Porto’s São João National Theater Offers a Lesson in Design as Public Service

Assault to Archive, organized by the SJNT Documentation Center.

The design process is always the result of a negotiation. Design for and from a theater is no exception, reaching the public in the form of posters, booklets and pressbooks, newspapers, postcards and a variety of digital formats on social media. Yet the end result—the finished work—obscures that process, hiding the interpersonal relations, tensions, mistakes, improvisations, research, randomness, planning and intentions. In the context of a theater, many people can influence, limit or collaborate on the work of a designer: administration, artistic and stage directors, and communication, editorial and marketing departments. To these, many other collaborators join this list, often with different backgrounds: photographers, illustrators, writers, copy editors, proofreaders, consultants, colleagues, friends, family. All of them have a substantial influence in the work produced, parallel to the political, social, economic and cultural context in which designers work.

The São João National Theater (SJNT) became a National Theatre in 1992, in Porto, Portugal. It is possible to say, however, that the São João Theater has in fact 223 years of existence and in 2000, they opened the Documentation Center to begin a systematic archive of all its communication. The Royal Theatre of São João opened in 1798, named as an homage to the Prince Regent (and future King Dom João VI), designed by the Italian architect Vicenzo Mazzoneschi. This building, which fed Porto’s bohemian life in the 19th century, fostered a theater culture in the city, giving it national and international dimensions, and bringing to its stage companies of international relevance. After being completely destroyed in a fire in 1908, the new building was inaugurated in 1920, designed by the Portuguese architect José Marques da Silva. As a consequence, the oldest object in the archive is now a libretto of The Capulets and the Montagues from 1835, played on the “Royal Theater of São João of the City of Porto.” Despite the irreparable loss of objects with more than two hundred years of history, the archive still allows a fascinating design journey through the history of the city and the country, highlighting an alternative and distinctive way of presenting itself visually.

Atelier João Nunes’s work for the SJNT was developed at a time of a great technological transformation after the Apple Macintosh was introduced in 1984. João Nunes was part of the first undergraduate degree in Graphic Arts in the country, in Porto, which started in 1973 at a time of great political upheaval in Portugal. The visual identity for A Tempestade in 1994 was the first produced digitally for the theater, using for two hours a machine with a dedicated operator. Atelier João Nunes’ work was pioneering in the Portugese context, in the development of the concept of identity beyond simply a logo or stationary, emphasizing instead the promotion of narratives across media, focusing on the local context and bringing the city itself into the design of the theater as a cultural institution. Nunes was influenced by sculptor José Rodrigues in their previous work for other theaters, but also by his contact with Emigre Magazine and the work of British designer Vaughan Oliver. During a period of great investment from the European Union and access to generous budgets, the studio benefited greatly from experimenting with materials and numerous printing techniques and bindings. Photography became a crucial element in Nunes’ collaboration with the SJNT, providing experimental journeys through editorial design—between what was visible (stage), and invisible (backstage)—and the city.

From the November 11–15 2012, the SJNT Documentation Center organized the Assault to the Archive (after John Carpenter’s 1976 Assault on Precinct 13). After a reformulation of the archive and optimization of the space, an “organized robbery” was set up in the cloisters of the São Bento da Vitória Convent, where the collection is stored. Spread on the floor, a huge quantity of large scale posters, flyers, books, programmes and several other media were “stolen”: several dozens of people were seen carrying big quantities of printed materials—everything disappeared in little over an hour after the doors were opened, confirming the popularity of the design work produced by this theater.

A decade later, designer João Faria/ Studio Drop introduced unifying elements into the posters in 2007 that were used until 2020. This approach of achieving coherence through the application of modular elements has a tradition in graphic design for theater: from the Théâtre National Populaire in France to the National Theatre in the United Kingdom, both of which were influences to Faria. His studio’s strategy gained substantial attention in Portugal at the beginning of the 2000s: coherence continued to be sought not through repetition, but by the thinking and the approach itself, being absorbed by the city. The frequent presence of raw collage creates in Faria’s work an unpolished contrast between typography, calligraphy, illustration and photography—a visceral restlessness that invites interaction and negotiation. The designer is made visible through a sense of unfinishedness, often introducing unexpected elements with national and sometimes international references. With flexibility and diversity, the work during this period is neither predictable nor comfortable.

