Case Study: TNSJ Visual Identity and Communications

Teatro Nacional São João (Oporto, Portugal)
Project Title
Teatro Nacional São João Visual Identity
  • Posters and alphabets: 2011–2012 season
  • Covers for theater programs: 2011–2012 season
  • Covers for theater programs: 2012–2013 season

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2013 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 14 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments.

Project brief

In 2011, Teatro Nacional São João (TNSJ) required a new visual identity. This included a redesign of communication materials such as the tri-annual publications that accompany TNSJ shows, an annual photography book and posters, postcards and e-flyers for each play or event at the venue.

Intent on captivating and cultivating new audiences, the TNSJ opened its doors to the community in an effort to communicate about its distinctive shows and infuse the theater with a spirit of renewal and contemporaneity. One of their main objectives was to raise the critical standards of the theater’s audiences. Therefore, their graphic design had to reflect that intention.

This case study covers four interrelated components of the visual identity and communications: covers for theater programs for the 2011–12 season (theme: “Projections”), a photography book that is published annually, posters and alphabets for the theater, and covers for theater programs for the 2012–13 season (theme: “Objects”).


Teatro Nacional São João is one of two national theaters in Portugal. São João is in Oporto, the country’s second biggest city. (The second national theater, D. Maria II, is in Lisbon). Both are independent theaters but they also collaborate on co-productions and exchange shows.

The TNSJ is an Entrepreneurial Public Entity (E.P.E.) whose main public service objectives are to create and present various genres of theater shows in accordance with standards of artistic and technical excellence, and to bring audiences into regular contact with classic and contemporary reference works from both the Portuguese and global dramatic repertoire.


The overarching challenge was to create a new visual identity for the theater, keeping it intact across all materials without being repetitive in the design approach. In other words, allowing diversity across a strong, cohesive base design.

For the redesign of the tri-annual program publications for the 2011–12 season, together with the annual photography book, my approach was to look at the various theater spaces and show the audience “backstage.” I used the following questions to frame my investigation:

  • What is under the stage?
  • What is on the sides of the stage?
  • What if I’m on stage and I look up?
  • How does the curtain go up?
  • What is the view from the stage?
  • What is the perspective of the actors?

Covers for the theater programs were then created based on photographs taken inside the theater space.

For the posters, I used the same concept. First step: look at the theater space, building, walls, textures, etc. Second step: point a projector at these surfaces and take photographs of projected letters to create a series of bespoke “alphabets.” Using this process, I developed enough raw visual material—letters and alphabets—to use throughout the year on different communications and media. Knowing in advance that on many occasions I wouldn’t have time to develop a specific concept for each individual play (due to the amount of work required and tight deadlines), I wanted to make sure I would still be able to create interesting design solutions under the new visual identity.

For the following season, in 2012–13, I needed to offer the audience a fresh take on the concept. However, maintaining identification and continuity with the new identity was equally important. I used a different process to develop a new but conceptually related set of images for the program covers. For this season, I wanted to “go outside of the theater,” physically and conceptually, as a way of showing contemporaneity and experimentation, concepts on which the theater’s artistic direction is based. TNSJ’s cross-media productions also informed my decision to bring elements like metal, tree trunks, stone, leaves, wood and other three-dimensional objects into the designs.

Unlike the 2011–12 season, where covers were created based on photographs taken inside the space of the theater, this time I looked for “out-of-context” places to build different letters of the alphabet and scenarios to be photographed and used for the covers.


To develop the visual identity and covers for the 2011–12 season, I looked at the history of TNSJ as an institution. I also researched the history of the main building and looked at old communication materials created for the theater. When creating each play’s poster, I met with the director, went to rehearsals and read sections of the play. I also researched other posters that had been designed for the same play, to better understand how different designers had approached the content.

For the 2012–13 season, I spent several weeks looking for ideal locations and mentally “cropping” landscapes to frame potential images for use in the series. At the same time, I went to the props workshop office to find materials for building the letters and other interesting objects to include in the images.

Design solution

Photographs of typography projected into the theater space were a common element for all the theater communication materials designed for TNSJ. I used the theater’s institutional typeface, Gotham Rounded, on the projections, an important detail that preserved the institutional visual identity.

The flexible visual solution came directly from the process itself: experimenting in situ with a projector in hand; projecting typography at walls, doors, floor, ceiling, etc.; and allowing the unexpected to come “on stage.” According to the brief for each play or event, and depending upon any images that had to be included, I could either make a harmonious selection of letters from the various alphabets or create a key image based on the texture or feeling of a chosen alphabet. For a consistent final result, I had the option of treating a given image in a way that worked with the type, or I could design the graphic materials drawing exclusively on the letters themselves, mixing various alphabets together or blowing up a single letter to a larger scale.

For the inside covers of the programs, I wanted to show a bit of the process. The images represent the same projections that appear on the cover, but they have been taken from a different perspective. These elements function as proofs—an authentication of the work.

The covers for the 2012–13 season required an expansion of these concepts. We located three different landscapes and sourced three different types of materials for the 3-D letters. To create a visual and conceptual link between the three covers that also related back to the theater itself, we used a caddie (normally used to transport costumes) to hang 3-D Gotham Rounded letters built by the theater props team under my supervision.

The overarching goal was to provide variety across the materials without losing identity consistency, thereby allowing creativity and fantasy to come “on stage.” The design solution is a mix of reality, accident, coincidence and structured improvisation: unreal nature.


The biggest challenge was to envision the final result, mentally frame each image and create variety without losing consistency across the identity or becoming repetitive. We constantly kept in mind issues such as readability (of the text), identification (of the space) and aesthetics.

We were also challenged to build enough “raw” graphic materials to draw from in creating designs for so many different plays and events throughout each season.


A survey of the TNSJ theater audience was recently conducted, and we asked the following: How do you characterize the TNSJ graphic materials according to six different pre-specific criteria?

The answers we received revealed the following impressions amongst the TNSJ audience:

  • First choice: Creative/artistic
  • Second choice: Appealing
  • Third choice: Clear
  • Fourth choice: Traditional
  • Fifth choice: Confusing
  • Sixth choice: Boring

Just as importantly, the client was surprised by and impressed with the strong visual impact of the project. To date, the concept has been replicated across other graphic materials for TNSJ, and it was revisited and expanded for the 2012–13 season.