Charming, playful and a bit of a jokester, he is one of the most respected Portuguese editorial designers. The key, he says, shamelessly, is self-promotion.
Text by Joana Stichini Vilela. Photos by Sandra Rocha.
Jorge Silva is a certified chatterbox. “I love to talk,” says the smiling 52-year-old, after asking, concerned, if the interview is going too slow. He’s also media conscious. “Self-promotion is fundamental to our work,” he said. “I’m an ambassador to my studio.” A peculiar ambassador, perhaps — but we’ll get to that in a minute.
For now, let’s just mention that his latest joke involves the president of Portugal, whose last name is also Silva, the Portuguese equivalent of Smith.
Since the early 90s, Silva (Jorge) has been one of the most respected Portuguese editorial designers. He first gained attention when he took over the art direction of the weekly right-wing newspaper Independente. His star grew again in 2002, when he hauled in nearly 30 awards from the international Society for News Design for the two supplements he designed as a freelancer for the daily newspaper Público. But his career started many years before that at a far-left, Trostkyist, publication called Combate (Combat).
“I got into editorial design through politics. When the 25th of April happened everybody became a politician. Especially if they were 16 years old and wanted to change the world,” he explained while sitting and drinking a Coke Zero in his studio. As it happens, Silva! Designers is situated in the historic center of Lisbon, just 200 meters from Largo do Carmo, where the April revolution took place. In 1974, the left-leaning military coup shifted the Portuguese regime from an authoritarian dictatorship to a democracy. Four years later, Silva joined the monthly Combate, where he taught himself how to do everything.
The newspaper was an amateur publication. Silva worked alone to take care of every visual aspect, from design to illustration. In the late 1980s the newspaper was already “a cult object,” he said. “Almost every year I changed the design model.” His main references were Ray Gun’s David Carson, I love New York’s Milton Glaser and the Czech Roman Cieślewicz. There was no photography, only illustration.
It was around this time, in 1991, that Silva was invited to work at Independente. The previous art director, Jorge Colombo, had moved to the United States for love (his illustrations now appear regularly on the cover of The New Yorker), and the newspaper’s art department was adrift.
Silva took the illustrators he worked with at Combate (which he continued to design until 2006) along for the ride. “Finally I could pay them and their work could be published in color,” he said. The thought still brings a smile to his face. More than a graphic designer, at Independente Silva was an illustrator’s art director. In the mid 90s, he finally changed Colombo’s design project, it just didn’t work. “I could only find my own voice in 1997,” Silva said, “with the creation of the business supplement O Capital, one of the few things I can still look at.”
Illustration is the greatest love of Silva’s life. “Maybe my daughter, too,” he joked. He stopped drawing — “I realized I’d rather work with illustrators than be one” — but he spends most of his free time browsing and scanning old illustrated magazines at libraries. One of his new projects is to publish a history of Portuguese illustration, probably next year. Right now he’s creating a blog with some of the stories he’ll include in the book: Almanaque Silva.
This close connection to illustration is still one of the strongest elements in his work. When he left Independente, Público asked him to design two cultural supplements. He proposed that one of the supplements, Mil Folhas (about books), would rely solely upon illustration. It was both the key to his success and the end of his work with the paper. After a year (and 26 SND awards, out of a total of 30 that year for Público) Silva was told he was spending way too much money paying illustrators and was let go. “A scandal,” he says.
By this time, though, he already had more solicitations for work than he could handle. In 2001, he opened his studio, Silva! Designers, essentially because he had been invited to design another magazine, LX Metrópole, his favorite project so far. “The art direction had the final word on everything. I never experienced that kind of power again,” he said. Silva! Designers, now a team of nine people, has ended up designing all sorts of publications, from magazines to newsletters. In 2003 they even created sardines — which have since become the perennial symbol of Lisbon’s city festival in the spring. How does a designer breed a sardine? Well, he puts it in the scanner and presses “Print.”
Silva explains that he has always enjoyed using everyday objects to communicate. He also likes words. “A word is worth a thousand pictures” is one of his mottos. We’re saturated with images, he says. Sometimes it’s more effective to read the text looking for the words that touch people and then work from there. “A lot of times our proposals win over other, more modern ones because I have the ability to communicate, to go deeper. Many designers are hostages to graphic and typographical trends. I’m more of a classic. Of course I innovate, but I don’t need to show that I’m ahead of everybody else,” Silva said.
When asked what has kept him consistent and contemporary for more than 30 years, he doesn’t have a simple answer. Maybe he was born that way. Eventually, he starts enumerating personality traits: “I’m tenacious. I never give myself too much credit. I can’t get no satisfaction, as The Rolling Stones would say. I am always suspect of success and compliments. I surround myself with young people and constantly try to rejuvenate myself. And finally I have a superior ability to promote myself.”
Silva enjoys creating postcards. When he won the 26 SND awards he created one about it to send his clients. Then he designed a series of pictures where his face appeared all beaten up and bloody. At the moment, the studio’s website (silvadesigners.com) has been taken over by the Christmas and New Year’s e-card: “2011 will be the year of the Silvas. Isn’t that right, Aníbal?” Aníbal is the first name of the Portuguese president, also a Silva, who is likely to be re-elected this month.
2011 will be the year in which at least one Silva will start a book collection about Portuguese designers. He has just quit his post at Leya, the largest Portuguese publishing group, where for three years he was the art director and, later, was in charge of school books. He finally realized that he did not have enough time. Designing book covers is a lot harder than designing any newspaper. “Each cover is a different communication problem we have to solve,” he said. Besides, it’s a field in which retail has too much power.
Now, the whole team is excited about the iPad. “It’s very interesting because it makes us think a lot about the way we can approach each piece,” Silva said. They have just created the first electronic version of one of the magazines they design, called Adufe. And now they want to become fluent in this new language. “I would like us to work for the iPad with the same great craft that we now use to design our magazines, the same tailoring quality,” he said. “In terms of editorial design, that’s what I am, an old-fashioned tailor. That’s a nice soundbite, isn’t it?”