Succeeding Faria in 2011, designer Joana Monteiro embarked on a series of typographic explorations, creating theatrical environments that recovered a visual language popularized by the studio Tomato in the 1990s. Between light and darkness, as if a film frame had just been crystalized, type is projected on the walls of the theater itself or on the bodies of the actors, recalling Robert Browjohn’s title design for the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia With Love. Turning the theater into a typographic playground and using local contexts—which find in a series of carefully-staged typo/photographic illustrations for booklets its most notable achievement—became iconic in the imaginary of the SJNT, opening up space for her successors, Studio Dobra. They built upon both Faria (the duo were his students in college) and Monteiro’s work, making use of 3D digital type, suggesting a tri-dimensionality by interlacing typography with photography, revealing multiple layers. The suggestion of depth through typographic illustration, an international trend for the past decade and a half, confers to Dobra’s work a remarkable consistency in producing bold posters for the theater, continuing to expand the notion of the SJNT as a platform for experimentation.



This wallpaper-effect is imposed by the mass implementation of marketing in cultural institutions, the international levelling that social media cultivates, and by the pragmatic need to produce new materials with very short time intervals. Theater becomes simply a product that must be sold to the consumer, and therefore, obeys to a universal script of success. It is one which, showing efficiency—that is, profit—in a determined context, can be applied in any other situation. Dutch designer Jan van Toorn suggests that a piece of graphic design should be a “theater of arguments”, visually guiding the reader, taking it through a journey of discourse, information and giving it space for an own idea to be formed. With universal settings, debate or interpretation is avoided—the public is transformed into a receiver of repetitive behaviors from a brand that wants to sell a product. The value of the public becomes equal to the value of a seat in an auditorium. The São João National Theater challenges this dominant approach.

In the 1930s, while other theaters in Porto opted for photographic representation, the São João Theater used specifically commissioned illustration for its plays, while the logo changed from program to program in a playful manner, with typography often done with an airbrush. During the following two decades, one sees in this theater a transition to a more coherent use of modernist references and geometry, sometimes complemented by elegant and minimalist illustrations and gradients. The 1960s brought more experimentation in a dialogue between the São João Cine (the Theatre was used as a cinema during this medium’s golden age) and Cine Águia (a cinema just across the street under the same management). Authors remain in anonymity with rare exceptions. The work of graphic artists was signed by big agencies (Onda or Belarte), or by influential printers in the city (first Guedes, then Marca). During the 1980s, there was a greater concern with uniformity, through the consistent use of logos and a fixed visual identity, but the São João Theater continued to avoid repetition as the dominant formula to achieve coherence.

In Porto, displays exhibit large format posters disseminating messages from municipal institutions, allowing increasingly less space for national institutions such as the SJNT. The ubiquitous poster size across the country, approximately 69 x 47 in, is known as mupi (after the French brand Mobilier Urbain Pour l’Information). These posters, spread on the streets, framed and protected inside displays or repeatedly glued on walls reserved for advertising, gain an autonomy and strength that social media still struggles to compete with. Yet even in cultural institutions, the poster is slowly disappearing due to its lack of efficiency with younger audiences, the production costs, and the expensive access to display space, opting for investment in algorithms and online advertising through the major social media platforms. In the context of the São João Theater, the posters work as an extension of the stage, a generous window in an age where images invariably arrive through the small screen of the mobile phone. It approaches the human-scale, pointing to the physicality that is found in the treater—a point of departure for designers to organize information, experiences, narratives, arguments and a door for the public who, walking, biking, driving or using public transportation, receive initial stimuli for the construction of an imaginary. To a great part of the public, the performance starts there. As design curator Andrew Blauvelt argues, “the poster persists not on the basis of its useful value as a device to reach the masses but on its aesthetic and symbolic value”. This is a constant challenge for designers when designing a poster for a theater: confronting the public with personal interests and disciplinary trends, and their commercial dimension in an age of mass digitization and data collection—measured frequently and solely by the number of people who purchase tickets and attend an event.

