Interview with Professor Luís Mendonça | Long-Term Pilot Program – University of Porto

Our partners from Portugal, Porto University, interviewed one of the Professors, Luís Mendonça, who participated in a Campus Pro Bono Program in the field of the BEESE Pro Bono Project. We hope you enjoy this great interview!

1. Do you want to remind us of how your involvement in the project started ? Had you heard of the project before?

I didn’t know the project. My involvement begun through a contact with Dr Paulo Demée, who called me to chech whether I was available to help him with a project that his department had at hand. I made myself available, as had happened a couple of years ago, when, also at his request, I have collaborated with him in a work related to the theme of Stress, for which I developed illustrations from the compilation of researched material. It was a support manual for university students, a complex and therefore challenging book that, despite taking me a long time, gave me pleasure and resulted in a rewarding experience.

2. Was this request for collaboration, based on the pro-bono concept, a first experience for you or have you already conducted similar works in the past? 

I do pro-bono work, from time to time. I have already developed works for the University of Porto, such as signage, posters, flyers or the preparation of exhibitions. Also with other entities I have done pro-bono work. I have also done pro-bono work with other entities, and for other institutions, such as hospitals, companies with social commitment or associations that support children or disadvantaged adults, collaborating in national or international causes. I do this either by invitation, or, sometimes, on my own initiative, when some project in the social and citizenship domain catches my attention.

3. One of the aspects that surprised us most was the students’ adherence and the quality of their work, under your supervision. In your opinion, how do you think this pilot program under the BEESE Project came out? The fact that it is a project of the Erasmus + had any influence in the outcome?

We were very lucky with the group of students involved. Some of them had already been my students. As we already knew each other, we started this work in a privileged position. Also, since it was a a not simulated, but rather concrete experience, the enthusiasm and expectations have risen and were, I think, matched. We worked together, with the maximum curiosity and motivation.

Nevertheless, it is important to stress that Professor Rui Mendonça’s support in helping, guiding and involving students in the Faculty’s context was also determinant. I believe that Faculties have a great deal to gain from the development of concrete projects, linked to social, professional and business reality. Please note that each Faculty meets a set of valences and conditions to established itself as a ‘laboratory’ and a social partner: it has students to form groups, or that are already collectively organized , it has teachers to guide experiences, exercises, training, it has researchers, technicians and other collaborators. It has, afterall, privileged human and technical resources, that can be key interlocutors in the dialogue with the outside world. In this dialogue, it is a win-win situation, since all participants win.

The exchange between different nationalities is always welcome, because it increases diversity, the range of sensitivities expands, the ways of seeing, feeling and responding to the challenges and problems widen in the group. But, in my opinion, this is always due to diversity’ reasons, which can also be achieved with the exclusively participation of portuguese students, as long as the manifestation of their differences are encouraged.

4. In our case, there is a happy coincidence that you, as a tutor/mentor, are simultaneously a professor of design at the Faculty of Fine Arts, while also developing your professional activity at “Edições Eterogemeas”. What do you think of these partnerships between U.Porto, companies and non-profit organizations, involving students? Is this a good opportunity for students to complement their curricular training and thus increase the prospects of future employability? In your opinion, what are the main advantages from a pedagogical point of view? 

Schools have a responsibility to challenge. Instead of confirming areas of comfort, lucky strokes, acquired data or predefined arguments, it can and should provide students with experiences capable of taking them out of themselves, encouraging each one to act and react in effective dialogue with others.

The school can and must motivate the involvement of all, widening the horizons of restlessness, persistence, reflection, deepening, taking up, uncertainty, testing, research, points of view, testing, revision, tuning, etc. In short, the school should invite and ecourage the daily exercise of the collective, consolidating the means that each one has to deal with problems and seek solutions in an increasingly emancipated way.

My collaboration with the publisher, both as an author and as a curator, uses the same ingredients that I use in class as a professor. What I mean is that this creative work coincides, in essence, with what seems to me to be essential in the training of students in the field of design, illustration… Knowing how to do it, is important, yes, but in a wide awareness where different types and levels of knowledge about real life are connected. It was therefore rewarding to be able to bring class work into real work. I never think, nevertheless, of a unidirectional and submissive perspective of the School in preparing the student for “the world of work”, but rather in a mutually stimulating and dynamic challenge, which emancipates the conditions, which leads to opportunity… to employability.

5. Do you consider this a model with possibilities for implementation and diffusion in the contents of curricular units, that is, as an integral part of the objectives to be achieved by undergraduate students? What benefits and difficulties would you see in the implementation of this type of projects as an integral part of the curricula?

