'We always aim to create work with presence and energy': Porto Rocha on play, potential and process

With their first year as a fully-functioning studio occurring during a pandemic, New York-based design studio Porto Rocha haven't had the most conventional of beginnings. Still, they've since absolutely thrived, masterfully creating work that strikes the nearly impossible balance of playfulness, sincerity and thoughtfulness.

We've chatted with Leo Porto and Felipe Rocha about their last year as a studio, how things have changed since they first started creatively collaborating, and giving designers more of a voice in the creative process.

Hello! How're you?

Leo and Felipe: We are good, thank you. Work has been keeping us busy, so I definitely can't complain. We've had to cope with the pandemic (like everyone else) and figure out how to adapt to this new world, but grateful to be able to work from home.

Have you been busy recently? With the oddity of the past 12 months, how have you found adjusting to a new way of working?

Leo and Felipe: We've been swamped, actually. We couldn't have imagined our first year as a studio would be such an atypical one. When Covid-19 hit, we definitely felt the impact on the business. Some projects were paused, others cancelled, and new business was scarce. But the transition to remote work was pretty smooth, and slowly things started to pick up again. Twelve months later, we are now 14 team members and just starting the hunt for another studio space. While the pandemic proved it is possible to work remotely and collaborate with people from all over the world, we are looking forward to being able to work with the team in person again. Having a physical space makes it easier to collaborate, be creative and cultivate a studio culture.

Can you tell our readers a little bit about your studio? What's the story behind Porto Rocha being as it is now?

Leo: We opened the studio about a year and a half ago, but Felipe and I have been collaborating for over five years. We started PORTO ROCHA because we wanted to do things a bit differently, and we saw the potential to do that together while pushing each other forward. We believe it is possible to do good design for good clients, at scale – and that's the premise of what we do. We seek to provoke meaningful change through our work, from large-scale projects that reach significant audiences to socially and culturally motivated initiatives.

Where do you turn when you're stuck in a rut?

Leo and Felipe: We don't have a single place we go for inspiration, but we think it's important to dedicate time to research and reference sourcing. We constantly push ourselves to look beyond the self-referential graphic design bubble — anything can be an inspiration, depending on the project and its context. Lately, we've been using collaborative visual research tools like Are.na and Pinterest to collect and organise material.

What've you been working on recently (which you're allowed to tell us about)?

Leo and Felipe: We can't say too much, but we're about to launch two major rebrand projects for US global brands, which is super exciting and a big step for the studio. We're also learning a lot working with clients from industries that are new to us, ranging from FinTech and crypto to architecture and pet care.

When working on larger projects and brands, we're often presenting to several stakeholders at all levels of the company. It's sometimes a challenge to get everyone on the same page, but it's really satisfying when we're able to get multiple decision-makers from different backgrounds excited about the future of their brands.

Your identity and editorial projects seem so lively; how playful is the process behind your practice?

Leo and Felipe: We always aim to create work with presence and energy – that really comes from a collaborative approach that balances playful exploration and systems thinking. The beauty of the design solutions often starts with initial team conversations. Our collaborative process is really hands-on and participatory; we encourage everyone on the project to be vocal and to have a say in how the idea develops.

What is most important to the work you do?

Leo and Felipe: The most important overarching element of our work is probably approaching design with intention. We strive to find creative solutions that feel intuitive and memorable. At the end of the day, we want our work to provide solutions to clients' real problems and situations; this strategic grounding is a good way to ensure that we're not making decisions simply based on our own tastes or what's "trendy". The work is stronger and more long-lasting as a result.

What sort of projects do you want to do more of?

Leo and Felipe: We would love to take on more branding projects for clients that are looking for meaningful change, helping them recalibrate and taking them through that journey to become better and more relevant in the world. We like to work with clients that see design as an integral part of the experience they have to offer beyond the surface level.

What do you want to see more of in the creative industry?

Leo and Felipe: One thing we see potential for is a more horizontal approach to design agency culture – we think there's room to give designers more opportunities to have a voice in the creative process. As creative directors, we strive to practice this at the studio by trusting and listening to our collaborators at every level.


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