When researching for this interview, we found no shortage of top-notch design studios in Portugal. But as soon as we discovered Koiástudio, we knew we had to talk with them. Look through their work and it's clear they are passionate about good design and just have fun with it, beyond the business aspect. And that's even more apparent in this conversation with Jorge Almeida, in which we talk about designing in the midst of a crisis, doing a lot with little and promoting your work through partying with friends.
We are three people now working at Koiástudio. It’s me (Jorge Almeida) and Bruno Albuquerque, both graphic designers living in Porto and sharing our office downtown, and Diogo Bento, who is a photographer living and working in São Vicente, Cape Verde.
The studio came about in 2012 when Diogo and I, both working as independent freelancers at the time, realized we could start doing work together, even if there was an ocean between us, since we have a common background (we’ve been friends for a long time) and similar tastes. This opportunity would allow us to challenge and improve our own practices, all the while making something bigger than the sum of the parts. At the same time, we would be able to secure more work and share common projects and goals.
Later on, the opportunity arose for Bruno to join us, bringing new languages and ideas to the studio.
The three of us have been working together for three years now.
We think that the relationship between culture/tradition of one’s own environment and the work of design will always exist. And it's a welcoming relationship. It exists not only for us as technicians, thinkers and creators, but also in the mind of the clients and even within the projects we work for. However, we consider that it is also a starting point from where to search for some kind of disruption and where design work can find its place.
As a matter of fact, we can give an example of our own, albeit a simple one: Working with some projects in smaller, less-cosmopolitan towns, in more conservative regions of the country, we always try to push things a little bit forward, without losing the focus and the roots within the given context. We also think that we can always add a little something new to each of these projects that we carry out.
Nowadays we all have access to what is happening around us, almost everywhere, and Portuguese designers are aware and are part of that. We can easily find influences, trends and languages that circulate everywhere. Of course, sometimes we also joke that a certain trend has arrived late to Portugal, but the truth is that Portuguese designers and other creatives belong to this global network and are obviously influenced by it, while also assuming their role as influencers.
Yes, Porto has always been a cluster for the creative industries and design has been a big part of this. Design schools and, more recently, the city council’s cultural policies have played a fundamental role. But this is also due – and we return to the tradition/culture point – to the way of being for Porto’s people and their adopted citizens, like we are. It can be characterized by the capacity to constantly renew oneself and always be in a certain state of inquietação (unrest) – like the singer-songwriter José Mário Branco has reminded us of. This makes the city seem to be always bubbling up.
Obviously, we must not forget that Lisbon is a great creative hub, an incredible city and, of course, has many good designers. In fact, some of the studios whose work we appreciate the most are located there.
Perhaps the only thing that can be separated here (and this may be an outdated idea) is that Lisbon has always been better known by the big communication agencies, big structures, with projects that involve huge resources, while Porto has always been better known for the small creative studios. This may bring greater proximity between those who actually work on a given project and their clients. What we are seeing is that many of the great cultural venues of the city of Lisbon, such as theatres, museums and cultural spaces, are looking for or working with design studios from Porto.
It's also great to see how smaller cities, although still few, are investing in graphic design in such a visible way. And this is great for everyone and helps to bring forward the industry as a whole. We’re talking about cities like Braga, Viseu or Coimbra.
We are not very participative in that kind of events, but yes, they do exist. We cannot deny that it has become easier and easier for designers to connect and get together and, therefore, to share different ways of doing design. Speaking about Porto, several initiatives take place regularly during the year, such as the event "Bolsa de Ideias." In Matosinhos, a neighboring city, we have “Casa do Design," where exhibitions are held regularly. We now have the “Porto Design Biennale” (which started in 2019). And there are other smaller initiatives happening all over the city, in places like co-working spaces, galleries or schools.
All this always generates more discussion, energy and interaction between designers; between designers and other creative people; and between designers and individuals who don't necessarily have a creative activity, but who are nevertheless interested in these issues, which seems relevant to us. All this helps to foster a critical attitude toward the discipline of design.
