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Upon looking at the work of Porto, Portugal–based design studio Atelier d’Alves, it’s not difficult to grasp how the mind of founder, art director and designer Sérgio Alves has crafted a solid philosophy on design. Working for clients primarily in the cultural sector, the atelier creates across all media and at all scales, from print to identity to digital to signage and wayfinding. The artfulness with which it approaches every project realizes the idea that form does dictate content.

Founder, art director and designer Sérgio Alves.

Alves’s now-decade-long career as a designer began when he became curious about the street illustrations surrounding him in Porto. “In high school, I was in a general arts course with general art subjects, such as drawing, geometry and art history,” he recalls. “Seeing stickers [as street art] with such ‘perfect’ illustrations, I wondered how it was possible to draw that way. What program allowed me to develop those kinds of graphics [or] stickers with such jagged shapes? Without knowing it, I discovered design software, and from there, my frustration at being in a classical course grew.”

The seed to eventually start his own design firm became planted when Alves attended the Escola Artística e Profissional Árvore (“Árvore Artistic and Professional School” in English) in Porto. Some friends tipped him off to the art school’s emphasis on design. So, he elected to drop out of his previous school and pursue his education at Árvore, where Alves discovered a curriculum that was both practical and professionally oriented. “That was officially the step that led me to enter the world of design,” he says.

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During his education at Árvore, Alves pursued two internships at design firms in Porto, first with Atelier Martino & Jana (now known as Non–verbal Club) and then with White Studio (now known as Studio Eduardo Aires). The experiences he had at his internships proved formative to his understanding of how design studios operated. “I discovered ‘design authorship,’” Alves says, “and the fact that authorship leads us to choose what we want to do, with whom we want to work and how. For the following five years [in parallel with] my studies—I eventually got my degree at the Escola Superior de Artes e Design—I worked as a freelancer. I took every opportunity seriously, mainly to gain experience. When I finished my degree, I rented an office in downtown Porto, and almost without knowing or [having made] a decision, I ended up taking my first step to creating the atelier.”

On the subject of Atelier d’Alves’s diverse output, Alves mentions that he never intended to have a specialization. “I always knew I wanted to work in the cultural field above all others, but I never wanted to limit myself in what I could do with it,” he says. “I have always liked the idea of not knowing exactly what I will do next.”

As he describes it, though, Alves’s attitude reflects the design environment in Porto. “Porto, despite being the second-largest city in Portugal, is relatively small,” he explains. Yet, to him, the city’s size does not present a disadvantage—in fact, it encourages more inclusion and participation within the creative community. “Porto is a city where we all know each other in some way,” he says. “It has four major design schools, so the city nurtures our community a lot. The studios [here] tend to be small as well, averaging four or five employees, which causes each studio to develop its own design language.”

This individuality might account for how erudite Alves’s own design language is. For every medium that the atelier designs in, there is a well-thought-out argument behind the why of its approach. For example, when Alves talks about print design, he indicates how the interactivity of printed objects informs how readers interpret the information and graphics. “Paper allows us to take our projects to the third dimension,” he says, “whether by format or tactile sensations or by the interactivity that the object provides to those who handle it.”

Alves relates the use of media to the seasoning of a dish. “We can have the same ingredients, but the flavor would be made completely different by [what] we add to it,” he says. “For us, a digital book is somehow insipid.”

Without knowing it, I discovered design software, and from there, my frustration at being in a classical course grew.”

That spiritless quality Alves perceives arises from his comparison between digital and physical design. For him, the importance of print relates to the human relationship with the design object as a marker of personal experience, rather than the comparatively ephemeral relationship with digital objects. “The [print] object becomes an extension of memory,” says Alves. “It has an associated physical space with the place where we acquired it; it has a time-space, or when we acquired it; and it has a sentimental space, or how we acquired it. And it becomes part of the landscape we inhabit.

“For example, when I buy a book, I decide whether to put it on a bookshelf or a bedside table,” he continues. “I can show it or hide it, lend or give it to someone, or throw it away. All this makes the print object contain within itself a memory that comes from multiple dimensions, and [knowing this] makes it possible for us as designers to take the concept of giving form to content to the extreme.”

