Women in Graphic Design in Portugal

A brief introduction to the History of Graphic Design in Portugal and the inclusion of Women designers in the discipline until the 1980s.

Words by
Ana Lisboa
in 23 of May of 2022

Graphic Arts in Portugal – in the Early 20th century

Initially, it can be considered that the emergence and implementation of design in Portugal began with the Decorative Arts, a recurrent practise of movements that appeared all over Europe, such as Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

These movements were synonymous with refinement and modernity and introduced new thinking in society and in art, a new bourgeois and modern aesthetic. Even the Arts & Crafts movement provided women with more job opportunities and the possibility to play a creative role as designers, allowing some to gain financial independence and in turn, the feeling of professional achievement.

In Portugal, due to the late start of industries and the nature of the Estado Novo regime, this period is prolonged, thus causing a delay in the consolidation of design in relation to Europe. Thus, graphic exploration in Portugal began to emerge in the early twentieth century, through the initiative of the Estado Novo and a group of modernist artists, who applied their artistic skills to the promotion of the Portuguese industry.

The women artists who stood out in the field of graphic arts are usually associated with painting, later manifesting themselves in other art forms such as drawing, illustration and scenography. Most of their works are illustrations for children’s books, newspapers, magazines, and publications, among others. Notable examples are the illustrations done in the 1920s and 1930s by Mily Possoz (1888-1968), Alice Rey Colaço (1892-1978), Mamia Roque Gameiro (1901-1996), Raquel Roque Gameiro (1889-1970), Sarah Affonso (1899-1983) and Ofélia Marques (1902-1952).

Sarah Affonso, illustrations for «O Tesouro da Casa Amarela: teatro infantil»,1932.
Mamia Roque Gameiro, cover «Varinha de Condão»,1924.

The pioneers of Graphic Design in Portugal

The formation of the Secretariado de Propaganda Nacional (SPN) in 1933, later renamed the Secretariado Nacional de Informação (SNI), under the direction of António Ferro (1895-1956) marks the new regime of the Estado Novo and its political, ideological and aesthetic propaganda. With the aim of promoting modern art and attracting a public, António Ferro brought together a team of professionals to develop various works in the fields of graphic arts, plastic arts, decoration and architecture.

Therefore, it allowed not only the graphic exploration but also the demonstration of works of a high aesthetic, modern, and functional quality that helped to build the image of the Estado Novo. This generation of artists is considered to be the pioneers of graphic design, the so-called SPN/SNI generation, comprising Fred Kradolfer (1903-1968), Thomaz de Mello (1906-1990), Carlos Botelho (1899-1982), Paulo Ferreira (1911-1999), among others.

From this period onwards, there was a better understanding of graphic design as a professional activity. It became necessary not only to have a talent for the arts but also a set of integrated processes that should establish a conscious harmonisation between typography and image in order to correctly communicate a product, a service or an idea.

The renovation of the graphics in Portugal

Fred Kradolfer’s intervention in the graphic arts brought a renewal of Portuguese graphics to Portugal, establishing a greater notion of the need for graphic simplification and its communication. He emphasises the importance of creating advertising with a clear, immediate message that is aesthetically pleasing, de-emphasising the saturation of information.

Kradolfer’s knowledge of graphic techniques, acquired in Europe, innovated the advertising made in Portugal, becoming a milestone in the History of Portuguese Graphic Design and an influence for a large number of artists who sought to adapt to the modernisation of the graphic arts.

Among them was the artist Maria Keil (1914-2012), a member of the second generation of modernists, who would collaborate with Kradolfer in the Estúdio Técnico de Publicidade (ETP), becoming the first woman to participate in pioneering graphic design works for Portuguese advertising.

Maria Keil’s work is a compilation of works in various fields of design, namely illustration, advertising, set design, costumes, tapestry, furniture and tile design. At the ETP studio, her work for the adverts for the women’s lingerie manufacturer Pompadour stands out.

Maria Keil, advertising«Pompadour», 1941. 
Maria Keil, cover «Algarve» touristic volume - SNI Editions, 1947.
Maria Keil, advertising «Pompadour», 1941.
Maria Keil, cover «Algarve» touristic volume – SNI Editions, 1947.