Yes, however it depends on how it is put into practice. When BEESE got into my hands, the project met exactly what I consider to be important when conducting faculty work. For me, it was a natural extension of what I think and do with students. It’s part of the curricula, you don’t need to formally “include” it. By this, I do not mean that it should not be assumed as a model formally absorbed in the curriculum.

The curricula, programs are just intentions, content. We all know that, more than a program, what really matters is the way according to which it is put into practice, the experiences it provides, the skills it provides students with (really and not based on what is stated in the curricula).

We have experience of internships, tutorials, protocol activities, accompanied work in a professional and business environment. Certainly, we are all aware of situations that are more successful than others, and all of this is, of course, natural… and that is why (and I repeat myself), what actually matters, activity by activity, project by project, is the way this is put into practice, how the experience can or should be managed with a view to relevant, ongoing, consequent processes… whatever the heading or the curricula in which they are inserted.

6. Do you think, on the other hand, that U.Porto has an “obligation” to multiply these collaborations, under university social responsibility umbrella? In your opinion, what instruments, available and /or to be created, could be used for this purpose?

In the word “obligation”, and since it is in quotation marks, I find other meanings, such as “desire”, “commitment”, “capacity”, “mission”, etc.

The University has Faculties, Faculties have professors, and these teach and guide. For me, things would be solved in a simple equation, because teachers are always responsible for conducting teaching and learning, and this process can never (never, in my opinion) be dissociated from social responsibility. So, this is not an extension but something that naturally belongs ‘here’. The University has knowledge, professors and other collaborators with professional skills in its Faculties. 

I can point out the issue of models, the impact, the national and international contexts… I believe that the University has challenges, inter-institutional programs and initiatives that are instruments of mobilization while also being a relevant social project. However, as a teacher, I fundamentally think about the opportunities that – in everyday life, in the apparent routine of classes, in the daily persistence of localized activities – are felt, in the sensitive relationship of the School with the outside, with society, with industry, with the market, etc.

And here it is a matter of direct work in the field… and, as I put it, small-scale day-to-day work can and should create and employ diverse instruments. Personally, and as a professor, I value projects with many constraints. Works that relate with concrete problems or situations where needs are created from economic, aesthetic or other stimul. Works involving other professionals. I enjoy working with professionals of other areas such as museology, architecture or natural sciences. And, at work, I’m not interested in safety as a guarantee of departure. Security is an achievement. Experience not as routine, conditioning or repetition, but precisely as multiplication and sum of experiences – builds the certainties that allow us to improvise, to test. Collect as many data as possible and capitalize on experience. Only the use of the car, this is, making trips, justifies insurance against all risks…

7. On the companies side, and taking “Edições Eterogémeas” as a reference and this experience in which you participated, don’t you find that a closer relationship between the University of Porto and the business environment, enhancing interesting and positive impacts partnerships is possible ?

Yes, of course. This approach has already been occurring, with obvious results, just look closely at examples that, even because they have become usual, may go unnoticed. Different models and projects are naturally welcome, diversity is a fundamental value. I think that all the parties engaged in partnership processes share a common notion, which is continually updated, on the potentialities and advantages involved: pedagogical, social, professional, etc.

In the case of the experience we did at the publisher, I see these possibilities, once again as an opportunity to reinforce the values of teamwork, applied research, informed knowledge, challenging perspectives and an exercice of opinion, of social and professional awareness, etc. And an opportunity is always welcome.

For instance, last year we did an editorial project that I dedicated exclusively to students who attended my Illustration course. It was an illustrated agenda book («Duas mil e dezanove dicas em forma de uivo»/«Two thousand and nineteen tips in the form of a howl») that helped students to understand the potentials, but also the real constraints of the universe of graphic production, author experience and editorial activity. By encouraging them to produce work with the notion of reality, the means, the limits, etc., I’ve tried to make them aware of these limits precisely so that they can challenge them.

It was also about externalizing, showing, disseminating the work of students, not only from a promotion perspective (that can always start to bear fruits)…, but also by solving the work itself with knowledge of the facts, emancipating it from the mere curricular exercise. In this edition I expose, in a text entitled “Entre a sala de aula e a exposição: divulgar ilustração”/“Between the classroom and the exhibition: disseminating illustration”, what I think about the subject.

8. Can the University and, in particular, the teaching of design be a lever to improve the social, economic and environmental contexts in which we live, starting from similar projects? Do you want to give some examples?

Design solves problems, the problems are related to people.