With some woe, Alves notes that without the context of being able to hold and feel one of Atelier d’Alves’s books in their hands, people will not fully be able to experience the whole vision. As an example, he talks about the identity and communications the design firm created for the nonprofit alternative art space RAMPA in 2019: in particular, how the flyers feature explorations of ink and varnish that will not translate in reproductions. “All the flyers we produce have a very tactile dimension, which comes from the nature of the exhibitions and the artist’s work,” he explains. “People remember the feeling [when they touched] the flyers for RAMPA. When I look at these flyers digitally, that relationship is lost, which, for me, makes them much less effective in the message they’re meant to convey.”

Part of the magic that Atelier d’Alves creates in print also represents the closeness of the design scene in Porto. Alves credits his expert design work to the creative relationships he’s forged. “The terms collaboration and dialogue have been essential to my vision of design,” he says. “We can speak of two clear dimensions here: collaboration or dialogue with the client or the person who creates and conditions the content, and collaboration from an execution or technical [standpoint]. Both can be creative, and [most] times, they are.”

As an example of the first case, he points to A Garden at Night, his 2020 book made in tandem with artist Tiago Madaleno to accompany and recontextualize an exhibition of the same name at RAMPA. The book comprises two parts: text written by three authors on our understanding of gardens, and a mirrored accordion folio that plays with the concepts of reflection and perception. Everything in the book—the form, typography and color, among other elements—was chosen by both Alves and Madaleno working collaboratively. “The idea was mainly to treat the book as an integral part of the artistic work,” Alves explains. “This was only possible because there was a constant dialogue between both parties, one that challenged both my vision as a designer and Tiago’s vision as an artist.”

I always knew I wanted to work in the cultural field above all others, but I never wanted to limit myself in what I could do with it. I have always liked the idea of not knowing exactly what I will do next.”

This proved to be a winning combination—literally. A Garden at Night received accolades from AIGA, Communication Arts, Laus and Macau Design Award. “Almost everything we do, especially in the cultural sector, is written in Portuguese, [so] to think that a jury in New York looked at the book—without understanding a word that was written there—and considered it worthy of [an] award is something that reveals the universality of the language of design,” Alves beams.

To demonstrate his second use of the term communication, Alves discusses the opening titles for Cassandra, a television adaptation of a play for which he initially designed a book version. However, with motion not being in Atelier d’Alves’s wheelhouse, he turned to motion designer Nuno Leites for the technical aspects of the titles. “It was fundamental to know beforehand that Nuno knew our visual language well,” Alves explains. “On the other hand, I also knew well how he can take something static and enhance it through movement. This [let] us spend more time discussing sensibilities and sensations—and not so much the technicalities of the project. At this level of collaboration, the first thing that comes up is the technical need, but very quickly we can forget that premise and focus on the conceptual and sensorial.”

Another collaborative approach that involves technical aspects is Atelier d’Alves’s relationship with printers. “Fortunately, we still work a lot with print, which means that our work begins and ends on paper,” he says. “With each new book we do, we deepen our understanding of paper, printing techniques, [presses] and finishings, among other aspects. But we will never know as much as the people who produce the books themselves. This knowledge of materiality is fundamental and one that intervenes directly in the design.”

Alongside these considerations of how materials affect design is how typography affects design. To explain his approach to typography, Alves puts forward a compelling idea about our relationship with written language: “First, we see letters as images, and that opens possibilities of reflecting and shaping the content effectively. Second, typography has an impact on people’s lives that they can’t necessarily explain—meaning, we don’t always perceive the information it conveys,” he says.   “When typography works, it is practically invisible, but when it doesn’t, it is shockingly visible.” The aim of invisibility may not be one that many designers cherish, but Alves finds it enjoyable. “Someone feeling that the idea or concept could not be represented by any other typeface than the one we [use] is the pinnacle of what we aim to do in each project,” he explains.

Within his work, Alves constantly finds himself learning more about what makes good design. “[It’s] in the process,” he says. “More and more, I believe in doing, experimenting, making mistakes and accepting that it’s in the middle of all this that the answers—at least, the most interesting ones—will emerge. And, if we add to that the dialogue between peers, between designer and client or between design and other disciplines, we have the formula to the most honest, effective way of doing design.” ca

Michael Coyne is the managing editor of Communication Arts


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