DA Conversations Podcast with Kate Alexander, September 2016
Hello, and welcome to Design Assembly Conversations. An interview series with New Zealand graphic designers. Design Assembly seeks to hear the stories of New Zealand graphic designers, get to know who we are, and celebrate New Zealand graphic design.
Hi, I’m Louise, founder of Design Assembly. Today I’m speaking to Kate Alexander. Kate Alexander started, runs, and is the Creative Director of Places & Graces, an interior styling company. Kate started Graces & Places after 15 years as a graphic designer, running the brand strategy and design business, Studio Alexander – which she co-founded with her father, Grant Alexander. Kate has won many Best Awards, and is a fellow of the Designers Institute of New Zealand.
Welcome Kate, can you talk about your influences or mentors?
Well, it’s easy really, that question. I grew up with a father who was a graphic designer. So from my early memories, I can remember going to work with him on the weekends, photocopying our hands on the photocopier. He’d bring home pens for me to do projects where he needed a kid’s drawing. So I just sort of grew up in it really. I remember going to one of the very early photo shoots that he used to do, where Rachel Hunter was on her very first job. I can remember that, so it was in me. I never really questioned doing anything else. Well when I was a teenager, I remember I used to threaten to become an accountant when I really wanted to piss my parents off [laughter]. But seriously, I never really thought of doing anything else.
Did you find that you had natural ability that was nurtured by this environment? Or was it something that you still had to work at?
It was definitely something I still had to work at, yes. But it just came naturally, I didn’t necessarily always know I was going to be a graphic designer. In high school, I was really interested in fashion design, and I entered the smoke-free young designers award which I came first equal in for my zip tie that also doubled as a pencil case. That was in Christchurch. That was quite a laugh. So I wanted to be a fashion designer. Then I was keen on being an architect. I can remember one day going to an event with Dad and someone saying to me, “Just because your Dad runs Designworks, don’t think that means you’ll just get a job as a designer.” And I think that was quite formative for me because I thought I knew that I actually had to do it on my own. So I went off and got my degree and worked in other places, but I definitely had to work at it.
I didn’t get into Wellington design school which is where I wanted to go. I got into AUT. I guess it’s Massey University now. Wellington Polytech back in the day because that’s where dad had gone. And it was the best – supposedly – she said in inverted commas. But I only got into the foundand ation course which would’ve made it four and a half years away from home. And I thought, three years in Auckland. Yeah, so, that’s why I studied in Auckland.
And is there anyone else that you can think of that inspired you as a teenager and a design student?
Not necessarily before I went to design school. But once I was there, definitely my tutors probably replaced my Dad, so through high school and doing design as a subject, Dad was always the one I would go to, to ask, to be encouraged. And then once I got to university, it was definitely some stand-out tutors. One being Welby Ings. And then probably my influence in terms of style was Bauhaus because I loved typography. I was just a typography fiend. I wanted to design credits for film credits. That’s what I wanted to do.
And so when you left design school, by that stage Designworks had moved on. Did you work there? Or where else did you work?
No. When I left, luckily I scored my first job because of the Best awards. So, I entered my student piece in the Best Design Awards and won co-first place and Maxim Design were the brand guardians or whatever. AUT was one of their clients. They took the lady from AUT and when she saw that an AUT person had won the student design award, she jokingly said to Mary Davy in front of me said, “You need to hire this girl because she’s won this award.” Previous, at to that I was working for Curious Design where I was for six months. So I had six months as a glorified secretary in a design business and then straight into a proper design job.
And that was an active choice that you wanted to work in other studios before you worked with your Dad?
I never would’ve applied for a job at Designworks. No, I think that guy, that man what he said stuck with me, and Grant and I didn’t plan to work together. He came to his natural end. I’d had really good grounding at Maxim and it was literally sort of go overseas or stay behind in New Zealand and start a business with Dad. It was that sliding door moment. And I had just met a boy and I was keen to stay, so that was probably part of why I stayed and started Studio Alexander.
What was working at Maxim like?
Great. Good grounding, varied work. I learnt the best type– like, I learned a lot of typography stuff from Mary. She’s really good. In terms of process as well. Like, in terms of sketching ideas. And I also learned a lot from Eden Potter who was a tutor at AUT for a long time. She was awesome. She just treated me as my equal even though I was only just graduated. Chris Jones came through there. Jonathon Templeman came through there. There was quite a few designers who went on to do good stuff, who came through when we were there. I enjoyed it.