To solve problems we have to know the client, the interlocutors, the recipients, the objectives, the contexts, the circumstances, the conditions, the constraints. If we don’t get used to meeting people, understanding, valuing and experiencing people’s problems, we simply can’t design.

We cannot take advantage of an athlete’s abilities if we do not know him, because his starting conditions are, afterall, what will allow us to establish a programmatic action, a systematic work, with a view to identifying problems, implementing solutions, obtaining results. Also, no doctor cures a patient without diagnosing it, examining it, figuring out a plan or simply adjusting the quality and quantity of the medication.

How can commonsense reasoning, be put into practice in the teaching of design? If during the course the student is placed in dialogue with the outside world, in a laboratory environment and in direct relation with real life, the fact that this experience is mediated and guided by the teacher creates conditions to exercise countless sensitive things, conditions in which the student only runs the risks of the exercise itsled, doing accompanied ‘gymnastics’, without incurring in any risk of fracture, while also gaining muscles to later deal with professional challenges, with more strength and solidity.

The non-acquisition of this experience is a step to bump into unsolvable situations later on. The degree of complexity, whether within the school space, in a professional’s atelier or even in their own ateliers, demands more and more commitment and acquired culture that must always be recycled and updated. Many students leave our schools with this habit, which turns out to be a good addiction. Others would need to return to school every four years until they realize that they can do a daily job that no longer demands outside support.

In design, the program is certainly very important, but just as it not to limit ourselves to fulfilling it in a peaceful way, that is, without bringing something that can exceed expectations, not only ours, but also others’: between the starting point and the arrival, a lot should happen. And the result should contain something that improves our lives, whether in ethical, aesthetic or utilitarian terms.

9. Following the previous question, can design, like arts in general, play, in addition to a purely aesthetic function, an explicit social role, namely, with regard to the promotion of quality of life and well-being, accessible to a larger number of people? Do students acquire this notion during their training, or do they already have it at the outset?

If students do not acquire this notion, they should acquire it. I matters little (although it always makes a difference) if they arrive at the course with an accurate sense of citizenship, because it is actually natural that, when they arrive, they carry many misconceptions in this field. The important thing is what happens next, the way they are led to experiment, to reflect, to build a solid social conscience. Without this, there is no reason to take a design course. Without this, what they call design will be something that is confused with something else different, which it is not.

Training can vary widely from course to course, from University to University. But I understand that schools must create scenarios and problems that lead students to find a way to overcome problems. In the relationship between professors and students, quality is mandatory, the quality of moments and things, the quality or guarantee of what remains, what marks. Teachers must equip students with methods and strategies combined with a great exercise in curiosity. They must create obstacles and problems for which the students, individually and in groups, propose answers that they will never consider, neither definitive nor insuperable.

The aesthetic issue can be, in other areas, a priority or even, let’s say, and “exclusive” (although even in Arts I see myself among those who never see aesthetics separate from ethics). But, in design, the aesthetic function is linked to a network of functions in which everything must work according to the desired, seeking the balance of the parties, having the social issue as a background.

A class is a design project in itself, already, with social, aesthetic, interactive, creative, functional, productive components, etc., which must all be activated, so that the respective connections are made to the outside: either immediately, because the school is never disconnected from it, either in the short to medium term, because the exterior will certainly welcome future professionals.

10. What suggestions would you like to give us, in order to improve the implementation of the next stages of the BEESE Project?

The simple dissemination of the work and solidarity projects already developed, as is somehow the case here (be it a work developed with a local administration, a work to support students in need, etc.) is already a proactive way of feeding new stages in this or other projects.

It will also be important to move towards encouraging and implementing forms of solidarity where the opportunity shall not be confused with any opportunism. What I mean is that this type of project should never be thought, planned or carried out simply because its costless… Sure, promote and preserve solidarity as a value in itself…, but articulating modalities that recognize designers as professionals whose mission could not, for obvious reasons, limited itself to the solidarity mission. 

This may involve going through some simple strategies with business partners to guarantee some fund, some remuneration that balances the exercise from which everyone benefits.

11. Finally, would you accept a future challenge in the context of pro-bono volunteering?

Yes of course. It may even be in other ways, with other goals, problems, focuses… In my work as a professor and consultant, I deal with very diverse subjects and situations, involving artistic and editorial direction, copyright, etc. These dimensions can be linked with others, from the most diverse areas, courses and disciplines.

Luís Mendonça and his brother Rui Mendonça are professors at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Porto and both develop their activities as designers at the publishing house Eterogemeas.