27 April 2018

Manufactura Independente

Manufactura Independente is a graphic design duo (Ana Carvalho and Ricardo Lafuente) based in Porto, Portugal. The « Libre Graphics & Design research studio » is a frame to practice graphic design with only Free/Libre and Open Source Software (F/LOSS). Ana and Ricardo have edited with ginger coons eight issues of Libre Graphics Magazine from 2010 and 2015. Their activity has recently focused on data-journalism.

How would you describe your collective practice? Do you call yourself an agency, a collective, a team?

RWe’ve been driving away from that and call ourselves a design research studio. It’s a good means to step aside the idea of an agency as in a formal, commercial establishment. It is a way to bring forward a more speculative angle and not just a graphic design company. Otherwise it always makes it sound dryer and we don’t like the sound of that.

AWe don’t just develop projects for clients. We do projects that we are interested in developing and we want to include them as a really important part of our portfolio. That was a way we could describe ourselves and make others understand that we can work with them. But we also have our own practice and personal projects.

Did you try to call yourself an agency before?

ANo, I think from the start we decided to add this tag line to Manufactura Independente saying “Libre Graphics Design Research studio”.

RIn French and Portuguese, the word “atelier” is very much employed for graphic design outfits and “agency” would be a kind of strictly commercial affair. This kind of distinction doesn’t really translate well to English. But I also see the idea of an agency as a much more commercially cared outfit, which is not something that we are scared of —we do commercial work— but it’s not the kind of thing that we want to showcase as the main focus of what we do in Manufactura Independente.

Is this something you talk to your clients about?

RGood question. Not really…

ANo, I don’t think so… I also think the clients who we’ve worked with know that we have a different angle when we are working graphic design projects or web projects. I think they are not just expecting to see the deliverables…

So the clients already know in a way…

AYes, I think we’ve never worked with someone that we didn’t know through someone else.

RIt’s true that our usual clients come from an organic way: one client leads to the next one. We don’t have to go out advertise or put up front. Everyone comes to us knowing what they’re in for in a way.

What’s your legal status?

AWe are working as freelancers. And when we decided to work together we made some research on what kind of tax or legal status we could have. We discovered that to become an association in Portugal, we need a group of nine people. We were not interested in getting another seven people. Not because we did not want to work with other people but because we didn’t know seven other people at the time. And to become a company you need to make at least a profit of 20.000 € per year.

RIt’s also just the two of us, right? Usually with associations in Portugal, the core team is never composed of nine people: everyone gets their relatives to sign. This is how it happens and it leads to a lot of problems when you need signatures from people and it turns out that your uncle who is officially a member does not live here anymore… And with regards to companies, we didn’t want the strict income requirement of 20.000 € per year.

AIf you’re under 20.000 €, then you lose money because you would have to pay a lot of taxes as a company, and it’s not worth to do it like that. So we decided, at least when we started, that we would keep on working as independents. That’s how we decided to start and until now it worked, so we kept it that way.

RWe also want to be free not to develop projects for a year or half a year. If we’d have a company then we would lose quite a bit of money. Most clients think we have a company and we don’t tell them until the time comes to invoice them. But no one actually ever had an issue with that.

AWe just split some clients, some projects it’s me doing the invoicing and other projects it’s Ricardo.

RAnd our accountant deals with who should be doing what and he says “OK, this year you shouldn’t be doing invoices anymore”.

But is it a common practice in Portugal? Is it a way to deal with the system for artists?

RWe have a few friends who have a graphic design office and did started a company. But most of them actually had to end them because of this uncertainty and the need to have a constant income.

AOn the other hand if you do have a company you can have interns and participate in a few programs for financial support. So there is a fine set of design studios that take advantage of those things. But in the end most of them who had to start a company then closed it because they were having losses. And then they start a new company again... It’s a cycle. I think there is this idea that if you start a company it means you are successful in a way. And if you are doing personal invoices, as a single person, it is because you are not that successful. I don’t know other people who are working together doing the same thing we are doing.

Being independent in Belgium also means you have to make sure you are going to earn enough money, not only to pay your rent but also to cover the taxes and so on. In a way, one could say it is a lighter company, except that you’re not an employee and have some responsibilities.