Until the 1980s, the Swiss International Style dominated the way in which content was organized and published in cultural institutions across Europe, imposed by grids and guided by a supposed purity and universality. In Portugal, however, this legacy largely continued steadily until the 2000s due to the limited access to information and design education until the Carnation Revolution in 1974. Recovering lost time, Portugal was quick to seek a seductive alignment with international trends. In his 2013 essay The Global Style, Jeffery Keedy introduces this profitable magnet for cultural production, saying that “what the International Style was for commercial corporations, the Global Style is for cultural institutions”. This reincarnation of the International Style reveals a passion for simple geometric shapes, icons, limited color palettes, and a renewed interest in grids that define an entire structure. It’s a simplicity that rejects local or regional specificity, seeking a delusional global purity that can grant the institution instant recognition and acceptance. It practically doesn’t require any effort in terms of interpretation or participation from the public, provoking a comfortable boredom. “Like a child’s drawing, there is a charming dumbness to it,” Keedy continues. “It feeds on our nostalgia for a long lost simplicity and purity that never existed. It functions like cultural ‘wallpaper’ it is easy to ignore.”



During the last 100 years, the São João Theater witnessed different phases—from an alignment with countries such as Italy or France in the 1920s, to the iconic illustrations in the next decade, seeing a constant reinvention of its identity, to the use of a logo which lasted half of a century—but always with space to accommodate experiences, exceptions, and a playful environment in the theater’s communications. In the last two decades, it was possible to see at both national and international levels, a progressive ‘professionalization’ and mediation of design through the growing importance of marketing in cultural institutions. This contributed to two connected phenomena: a bureaucratization of the design process, where instead of working directly with theater directors, designers must first answer to communications and marketing structures, and as a consequence, a standardization of culture has been established. That is, a barometer of visual behavior for culture is defined by the market, establishing how a cultural institution is expected to present itself.

There are three dominant approaches to design for theater: decoration, representation and expansion. The first adorns the title and content, attracting attention to the show. The second tends to opt for the use of stage photography or to illustrate the title of the play typographically, mimetizing its content. Finally, the third doesn’t limit itself to this task, seeking instead to build a trampoline for the play, using opportunities to go beyond what happens on stage. These approaches invariably collide with institutional interests, namely that of the positioning of a cultural institution as a brand. When engaging in a marketing power struggle, the public ends up losing. This difficult negotiation has different layers of subjectivity, affecting the integrity of what is presented to an audience that benefits with specificity and diversity, not with the visual formatting of culture. In this sense, the design for the theater runs the risk of self-mutilation, not due to the height of its disciplinary history, but the speed and production rate that is demanded from it. Social media promotes a global banalization of design, as well as an acceleration of constant and immediate expectations. To demand attention for a single static image, a poster for example, is an optimist gesture in an era of permanent transmission and update of all stages of any given event. The São João Theater, with commitment and inevitable tensions, was able to escape these national and international trends.

Even when the city of Porto disinvested in culture during the financial crisis in the late 2000s, it was the SJNT that kept alive in the streets and on the stage the irreverence and independence that are so characteristic of this city. Throughout the century—but especially in the last three decades—this theater has built a unique visual legacy of great richness and local inventiveness. The investment in diversity and idiosyncrasy is a national and international reference, allowing new detours, experiments and explorations without damaging the integrity of its history. It is for this reason, and because the SJNT provides through its archive a journey through design history, that so many students, designers and public identify themselves with, and are influenced by, its spirit and way of being. It has gained autonomy, maturity and confidence in its contribution to the city’s visual culture and society at large. This is a great compliment to a discipline invariably seen as purely utilitarian, but that in the São João National Theater finds a singular case-study: a relevant example of public service.
This essay is based on the book Teatro Visual: 100 Anos de Objectos Gráficos (in Portuguese), written by Francisco Laranjo and published by the São João National Theater, in 2021.