The 1930s and 1940s

At the end of the 1930s, in order to expand and disseminate the modern Portuguese image abroad, the SPN/SNI took part in major international fairs in Paris (1937), New York and San Francisco (1939). Later, to demonstrate the glorification of the regime’s image and simultaneously its neutrality in the face of a Europe at war, António Ferro organised the Exhibition of the Portuguese World (1940), with the collaboration of various architects and artists, who were involved in the construction of the pavilions, interior decoration and communication of the event.

During the 1940s, the SPN/SNI launched a series of publications that allowed the growth of graphic activities in Portugal, namely the monthly arts and tourism magazine – Panorama (1914-1950); the monthly cultural magazine – Litoral (1944), the Luso-Brazilian magazine – Atlântico (1942) and the book Vida e Arte do Povo Português. The magazine Panorama not only promoted art and tourism but also publicised the exhibitions organised by the SPN/SNI, as well as a series of publications that served the interests of the propaganda campaigns of the Estado Novo.

The graphic activity of Mily Possoz and Ofélia Marques stands out, in their collaboration on publications and covers for these magazines. Also in this decade, modernism had a strong influence on the Portuguese graphic design scene, with links to the SPI/SPN. At the same time, there were other avant-garde movements such as neo-realism and surrealism.

Ofélia Marques, cover for Panorama Magazine Nº12, 1942
Ofélia Marques, cover for Ver e crer Magazine Nº27, 1947.

While neo-realism spoke out against the ideologies of the regime, surrealism attempted to combat Salazar’s morality, presenting a counter-cultural proposal.

Despite their internal disputes, these movements contributed to a break in the modern aesthetics practised in Portugal, giving rise to new Portuguese modernism, which would be seen later through the interventions of Victor Palla (1922-2006), Sebastião Rodrigues (1929-1997), António Garcia (1925-2015), António Sena da Silva (1926-2001), Daciano da Costa (1930-2005), among others, becoming related as the second generation of Portuguese design.

The influence of foreign references

From the 1950s onwards, foreign references ended up characterising design and influencing all these artists, first with Frederico George’s (1915-1994) study trip to the United States in 1952, which enabled him to come into contact with the teaching methodologies of American universities.

From the 1950s onwards, foreign references ended up characterising design and influencing all these artists, first with Frederico George’s (1915-1994) study trip to the United States in 1952, which enabled him to come into contact with the teaching methodologies of American universities.

As well, the conviviality with architects Walter Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe, awakens in Frederico George, the importance of institutionalising design, by the initiative of the foundations of Bauhaus theory and practice.

Later, the contact with foreign magazines, such as the British magazine Design or the Swiss Graphis, contributed strongly to the introduction of rationalism in Portugal. Highlights include the work of António Garcia in the international exhibition in Osaka or the magazine Almanaque, in the graphic expression of Sebastião Rodrigues.

In a way, these magazines contemplated and revealed the design that was being made abroad, especially at a time when the country had difficulties in accessing specialized information.

The importance given to the discipline of the design was only visible in the first manifestations of interest in a type of teaching outside political power, in which the experimental and formative action of Frederico George and, consequently, his disciples: Sena da Silva and Daciano da Costa were fundamental for the affirmation of Portuguese design. As well as this, the activity of the designer, in which they reproduced techniques related to foreign production and adapted them within the possible resources to the industry and national education.

At the end of the 1950s, the economic strategy of the Estado Novo dictatorship, directly linked to the applications of the Development Plans, was a driving factor for the country’s economic growth. In particular for industry, from the time of joining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), it also allowed international economic activity, with the increase of its exports.

The Instituto Nacional de Investigação Industrial (INII)

In 1959, with the activities of the Instituto Nacional de Investigação Industrial (INII), it was possible to sediment new concepts in the project-oriented area that allowed the progression in the area of design. In this sense, the INII was made up of various laboratories associated with technology, with the aim of supporting the industrial sectors. Later, with António Teixeira Guerra’s proposal to the engineer António Magalhães Ramalho, which aimed to set up a research centre around Art and Technology, led to the creation of the Núcleo de Arte e Arquitetura Industrial (NAAI).