AYes, it is very different. Regarding social security, we can decide how much we want to contribute. You can have a contribution based on your earning but if you want, you can also decide to give extra money so that in the future, if you need to have a sickness leave, you can get bigger support.

RIt also accounts for your retirement pension. Still, the social security program in Portugal is pretty expensive for independent workers.

AIt is usually better if you are a company.

RYes exactly. For social security reasons it is better to have a company, this is why you pay quite a lot of taxes.

Can you choose the amount of the contribution as a company?

ANo, as a company you are obliged to pay, but have a lot of exemptions or benefits.

How do you engage with partners or clients? At OSP, we like to call them “collaborators” to shift our relationship and let them understand they can take part of the creation process. What about you? How do you call them?

RIn that sense we keep the traditional aspect when we work on commercial commissions.

AYes, unless it’s an art related project, then I guess we do not see them so much as clients but as collaborators. We never discuss that with the people we work with. Sometimes it creates a bit of a misunderstanding. I was thinking about some project we did in the past where clients approached us. We were working as collaborators but at some point, they would take advantage of that status to demand extra work as if it would benefit both parties, in a way.

RAs we would be stakeholders in the project which was not the case. But like you said, it might have been our own fault for not having discussed that... We kind of expected the relationship to get established organically. Maybe the mistake is exactly not having a clear collaboration status.

AI think even if we had discussed that with those people, there is this period in the project when it is beneficial for them to be more friendly, and at a certain point they just start to treat us as workers. And then we also want to treat them as clients.

RYes pretty much. When you are building up this website or application there is this moment when everything seems possible. That is a beautiful time for the relationship with the client. Then the implementation starts and it goes well. Then comes the bug fixing part —I’m being generic here, using software terms— but when the time comes to wrap up then the other party comes with other demands that were not there at the beginning. We used to make the mistake to not always have a list of deliverables in the beginning; we have since became very disciplined at that. Usually the problems come when one side —either us of them— become inflexible. Either them saying you have to fix this, or us saying we are not going to do more work unless we renegotiate terms. That sometimes happens and yes, that also has to do with clear terms.

AI think sometimes it also happens when you are working on the concept for the work. For example in the beginning you collect references, make a list of the directions that you will take for creating something and they find it interesting. But then, when you present them something more precise, like a first approach for a logo or a poster, then if it wasn’t what they envisioned they would be the clients again.

You were talking about defining some terms. Concretely, do you have contracts with your clients?

RIn Portugal, if you deliver a budget, a quote, it has the force of contract. That means if you tell a client “we are going to do x, y, z and you pay us that”. If it goes to court for some reason, that’s a binding document. So it is really good that you don’t need to get a full contract, get a lawyer to draft a contract that you formally sign. But yes, ever since this one time, we've worked with this very disciplined project manager in another context —not with Manufactura Independente but within this other agency we are part of, Journalism++. We then found out what a good document is: what is a good deliverable list and specifications of that, and also rigidity in negotiation meaning “if it is not in the document, we have to re-discuss that”. We never had this discipline before. We learned it working with that good project manager and now we are absolutely inflexible. In any project, we do a formal specification of what is to be expected of the work, what we are delivering or not.

AUsually we include a calendar like “by this date we will have this, and by then that”.

R“And by x we will require this from you.” Of course we can be flexible about it later and we are not taking clients to court. It is often the case that no one wants to discuss that. But when we do bring that on the table, the other side realizes that we are very serious about this, and that we are not cutting slack on them. Ever since we started doing that, we have been meeting a lot more seriousness on the client side because we put forward this document.

When you say serious, what does it means? And is there a negative seriousness?

RI like that question. I think it puts forward that we know what projects like these are like, what it is going to be like. So we are specifying this text instead of just leaving this up in the air and then sort it out, which was kind of the way we used to do it, which mostly worked but when it doesn’t, it really hurts. And it also disciplines us to think a lot more about those issues than we would initially, because we also like to live in the idea of uncertainty and projects that end beautifully...

A... organically in a way. We would send things, we would have a reply in a few days and then we would be able to pick that up. What we experienced before is that sometimes people take a very long time to reply and then only reply when they really need the thing, like the day before. And they want to have something else right on the day before and it creates a lot of unpleasant situations that we don’t want to have.

