Significa | Design Agency
Significa was important to me for two reasons. First, they are a Portuguese studio and second they are a recent (but growing) studio founded by young designers. This means they are the youngest people I’ve interviewed and this could mean a completely different viewpoint from the ones I’ve had so far.
This context will start a little bit differently from the ones before, as I need to explain my personal reasons and share my views on the relationship between Portugal and the creative fields. In my opinion, even though things are starting to change, Portugal is still behind on this ‘business & design’ topic, and a lot of design companies do not even have the ability to offer the full scope of services a design consultancy can (or should) do, and the thing is... They don’t want to either. From where I stand this happens because, in general, businesses are not yet interested in these services, and they do not comprehend its purpose. Hence, if someone would try and explain culture alignment or the need for a purpose shift the most likely outcome would be something like ‘Who asked you? Your expertise has nothing to do with business growth, just present the logo we asked for, preferably yesterday otherwise out IT guy knows about computers and he will do it for us’. Portugal is still in a bit of a 00’s bubble (if not even pre-dating that) when it comes to the so called ‘arts’ and those who perform them. Apart from the traditional disciplines (fine arts & architecture), all other creatives belong to a group of people that ‘does things’ that no one really understands what it is. This leads to the undermining of the value of designers - and all the other professionals in the creative fields - work.
All the above is, however, my personal opinion... And that is why I’ve decided to interview this company that has been working with more international clients than national ones, and understand what has been going on at home since I’ve left a while ago.
Significa is situated in the 'Best European Destination of 2017', Porto, which I’ve visited in February, seizing the opportunity to formally ask them if they would be interested in speaking to me and if so, pop in for a visit. They did and on a late rainy afternoon, there I was. The studio is an open and welcoming space, where they certainly showed their northern hospitality from the moment I stepped in.
For the first time as well, I’ve interviewed not just one person but three at the same time, so the format below will be slightly different. Moreover, listening to us talk I’ve realised this was more an exchange of ideas than an actual interview, as you’ll see below.
With no further ado, let’s meet Pedro, André and Rui.
THE INTERVIEW . FEBRUARY 2017
Tell me a bit about yourselves, and the company... What’s your culture?
Pedro: Our agency is called Significa (which translates to ‘meaning’, ‘to mean’) because we believe that every project we do must have a purpose, and fulfill, not only the client’s needs, but also the users’. That’s why our slogan is ‘making products meaningful’ as we thrive to create meaningful yet fully functional experiences. This work philosophy also applies to our working environment with very open and flexible policies, and complete trust in the people we work with. As an example, recently, one of our team members completed an entire project away from the office, on a remote basis, and everything went smoothly.
How did it start?
Pedro: I founded Significa back in 2014 and was joined by André shortly after. In the beginning, it was an interesting process of us trying to define which design areas to specialise in. As we’ve always been passionate about computers, digital interfaces and user experiences, we tried to slowly steer the company into that direction. Rui joined us when everything was already gaining better shape: our culture, our goals and our business strategy. His help was fundamental to our objective of becoming a global company that creates quality content for both national and international clients. With better understanding of what each of us meant to the business, Significa started gaining more exposure and credibility and our team consequently increased: there are 8 of us (for) now. However, it is our intention to keep the company small in numbers, with a team that fosters freedom, friendship and respect for one another. This also allows that at any given moment, we can get together and brainstorm ideas or prototype in a familiar environment. Which only happens because the whole team is up to date with all the ongoing projects and everyone can easily give relevant feedback that will help solve any problems at hand. In my opinion, this makes the whole team feel empowered and motivated, as we all work towards a shared goal.
So, from what I’ve understood you have all creative backgrounds, how do you deal with the business side of running a company?
We’ve started by having a conversation about the duality between business and design and how one is perceived by the other and the fact that in foreign countries we see design agencies or studios start with a creative and a businessman, or a person that sells design, but in Portugal we don’t really see that happening. Studios start, usually, with a designer in its root.
Pedro then followed: There are two interesting sides to the question/conversation. The first is how we sell design, and how companies outside of the industry value design. Even nowadays there is this idea that design is secondary, not a priority, that our single purpose it to make things pretty. This concept is outdated, and despite Portugal still living largely within this scope, big names like Airbnb and Cooper have proven that it should no longer apply. These companies have shown that design at the genesis of a product makes the difference, and that, more than an outcome, it’s a way of thinking.
This to conclude that we are somewhat lucky to have several foreign accounts. We find it easier to sell UI/UX design outside of Portugal, because they know creativity and pragmatism can go hand in hand, especially when it comes to a successful product.