Nowadays there seems to be a very comprehensive response for those who want to study design, especially at a university level, from formal graphic design to courses focused on specific areas of graphic design, or courses that embrace graphic design as a relevant discipline. Because design education is relatively recent for us, we sometimes notice some variations or uncertainties in these degrees’ programs. Although we would say that’s totally fine, given they are still finding their path or place in the design landscape.
Yes, most active Portuguese designers today have formal higher education. However, we cannot go without those who opened the way for us, who are still relevant both for us and the Portuguese design scene, and who did not have a specific design diploma. We are thinking of, in the field of graphic design, designers such as Sebastião Rodrigues (1929-1997), Victor Palla (1922-2006) or, more recently, João Machado (still active). People that continue to make perfect sense when it comes to talking about design in Portugal.
Although design education in Portugal is still finding its own way, we think that it has become more attractive and more consistent in terms of practical and theoretical approaches, making it a credible field today.
Universities with more years of graphic design education continue to invest heavily in print media, and especially in the area of editorial design. We think that anyone studying in these institutions will become fascinated with the book as an object. However, as we all know, it's not exactly an easy market; there aren't many publishing houses publishing very regularly. Perhaps that's why we've also seen, and not only in Portugal, a boom of self-publishing authors and small independent publishers owned by designers.
There won't be many designers working exclusively on book covers. But yes, we do have really good and beautiful book covers in Portugal. We advise you to look for the work of Rui Silva (Alfaiataria) or Silva Designers.
At Koiástudio, this was one of our first major interests. We find it stimulating the fact that the process of making a book cover brings an exercise of interpreting the book content, and the challenge of adding something new to the written narrative without compromising the author’s ideas. We have also a romantic idea of the book as an object that defines a certain time for us, a certain time for the public, and a certain time for us as a society.
However, today we have turned our attention to album covers. Something that has also always had a great interest for us and which we love to do. It ends up having a process similar to that of a book cover. Although in some cases, depending on the genre and the clients themselves, it becomes an even more open exercise, especially due to the nature of the content with which it relates: music and sound.
Yes, it affected us all, directly or indirectly. Trying to bring up something good from this crisis and the severe political measures that followed: we think it brought a more interactive role of the designer as an agent in its community. We remember that people coming out of the university, having to struggle to find a decent job, became more engaged in our communities or, at least, more active. We think we're now seeing a tendency to incorporate or look at different approaches to things, that goes beyond the trends often acquired in schools. Which ends up bringing more diversity.
There seems to be more willingness to take risks in certain groups of designers, especially the younger ones. And if in many cases this goes in the direction of innocuous relativism, in many other cases it brings new ideas that are well-structured and well-founded. Of course, unfortunately, this is almost always at a very precarious or unsustainable level, but it is good to think that it is a way of dealing with things and of opening the way to the new.
Right now, in the face of a crisis that is predicted, we are already thinking about the challenges we may have to face and, as a studio, what can we bring back to us and our clients.
Yes, unfortunately, in Portugal there is often a gap between projects and existing resources. Most of the time resources are not up to the needs of a particular job or the kind of inputs we want to apply to the project. If we said earlier the discipline of design is now a credible discipline in Portugal, the truth is that it still does not have the desirable echo of what is invested in design work. We’re not only talking budget-wise, but also about what is invested in terms of trust in the designer or the time allowed to carry such projects.
Sometimes we come across projects that really interest us, but whose time for design is too limited. Often this time is also made more limited by too much bureaucracy, especially when we talk about institutional clients.
This makes us have to adapt, often overnight. We have had cases of having almost finished projects, and because of late responses from the clients, we have to come up with unforeseen, fast and cheaper production solutions. Obviously, if this would mean a poor output, the work will not go out until we and the client find a better solution.
