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Big Ideas

Atelier Martino & Jaña: Tapping into the Collective Brain

Is your creative team maximizing its collective brain? Atelier Martino&Jaña explain how "the best individual skills create the best collective work."

Do you identify with any of these statements? 1) I have a long list of things to do. 2) I have too little time to do them. 3) I am desperately in need of a holiday.

If the answer is yes, you have a least one thing in common with the super-talented graphic designers at Atelier Martino&Jaña in Porto, Portugal, who responded with that list last week when asked about their “present state of mind.” It would seem that creatives the world over have at least one thing in common: more ambitious plans than there are hours in the day.

For AM&J those ambitions are carried out through a small-scale but highly collaborative approach to work. All five designers – João, Alejandra, Oscar, Filipe, and Álvaro – touch almost every client project, refining the work with each handoff. At the same time, AM&J opens its doors on a daily basis to students and friends who want to use the space as a resource. It’s the best of both worlds: The design team remains small and tightly-knit, but their practice is constantly informed by fresh insights from a rotating cast of creatives.

We chatted with the AM&J team – who, of course, answered our questions collectively – to find out about their uniquely social working style.

What’s your favorite creative tool?

It could sound like an obvious answer, but we have to say “our collective brain.”

Do you have a daily routine – or “anti-routine” – that helps you be more productive as a studio?

We have a mixed routine/anti-routine system. We believe that for someone to be able to give their very best, he or she needs to feel happy. So, although we have fixed working hours, everyone is responsible for their time. If someone feels like going for a walk, spending hours at lunch, or skipping a day, the rest of the team will make sure the absence is minimized.

Amongst ourselves, we absolutely trust the individual sense of responsibility, and there are no clear hierarchies – all the decisions tend to be made collectively. We’re all free and different, and we learn how to commonly understand and balance work with each other, to follow the studio’s philosophy. Each person has his or her role, and by sharing interests, we know that productivity levels are higher.

We absolutely trust the individual sense of responsibility, and there are no clear hierarchies.

Do you have a particular way of collaborating as a small group?

Usually when there’s a new project on the table, whoever identifies most with it will pick it up and start working to experiment with initial ideas. After that, we collectively start discussing and deciding what kind of paths and resources we need to take the project further and further until it reaches completion.

Therefore, there’s always an absence of individual ownership for a job. We try to promote a collective one – a project (the original file) usually goes through 4 or 5 different people so that the best individual skills create the best collective work possible.

Although we are a small team of five designers, the door is always open to newcomers who want to collaborate or just hang out. Young designers and friends are free to visit us and work on their individual projects/clients and use the resources we have at the studio. Sometimes there are around 12 designers working in-house!

Having the privilege to be in touch with such creative minds in a calm and inspiring environment allows us to be continuously relaxed about and interested in what we love to do.

Your practice of opening up your space to the creative community is pretty unique. Was this something you set out to do intentionally?

Yes, absolutely! It is something we started doing a few years ago and now it’s a part of our system. We all work together on a big table and we have some free individual spaces, so that when someone arrives, he can plug his/her computer and use all the resources available. Because we work on one table, the newcomer is immediately inserted in our synergy.

Have any specific projects or other opportunities come out of having such a free flow of creative talent in the studio?

We always have individual or personal projects that run in parallel to our regular work. These are usually pro-bono projects that we find interest in, and they’re frequently done with the collaboration of these exterior designers and/or artists. We also regularly organize workshops as a part of our process. These are done in a way that anyone can participate – professionals, amateurs, or young children. (Soon we will upload some pictures about this to our site.) When we have enough money, we also travel with these friends and external collaborators who help us, as a way of thanking them for their efforts. This year we went to Offf Paris.

Were these social principles present from the studio’s inception?

Opening the studio was a reaction that came from observation and awareness of our duties as individuals and because of our quest to improve our work. This didn’t happen suddenly, it was the result of a process of constant reflection. We live in a small country and in a difficult region, where opportunities do not abound. We could see many talented young designers and illustrators that didn’t have a chance to develop themselves as solid professionals. And we knew we could help each other.

In 2007, you made a decision to work more closely with your client, the arts organization Centro Cultural Vila Flor in Guimarães, and to expand the studio. What prompted this shift?

By the end of 2004, we felt like we had accomplished the goals, set for us, as a project of two persons. We then entered a period where we felt the need of new objectives and new purposes. A couple of years later, we finally realized that we could actually have with the CCVF the opportunity to accomplish these goals we were seeking – to start crossing boundaries and fulfilling the need of meaningful work. But for this to happen successfully, we would have to expand, and be open to new visions and new ideas.

This moment caused significant changes in our studio, which had previously been on a journey that was openly individualistic and focused on two designers who were seeking a signature and an identity.

Expanding from the original nucleus of two people, the studio shifted to an experimental lab, bringing on a larger number of fixed employees with distinct skills, who would be involved in autonomous projects.

Since then, the office has evolved organically. It’s sparsely structured and somewhat chaotic, driven by will and internal principles as a real body, refusing planned growth as is the case in many other organizations.

For us a professional relationship develops as a personal one. You have to give yourself the time to get to know each other. It takes long to really trust one another, but when that happens work is much fruitful.

For us a professional relationship develops as a personal one.

Your studio focuses primarily on print/editorial design in a world that’s ever more dominated by the digital. What’s the value of the tangible, printed object? Do you think it’s changing?

Times are changing, like always, and by default, the digital is getting more and more impregnated in our work. I wouldn’t say print is definitely coming to an end, but its hegemony is certainly being challenged.

In this digital world where everything is more and more ephemeral, printed work is what still remains humanistic, suitable for emotional needs. The editorial object can live forever.

People are becoming more appreciative of a carefully designed/printed book with a good choice of paper, interesting images, and nice typography. This communicates at a level in which digital work will never be able to do. Touch and smell are very important senses. They create this subconscious warmth in a relationship between the reader and object. In this matter, digital work is still “a pixel thick.”

Do you have any big goals for evolving the studio, your work, or future clients?

The studio is evolving with new challenging invitations from important international clients. But, although it’s very motivating, we try to deal with this very carefully without losing something that makes us special: our essence!

If you could meet yourself 10 years ago and give him a piece of advice, what would it be?

I should have kissed her. She was so pretty. I didn’t know she liked me.

If you could have one creative superpower, what would it be?

To draw a picture with both hands at the same time. One pencil in each hand and make it look photo-realistic!

Do you have a favorite quotation?

“If you like what you do, and you’re lucky enough to be good at it, do it for that reason.”
-Phil Grimshaw

“Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.”
-Robert L. Peters

–> View Atelier Martino & Jaña’s portfolio

This interview is part of our monthly series of talks with creative professionals from the Behance Network. Stay tuned for more great insights from top-notch creatives around the globe.

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (2)
  • Matthew

    Sounds like a truly remarkable studio. I’d love to have something like this in Camarillo, Ca. I’ll look into it ; )

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