DA Conversations Podcast with Annie Dow, October 2016
Welcome to Design Assembly Conversations. In this series we talk to New Zealand graphic designers, hear their stories, and celebrate their work.
I’m Louise, and today I’m talking to Annie Dow. Annie started and runs Dow Design, which has for over 21 years been a leading New Zealand design studio.
Annie, can you start by telling us where you’ve come from?
Well, actually, I’m a pommie, to be honest. I’m UK-born, but I would never really call myself that, because I’ve been here since the age of four. So my family immigrated way back in the early ’60s. Sadly, my father missed out on the $10 boat trip and he had to pay full fare, but he was still committed to coming down to New Zealand. So, yeah, that’s where my roots are, but I do call myself Kiwi, because I’ve been here forever.
And how did you get into graphic design?
Well, that’s kind of interesting, because I think I’ve always had an art influence in my life. My father was a creative person in many levels. So he was an engineer by trade, but he had a passion for neon sign design, which he picked up in the UK. And he also liked to do things in 3D, so he was a display designer as well. So he’s one of the early New Zealand display design companies. So I guess he was a big influence on me and all, because I used to go and work with him from the age of 11, and for 50 cents an hour I’d do the strip heating and bend the plastic so that it could be folded up into the Polaroid sunglass stands. Any of you that are as old as me will remember the Polaroid sunglass stands in all of your local pharmacies. So he was a big influence on me, too. And then I sort of always had a passion for photography and very much liked black and white photography. And so that was also sort of in tandem with my experiences and learnings from Dad. And then I kind of felt that I wanted to either be a photographic teacher or an art teacher. Sadly, when I applied for teachers’ training college, I didn’t get accepted, which I was mortified by. And so I then applied for ATI. And I got accepted there. Back in those days, you probably had 20 students, maybe 25, and it was ATI, the Auckland Technological Institute. So it really wasn’t much to do with design, or design as we know it in today’s society. And so that’s where I sort of began my, I guess, training – if you could say that was training, because I think really, from memory, we were just all floating around, doing design and art pieces that probably were way different to what you’d do now. So I wasn’t always wanting to be a graphic designer. I kind of just fell into it. So after ATI, I then went out and got a furnished art job. So back in those days, you would do furnished art, with paystub, in the old typography days, typesetting days. So I sort of started there really, and then always having the influence of my father around me, grew from that, I guess. And worked with him for a little while too, for about three years, at some point in my life, too. Learned a lot from him.
And you traveled to Sydney and London quite early on.
Now, that was interesting. I guess that’s because being UK-born, and UK always being so design-influenced. And of course, the center of – in Europe – profession and style. I was always inspired to kind of go back overseas. I could see the family. I had a lot of family there, as well, cousins, et cetera. And I went to Sydney first, because it was sort of a hop, skip, and a jump, of course. But, I got accepted into the Billy Blue group, who I think are still around, although I believe they might have sold a couple of times. I knew someone who knew someone, and the doors opened there. And so I worked there as sort of on a freelance basis for six months, and that’s when I sort of got really interested into designed the commercial aspect of design. So, I guess, for me, I would never have seen myself as a fantastic designer, but I was very practical. And so I probably wouldn’t be ever given the creme de la creme jobs, but I could do things with agility and would always bring a sort of little commercial twist. So that led me then onto the UK, and I was just inspired by being in the UK, being in London. I freelanced for a little while. I worked with one particular company that was very, very immersed in book cover design, and I found that really fascinating because that’s quite a different thing. That’s quite 3D. It’s a little bit more illustrative and inspirational, because you’re selling a book. So that was very interesting. And then I moved into Pentagram, and that’s when I really got the sense that I quite liked things 3D. I’ve been doing that with my father, with display, because he owned the display group, which is still around today. And so I kind of had that sense of what 3D means. And Pentagram back in those days was probably one of the early true packaging design companies that was starting to get known for that. And so working there is when I really went, “Wow, there’s something about this I really like.” And so I stayed with them for quite a while. And then on my return to New Zealand, that’s actually when I met my husband, and he was already sort of an account director in advertising and design. So with the skills I had and the skills he had, that’s how things connected back here.
So working at Pentagram, which is still a leading graph design company worldwide, and can you remember any of the designers that stood out to you?