The first activity of this nucleus was to develop processes related to product design and production methods. Many NAAI actions were carried out at the Fábrica-Escola Irmãos Stephens (FEIS), in Marinha Grande, where designer Maria Helena Matos collaborated in the area of glass design, through a scholarship granted by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (FGC). In 1960, at the invitation of Magalhães Ramalho, Maria Helena Matos collaborated with the NAAI, becoming head of the centre in place of Teixeira Guerra. Between 1960 and 1974, Maria Helena Matos’ actions would mark the process of affirmation, consolidation and dissemination of Portuguese design.

The institutionalisation of the discipline of Design

The 1960s and 1970s gradually saw the consistent visibility of Portuguese design, from the early teaching experiences of Frederico George and Daciano da Costa to the creation of courses in the field of design teaching in Portugal, born outside of academic frameworks. This was the case of the Artistic Training course, in 1965, at the National Society of Fine Arts (SNBA); the foundation of the Institute of Art and Decoration (IADE) in 1969, which was a pioneer in teaching design; and the foundation of the Centre for Art and Visual Communication (Ar. Co), in 1973. However, it was only with the reform (1975-1978) of the Design courses at the Higher Schools of Fine Art of Porto and Lisbon that design was recognised as an autonomous discipline in official education.

In turn, the scholarships offered by the FGC in the second half of the 1960s enabled various professionals to train abroad. These were Alda Rosa (1936), Cristina Reis (1945), Moura George (1944), José Brandão (1944) Jorge Pacheco (1940-2010) and Victor da Silva (1932), who would become the third generation of designers responsible for the new Portuguese design.

Graphic guidance by Maria Manuela Correia, cover of the catalogue of the «Exposição Internacional de Industrial Design», Lisbon: INII, 1965.

The understanding of design as a discipline took place at the Iª Quinzena Estética Industrial (1965), an event organised by the INII’s nucleus at Palácio Foz, in Lisbon, under the responsibility of Maria Helena Matos.

The event consisted of a series of conferences on industrial design, by various European specialists, and also an International Exhibition of Industrial Design, which established a milestone in the History of Design in Portugal. For the first time, the word «design» was recognized and included as the title of the exhibition and of the respective catalogue.

The Portuguese Design Exhibitions (1971 and 1973)

It was in the wake of this action, and in the context of the Primavera Marcelista, that Maria Helena Matos organized the first of two exhibitions – the Exhibition of Portuguese Design (1971 and 1973). Once again, this established a fundamental milestone for the institutionalization of design as a discipline, as the word design appeared officially in the country, and the expression designer began to designate a professional activity, whose meaning encompassed the project and the intention of finding answers to concrete problems.

The 1st Exhibition of Portuguese Design was held at the Lisbon International Fair (FIL), with the support of engineer José Torres Campos (second Director of the INII), and sponsorships from the Fundo de Fomento de Exportação (FFE), the Associação Industrial Portuguesa (AIP), and Metalúrgica da Longra.

Alda Rosa and Cristina Reis, covers for the catalogues of « e Exposição de Design Português», 1971 and 1973.

The proposal for this exhibition came from the technical managers of the furniture company Interforma, who proposed to INII the organisation of an exhibition of Portuguese industrial design. The aim was to present and make accessible to a wide public a selection of works which could demonstrate and promote the best design in Portugal. This exhibition stands out for its diversified set of works made by professionals in the area of graphic and decorative arts, and for its breadth of a new stance on the design world and new industrial possibilities, which would come to transform society and the world.

For the conception and realization of the exhibitions, the nucleus could count on the collaboration of the designers Alda Rosa (1936), Cristina Reis (1945), Margarida D’Orey (1947), Conceição Espinho (1946), Regina Andrade (1952) and the sculptors Eduardo Sérgio (1937) and José Santa-Bárbara (1936). Also in 1971, a repeat of this exhibition was held at the Palácio da Bolsa in Oporto, with a new presentation of Portuguese design products.

