Location: Porto, Portugal 🇵🇹
Sara is a Learning Designer at The New Digital School, a digital design education program based in Portugal.
She’s had a diverse background spanning business strategy, human-centered design, marketing, and finance.
Now, Sara is working towards her passion for design education and bringing out the best in people.
The landscape of design education is rapidly evolving. How does the The New Digital School stand out?
The New Digital School is a different kind of design school, encouraging students to learn and grow in a real-world setting. There is no fixed curriculum, no fixed teachers, and no traditional assessment system. Instead, we invite accomplished designers from the industry—people that do this work every day—to mentor students and shed light on their process and technique.
While our one year program covers the full spectrum of digital design, students are free to specialize in whatever interests them the most, whether it’s UX, UI, or front-end development. Students work with real clients throughout the program to craft a strong portfolio. TNDS encourages exploration, and for students to build their own learning journeys with expert guidance every step of the way.
Each year TNDS selects up to 15 aspiring designers who are just starting out. In our current cohort we have students from five countries and three continents—everywhere from Portugal to America to India. It’s a diverse group, and we’re extremely proud of that! They come from all sorts of backgrounds—they were once lawyers, architects, chemical engineers, even chefs.
As the Learning Designer at TNDS, what does your typical day look like?
We’re a tight ship running TNDS—the permanent team is just me and the founder, Tiago Pedras. My role is focused on helping create the learning experiences of students. So what does that mean?
- Designing the school's foundational learning experience, business, and culture
- Engaging the students in defining their learning goals and co-create their learning plan
- Facilitating the creation of each class’ culture every year
- Running the Masterclasses, opportunities for students to work closely with leading experts in a studio setting (recently we had Vitaly Friedman, co-founder of Smashing Magazine)
And everything else! It’s very much a startup environment, so you’ll find me doing everything from booking flights to keeping the kitchen stocked. Each day is something new.
You've had a really interesting path—from business management to marketing and now design education. What led you towards becoming a Learning Designer?
Design, art, and technology were old passions that I’ve had since I was little—passions that I didn’t listen to closely enough. Somewhere along the way, my love for design was put in the back seat and I ended up in business school. I struggled with listening to what I really wanted to do, and I ended up in the world of financial auditing. Crazy, right?
When I talk with our students, one common theme I repeatedly hear is this notion of external influence—growing up, we constantly listened to what our parents say, what society says, but we don’t really hear ourselves.
It was when I started out as a financial auditor when I finally realized, “This is not me. This is not what I set out to do.” Despite having a well-paid, high status job (in Portugal, at least), I found the courage to shift careers and work in digital marketing. It was an exciting time where I worked on different projects and experimented a lot in the digital space.
I decided to join Hyper Island, a creative business school in England. Through the Digital Management program, I learned a ton about design thinking, culture design, team management—it molded me into becoming more collaborative and creatively driven. This program allowed me to combine my background in business with my newfound focus on people. On one hand, I learned to dig deep into how people think, act, and behave. On the other hand, I was able to switch into the business lens and ask questions such as “what is cost of this user” and “how is this delivering business value?” This all firmed up my belief in that putting the people first is where true innovation happens.
Let’s rewind a bit. Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town called Coimbra and have been in Porto ever since I came here for university.
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal. Many people know Porto to be a charming city, conveniently situated right next to a river and the sea. People in this city are warm and welcoming; if you’re lost, we’ll happily take you to where you want to go even if our English isn’t perfect. On the other hand, folks in Porto are very straightforward! If we don’t like something, we won’t hesitate to tell you right away.
In Porto, the tech and startup scene is rapidly exploding. At the same time, it’s not a huge city, so the Porto tech scene is quite tight-knit and connected. TNDS is located in a building shared with a ton of other startups, in a community called Founders Founders. So whenever we have questions or need some advice, everyone is welcoming enough that we can just head over next door and hang out!
Another thing you need to know—food and wine is great in Porto. One famous dish here is francesinha, also known as “heart attack food.” If you tried it, you would certainly understand why. It’s a gigantic sandwich with bread, beef, sausage, more sausage, ham, and melted cheese. To top it all off, it’s covered in thick gravy and served with fries. It’s not for everyone—I can only eat this once every few months.
For wine, we have the famous port wine which is made from grapes grown in the Douro Valley just up the river. It’s our most well-known beverage here, which is sweet and delicious and usually served as dessert wine. Just don’t mix it with the francesinha. That would be a guaranteed heart attack.
The design education landscape is varied and changing rapidly—how does a new designer succeed at TNDS?
Aspiring designers have a lot of potential ways that can learn, grow, and develop their careers.
On one end of the spectrum, there are traditional Masters programs that can sometimes be expensive, and require a student to sit in a classroom most of the time. On the other end, there are intensive bootcamps that are highly structured, forcing the student to choose a specific interest area right from the start without room for exploration.
The beauty of TNDS is that it encourages students to explore the breadth of the digital design landscape and build their own learning experience. We really drive that sense of critical self-reflection throughout their learning journey. For example, one of our past students started the program thinking she wanted to become a front-end developer. But after having a clearer picture of design and all the potential paths within the industry, she successfully transitioned into UX design. We encourage this type of experimentation and exploration, and allow students to choose the skills they want to bring to their career.
What are you most excited about in helping build the next generation of digital designers?
I want everyone to understand that whether we are designer or developers, we are in a position where we can significantly impact how people go about their lives. It’s a job in which we need to constantly ask,
This area is one of my most important areas I encourage students to think deeply about. We need to be proactive in avoiding harmful design decisions, while encouraging the use of design to improve the world we live in. I do my best to ensure that our students are mindful of their responsibility and not just following the status quo.
For new designers, how are your encouraging this ethical responsibility?
Simply put: ask more questions.
As designers, we don’t always have the right answers. But I do my best to ask the right questions. Whenever students propose new ideas for a project in which they haven’t considered all the consequences, I try my best to ask these hard questions. I try to challenge them to think deeply about the implications of their design.
What do you do to get inspired?
People inspire me. Period.
I love going to events and meetups—I might’ve been going to too many recently! Connecting with new people from different backgrounds and experiences excites me. There are two big communities that I’m a part of. On of them is the Hyper Island community in which I did my Masters program with. It’s a welcoming and thoughtful bunch of people, and these are people that I can always count on throughout my career.
Another is the Sandbox community, a network of entrepreneurs who seek to influence the world for the better. They’re constantly exploring different ways to reinvent how we live, work, and relate to others, and lately they’ve been inspiring me a lot as well.
Also, I also participate in something called Hack for Good, a hackathon in Portugal that focuses on innovative solutions for social causes. It’s been extremely rewarding—I’ve recently been going around the country and running workshops to help participants develop their ideas.
If you could, what would you want to say to other designers all around the world?
Meeting people from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds is one of the greatest gifts!
Yes, we come from different parts of the world and yes, we have many differences. But no matter where we are and where we’re from, we do face a lot of the same challenges. In a world that’s so polarized and divided, I think there’s a lot of good that comes from realizing that there’s things that bring us together across this huge world.