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.