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Is design suffering sameness?

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The latest AGDA 2010 awards book came in the post today, with thanks to the crew that put it together. The 2010 awards publication has lots of work, and give or take one’s taste, in terms of design and aesthetic, the work is of a high standard. However, the question to ask above all is – is there work, within its 300+ pages, that has a newness about about it?

Harry Williamson from Sydney was celebrated in the same publication as one of two 2010 AGDA Hall of Fame recipients. As I took in Harry’s pictures and words, the Summit Restaurant logo too longingly, I wondered if Harry’s work had a newness about it when it first hit the streets, that made one think – wow this is an approach, a process I hadn’t seen before? I projected myself back to the late 70s and 80s, and imagined how this process and work may have prompted me – will I rip it off, or will it make me think more deeply about my output, or is a bit of both? One thing for sure, I know I would have been muttering to myself – bloody Harry, he’s an annoyingly-good-bloody-go-back-home-ya-pom-designer!

Summit restaurant brand, Sydney circa 1976

Then I thought about the work propositioned in 2010 to be the best of now, and I was struck with idea that the new work didn’t really stand out at all, and sadly that this collected body of work was suffering from not being new, and therefore just feeling the same. The same because the work was published on the internet months ago, the same because the work was made popular on sites like FFFound, the same because many of the ideas and outcomes seem to share image making, colour, type treatment, language, yet different only by a twist, a client, or subject. The same because what we end up with is a diversity of work, being crossed influenced by each other.

Consider an example, of say an influential image concept developed for a railway client displayed in an annual report in 1999 by a studio in Melbourne. This image concept becomes a hybrid image concept for a car manufacturer by another designer the work is published online. Then at the same time a financial services business is being sold another design hybrid of same concept by another unrelated design team. Then consider this process happening across thousands of creative projects, across all of the creative sectors, everyday, around the world.

A few months ago on an Australia talent programme a young pianist called – Chooka stole the news for a while. In his modest way Chooka highlighted the idea and merits of discovery, making, and creating in a personal and isolated space to a public space. Chooka dazzled judges, audiences, and the media and unlike many contestants was not formally trained. Chooka was raised on a farm without television, a computer, CD player. He was home schooled, and came to music it seems by the uncomplicated curiosity, play and the will to keep at it. He waited to be inspired by Mozart for two years, which in turn shifted his curiosity to teaching himself to play, read music. This process compelled him to only play original works and performance. His vision of music then ended up in front of 1000s of people and all that is left is to wonder. Wonder at the potential in an individual creative process, wonder how this process will evolve with the outside world, wonder if his work can be captured before it is influenced by the rest of the world.

If you can suffer the ugliness of show business in full hoo-haa-dumbed-down swing, this clip captures a little of his story…

Meanwhile, in the preparation for talks one has made in recent years for China, Hong Kong and the US. There was an opportunity to be in a space where the process is about not making something new or making money, it is about review, summation, contemplation, it is about discovery of process, of reason. In the process of reviewing the cities I was visiting –  I regularly jumped on the computer, logged into google image search and entered in a city, then another city, then I entered woman, man, a country… and a sameness presented itself again. The cities all seemed to have blue skies, bright clear water and city corridors with shiny glass towers. Enter a search for a country the symbols, colours, animals, flags and icons are bright, clear and in focus. After a while the searches blend in, the images are fused with a sameness, highly curated, fashioned, with an odd flash of perfect. This style of image selection makes the dull sit back and the brighter, the cleaner, the sharper and the more colourful, more desirable stand out. One also wonders if these image choices are statistics, or sinister commercial drivers at play…

As our world fills with more and more commercial creative, of highly finished, highly resolved, highly tested outcomes – some with the adbusters filter, others with flashes of slick corporate, raw / grungy, some with old fashioned girly, chicky babe, lady boy, blokey, or with all of the above. One finds some inspiration from people like Chooka and their way of discovering and actioning something original. Opportunity to de-igadget; rejoin the local library; use the convenience of internet search engines less; consider the internet as one of many sources – employing a generous dose of technology disrupters may give our work the chance to be more about the customers, clients, the designer, the play, the reading, the accidents, the discovery, and the place where the work was made dreamed up, manufactured and inspired.

Getting back to the 2010 AGDA Awards book, at 2010 Awards the Alt Group, from Auckland, New Zealand was by far the most awarded design firm with over 30 awards – including two Pinnacles and Judges Choice, in 2009 the ALT Group won over 57 majors awards. With all this success, Alt Group still has an uncomplicated contact page as a website, like Chooka, Alt is an unknown thing, and apart from doing work, entering numerous awards, winning awards, the only other information about this highly regarded studio is left to our imaginations and rumour. There is a range of evolving models (of making working and talking about it) out there, just ask Fabio, Pidgeon and 3 Deep, also big winners and somewhat mysterious studios who also entered the 2010 AGDA awards.