And so you talk about the sliding doors moment. So that obviously was a certain moment that you thought, “Okay, I’m going to do this. I’m going to start a business.” So do you want to talk a little bit about that moment?
It was fun. I was totally naive. I knew nothing about design business, but I knew that we would have fun together. With Dad and I, we started brainstorming. We we were going to call it Eat, Sleep, Walk, Talk Design or Brand Alexander. We had all sorts of names. We came up with a manifesto. I mean, one thing that Grant/Dad is really good at is nurturing young talent, and he really invested in me in teaching me both business and design practice.
And did you start out as a straight graphic designer within the company or were you straight into the kind of account management?
I sort of did both. Funnily enough, for the first six months I managed the MYOB accounts, it was my job to do the invoicing. But at the same time I was the designer, very much under the watchful eye of Dad, but then we grew pretty quickly. And when you say, “Was I natural at it?” I’m definitely more of an ideas, strategy, project manager designer than a craft designer. I don’t have the discipline, I don’t have the patience, I get bored too easily. So with the business growing I naturally found myself in a project management-strategy role and not in a craft role. We employed good designers to do that.
And did you undertake any kind of formal training on the business side?
I mean over the years I’d do things like, I don’t know, go to Better by Design or other conferences, it wasn’t semi-permanent in those days. What’s the Australian one, the Edgar one? But no, I learnt business stuff on the job. My dad is, Grant, is very much as interested in his business as he is in design. I just learnt on the job. I’d go to director’s meetings, and I learnt how to read a spread sheet, and I learnt how to write budgets, and I learnt to read MBR and be interested in what was happening, and just nurture that at the same time as nurturing design.
Did the graphic design industry live up to your expectations from experiencing it through your Dad’s eyes? Did you have kind of rose-tinted view of it?
I probably did, and for the first ten years absolutely it did. But then for me the change came when Better by Design came along and I think they actually, although they may have done some great things for helping manufacturing businesses became design led, I think they were part of the undoing of a really good, maybe not the undoing, just the change of the New Zealand graphic design industry. They were certainly not a positive effect on our business.
Was that in terms of how people got projects or networks?
The process became too complicated, basically. And it’s hard enough to persuade a board or chief executive to spend money on design, but then when you’ve also got another hoop to jump through, I know their role was that the Better by Design people were there to help them understand the value. But I think they actually almost got in the way in the end, and then it definitely very much started to feel like it was a political game and it was who you knew and there was just more networking. You realise that graphic design is a discipline. It’s one thing to be good at that, but if you are not a natural networker, communicator, business person, you need to go and work for someone who is.
Obviously talking about that was a quite a big change in the industry within those 15 years that you were designer and managing director at Studio Alexander. Were there any other kind of big changes that you saw around that time?
Yeah, the digital change. I was a lover of web from early on. Just personally liked it. And then also because my brother started Endemic World, the online design store in those days and now online print store – the online and offline print store – I was quite exposed to digital stuff, web stuff early on and just was naturally where I ended up. So that’s definitely been a change because I think what also came with that is advertising companies started to step more on design companies’ toes around brand work that I hadn’t seen before, and I think that was to do with the change, it all became about media and advertising and storytelling, rather than just about brand and core graphic work, and also the speed that things happened. So people didn’t necessarily need to spend a lot of time on design guidelines and craft, because it’s happening so quickly and you can’t dictate what it looks like online. So, it all became more about the advertising and the sell, so definitely that. That was a big change.
And people even talk about potentially not having an interface and having a bot. And what do you think that means for the future of graphic design?
Good design, no matter what discipline you’re in, comes down to how good your relationship with your client. A bot is not going to be able to design something that’s going to be long lasting. Maybe the tools that were used to turn those ideas into something physical might get faster and be done by less trained people. But you’re always going to need a good communicator and problem solver at the beginning.
So, in these 15 years, you won many Best Awards, you became a DINZ fellow, and then you obviously had kind of a moment, or series of moments, where you realised you were going to step away from a career as a graphic designer and running a successful studio. So what was this moment for you?