RThis document is also great for when you get asked stuff on top, which always happen. Then you have a tool. You can really put the document forward and say: “this is not what we agreed on and we can rebudget for you if you want”. And it becomes a lot less hostile if you’ve agreed on the document. When you put formal terms in the beginning of what you are dealing with, most of the time you don’t need to be formal at all later in the project.

It is always hard to be absolutely sure of the other person understanding because one has a different lexicon, vocabulary than the collaborators/clients. Business cards, books, flyers are quite well-known objects and artifacts, but in a web project, there are so many possibilities (cms, blog, wysiwyg, forms)...

RI think there is sometimes on our side an unclear form of what it will be like. “Having a blog? Yes it is possible”. We are not really projecting what that means and requires in terms of working hours until you are working and thinking “what the hell did I agreed to?”. Making the deliverables document really helps in laying out in front of you what these uncertainties translate to. It forces the client to specify for themselves what they want and to also figure the cost of tasks when you tell them “Yes that is nice, but it adds x to the budget”. It has a significant footprint because you spend a lot of time in this negotiation. Instead of starting the work right away, we have to spend time negotiating the terms. And sometimes we spend three months with the clients as they say “OK, we want this”, and we say “OK, the budget is x”; “–No, we only have x minus, so what can I get for this. –OK, you can get a, b or c”. Therefore we really have to pick out part of the project but it really helps to make the project clearer. It is awful. I hate discussing that.

What is “that”?

RNegotiation and having to discuss in these ugly terms of “money” and “project parts”. You want this project to be natural. Maybe that is what I learned from school but as a designer, you consider a project to be something very airy, fluid and organic that flows towards the client’s satisfaction. Of course it is not like that. And then, especially if you are a freelancer you cannot afford a project manager.

I think it is very interesting though this contrast between the dream of your practice or the romantic image of what a project is and what an actual artistic practice is.

AWhen we were studying, how it is to be working for other people was never a part of the reflection. We were just focused on our own practice, on our own process.

RWhen I was teaching, quite a few students asked me about money, complaining no one was telling them about it. It was also a bit tough talking about it because you also kind of undress a little bit for them: “look, what I do is actually pretty ugly”.

But you did it...

RYes, because it is also a matter of honesty.

AIt is the kind of knowledge you need to share because it benefits every one. It is much easier if we know how others are doing it so we can do better.

RMaybe it is also because most of our teachers actually have project managers of their own, or account managers. Because when we worked with a project manager, that was heavenly. She was knowledgeable in websites so she could argue with the clients without having to come back to us and regularly ask about whether x or y was possible and if it was expensive. She was ready to say “No, this is a lot of work so we have to rebudget”. And then she would negotiate back with us when there was some more intricate aspects. We were free to actually do the work and keep our mind where it matters. I wish we could hire someone like that but hiring is another issue.

Because you would rather not do this?

RYes, I would very much be able to pay someone. Ana, you have a good story to share.

AThere was this idea we’ve been toying with: to create a fictional project manager. Many times we don’t see the clients in person: we just do emailing and video calls. So we could have this fictional person and they wouldn’t know she wasn’t real. She would have her own email address. We called her "Patti", patti@manufacturaindependente.org (laughs). We thought that when we would tell clients “that was not in the budget so we can’t do it”, they would be angry at Patty, not us. We would still be the nice designers.

At some point at OSP we were thinking of having a persona. It was to deal with a slightly different issue: we were not answering general emails. This “Camille” (unisex name) would have been a rotating role, one person who would be responsible for it for a while.

And we’ve heard that some other graphic designers actually did it. They used a persona when they got internship requests or partnership proposals from friends which they would rather not accept. They would then answer the requests saying “We really wanted to but Joost said ‘no’”. (laughs)

RAt the beginning we sold as a positive point the fact that when you are dealing with us, you are talking to the people actually doing the website, the code. So you wouldn’t have an intermediary that says “alright, I have to discuss that with the team”. But now, we realize why these people actually exist in this division because being immediately accessible to the client leads to situations like “No, use that font” or “No, change this color to that”. And they know you are doing the implementation; they know that you are the person who will be typing it. If you have someone in-between then it becomes a lot less tangible.

