrid-based members’ organization.

But interest in businesses doing good has grown as people who used to work for charities got tired of dealing with the bureaucracy and switched to social enterprises, he said.

“Technology and the internet have reduced the costs of marketing and other strategies so people can, with only a little bit of money, set up a social enterprise,” he said.

Another Spanish social enterprise gaining recognition is sustainable fashion brand Ecoalf, which recycles ocean debris, like fishing nets and plastic bottles, into clothes and textiles and also develops innovations to eliminate waste in the sea.

The company, founded in 2012, has stores in Madrid and Berlin and has designed products for brands including the coffee company Starbucks and Swatch watchmakers, and fabric for U.S. fashion label Marc Jacobs.