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Trying not to fall through the cracks: thinking about design in Australia

1100 words

So you’re a designer working in Australia and you want to stay sane and fulfilled? Then be prepared to be at the edges of the main event.

Standing before me on a crisp early autumn eve is Robert Forster from cult 80s pop act The Go-Betweens, resplendent in his fine grey suit. He has come a long way since killing time in Darlinghurst in the early 1980s, writing his spirited and off-the-cuff songs. Tonight Forster is riding solo, performing to a room of fifty or so people, with a finely tuned acoustic guitar, a bottle of water and memories. Thinking about Forster and his amazing career made me think about that thing that creative Australian people seem to do en masse: find their feet in Australia’s cities, before leaving our shores, receive their rightful accolades, and returning once again to Australia and relative obscurity.

Thinking about the aforementioned creative Australian making work, I wonder what the truth is for Australians hexed with the creative bug. This creative life is filled great expression, but if you scratch beneath the surface of interesting spaces and dramatic public expressions, the life of making work and developing a creative product in Australia seems lacks meaningful support, fostering and celebration in the wider community. Graphic design in Australia is funded by membership, and industry sponsorship unlike the arts which have government bodies such as Arts Australia, Vic Arts

Australia is one of the world’s great distant outposts. As the world’s highs and lows seem to shake, shudder, triumph and march forward, here in Australia we seem to have our own microcosm of life, culture, commerce and beliefs. Australia is the land of strange animals, poisons bugs, big skies, big rocks, sandy beaches, the pub, the boomerang, sporting heroes, the bush people, and long haul flights.

In 2002 I made short film that ask a variety of people on the street – What is graphic design? In the eight hours of raw footage, we were lucky to have five minutes of real answers. It was a process that made a great impression, which in the years since has invited further probing. What cultures have prominent design cultures? At what level of society do they exist? I discovered that when you mention conversation a German, French, Italian, American, Japanese, Danish, English design people will recall a raft of products, brands and even designers. I also discovered an absence of products, brands and designers when the query of Australian design was made. I must impress that my hunches here are not backed by substantive evidence, never-the-less I am under the impression that Australia is barely regarded by non designers, normal people, either nationally or internationally, for its design approach or creativity or as a place that produces excellent design and fosters innovation. If you think that this is statement in sweeping, simply task yourself to ask a person on the street – What is a Australian design product or designers they can immediately recall? Then ask what is an Americian, Italian, French, English design product, or designers they can immediately recall? It is no wonder why so many of Australia’s biggest brand and communication design briefs are often awarded to large US, or European, based design firms.

After years of producing design work in Australia, and talking to Australian designers, I believe there is an underlying tension about what it is we are producing. As contributors we are not getting what we want out of the work. It may well be a problem the world over, but it seems to be a struggle for Australian designers to make the work that they want while still having clients and audiences respond to the outcomes.

After observing and speaking with the overseas tourists that I have come in contact with, I believe that the source of this tension comes from an idea that Australia is not a culture underpinned or directly informed by creative expression. For many years I have entertained designers from all corners of the world. Typically over drinks, a meal or a tour of Sydney or Melbourne, I ask these visitors: “So, what are the things you want to do while you’re in Australia?” It doesn’t matter if the designer is American, Korean, German, French, Spanish, or Japanese, the most popular responses are always that they want to hold a Koala, see the Great Barrier Reef, and see Indigenous art. Is it any wonder that so few Australian designers are invited to speak overseas about their design expression?

Australia as a culture does not adequately recognize or value creative expression, and this, combined with the development of marketing, the rise of inexpensive graphics computers and a new lifestyle that fosters the idea that anyone can create and solve creative problems, is what fuels the tension in Australian creativity.

So Australia’s creatives leave our shores in droves and on the whole we are not a destination known for our creativity. There are a lot of factors that make it difficult for creativity to become the prominent part of our cultural make up that it deserves to be and I believe that the current state of creativity in Australia calls for a range of intelligent, bold and compelling approaches from and by designers and creative types.

We as creative people need to set ourselves the task of communicating who we are and what we do in more compelling ways. Some of us are able to tell this story through our work, yet many of us need to develop a fresh layer around what we do that connects our approach and output with the outside world.

The most alarming thing about the status quo is that most influential voice commenting on Australian designers and our work are journalists and members of the public. In their hands don’t expect a balanced and informed opinion. The Lord Mayor of Melbourne commenting on a recent brand change is a favourite. He announced in 2009 that the City of Melbourne changed the logo because the incumbent “was a bit daggy”. Another insightful critique comes from a blogger commenting on motoring website about the change of the Vic Roads brand: “As far as I can see, the old Vic Roads logo was FINE. It’s not like VicRoads have to compete with other road authorities for our business, we’re stuck with these retards, so why do they have to appear fresh and modern? Basically they’ve just wasted my rego fee on a graphic design company, change management consultants, signwriters and printing like $50,000 worth of stationery. I’d love to see the budget for the logo change but Vic Roads is staying tight lipped about it. What a complete effing waste of my effing money! It’s a government department, they will never, ever, ever be fresh and modern in any sense of the word.”

