Studio Culture Interview: R2

Studio Culture Interview: R2

Lizá Ramalho and Artur Rebelo founded R2, a graphic design studio, while studying at Porto Fine Arts University. The studio works for a wide range of cultural organizations, curators, artists and architects. Projects include identity work, poster design, book design and exhibition design. They have won numerous international awards and regularly act as jurors for design competitions.

Their work is informed by a strong European sensibility. Often using illustrative elements to make compelling visual communication, R2's work is undeniably contemporary in flavour, yet at the same time linked to the great tradition of European humanism. Their striking typographic mural for The Hermitage of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, a small chapel built in 1707, located in an alleyway in Lisbon, is a striking example of their contemporary sensibilities at work in a traditional setting. Ramalho and Rebelo teach in various Portuguese colleges. They have been members of AGI (Alliance Graphic International) since 2007.

This interview was conducted via email.



Tell me how you came to form R2.

Lizá Ramalho: We met at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Porto and started working together on school projects. In doing so, we realized the advantages of working as a team, discussing ideas and experiences, sharing and capitalizing on our joint resources.




Forming a studio straight from school is a brave thing to do. Do you think you might have benefited by working for a few studios before starting R2?

Of course we would. The organization and managing model we have now is based on our own experience; we made a lot of mistakes during that process. More importantly, we never saw how other designers developed and presented their projects to clients. Finding the right producers and controlling production was also another thing that we had to figure out ourselves.

Were there any studios you admired?

Many. One of them was Alan Fletcher's.

The Portuguese Youth foundation had a grant program that included visits to European cities to meet professionals working in your field of study. We applied and got a grant to travel to London to meet him. It was very inspiring.

Tell me about the practical side of starting your studio - did you have to borrow money? How did you find premises? What professional advice did you get? Our studio developed very slowly, step by step. We started working in my room [Lizá] while we were still students, with one Quadra 450 and one A4 inkjet printer. From my room we moved to a small place in Porto's industrial area. The money from our first projects was used to pay the rent on our studio and to buy a scanner. The building was so scary at night that some clients were afraid to visit us. Later on we found a nice space in a business building. But then we got tired of the Xerox machine sellers. Recently we moved to this small house in a quiet neighbourhood.

We started without taking any professional advice. As we hadn't worked for other studios, the organization and running of our studio was a real challenge. We were always asking friends, office neighbours - mainly a photographer and a jewellery designer - and some suppliers. Now we have professional management and accountancy advice.




Did you have a vision of how you wanted your studio to be?

We wanted to be involved in interesting and challenging projects. Invest a lot in research and experimentation. Take risks. Be very critical of our own work, never be satisfied, and always push it further. Also, to have fun while working.

Graphic designers often imagine that they have to move to their country's capital city to be successful. You are in Porto, Portugal's second city; did you contemplate moving to Lisbon?

In the past yes, we thought about moving to Lisbon or abroad... now we manage to organize things from Porto. We travel often to Lisbon, since we have a lot of clients there. It is a three-hour journey. We use this time to work; it can be very productive. If we travel together, we mainly use the time to discuss projects.

What are the advantages of being in Porto?

It's a good place to live; we have the ocean and the river. The city is changing. It's growing. There is a lot to be done and people are aware (of what needs to be done) and are working on it. You can easily focus on work. There is also the financial aspect; it is cheaper to live in Porto than in Lisbon, we could not afford our house if it was in Lisbon. Our studio is not far from the contemporary art museum, which has great exhibitions. A little bit further away is the main concert hall and the biggest city park links our studio to the ocean. Finally, our house is next to the studio, so we do not lose any time getting stuck in traffic. It is also our town; we have our roots and emotional links here, so, for the moment, we will stay put and, if possible, contribute to its development.

Any disadvantages?

The normal disadvantages that you have in small cities, fewer cultural opportunities, fewer job opportunities, lack of flights.

The name R2 is an amalgamation of both your names - was it hard to choose a name?

It was difficult; we tried several names, made lots of lists. Then we turned to the obvious, we have a common letter in our names. Now it feels right.

How did you attract work in your early days?

