Desisto is an independent multidisciplinary platform established in 2013 by Margarida Borges and Ricardo Martins.
In 2015, the platform started to operate also as a graphic design studio and welcomed José Mendes.
I’d like to start this interview by asking you a bit about your different backgrounds and how you guys ended up founding Desisto.
Ricardo and Margarida should tell you that part because it’s a long story…
Margarida and I have been together for the past 13 years. At the time she was already finding her way within graphic design, but I was completely lost! In fact, illustration is my original graphic field: I first studied at Ar.Co (a renowned independent Art School in Lisbon) and then went to Escola Massana, in Barcelona. However, in parallel, I was also playing in many different bands without really knowing where it would take me.
Ricardo is a kick-ass drummer in bands like Jibóia, Pop Dell’Arte, Papaya, among many others.
Since you mentioned it, and I’m sure music will come up many more times in this conversation, I’m curious: how do you manage two very intense careers in design and music?
I kinda have two Plan A’s in my life, so in order to do both I don’t get much sleep, or much time for vacations.
About how it all began, I’d say that our first encounter with independent publishing was at “Chili com Carne”, an artists’ association from Lisbon. We’ve collaborated with them for many many years (we still do) and there we published our first books (although we used a different name at the time). Then we moved to Barcelona and I started the Masters in Elisava.
Where we met!
Margarida, Ricardo and Zé were students, in different moments, at the Masters’ degree in graphic design and editorial projects in Elisava.
Ricardo and I finally founded Desisto in 2013, at a time when we were feeling a bit “hungover” from our day jobs as designers. We created Desisto as a post-work platform to make projects of any kind, projects we wanted to do, from publishing to workshops or whatever.
The idea was also to put graphic design on hold for a moment. It’s very easy to get lost in image-driven work, and we wanted to create content and do things out of our comfort zone. Basically, Desisto was a space for experimentation.
And when did Zé become a part of the team?
Zé entered the picture when he moved back to Lisbon in 2015.
I was in London freelancing. We started having Skype conversations and we had this intuition that maybe there was room to create something here.
When we started talking about the idea of a new studio, the plan was to build something from scratch. But then we went through many horrible names that we didn’t identify ourselves with… Until one day we said: “Ok… how about we keep the name Desisto?” and Zé immediately said “Finally!!”
It’s just that it had already crossed my mind but it had to come from you… you had to be comfortable with adding a third person to Desisto.
And it actually made a lot of sense, because we never wanted to be a typical “graphic design studio”. We wanted to also be involved in education, production… so it made sense to just open the spectrum of Desisto.
The name, Desisto, is very intriguing. In 2013 Portugal was going through a tough economic and social crisis, with Troika running the country. In this context, the future of the designer looked, of course, very uncertain… Is the name perhaps a reflection, or a reaction, to that time?
It’s super interesting that you put it in that perspective, but actually it all came up as a joke. We were drawn to the idea of giving a heavy, negative meaning to a work we were doing with so much love.
Let’s not forget that Desisto was supposed to be a post-work playground in the beginning. We never thought we would take it seriously. But now, in hindsight, we’ve reached the conclusion that we “Gave up” (“Give up” is the English translation of “Desisto”) from doing many other things, to focus on this.
Did you make any declaration of intentions before starting?
You can define some premises, but that’s just what they are: premises. They can mutate with time. Our “flags”, however, were very clear: on the one hand, Typography, the way one works with it; on the other hand, production. We feel that, in general, there’s a lack of knowledge and care about production methods. Knowing about production allows you to work with a lot more creative freedom… But it also requires, on our side, to educate the client, to show him and inform him.
It’s very important for us to investigate production solutions that may bring power to a seemingly simple (and low budget, let’s be honest) piece.
Can I see some examples?
(Desisto had prepared a beautiful set of their work for this interview)
O Fim da Noite
A good example is one of our first projects, “O Fim da Noite”. It’s a book of poems from an independent publisher dedicated to photo books. This was their first text book and we weren’t allowed to do much since the cover layout and the printing in black and white were already defined. We decided to give it a special element and created 100 different covers – because we hand-painted every single one of them. It was very time-consuming, but it was worth it!
We were also invited to do the artwork of Marco Franco‘s album “Mudra”. Again, we knew what we wanted to do, but the budget was very limited. So we spent many days at a workshop cutting and glueing 300 covers…
Three weeks to be precise (laughs)
That’s when we realised we needed extra help and started putting a lot of effort into finding small producers, old workshops etc.
It’s very evident that your work claims the craftsmanship side of design.
For many reasons: the prices are more affordable, you can do smaller productions and they are really good at what they do.
And the relationship you create is very special.
It’s been almost three years since you started working together. How do you see your path so far?
We’ve been able, at least up to this point, to only accept the kind of projects we identify ourselves with. Our first client was “Butchers“, an identity for a restaurant.
I think we were lucky that clients came to us because they liked what we do… they don’t want something else.
Actually though, most of our clients find out about us by word of mouth. There was a really funny moment at the studio when we were doing three projects for street artists at the same time. First, Kruella’s exhibition, then Akacorleone’s identity and website and finally Bordalo’s exhibition.
I guess we could say we work for two main types of client: art and small/medium sized companies.
Identity is what we do most at the studio, but not necessarily in the traditional corporate sense. Many of them are ephemeral identities, for exhibitions for example. We often end up doing identities based on systems, rather than just a logotype, because we believe it’s what works best.
