Designer Leo Porto on how to move from student intern to studio star

Following internships at Sub Rosa, Mother, Pentagram and Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, in 2015 Brazilian designer Leo Porto managed to land the kind of debut job most design students can only dream of, at leading New York agency Collins.

Since then, he says he's "got to work on several different projects and learned so much from every one of them. Every project is a different challenge, a different world you have to immerse yourself in".

In our interview, Porto shares some of the things he's learned so far and offers some pointers for anyone seeking to follow in similar footsteps...

Having studied at New York's School of Visual Arts, what do you see as the benefits of having a formal design education?

Having a degree is not imperative to success. There are lots of bad designers with college degrees and lots of great designers without it. But for me, besides getting to learn from some of the best professionals in the field and getting to know amazing people from the industry, the biggest benefit of going to SVA was having New York as a campus and taking advantage of everything it has to offer. The downside would be the amount of money you spend on it and loans you might have to take.

Where did your interest in design come from originally?

From a really young age, I loved to draw and paint and make things. My great-grandmother was a painter and would give me art supplies for Christmas and my birthday every year.

It was my own decision to pursue design and go to SVA but I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. I enrolled as an advertising major, because growing up in Brazil, I had the misconceived idea that in order to pursue a creative career and be able to sustain myself I would have to go into advertising.

After a year, I realised advertising wasn't for me and switched to graphic design. I guess I was attracted by the fact that it's a creatively driven and highly visual career that has a significant role in society. I'm intrigued by the idea that my design can be relevant and useful to the world.

How were the first few weeks working with Chermayeff and Geismar? Did you feel as though you were ready?

Despite the pressure of working with such iconic designers, I was comfortable with my skills at the time as they were more than enough to fulfill my duty as an intern. I ended up working there for eight months and my responsibilities increased over time.

Naturally, I didn't always get positive feedback, but that is something you have get used to. Learning to detach yourself from your work once it's 'killed' and move on is an important skill to have.

What's your advice to design students who lack confidence?

Confidence is very important because if you second-guess yourself too much you might find yourself stuck in a vicious cycle that will block your creative process. When I start designing, I try to put down as many different ideas and sketches as I can, even if they suck, so they are out of my mind and into the paper/screen. I've always found it easier to eliminate options until you find the best one than to stare at the screen until you come up with a winner idea.

On the other hand, it is just as important to be self-critical. I think I'm very self-critical and I like that about myself. Overconfidence and thinking you know it all will only serve as an obstacle to learning and becoming a better professional. There is always room for improvement and it is good to think that you'll do better tomorrow.

What are the biggest differences between designing at school and designing in actual studios?

As students you have full creative freedom: no client limitations, no bureaucracy, none of the frustrations of dealing with a budget cut, no opinionated sales executives, no project drops, no last minute "let's change everything". You can mock up everything without dealing with the physical production and financial limitations, because it's not real and the production scales are completely different. On the other hand, working on a real project is much more fulfilling because there is purpose to it.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on two projects at the moment. One of them is the full rebrand and redesign of the packaging system of a skincare company. The other one is designing the office and lobby of a tech company.

What's it like working in New York?

New York City is perhaps the best place to be as graphic designer. It has so much to offer, yet the opportunities are just as great as the competition. My advice is to put a lot of effort into your portfolio and to be persistent. Apply to as many different studios you find interesting as you can. Take every opportunity you have to meet new people and get your foot in the door. You will inevitably get 'no's, but if you try hard enough you will surely land a cool job.

Main photo: Luke Fontana


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