The Brand Identity

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The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick.

For the fourteenth part of the series, we spoke to New York-based design studio PORTO ROCHA’s Maddy Angstreich.

The Brand Identity: Hi Maddy. How’s life?

Maddy Angstreich: Life’s a bit weird! It’s been a very strange and scary past few weeks in America so focusing on starting my new job at PORTO ROCHA has been a welcome distraction.

TBI: How has the experience of settling in and getting to know the team there been?

MA: It’s hard to believe that I started a few weeks ago because I already feel like a seasoned member of the team. Even over Slack, there’s an atmosphere of trust, kindness, and community. Everyone is really busy but they always make time to be welcoming and thoughtful. It’s also so cool to share a digital space with Leo and Felipe who are clearly masters of what they do. Jumping from an internship into the greater responsibility of this role has been a big learning experience but it’s validating that the team places so much trust in my design work.

“It’s validating that the team places so much trust in my design work.”

TBI: Can you place how you first became interested in design and illustration?

MA: I think my earliest design memory is from elementary school when I would redraw the letters and symbols from my math homework in the margins instead of doing the problems. That stuck with me through high school, actually. The best part of calculus was getting to draw the sigma. Besides that, books brought me into the art world! I loved book covers, picture books, coffee table books, magazines, everything. Radical honesty: when I went to sleepaway camp for the first time I brought a copy of Dwell magazine.

TBI: What other books and magazines do you keep close by for design inspiration?

MA: When I was working on my capstone project Food Court I was heavily inspired by Lucky Peach Magazine (I almost scored a full set on eBay), Emergence Magazine, MacGuffin Magazine, and HERE Magazine. A few that I recently read and loved were David Reinfurt’s A New Program for Graphic Design and The Politics of Design by Ruben Pater. I also love to judge a book by its cover so I currently have the novels Truly Like Lightning by David Duchovny, 100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell, and Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer on my shelf. 

TBI: What does your journey to PORTO ROCHA look like?

MA: When I started college at Washington University in St. Louis I was planning to study something in the humanities but after watching a graphic design career lecture (which I thought was going to be a beginner drawing class) I transferred into the art school and haven’t looked back. Since then I’ve been fortunate to have a wide range of internship experiences across the industry from ad agencies to small studios. The pandemic cut my senior year short and took my plans to move to New York with it but I’ve been happy to spend this past year working remotely from St. Louis. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a few different corners of the industry since graduation – I started my freelance practice, did some web development for a sustainable farming non-profit in St. Louis, and eventually made my way to Gretel’s first remote class of interns. After my internship ended I was looking for a small studio environment so I’m thrilled to be starting this new chapter at PORTO ROCHA.

“My time at Gretel was a crash course in the nitty-gritty design details.”

TBI: What did you take away from your time at Gretel? 

MA: My time at Gretel was a crash course in the nitty-gritty design details that we didn’t learn in school – from InDesign file management to naming components in Figma. Especially considering it was a fully remote internship and I was bouncing files back and forth across hundreds of miles, learning to make sure everything was neatly organised was really valuable. All of that came together to teach me a lot about how the details make the system. For example, I had the opportunity to work on some typographic details for the Masterclass rebranding system and I learned a lot about the attention to detail that is required to make a huge brand like that work! After all the high-level concepts are solidified it comes down to perfecting the details of things like photography touch-ups and typestyles to make the system functional and beautiful. 

TBI: Prior to joining, what appealed to you about PORTO ROCHA as a place to work?

MA: I was excited about their playful typographic expression, strong point of view, and confident visual presence. I was also drawn to their diverse clients and the celebration of beauty that runs as a common thread throughout their projects. I love when projects encourage me to learn new things about the world and this studio seemed like a place that fosters that sense of curiosity, exploration and play. 

TBI: What does your setup look like?

“I feel lucky to have a vibrant community of creative people from my design programme at WashU.”

TBI: How do you approach days where you don’t feel creative?

MA: The isolation of remote work and starting a new job from my bedroom has been really tough. When I start hitting a creative wall I’ve found that keeping an active connection with my community of design classmates has been really grounding and energising. I feel lucky to have a vibrant community of creative people from my design programme at WashU. Talking about anything from personal projects to design Twitter gossip helps me push back on creative block. We’ve managed to simulate our close-knit studio environment from miles apart and it’s been a great way of finding connection and jumpstarting creativity in this very isolating time.

“The headspaces for illustrating and designing are totally different for me.”

TBI: How much of a connection do you think there is in your approach to graphic design and illustration? Does the creative process and headspace you need to be in differ?

MA: I see a really close connection between illustration and typography. In my work, I have a similar process for illustrative and typographic work because I love pushing pixels and refining details until the project looks polished. However, the headspaces for illustrating and designing are totally different for me. I’ve been learning that there’s more of a scientific and formulaic process to type design and graphic design that I haven’t explored as much in my illustration work. My headspace for designing a logotype or a layout system feels more systematic than sketching a composition for an editorial illustration. My work this year has been much more focused on design than illustration and I hope I have the opportunity to dive back into making images soon!

TBI: Learning to code can feel quite overwhelming for designers – how did you get started?

MA: I found my coding sea legs with exercises from my professor Jonathan Hanahan who framed interaction design through a new lens. He would have us build a simple interaction like scrolling or clicking a button and repeat the gesture in 100 unique ways. Taking a step back from thinking about websites as large complex systems and looking more closely at the details of interactions was a really eye-opening experience. I think my best advice about getting started with coding is that you don’t need to memorise lines of Javascript, you just need to get really good at Googling!

“I’m also proud of our remote collaboration with design and code.”

TBI: Do you have a project you are most proud of?

MA: The project I’m most proud of is the website and identity for the Laboratory for Suburbia, which is a digital event space for art and design projects that address the political possibilities of American suburbs. I collaborated on this project with my former classmate and current coworker Natalia Oledzka before either of us worked at PR. It was my first big freelance project and I’m not just proud of the final system that we handed off to the client but I’m also proud of our remote collaboration with design and code.

I was also pretty proud of my senior capstone project, Food Court Magazine. I compiled a few articles that used stories about food as a lens to explore American culture and paired them with photography from Martin Parr. I loved the process of developing a layout system and art directing with existing content. I finished this project in April of 2020 when COVID was starting to feel like a more permanent fixture in our lives so I’m proud of how it turned out under the circumstances. 

TBI: What skills would you like to learn that you haven’t yet found the time for?

MA: After starting to learn Python last year I’ve been fascinated by print and digital projects that draw their content from APIs and asynchronous data. I’d love to learn more about that kind of dynamic design process. On the other hand, I’ve been glued to my screen for 20 years so I would also love to disconnect from the digital design space and draw or paint more.

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