In a Spanish design scene where you must compete and struggle to make a name for yourself, Sergio del Puerto has garnered the attention of clients across the world. Adrian Sandiford talks to the man behind Madrid's best up-and-coming creative studio.
So, you need retro graphics for a new Nike T-shirt to sell in the US? Ask Serial Cut. You're looking to develop an identity for your new bar in Madrid? Ask Serial Cut. Searching for someone to art direct some still-life photography for your style magazine in France? Ask Serial Cut, the studio that provides illustration, graphic design and art direction, whatever the country and whoever the client.
Sergio del Puerto, a graphic design and visual communication graduate, established Serial Cut in 1999 as a vehicle for his freelance work while simultaneously finishing his studies in Madrid and working for Spanish-style magazine, Vanidad (Vanity in English). The man is clearly skilled at multi-tasking. He's also, rather unsurprisingly, very Spanish.
"This magazine opened me to know the best professionals in the fields I love best - fashion, graphic design, art, architecture and music," says del Puerto in his second language, before apologising for his "bad English". During his three years at Vanidad, del Puerto soon became art director and continued with freelance work under the Serial Cut banner. He also worked in some of Madrid's best creative studios, including CircusbyAcrylick, Lata-Latina and Andrew McConochie Design & Communication. However, his turning point, as in many people's lives, was sex.
A fellow Vanidad designer, Fernando Gutiérrez was changing the layout of Spain's largest newspaper, El País. While tackling the paper's supplements, Gutiérrez created a weekly newspaper-size publication with magazine-style graphics called Tentaciones (Temptations), and suggested del Puerto illustrate the sex section. "I started to do it and it was hard work," says del Puerto. "I had to represent sex themes without being explicit."
Del Puerto's illustrations began to develop a following and, thanks to the newspaper's two million or so readers, he became known throughout Spain. Doing the regular Tentaciones section helped attract new freelance clients. "I then uploaded my website, which got lots of visits," he says.
A second version of the site soon followed, taking the form of a sort of rolling design blog. Rather than detailing the latest boring minutiae of someone's humdrum life, the posts now vibrantly display Serial Cut's work. "The website has been important to promote my work overseas," says del Puerto. "I get emails every day from people. This gives me the strength to keep it up."
Serial Cut's steady evolution means that del Puerto remains the studio's main figure. But, depending on the size and nature of a project, he'll also call in freelance contributors. And after eight years in the business he's established a team of people he likes to work with: a photographer, Paloma Rincón "Who does most of the shots I do and understands perfectly what I have on my mind"; a web and graphic designer, Sergio 'Oso' de la Varga: "My right hand"; and Tavo Ponce: "One of the best motion-graphics artists in Spain".
Rincón, de la Varga and Ponce aren't just talented collaborators, notes Serial Cut's founder, they also understand the studio's design philosophy. "The main objective is to provide clients with a very special, trendy and personal way of communicating their product. I always arrange to deliver quality artwork because good work attracts better work," says del Puerto.
He's right. If a studio is seen to be producing great work, more will follow. Success begets further success. As such, Serial Cut doesn't seek out new clients; "I know this could sound pretentious but they look for us," he says. All del Puerto does is continually update the website with new work and send out a newsletter to a mailing list that has quickly expanded to more than 2,000 people. The work comes in seemingly without fail.
Projects vary from clients asking for Serial Cut's versatile and experimental illustration style, based on del Puerto's Cut and Paste technique - a subtle mix of vector shapes, photo collage, pixels and pencil strokes. In most cases, typography has a special role to reinforce the idea and generate more impact. Del Puerto also undertakes graphic design work on identities, editorial projects, books, record labels and websites.
Then there's what del Puerto likes best: art direction. "An idea could be better if it's art directed," he says, before adding that the thrill comes from bringing alive the ideas he has in his head. "I usually make sketches, considering the client I'm working for, and the sketches help the designer or photographer to get the right idea. I'm always open to other ideas from the people I work with, and the final result is then better than expected."
Other personal passions include music and nightclubs, which provide a lot of Serial Cut's business. The love affair can be explained by the studio founder's history as a clubber in his early 20s, when "Madrid had the best clubs ever". It was during this time that he made a lot of contacts and it's now an arena in which del Puerto finds himself very comfortable. Indeed, he enjoys it so much that he's recently started to develop his DJ skills and run Serial Cut nights. They're a mixture of work and play: half-party, half-showcase. Having aligned himself to the scene, clients from that background trust him and give him the space to design and create with freedom. And then there's fashion, an exciting world that opened its often exclusive door thanks to del Puerto's tenure at Vanidad.
Spain may love Serial Cut's design work, but del Puerto's not so complimentary about Spain's. "I'm afraid the scene's not really good," he admits. "You can count the really good ones on one hand. I love the work from Albert Folch, Vasava and Neo2, but unfortunately Spain is a place with a low graphic design culture and there is a problem here with the clients, who don't understand very well if you try to go further with a complex but great graphic solution."
"Here in Spain, people also love to 'copy' everything from abroad," del Puerto continues. "If you're from outside Spain you're good, if you are from here, you have to work hard to get recognised. I have more fans from all over the world than I do in Spain, but I don't really care. I know a lot of professionals that were recognised overseas first and then the Spanish people caught on. It's so stupid."
It may be hard to get noticed, but del Puerto just shrugs it off. He refuses to play the game, instead preferring to focus on his work. He looks to side-step the bullshit and build strong professional relationships. Collaboration is something to be encouraged and embraced, not sneered at in a fit of design egotism. He's always on hand if people need help. And he'll always say 'yes' if a fellow creative has a contribution to offer.
It's this positive, proactive attitude - as well as the sheer vitality and brilliance of the design - that has led to clients flocking to Serial Cut from as far and wide as America, Holland, France, Germany and the UK. It could potentially be a daunting task to handle such a wide variety of work across different time zones, but del Puerto calmly keeps in touch from his Madrid base via email or phone. "Technology solves the distance problem," he says, which happily leaves him with the much more creative challenge of developing the illustration, graphic design and art direction that has made his much-loved company the success it is.