We did a fruit shop, a fishmonger, a carpentry… The fishmonger was so successful that now other people from the Market want to collaborate with us. We really like the idea of design reaching places where it usually is very scarce.
It’s very flattering when people who don’t have much connection with design, or much visual training, look at something and find it interesting, find value in it.
Then we have clients from the music field, for obvious reasons. But for example, when we did the identity for Vera Marmelo, a long-time friend and a music photographer, other people reached us because they followed and admired Vera’s work. Most of them also needed the type of service we gave her, but they simply didn’t know where to find it!
You’ve told me before that Desisto is also involved in education. How so?
We started by giving typography classes to illustrators. There is a big conflict between illustrators and typography, they usually hate it! So a teacher asked us to show them the “beautiful wonders” of mastering typography.
Or how to destroy it.
It was very challenging for us to try to seduce them into the world of typography. Now we’ll also teach at a design degree, which comes as a consequence of a workshop we did with the students.
We have been discussing a lot about high standards lately…
The teaching proposal behind this degree is very close to what we believe too: to make something that fits with the reality of present-day communication. That’s important for us – to be able to share knowledge in a structure of values with which we ourselves identify.
Is it a “learning by doing” approach?
In a way, yes. We noticed that young designers often reach us to ask stuff about production because there’s a real lack of this kind of practical knowledge in universities. It’s true that most of this knowledge you gain it later when you start working, and it requires a lot of research and meeting the right people.
I guess you guys, in particular, can relate to the frustration of a proactive 20-year-old student, eager to learn about production, who is often not taken very seriously by printers or other key-collaborators for designers.
The other day a girl asked us how do we get paper catalogues… Sending an email is really all it takes, but it was harder for her to get them. Another thing that we notice is that students live in a “3D world”: they download beautiful 3D photoshop mockups, with painted edges and embossings, but they have no idea what that implies: How much does it cost? How do you commission that to a printer?
That’s why we kinda want to open the game and make “privileged” information easier to reach.
That’s a very altruistic attitude.
Collaboration between designers, or other fields, elevates our profession, makes us all richer.
And this can all become very boring if we don’t collaborate!
Desisto has a very rational side, in which we can see influences from Dutch and Swiss design, but it also has a very emotional side, where experimentation and human gestures appear. I look at your work and I see… music!
It’s true that we like to get our hands dirty and find that human gesture as you said. There’s also tactility. Music comes to life in many ways, not only because we work in the music field, but also because, in my case, I’m a musician too. We could say Desisto has a “groove”.
We admire Swiss and Dutch graphic design, but we are neither Swiss nor Dutch! So we end up giving our work a “tuga twist” (“tuga” is a slang word for “Portuguese”) with southern European, warm, sunny vibes! It’s also a natural plastic search for our interest in investigating techniques. On the project for “Etc. Festival” we did 60 variations of the poster (in part because it was also a small festival, not like Primavera Sound…)
But this is also what breaks the rigidity. I’m sure we were influenced by the DIY attitude that exists in the music scene. Margarida did the light design of one of my concerts the other day.
After all, there’s no on/off button determining who you are in different situations. Designers play different roles at the same time, all the time, right? In some projects we become art directors, editors, curators…
Cleaning staff, managers, accountants … These are actually the fields where we are still growing and learning a lot since we started our own studio!
That and playing with six hands…
True. We are a team of three, but we feel each other’s victories and failures as our own too.
Aside from your commissioned work, Desisto also has a lot of self-initiated projects. What have you been up to lately?
One of the projects that ended up here was my solo album, “Furacão”. I’ve recorded a song every month, and the album compiles a year of music. The cover was screen printed by Mike Goes West, folded and glued by us.
We have a long queue of projects that we want to do, but right now they are our last priority… There’s an ambitious Risoprint manual (there are three Riso printers at their studio), a project for Quinta do Ferro, a new “SPAM” and “Parasitical interview”…
What are they about?
“Parasitical Interviews“ is an A5 risograph piece that features an interview on one side, and on the other side we let the interviewee do whatever he wants.
Then we “infect” other publications to trigger random encounters with our content. Usually, the publications have nothing to do with design or art, although the last ones we did were in collaboration with two institutions: one was inside the Small Press Year Book, and the other one was on the anniversary of Lisbon’s Bedeteca (Comic books library) – we infected all their books.
Then there’s “SPAM, Sceptical Pages About Mankind”. It’s a project with a political tone. To give you an idea, the next SPAM is a collaboration with Rita Luis, whose work focuses on investigating the influence of the 1974 Portuguese Revolution on the Spanish press at the time.
The Carnation Revolution, or 25th of April, overthrew 40 years of an authoritarian regime in Portugal.
We’re also doing an A2 Riso publication with photos I did on my last trip to Vietnam.
An ambitious format… (everybody laughs at this point)
We’ve already managed to break the Riso printer twice…! But now we found out how to fix it.
Finally, there is “Colisão“, a collaboration between Desisto and talented friends of ours. The idea is to intervene over our collaborator’s artwork – hence the “collision” – and the first one was with Bráulio Amado and his photos.
Maybe the most important project for us are the workshops we want to do here. We’d also like to introduce a more theoretical approach, rather than only practical.
Yes, to encourage critical thinking, instead of just producing for the sake of producing something…
I think that pretty much sums up Desisto’s attitude.
Thank you, guys!
During the whole conversation, Pongo the dog was sleeping next to us. He sometimes made some noises, dreaming… What might graphic designers’ pets dream about?