Yeah, it wasn’t one moment. It was definitely over a period of time. So Studio Alexander was cranking along after 15 years. I was managing director temporarily while my father went off – he had a heart op – and so I basically ran it without Grant being around, and I enjoyed it. And so when he came back, I carried on as managing director and we were growing the business. At the same time, however, I was having my children, and I had two kids, and I found what I call the brain switch or the whatever that had to go on between dropping the kids off at school and having a conversation with the mums about my kids to going to present to a corporate team about an annual report, that I personally couldn’t make that brain switch as quickly as was required. And I just didn’t have the brain capacity to be doing the business research that was required to be in that, because my role was very much around business and selling, and getting projects off the ground. And so the type of clients we had, which were quite corporate clients, I found that brain switch just too hard, basically [laughter]. And so I had no idea what I was going to do next. I just thought I’m either all in or I’m all out. I’m like that with anything I do, and so I said to Dad/Grant, I’m all out and was about to take a year off really.
That takes real guts, though, to realise that you were going to stop something that you’ve committed to training in and establishing a career. So I imagine it must’ve been quite a nerve racking time.
It was. I think, looking back, I’d probably actually reached burn out. I think my body actually just said, “Look, sorry. I’m not going to give you anymore energy for this year. You’re done.” I have a very, very, very, supportive, amazing partner so that was definitely part of it. He was in year two of a digital app, a mobile app business start-up that he was running. And so I’d been the bread winner while he was doing that and I said, “Look, sorry, but you’re going to have to go back and find full-time work because I’m quitting my job,” which in hindsight has worked out really well for him. So you just have to take a leap of faith basically, and if your body’s telling you you’ve got to stop, you just stop and figure it out.
So you had a year off or not even a year off until you found the next thing?
I had a couple of months off. It was sort of January, February, and I painted the fence. Got RSI [chuckles] and then I just stepped back a bit to– one thing that happened in the last– how many years? Maybe the last four or five years and Studio Alexander was Endemic World, my brother’s business. And while I was off on my first maternity leave, I worked with him. Not at Studio Alexander, but just with Endemic World, and I saw how fast paced start-up businesses have to work and I had an insight into online businesses, and I kept that connection with Endemic because I really enjoyed the work and I enjoyed working with my brother.
Just before I left Studio Alexander, Endemic World did what we call a pivot where it went from an online design store to an online art print store. And so we had a launch and it was my job to run the launch. It was an event and we set-up in this big dungeon basement space. We created little rooms of styled rooms with a lounge and a kitchen. And I think that, unbeknownst to me, that was kind of my taste of doing design, but not in a graphic computer sense. It was interior design. It was event styling. It was styling. I didn’t even know what styling was. I didn’t even know they existed.
So fastforward. Taken a couple of months off. Backtrack, sorry. There was one other project that also had an influence I think on where I ended up. And that was that the last brand project I did with Studio Alexander which was taking a real estate agent from working for Premium to her own business. So she owned Penny Milne, she owned Premium Herne Bay, and she wanted to go out on her own. And so we created a brand for her. She became Milne and Co, and part of doing that I had to delve into the industry of real estate. And it was a really quick project, hard and fast, I learned a lot really quickly. So I left Studio Alexander having just done a real estate brand project and this event styling. I think they were probably just processing in my brain. And then lo and behold the people in the front house, because we lived down a right of way, I saw a car parked in there with home staging and I thought, “Oh the neighbours are selling their house.” I don’t even know that I knew what home staging was. I wrote myself a business card, and put a note, and put it under her door, and said, “If you need someone to stage your house let me know, I live in the house behind.” And she gave me the job [chuckles]. So I had four days basically to clean, tidy, go and buy a whole lot of furniture because it was an empty house, and stage her house. Loved it, had the time of my life and went, “Oh, yeah, this could be all right,” and so I just fell into it. Totally unplanned.
And what is it about it that you love? Is it that you’re hands on creating?
Yeah. I think that it’s short deadlines, every project is different, it’s solving problems without budget, home staging is what I’m talking about here. Home staging is about going into a space and making it look the best it possibly can with no budget to knock out walls, or paint anything. No budget to go and buy the perfect furniture. You have to work with what you’ve got in stock and work with what’s already there, and work with the client. So it’s a whole lot of things in the mix. I just think I love the challenge, the problem solving. Because being a designer is about solving problems, and that’s what I like.
So the skills of graphic design then obviously transferring to this interior design discipline. So do you think that graphic design is a good solid grounding that can go across multiple careers?
