“Design is never an innocent practice”: The Royal Studio brings political context into its projects

The studio’s founder João Castro talks us through a couple of recent projects that forced readers and viewers to consider a wider story.

12 August 2020
Reading Time
3 minute read


When the perfect balance of elements aligns, a new universe might pop up. That’s what happened when the Porto-based Royal Studio, founded by João Castro, paused from 2017 to 2019 to focus on a new approach. In those two years, João pivoted to working with three colleagues – Ana Areias, Raquel Rei and Tiago Campeã – on Studio Degrau, an artistic and cultural practice; as he puts it, a deliberate move away from “client-oriented work”.

However, The Royal Studio never properly ceased in the background. And now it’s back with a whole host of projects. First and foremost, though, it’s been a stretch for the team to operate as usual given these extraordinary times, not least for João, who has been working out of his apartment. Though the work and his teaching never stopped, his life was all of a sudden infiltrated by jogging, countless virtual calls, meditation at 4am, therapeutic chats with his local news kiosk, a development in his spaghetti aglio e olio recipe and an acceptance that it’s OK to wake up after 11am.

Throughout the internet-fuelled past few months, the work hasn’t stopped for João and his Royal Studio collaborators. Whatever the brief, whether it’s designing a book, an event or an exhibition piece, João approaches the task at hand in a unique way, “where I try to define the object of graphs with words, emotion, pace, time and speed”. He views the output as a subjective category which indicates what kind of research will take place, and in what moment or context.

For Frontiere, Contemporary Design Expressions, for example, The Royal Studio designed an exhibition and catalogue design centred on the migrant crisis. The show, which was part of the Territory Italia programme exhibited as part of the Porto Design Biennale, focuses on the migration routes from Northern Africa to Italy, delving into the syncretic nature of Italian project design and its manufacturing methods (syncretism being the combination of different beliefs, merging practices of various schools of thought). Using this concept as an exploratory tool, the book design for Frontiere is separated into different sections. The spine splits the Mediterranean in half and the exhibition design forces the public to be constantly in and out of defined areas, weaving in and out of obstacles as they navigate the space.

GalleryThe Royal Studio

In another of the studio’s recent projects, João and his team tackled the identity for last year’s Lovie Awards taking place in London’s British Film Institute. An event which celebrates the internet, the awards celebrate the most prominent personalities and projects that happened on the European web in any given year. Given the social and political context of the past year, the brief threw up a challenge for João and his team.

The Hong Kong protests, the Mueller Report, Brexit, countless challenges to user privacy on the web – these were just a few of the urgent stories that circulated during 2019. In turn, The Royal Studio decided to celebrate the opposite of internet glory in its identity. “Fed by a twist on the 80s and 90s post-modern imagery, pushing the boundary between nostalgic dreamscapes and contemporaneity,” says João, the identity draws on humour and symbols of luxury. In turn, the design “embraces the web with a tone of chrome and ice, expanding on how it allows joy with a vibrant, yet quite shallow hint to advertising.” He goes on to say: “Design is never an innocent practice so this extra-extra-tone was as fun as it was ironic.”

Embracing sarcasm when appropriate, The Royal Studio visually reflects the social and political context of the project. Designing objects and experiences with the hopes of helping to shape society, as for the future, The Royal Studio is planning “to design with words, poems and other strategies,” as well as graphics, “trying to see a world that is designed as a consequence”.

GalleryThe Royal Studio


The Lovie Awards


The Lovie Awards



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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.


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