This seems to be changing, but it will always be a slow change.
We have to confess that we are not given much to self-promotion, either by direct contact or through the use of social networks. Obviously, we know the full potential of social networks and how showcasing work can help find new clients and projects. We are still trying to shape our individual way of being to make the most out of this. The three of us have always been very inconspicuous! In this sense, what really works for us is the network that we create through our conviviality with friends. Going out partying and being with our friends is our way of social networking. This means that a lot of our clients reach us by word of mouth, and our friends do a really good job at this. We are thankful to them.
We also put a lot of effort into doing our best all the time and establishing a close relationship with all of our clients. We believe this is key to creating a bond and a sense of trust that will encourage a long-lasting relationship with our clients.
"Saudade," maybe this concept exists to define a certain level of shyness and a need for close human contact. In these times when we are all closed at home, this becomes paradigmatic.
In general, although this seems to be changing; we need a lot of human contact. Maybe this will bring greater understanding about human relationships, how people interact with each other, and consequently how individuals and communities interact with objects, images, etc. And this may interfere with our work. We try to have a poetic degree in every image that we compose or in every object that we build. And the three of us even have different ways of doing so.
Obviously, this may not always be visible, it probably isn't, but we like to think that each of our objects/works brings forward some more poetic narrative to those who receive it and see it.
If this may be something coming from the concept of "Saudade," we are not sure, at least on a conscious level.
"Here in Portugal, it seems there has always been a time problem!"
Yeah, the famous "Desenrascar." This concept is most likely related with what we’ve mentioned earlier about finding solutions with the few resources we have and, at the same time, with the time at our disposal for each project. But yes, we Portuguese use this characteristic of doing everything in the last minute to define ourselves. We believe that this is often the designer's work routine all over. However, here in Portugal, it seems there has always been a time problem!
In our work this also happens, not because we do things at the last minute, which is not what defines us in the first place, but above all because we often have very little time to dedicate to a project – and, in many of these cases, we have to find quick solutions.
On the other hand, being already aware of this, we are always trying to find implementation mechanisms that enable us to find the technical constraints of projects early in the process. Basically, we are shaping our tools and working methods to give more relevance to the exploration/discussion of concepts and experimentation with languages, and to spend less time with technical issues.
We would like to say that this is always a premise, but it would not be true. The truth is that sometimes it is very upsetting for us to have to abandon certain materials or techniques. If we try to use sustainable materials – and the truth is that most of our work is printed on recycled or recyclable paper – we tend to trust that the printers will do the same, e.g. in the inks they use.
Of course, it can't stop there, and often what defines the final format or materials for a particular object takes into account how long it will last. This becomes important in regards to these issues. It's different to choose the materials, or even the media, for an object that has to communicate for an unlimited period of time and the materials or media used for an ephemeral object that will last for two or three weeks, or even a month. We often see objects of very short duration with incredible finishings (expensive and unsustainable). For us, this kind of approach does not make much sense.
Starting from the last question, there aren't many blogs or magazines specialised in design in Portugal. However, there are two authors of special relevance dedicated to critical writing about design: Mário Moura, professor, design critic and curator, and Frederico Duarte, also professor, critic and curator.
Both also have several books dedicated to the subject.
We would also like to highlight the work being developed by ESAD-Idea, a design research center, which is currently responsible for programming the “Casa do Design” in Matosinhos and which also has a series of publications on design theory and practice.
Going now to the first question, it is our understanding that the communication between designers and the communities of designers should be less driven by styles or trends and more open to diversity. It is in the discussion of different ideas and approaches that we enrich everyone's work and, through that, the field of design.
Your interview series is an example of an interesting way to put designers in dialogue and we thank you for letting us be part of it.
Thank you for doing this with us, Jorge! The energy and dimension in Portugal's design community is obvious, and we're excited to follow your work as well as these other fantastic studios you shared here. We look forward to seeing what Koiástudio creates next.