I definitely think it is because graphic design is about solving a problem, communicating with people. Then when you get into the actual disciplines of the physical work, it’s about use of colour, grid, layout, pace, storytelling and it’s always got some kind of parameter around it. So there’s definitely those disciplines, definitely around colour – colour is one – I love colour. And colour is definitely something I bring into a lot of the work that I do. Then the other that is that you do actually have to be good at managing projects generally. Most graphic designers, if you rise through the ranks or run your own business, you’re pretty good at managing projects, and so that discipline’s definitely come across for me.
Do you think you’d ever go back to graphic design or– you know, you talked about that you love the big idea and the strategy, and that’s your strength, and potentially it’s not getting down to the detail in the craft. So, therefore, is that where it wouldn’t marry up for you again in the future?
I still dabble in it [chuckles]. Usually, one thing that I always, how do I say this? The thing that became important for me when I made my change, was working with people that I get on with and I enjoy and I like. So regardless of budget, I wanted to just be able to work with people that I enjoy. So what I can do now is if someone comes to me and they’ve got a business problem, I’m like, “Yeah, I can help you.” And as long as I can get good value for my time, then I’ll go and help them.
So, for example, I’m working with an old family friend at the moment. She’s in her 60s and she’s run a shop for a long time, and she wants to take that shop online so that she doesn’t have to have premises and staff, and she’s making a life change. And her daughter is a digital strategist so she could go to her to get her to build a website, but for me it’s about more than that. I’ve been able to write her a business strategy for how to actually take her business from having a bricks and mortar store to having a physical store. So there’s the technical side of that – platforms used and stuff – but then it’s also about how does she photograph her content, how does she style it? Because it’s a lifestyle product. You know, she wants to look like Father Rabbit, but there’s only one of her and she hasn’t done it before. Where am I going with that? Probably just that it’s not– there’s a tiny bit of graphic design at the end where I’m going to redraw her logo and set her up with a square space and choose some color pallets and typefaces for her, but that’s such a small part of the actual overall change. And so I still do graphic design, but usually when it fits into a bigger scheme of something.
And do you keep– like, do you read blogs and keep up with what’s happening in graphic design?
No. I probably haven’t tried for a while. I should actually just probably pick up a pure visually enjoyable, I would naturally always go to Idealog or something and I’d read the business the side of design. I haven’t tried picking up just a pure, graphic design for a long time. I still do see it on Pinterest, I guess. I still appreciate it.
So you’re working in interior design now and obviously you haven’t had any formal training in that, so how have you navigated that and have you come up against some backlash from established interior designers?
No. To be honest, most of the difficulty of starting in a career where you’re not formally trained, is yourself. So the biggest challenge has been me not thinking that I can charge a decent amount of money because I’m not trained. And I finally got that – it’s only taken five years [chuckles]. That I have skills, naturally I can do it. And to be honest, at my age, with the amount of theory background I’ve got it doesn’t matter whether I’ve got an interior design degree or not. So having said that, you have to be able to have the confidence to fulfill that, and you’ve got to get to that in your own way. So there’s two ways I’ve done that. One is by doing home staging leading into interior design. I’ve had to go hard and fast leading into a lot of different environments, and I’ve learned very quickly what different spaces are like. So bungalows and villas and mid-century, so I’ve done that very quickly. So I’ve got a background of knowledge, I guess, that’s been built up quite fast. And then the other thing is I have seeked out training with people who I admire, and one of those is Megan Morton at The School, and I’ve been to two of her courses and invested a fair amount in that going there. And that, funnily enough, the second one I did which was really recently, and it was investment time and money. What it did was when I came away from that I went, “I already know it.” But it was validation, and that validation is really important. So the validation then gave me the confidence to go, right, I know what I’m doing, I know as much as other people, I can charge XY and not have to feel like they’re going to find out that I’m not really an interior designer.
I always say to people that I’m an interior stylist rather than an interior designer, because I think one big difference between graphic and interior that I have found, is that in interior design you have to know the paint colours, the surfaces, the wood, the carpet, the flooring. There’s just so much more product knowledge you have to have, whereas in graphic design it’s basically colour, paper, type fonts, and maybe a few– you’ve got to know your programs, but there’s not as many tools that change. There’s not as many options. I mean, in interior design it’s just like, “Fuck, man.” Even choosing fabric, you just go into three different fabric stores and have a complete meltdown because you’re like, “How am I going to choose which velvet? There’s just too many options.