During this period, the NAAI changed its designation to Núcleo de Design Industrial, and it was under this name that, in 1973, the 2nd Exhibition of Portuguese Design was again held, again at FIL, sponsored by the Fundo de Fomento de Exportação (FFE) and the Associação Industrial Portuguesa (AIP). However, this time, it was conceived and directed by Sena da Silva and the PRAXIS Cooperative, which contributed to the development of the project, coordination of texts for the catalogue, graphic support, and setting up of the exhibition.

The work and collaboration of the designers Assunção Cordovil (1947), Filipa Amaral Neto Tainha (1948) and Madalena Figueiredo (1944), in the PRAXIS Cooperative, also stands out in this exhibition. This exhibition was marked by its consistency and organization, as well as by its direct communication with the public, where questions were raised about what design is, and what may or may not be designed. Proposing an updated definition of the concept of the word itself:

«design is an activity which indiscriminately commits industrialists, technical managers, policy-makers, consumers and design professionals alike. It is up to all of them to find the appropriate responses to the demands we have to face. The design that exists reflects the responsibilities of all of them».

2nd Portuguese Design Exhibition, 1973, p.11

Design after the 25th April revolution

After the 25th April 1974, and the revolutionary process that took place between 1974 and 1976, Portuguese political, social, economic and cultural life changed radically. More courses in Design and Visual Communication were created at the National Society of Fine Arts (SNBA), a succession of symposiums and conferences, and the creation of new design studios, such as the Risco company, devoted to graphic and industrial design by Daciano da Costa and Cruz de Carvalho, in which Assunção Cordovil would also collaborate as a partner and graphic designer.

There was also an increase in theoretical production with regular publications of articles in catalogues, newspapers and Portuguese magazines such as Arquitetura, Binário, Casa & Decoração, Estética Industrial and Gráfica 70, a magazine dedicated to graphic design, promoted by Metalúrgica da Longra and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

In this period, from the need to reformulate the visual identities of public companies, the role of the graphic designer in society is recognised, witnessing a gradual graphic reformulation of newspapers and magazines, as well as the design of posters for plays, films and musical events, generic films, book and record covers, among others.

José Brandão, (with the collaboration of Cristina Reis in the composition of the text
and monitoring of the production), disc cover «O Coro dos Tribunais», 1975.
Alda Rosa and José Brandão, poster for the film «Máscaras», 1976.

Portuguese Association of Designers

The progression of design was slow, and during the 1970s, with rare exceptions, the practice of design remained unchanged under the control of its tutelary figures. In 1976, the Portuguese Designers’ Association (APD) was created, with a majority of members consisting of teachers from ESBAL and designers working in the Lisbon area. Among them were Sebastião Rodrigues, Rogério Ribeiro, Vítor Manaças, Salette Tavares Brandão, José Brandão, Sena da Silva, António Garcia, Alda Rosa, Robin Fior, Madalena Figueiredo, and others.

The progression of design was slow, and during the 1970s, with rare exceptions, the practice of design remained unchanged under the control of its tutelary figures. In 1976, the Portuguese Designers’ Association (APD) was created, with a majority of members consisting of teachers from ESBAL and designers working in the Lisbon area. Among them were Sebastião Rodrigues, Rogério Ribeiro, Vítor Manaças, Salette Tavares Brandão, José Brandão, Sena da Silva, António Garcia, Alda Rosa, Robin Fior, Madalena Figueiredo, and others.

In the early 1980s, the Portuguese Designers Association (APD) promoted the Design & Circunstância Exhibition (1982) at the SNBA, which included the work of 38 designers, with the support of the AIP, Banco Português do Atlântico and the FGC. This exhibition is marked, above all, by the professional and generational affirmation of APD designers, which corresponds both to a group of designers descended from Portuguese modernism and from a period marked by modernist nostalgia.


This article was written by Ana Lisboa, Head of Design @ MD3 STUDIO.

Ana is a designer and directs the Design team at STUDIO. In addition to Design and managing the team, Ana takes care of our well-being. She has a hawk-eye for misaligned objects, loves the minimalist style and has a particular taste for avant-garde aesthetics.