Are you saying that this Patty might be a substitute to a more formal document establishing the worker-customer relationship, like the collaboration agreement we’ve been talking about earlier?

RYes very much. To establish a separation and the kind of gap between us and our clients instead of being close at first and then being formal when it ends up. That was something that we’ve been toying with for a couple of years but we’ve never really had the guts to go ahead and establish this “fake” person.

Because then you also have to introduce this person. Actually new clients don’t know about her so this won’t be a shock to them.

Discussing this, we often wonder why this isn’t discussed in art schools? Maybe the program is already full, or maybe the students are not ready for it.

AI think it is important when you are learning in school that you don’t have to think too much about these things, because it will change a bit how you think about the work. But I remember once we were in a friend and colleague’s house in France, and she had this small booklet from a design syndicate/organization. There was really interesting information in there about how you should make your budget, do your invoices, pay your taxes, what to do if you have trouble and you maybe need a lawyer. We thought it was really nice that you have this information available and you know that if you need to ask someone you can go there, you have this place.

RI remember the graphic design course that we were in —later I went to teach there for a while— and they started having subjects related to design management. But students complained that they were not talking about real work stuff so it was always kind of pie in the sky talking about that.

What did they mean by “not real work stuff”?

RThey would invite design offices and studios, but what they were complaining about was that they were not talking about the meaty greaty and the dirty aspect of the work, like invoicing and dealing with taxes, because I suppose no one really wants to do that.

It is not the fun part of it.

RI was not super confident talking about this. But I also agree with them it might not be the most relevant subject when you are starting doing this education and it makes more sense to have a manual, a reference...

At the same time Ana said that it is good to discuss this, because it helps establishing a sustainable community and environment where designers at least asks a fair price and do not promise the moon.

Maybe there is a minimal amount of information that is necessary to support the larger practice. In the Nederlands there is a syndicate for graphic designers that helps there, in Belgium, there is a similar initiative www.wearegraphicdesigners.be.

RI think the manual that Ana was talking about comes from a trade union community thinking. It is no accident that it happens in France with its very strong tradition of worker mobilization. I remember the way design organizations worked in the Netherlands was really interesting. It was kind of a productive competition among them. In Portugal there are only two, made mostly by established design studios. They don’t cater to new, younger practitioners and have mostly been lobbying to actually make access to the designer career harder.

So it is a different tradition and we don’t have any kind of union culture in design also because it is a very fragmented activity where everyone is a freelancer. You would really need strong personalities to get together and spend their own effort to this kind of association and manual, and that hasn’t happened yet.

To come back to the question of clients: We talked about companies, but are there others kind of clients you work with, like artists or cultural institutions?

RWe have mostly been working with artists or cultural institutions and some academic institutions as well. I don’t think we’ve ever had a “100% customer relationship”. There is always this connection with culture and the Arts, and what comes with it is this less clear cut relationship between studio and client.

The vagueness of it seems to be a two-edged sword...

RYes exactly, it is. That’s why it’s handy to find ways to keep the good while throwing away the bad. But again once you present that hard contract then you already throw away some of that possible vagueness.

Apart from having a feeling of seriousness, how do people respond if you give them this contract?

RWell, I don’t know. I don’t think we ever had a bad response. Because there is the point when you need to talk about money and that’s when we put forward the document. And people realize —I suppose— what talking about money means.

We had one other situation where people were a little bit scared, and that comes often with the fact they cannot pay the whole thing. So that is also a good filter to see how serious the other side is.

But I can also imagine that the perception of money is different whether if your client is an artist, a cultural institution, an academics or a regular company?

RYes, you are right. I recall a more artistic project we did. We didn’t do a proper document specifying “we will do x, y and z”.

AWe had a prototype and what we discussed was: “OK, this is similar to what we will do for the final project”. But I was pretty sure that when the time would come for the deadline we would maybe have a few problems. I was hoping not. As it had been a long project, things had been adding up quite a bit. We were supposed to do a digital interface and I had this vague feeling that the artist would also want to create a printed output of the digital project. In that case we would have had to think of more things than if we just had to do the digital project. It would not have been a problem if we had known that from the start but if it would have come up at the end, which might have happened, then it would have been some trouble for us.