The second part of the question, has to do with our studio’s management and strategies. If a client sells food we will need to study food and understand its ways, if someone sells forest land we have to research fauna, flora, geography, & carbon dioxide measurements. We adapt to the client’s needs: It is refreshing and it never gets boring! In the management side of things, there are well defined roles between the three of us. Even though we all take part in the design process, there are other aspects of running a design business that need particular care. I founded the company but nowadays focus more on accountancy, management, finances, but also handle all the practical needs of running the company such as concept, purpose and strategy. André is the creative, he makes sure everything that we do is not just one more drop in a huge pond, that it is something different, innovative and made with passion. And Rui is in charge of making sure everything runs in it’s own tracks. He takes care of accounts, and everything relating to those, from managing existing clients to acquiring new ones and selling our services, being also in charge of internal project management.
Rui: When I arrived there was a gap when it came to selling design and engaging new clients. Neither Pedro or André were comfortable presenting at the time, building the business-client bridge, so when I arrived it became pretty clear that if we wanted to grow I should take on this role. That is something companies should always pay attention to, where are the gaps that need filling for a prosperous future.
Pedro: Adding to that, Rui is doing it not only because there was a gap, but because he is very good at it. So, honestly, what we are doing is applying our strengths to what we do best and where we can complement each other better. Regarding your clients, did you ever have any problems between what they think they want (how they express themselves) and what it is actually what they need? (problem finding & problem solving)
Rui: That depends a lot on the client’s mentality. In general, with foreign clients (which nowadays is the great majority), the briefing is normally fairly well established and clear, allowing us to immediately start finding solutions. But in other cases, especially with Portuguese clients, briefings can be very uncertain, and we spend a lot of time drifting, trying to understand the problem that needs solving. Receiving a good briefing can be key to a good perception of the issue, and if the briefing is not on point, the work has to start by producing a good one.
Pedro: We need, however, to explain that bad briefings are not exclusive to Portuguese clients and good briefings exclusive to foreign ones. It can happen from every type of client. In some cases, the briefing is so confusing clients have to go back and rethink what they need before we are able to start having a conversation.
What is design for you?
Pedro: Design is literally everything.
André: I think design is a way of thinking.
Rui: You took the words out of my mouth.
Pedro: Yes, it’s a way of thinking pragmatically, understanding theway things work.
Rui: Design for me is also an hybrid between art and engineering. It’s not completely art, because it is not lacking purpose (function), it has the objective of enhancing user experiences (in our case) but it also has the artistic component because of its aesthetics and beauty (form). For me design is the limbo that sits between form and function.
What’s your opinion about design thinking?
Rui: To me it is an aspiration to a technical terminology used to both try to justify its value and sell design, however lacking a precise definition and it’s ambiguity is not helping it’s initial goal.
Pedro: The negative side of design thinking is that it’s a bit of a wild card, it fits into everything and nothing at the same time. The concept, however, the archetype, I believe, is to think beyond.
Rui: My issue with design thinking is that it became so commonly used, so trivial that everyone is using it, independently of actual practicing it or not, and that took a lot of value from it.
Pedro: A lot of people use the buzzword on their marketing and communication, never fully understanding its purpose and practices, further damaging its value. But, unfortunately, I believe that’s inevitable. We’ve followed having a conversation about other buzzwords like experience, technology and innovation, and how a lot of people also apply these on their marketing strategies and communication.
Rui: For us who are selling our services to people who do not have a deep design knowledge, ‘technology’, ‘innovation’ and 'experience’ are self explanatory words that are easy for the client to understand.
Where do you think design can help companies adapt to change?
Pedro: We think that design can help companies gain competitive edge over their competitors. In companies that sell physical products, if they solely use engineering, there’s a risk the product performing its function but its function not being the one needed in the first place. This happens because this type of thinking and methodologies do not tend to question the core of the user’s need. Forgetting, along the way, emotion, passion, and how their target audience will react to their products. If we design a meaningful product, the customer is much more likely to allow function flaws than the other way around. We believe that every company wanting to launch a product benefits from having someone with a design background on a decision-making position. It makes a big difference when embedding and bringing it to life.
What thing do you think will change the world?
Pedro: That’s a tough one.
André : Do we need to change the world? (laughs)
Rui: Well, the question doesn’t specify a positive change. Trump is going to change the world, and linking to that, I would say that humans will change the world.
Pedro: I think that what will change the world is automation. Several areas will be affected by it, a lot of jobs are going to be extinct and I find it interesting that there are many talks on the topic of taxing automation. It’s a new problem that deserves thought and regulation and I don’t think there are enough policies implemented to address this issue so far.
I want to leave a big thank you note to all the Significa team, and especially to Pedro, André and Rui for their time. It was a very good experience, and I intend to continue to interview more and more Portuguese studios, practitioners and design lovers. So, if you are Portuguese and end up reading this, please get in touch. I’d love to expand this part of my work.