Well, work came to us before we were even thinking about it. We were on our third year of a five-year diploma when we started working on some illustrations for a friend who was starting a business. That project was seen by a small theatre company, and they asked us to do some design work for them. It was a great job; it gave us room for experimentation and provided visibility for our work, mainly via street posters. By the time we had finished the degree course, we had already established a reasonable portfolio of clients - which led us to believe that we would be able to set up our own studio. We therefore decided to take the plunge.




Do you both have clearly defined roles within the studio?

No, we both do design, art direction and everything else.

How do you deal with the everyday aspects of studio life - invoicing, bookkeeping, software updates, soap in the washroom?

This year we started training a person to take care of all of that, except the invoicing, which we still do ourselves. Recently we hired a firm that controls the client's payments and costs.

Is this what is called a factoring service - where a company pays all your invoices on time, and then recovers the money from the client, taking a percentage of the amount for this service? How has it benefited you?

No, it's just a company that does our financial control. We pay a fixed fee per month and they do everything.

Tell me about the R2 studio - is it just you two or do you employ designers?

At the moment we have three designers working with us.

What is your attitude towards the designers you employ - do you want them to follow your art direction, or do you want them to contribute their own views?

We worked for a long time as just the two of us. We built R2 based on our dialogue and our own perspective. We do a lot of projects that take a significant amount of time with corrections and other implementations, but to give an appropriate response, we needed more people. We looked for designers who would feel comfortable being assistants. Actually, we have really good ones that enjoy doing that part of the design process, which is very important. We actually have a lot of fun working and we like our team very much.

What about interns?

We usually receive one or two interns each year. Mostly from abroad, as we like to have this cultural exchange. We've had students from several different countries (Germany, France, Canada, Lebanon, Czech Republic). Most of them were really good experiences.

What do you ask your interns to do? Do they fetch coffee from the coffee shop or are they given projects to work on?

They participate in the current projects of the studio. We try to make them participate in development, presentation, implementation and production.




How does your teaching and lecturing inform your professional practice?

We learn a lot. It is stimulating, and provides an opportunity to do research on different kinds of projects. Lecturing makes you look at your own work as a whole. You select, organize and explain. It's a great exercise. More importantly, you get a chance to receive feedback from the other designers or students, which is very good.

What about your physical environment - is your studio an immaculate designer space?

No, it's superficially messy. We often work away from the computer. We experiment with objects, with photography, and we use different materials. We keep too much stuff, too many found objects, too many mock-ups...

What are the essentials for a good studio - effective interior space planning? Storage space? Natural light?

We are located in a 1950s house with lots of small rooms. We are divided across two floors. We have one or two people in each room, all of them with natural light and big tables. We have a small garden, which is very good in the summer; sometimes we lunch together there. This space works well for us, we get a home-like atmosphere.

You enter a lot of design competitions and take part in design events. Is this an important part of your business, or do you do it because you like doing it?

The visibility that every work gets is in relation to its own context. We wanted to show our work outside Portugal, not in a business perspective but a way of showing it to designers from other countries. Participating in design events gives a chance to travel, to meet designers from other countries, to exchange ideas. It gave us incredible moments and it is an opportunity to meet fantastic people. We've made many great friends.

How do you think your election to AGI affects your business? Does it help attract clients?

We have been AGI members only since 2007. We never saw it as way to get clients but rather as recognition from people we admire. Hopefully this will also mean more interesting projects.

What about a potfolio, website... are these things important? Or does finding new clients just happen?

We were always aware of the importance of both, but we just had the website, maybe because the clients just show up. Most of them did not come because of the website but because they had seen the actual work. That is one of the reasons that we never invested in a portfolio, but now we are working on it.




What about the future - do you envisage R2 growing? Will there be a time when you have an office in Lisbon as well as the Porto office? Or will it always just be you two and a few assistants?

We don't know what the future will be, but we are quite happy with the actual size. Anyway, if we feel this formula is not the best for a different context, we will change; we are always questioning and redirecting the goals and process inside the studio.

Last question...if you were starting again what, if anything, would you do differently?

Back then, knowing what we know today, we would have done lots of things differently. In some aspects we chose the longest way... but in the end we've managed to get where we wanted, plus it made us value what we have achieved and we learned a lot from our mistakes and the choices we made.


Interview taken from 'Studio Culture: The secret life of the graphic design studio' by Tony Brook & Adrian Shaughnessy