I believe that the strange state of Australian communication design requires a radical response and I suppose that is why I embraced an existing Australian icon and dressed in Koala suit to present an Australian design story to an international audience in China. At the same conference (ironically before our presentation) Omar Vulpinari of Fabrica closed in his presentation stating that ideas are often communicated to an audience through their own clichés, clichés that they understand. We had the audience dancing, clapping and cheering in the end and over the past few months many design conversations and opportunities have come about from that one crazy clichéd gesture.

A way to start the process of critiquing and commenting on our own work is to attempt to understand and comprehend perceptions about design that are held within the broader community. And recognize and understand how other caches of similar creative people communicate their ideas and output – be it chefs, writers, musicians or fine artists. All these creative people are in control of the messages they present and in effect can shape the public’s perceptions. Design, we tell our clients, assists communicate ideas, products and brands, and it may be this very approach that we need to apply to our own image and products.

Andrew Ashton, Studio Pip and Co. March 2010

With thanks to Brita Frost for editing and proofing advice.

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Now this is a real tasty Christmas card

The complete package, note the typed lable

Detail

The crew at Alt in New Zealand don’t do anything by halves.

Thank you for our dark chocolate keyboard wrapped in a custom box, cards, and slip. Wonderful. Detailed. Simple.

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Now this is a Christmas card people…

This card was developed by image maker Sara Fanelli and design group Heatherwick Studio in London in 2010 – an extraordinary printed production that depicted the twenty four days of Christmas captured by suspended images housed in delicate and minute individual envelopes.

This card is simply great – an amazing gift as well as a piece of inspired printed ephemera – I hope card designers are taking note. Now is the time to get those thinking caps thinking and to start buttering up your printer – we want this year’s Christmas card haul to have at least one card as good this piece.

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Five years on Australian design from 1995 to 2005

We are raiding the archive of Andrew’s writing projects past and present…

10 years of Australian design (1995 to 2005)
Australian Creative, October 2005

The past, present and future appears to be well mapped in the creative disciplines of architecture, interior, fashion, and product design, yet in advertising and communication design it seems primarily focused in the now. Is this lack of future insights incidental, prophecy or simply a good reason to have a rant?

If you Google search ‘2015’ and ‘graphic design’ on the Internet, there are 30,700 results. Page one: no hints of the future, but universities flogging design courses, design firms flogging design services, or design publications flogging subscriptions. Make a similar search in architecture or fashion and there are dialogues about buildings for changing climates and seasonal ready to wear clothing banks for hire.

Perhaps the lack of future insights reflects the advertising and design industry’s primary function to serve ideas and causes found in architecture, interior, fashion, product design, and commerce. Media guru and academic Marshall McLuhan’s quote, “All advertising advertises advertising”, seems to be not so cynical when considered in this context. Among many notable and quotable McLuhanisms, his disturbed impression of mankind’s shuffling towards the 21st century in the shackles of 19th century perceptions seems appropriate here.

The 1996 Australian Census revealed 19,578 Australian graphic designers; the 2001 Census figures grew to 21,144 designers. Compare these figures to AGDA’s Industry Survey registering 2,500 design firms averaging four people listed in 1997’s Yellow Pages, which exploded to a staggering 5,500 firms registered in 2003 averaging five employees. The numbers tell a curious story of flux in studio sizes and dispute the claim that being big is better. Studios of 12 or more staff appear to be a rarity rather than something to be fostered.

The last decade witnessed a moving feast of new customers, sectors, job descriptions, products and technology. Take a visit to your software cabinet – a graveyard of redundant floppy disks, manuals and bulky packaging. Software that was once valuable, temporarily useful, ends up some time later mostly useless. Go no further than you business card file and take note of the business cards of companies that have changed names, merged, closed shop or reinvented. [We’ve developed a sense of attachment and detachment over the past ten years, a time that can be best described as terrific, challenging and fleeting.]

FutureBrand’s latest edition of ‘Propeller’ seems to agree. It’s lead and only article, ‘Tomorrow’s World: FutureBrand’s perspective on how to monitor and predict future insights’ is a 1,500 word lure with a simple yet extraordinarily loaded projection: expect 2015 to be something unexpected.

If you are left with yet more questions about what the future holds, maybe the past decade will provide some answers.