And do you want to tell us about what you’re working on now and what you’re excited about?
Yeah, okay. Well, I’ve always wanted to publish a book. I never really knew what the book was going to be about until sitting Boxing Day this year just gone I thought, you know what? I’ve got enough stuff that I’ve learned and seen in my five years that I’ve been doing interior styling. How about I see if I’ve got enough for a book? Turned out I did, and that comes out in – I don’t know when this is being published – so around about the time that you’re listening to this, there’s a book out called Finishing Touches, and it’s about how to find grace in your place. I’ve got a firm belief that everyone deserves to have some of their dream home in the reality, and not to always be waiting for that perfect opportunity or that perfect house, and go, “Well, I’ll just live in chaos for now because, you know, it’s not the dream home.” So that’s one thing I’m working on.
Also got recently an opportunity to go on TV with Peter Wolfkamp from The Block. Luckily enough I already knew him, so it was quite cool. It didn’t feel too scary. And turns out I loved being on camera. It was fun, so I’m hoping that’ll turn into another opportunity. And I’m getting more and more people asking for me to come in and help them revive a space. It might be– for example, I’ve got clients at the moment who have a downstairs space that they’re going to put on Airbnb. And it’s always just sort of been the dump, junk room for all their old furniture, and they want to turn that space into something really special. So I go in there and I can help them do that without– I think the other thing with not being trained in interior design is I don’t have a thing where I have to do it in a certain way. I probably am a bit more pragmatic about it. I say, “Look, you could– you two could paint the whole room and you could take that door out at that end, or we could just change the bed linen and cushions and that will make a difference.” So I work on a wide scope and I think that’s why people are picking up on that. I just want to do more, and more, and more of that and styling. I just want to style shoots. I just want to basically go out for the day and find all sorts of interesting things and put them together and make beauty, which is where Megan Morton comes in.
And do you have things that you do to relax and disconnect from your work and family and reconnect to yourself to energise your work?
I’m not very good at that. Never have been, but defiantly better than I used to be. It’s little things like, for example, I’ll be sitting at my cafe well, every day pretty much I go to my cafe and have a coffee. I see people, you have random conversations, you never know who you’re going to bump into, yet at the same time there’s some of the same people. So that’s my regular ritual because I work by myself. And some days I’ll be like, “You know what? I haven’t actually just sat at the beach for a while”, so I go and sit down at the beach and turn my phone off and watch the dog. And I also have to say at least one day a month I’d spend the whole day in bed – not on a weekend – not doing anything. I literally just sleep, read my magazines, listen to the radio. So, yeah.
You know, it sounds like you are good at that self-care in terms of working and having children.
Yep. I listen to my body a lot more than I used to, yep. So you never know when you’re going to have to do it, but when you wake up one morning and you go, “You know what? I’ve just got to take today off.” Then, unless I have to do something, I will take that day off. I’m lucky that I do have a part-time assistant, so usually I can ask her to do something if I have to and I have to take the day off.
So do you think you’ll be running Places & Graces in 15 years time, or is the challenge of the new and the unknown that excites you?
Yes, I will be. I do like the fact that it changes. Probably one of my biggest challenges is I’ve got so many ideas, it’s doing one idea really well. But I’ve definitely got a long-term vision, I guess, for what I want it to be. I want Places & Graces to be a sustainable business that enables me to do the things that I really enjoy doing, and then also bring joy to other people’s lives through what I do. So whatever that may look like or turn into, I don’t know.
And do you have any words of advice for people, designers that are considering making a change like you did?
I think just generally being creative can be mentally challenging, and I think finding a way to work that fits in with the other parts of your life. Because I’ve spoken to other creatives, and I think it’s probably a common thing where when we’re in a project, we’re in a project. And we’d be happy if we didn’t even have to go to the toilet, let alone sleep, and talk to other people, and cook dinner, and look after kids. You’re just like, “Will all of that just go away, please? Because I just want to do this creative thing that’s giving me such a buzz.” It gives you adrenaline. It’s probably like sports people. So it’s finding your thing, everyone’s lives are different. My kids come and go to their dad’s house, so for me, my job has to fit in with that change of flow. Other people, there might be something else. So finding a way for your job to fit within however your life works. I’m sure I had another piece of advice, but that’s probably the main one.
Thanks very much, Kate.