Porto Summer School: a FORMative experience

A guest post by ABDA member Ella Egidy

Melbourne winters can be long and dreary, with everyone recluse and huddled in their studios. How might an editorial designer thaw out? Cue European summer and Porto Design Summer School in Portugal – €1 espressos and pastel de natas as far as the eye can see.

In July 2017 I spent two focused weeks on an editorial design course under the tutelage of four internationally renowned designers: Andrew Howard (founder of Studio Andrew Howard and course leader on the MA in Communication Design at ESAD, Porto), Hamish Muir (founding member of 8vo, partner of MuirMcNeil and lecturer at London College of Communication), Catherine Griffiths (designer, typographer and artist) and David Pearson (book designer and typographer). In its fifth year, Porto Summer School greets designers from different corners of the world, all at different stages in their careers, for a two-week intensive focused on editorial design.

Working and living with twenty-five other designers brought together varied perspectives and approaches to producing work. With discussions continuing late into the evenings at Café Candelabro, every designer becoming each other’s interlocutor, we were able to expand on the days’ studio practice and draw from it long theoretical conversations over what place, if any, editorial design has in today’s globalised world.

The following day’s work was imbued with the past evening’s theory and what emerged was work rooted in praxis. Each tutor had a varied approach to design and this broad range of approaches challenged each of us in unique ways. The sentiment ‘stay in the same place and dig deeper’ was repeated time and again and this encouraged us to make work that was developed in graphic form.

Our time was spent both making and reflecting, in equal measures, beginning with the return to formal basics to encourage thinking through making. We undertook exercises that were informed by the streets of Porto – to experience and become familiar with the intense vibrancy the city had to offer, and of course to learn the best place to ingest a francesinha. This formal play encouraged us to get out of our daily design tendencies; to step back from the computer; to reflect on our environment and to mould and construct with paper.

At various points throughout the course, each tutor delivered a lecture that reflected on their past work and their approach to design. Howard’s Desperately Seeking Substance posed many thought-provoking viewpoints, such as ‘form as a carrier of ideology’, a thought that has stayed with me. (For further reading I highly recommend Howard’s 1994 Eye Magazine essay, There is such a thing as society*.)

The intimate setting of these lectures allowed the space for discourse to develop between the lecturer and the group and, through this, new insights and perspectives were gained. As the designer William Morris states ‘All [persons] should have work to do which shall be worth doing’. This statement underpins the value of my encounter with these teachers – they create work that is very much worth doing. This thread ran throughout the course and resulted in my deep contemplation: what are we doing and why are we doing it? Design is deeply affected by our society and doing something for good or ill is a socially transformative act. It is crucial that we remain engaged with this thought if we are to make work that is worth doing.

The course culminated in two publications of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Split into two groups, we were randomly assigned a format within specified parameters, and one of eleven themes from the text. Each theme was to be interpreted by each individual, the finished pages were collated in order of the manuscript and bound together into two separate publications. Throughout this process the tutors challenged our conventions and greatly encouraged experimental formal play through graphic and material means — Porto definitely has more well-stocked papelarias than Melbourne.

What emerged were works that were both beautiful and engaging – a mélange of materials, colours, shape and form, beautifully bound together through a diversity of people, shared experience and metal fastenings.

The two weeks felt simultaneously like two years and two days. Throughout this experience, the importance placed on the role of the collective seemed key to the summer school’s ethos, and this environment is one where creativity thrives. This sense of community encouraged collaboration and, under Andrew Howard, Hamish Muir, Catherine Griffiths and David Pearson, the summer school teased a utopian studio environment where the summers are long, the work is self-directed and ultimately contributes to the social good. This made me feel as if I did not want to leave, and with another Melbourne winter looming, makes me want to return for one more.

The 2018 edition of the Porto Summer School runs from July 2–14. Applications are now open and close May 31.


Ella Egidy is a Melbourne based freelance designer currently on contract with NGV, she was shortlisted for Young Designer of the Year at the 2017 Australian Book Design Awards.