Ten years ago the drawing table was near extinction from the typical creative studio. Desktop publishing changed the creative space forever. Physical artwork transformed into bits and bytes. Ruling pens, inks, brushes, airbrushes, bromides, and galleys of type – all the components that made artwork became a suite of tools in publishing software. People who specialised in those crafts and skill sets where closed down, retrained and made redundant.

The art director and designer moved from being a curator of the creative process to become a little of all the people he or she used to oversee – the retoucher, typographer, proof reader, finished artist, camera operator and computer operator. A creative process that once relied on convincing presentations, open-minded clients, and a spontaneous process gradually became dulled by zealous research, mock-ups that looked better than the real thing, and an expectation that everything had to perform or perish.

Technology has enabled power to shift from the organization to the individual. In few short years the type design industry has been redefined. An industry that was once dominated by a few powerful companies now has hundreds of players. A prolific body of type design, from the traditional to unconventional, has bloomed. An ancient craft has flourished in less than ten years, resulting in typeface designs in the tens of thousands where once there were only hundreds worldwide. The only downside: bewilderment brought about from the vast choice.

Designers have become chameleons too. Many who were once bound to making shuffling objects on white spaces are exploring new territory. Designers are becoming art directors, artists, film directors, photographers, entrepreneurs, writers, producers, event consultants, business strategists, educators, publishers, parents, rock stars – the seem to be making impressions everywhere.

Amid all these great and new changes, the stock markets open their doors to the general public. A new style of commerce placated the desires of short-term investors and frustrated any form of medium-term to long-term planning. Customers changed, diverted, subdivided, went underground, became affluent and niche, with laptops computers 55 times faster. And all the while new time saving devices promised us more time, yet the list of tasks for an individual to comprehend grew and grew and grew.

Critical communication design theory grew and grew and grew too. Communication design magazines and publications now address the death of the logo, and celebrate new and not so new expressions. Designers have been called to bear arms or the closest writing instrument, by revisiting an international designers manifesto first penned by Ken Garland in England in 1965 and revisited by Rick Poyner in 2000, titled First Thing First. A home grown equivalent was AGDA’s Anti Free Pitching register authored by John Frostell in 2001.

Design associations now serve memberships in the thousands with design excellence programmes, client awareness initiatives, and education resources – to the point that they have become almost bureaucratic. Design-inspired vanity publishing and self-publishing have exploded in print and digital media from simple monologues to concept-based expressions and stories. Design students can start with a basic degree in communication, and continue through to doctorate levels. Conferences, exhibitions, festivals, public forums and design markets have been dreamed up, organised, well attended, reinvented and allowed to become bigger and better every year.

The future

Then we are left with what is next.

Let’s recount Dickens’s opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities which reveals that time is the only thing that moves on; the future is a mystery until fate reveals it. I wonder if this idea is the shackleless future that McLuhan was talking is about. Find prosperity in future by expecting the unexpected and getting on with what you feel is right.

We are living a history that thrives on extremes. Ironically the latest media concept – reality and lifestyle television – may create a community focused on ‘the we’ instead of ‘the me’. The endless stream of reality programs beamed into our lounge rooms is proof of people living and consuming at their best and worst. As the novelty of such programming wears thin, new tolerances and questions are raised, and shifts in thinking take form.

What is the point of treating young people like lab rats? Why do we tolerate and aspire to be like wealthy nymphomaniac airheads? How can we stop countless logging trucks thunder out of Tasmanian old growth forests? Which war on what? Maybe in time Ray Martin will retire, be made to catch a tram, a train or car pool to work, and fit a water tank on his house, too.

Maybe the future is something familiar yet very different. Maybe you are a designer who specialised in designing with paper, in a future where paper isn’t flushed but likened to gold. A future where the client becomes a designer and the designer becomes a new generation of client. The future could be a place where the environment matters, where communities care for each other more, give all they can afford and consume less.

Will advertising and design communication be the same thing in 10 years? A recent statistic in the Good Weekend quietly stated that 8.6 billon tonnes of direct mail fill Australian letterboxes each year and 61% of householders are angered from receiving this material. Is this a sign of change to come?

As a recent lecturer at Swinburne University, I am looking forward to the next generation of creative people making their way into our workforce. Communication students are mixing learning and intuition. They are willing to ask the challenging questions and generate thinking that is more that just making white rectangles pretty. I look forward to them challenging my work and stirring the pot.

The next decade promises to be an exciting time for creative thinkers, both familiar and totally unknown. The challenge of making our way of living sustainable, and sustainable quickly, will require a solution beyond the cause of buying and selling things. It will be another decade calling for more eclectic approaches, and the rewards will be there for those willing to take risks.

I invite you to participate in the wave of new processes as actively as you can. The next 10 years, like the last, promise to be productive, engaging and full of extremes beyond our wildest imaginations – as long as you stay true to being shackleless.

© 2005 Andrew Ashton, Studio Pip and Co.

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