I can’t remember their names, really. It’s huge, and it was huge back then. So I can’t really remember any names, per se. And I’m going to be telling my age here, Louise, if I tell you how long ago that was, because it was a long, long time ago. But it was always just a really powerful place to work, and it was very commercial. So it was probably the first time that I had – apart from perhaps working with my father – it was the first time that I’d experienced working in a design business, per se, be it any type of visual comms. Because I worked a little ad agency back here in the early days too, before I left to the UK, where I really got that sense of, these guys mean design to mean business. And that’s when I learned something about myself, that I had an innate sense of intuition with design, and what that could mean. When I met Greg, I think that’s how we naturally bifolded into working together. And that’s when we started our own business because I was the one that sort of saw the get-back here. I think back in those days, Dashwood Design was probably the first truly sort of immersed in FMCG design company. Did Greg and I truly want to target FMCG? I think in the early days, we didn’t. So that was 1993. But we naturally sort of fell into that, and I think the thing with him and I was we were both high achievers. So we sort of pushed each other. And so what happened was I started – I was the designer, but I soon realized that I’m a crap designer, really, to be honest. I don’t have the design skills that my team have today or any of my team have ever had in the 23 years of Dow Design. But that’s when I realized that the skills I have is leadership, commercial reality, but that intuition on what great design is. So that’s when we decided, let’s get a designer, let’s step away, because I was clearly better at the relationship with the client, and the sales, and the conversation around what design can bring and the power of it, I guess.
So did you learn these business skills on the job or did you do some training?
No training, on the job. Since then, I’ve had many different courses. I’ve been to the Darden executive course, which is run by the University of Virginia. I went on the Better By Design CEO study tour. I’ve done some leadership courses with the RMA. But back in those days, it was a very, very different market, and we were just– you were just in it on the job, and I guess you’d learn by your mistakes. It’s a great way to learn. You learn when you’ve overstepped the mark in a business meeting or you haven’t heard your client. You’ve been pushing your views too much, or you’re not this collaborative as you could have been. So yeah, very much on the job, and I guess there’s something about that on-the-job training. It’s invaluable. I think it’s that you can’t teach that.
So today within the business of Dow Design, what is your role? Do you look over the creative and the design work?
Yeah. Well, we’ve got Donna on the court, who’s my right-hand creative director, who’s been with me for 19 of those 23 years, so we’re pretty much a strong duo. And so she obviously oversees it to a point when they feel comfortable to show me, and then that’s when I see it. So we either have a portal where we put it up on our internal system where I review it, or we’ll have a meeting where they’ll bring the work in to me. And, more often than not, there is a situation where I’ll go, “Mmm. It’s missing this, or I think you need to bring up that.” Or something around what the brand is standing for that I think they haven’t quite got right. It’ll only be a little nuance, but it just– and they go, “God, we didn’t see that.” So I’m sort of the last pair of eyes to review it, so I do play very much a leadership role over the three functions of the business. Well, actually there’s four functions. So I believe a successful design company has to have these four functions. So you’ve got your sort of key account service sales, business development, strategic thinking arm. You’ve got your production delivery implementation arm, which is really important. Your design and creativity arm, of course, which is critical. And your financial arm. And I think the financial arm is the arm that most design companies miss out on. So I am a leader across all those functions, and I have people in all those roles underneath me running those.
And do you spend a lot of your time, or some of your time, keeping up to date with trends and designs role in society?
I try to. I try to have my own downtime where I’m connected with magazines that I’ll get, or other people. I am a very commercially-minded woman, so I’m probably less of the artiste in the business, but I do have and love things that are important to me. So someone like Annie Leibovitz is someone who’s a true mentor to me, or someone who I just completely look up to, so I’ll follow her work. And that’s probably because I love photography, and I love taking people, and I love that whole idea of capturing people off-guard. It’s not sort of posed, even though, I suppose, most of Annie Leibovitz is definitely posed and styled. And then just doing any other things around– art-centric things that I’ll probably do outside of the team, with other people that I can eat with. I can eat with a lot of other businesswomen in other industries because you learn a lot from them, too.
And we’re very much involved with Q Theatre. Q Theatre has been our sort of give-back to the arts community, or the theatrical community, or whatever. Drama community, whatever, performing arts, whatever you’d like to call it. We created that brand name. We’ve created the brand look, and so we are kind of their design and arts sponsors. So I’ll take the team to events that are there. And that’s quite exciting because the events that they have at Q, anything from plays, to musics, to dance, to drama. So that’s quite broad. And I guess if I’m not doing creative – because I knit [chuckles], that’s another thing I like to do. But I only like to knit in the winter, because it’s just not good to knit in summer. And I love to knit for children because I love the joy that you can bring the child and the parents. But I know that you can only knit up to about the age of nine because kids hate woolen items after that. And so that’s another bit of a destressing downtime thing for me.
The gym, of course, is another sort of external outlet where I – I think the gym is really huge for me, and it’s probably more for mental stability, because I find, particularly now that I’m on my own – because, of course, sadly I lost my husband 10 years ago. I can’t believe it’s a decade. But I find that the gym just helps me to stop my head from running around. So when you sort of are a leader, you are continually thinking – well, I tend to be continually thinking about ways that I can improve things. How can we do something better for a client, how can we collaborate more internally with each other? Because I think what happens is it’s communication, verbal communication, that’s really important as well in design. It’s the right arm talking to the left arm, and that can often slip away. You’ve got to be really collaborative with your clients. So I’m continually trying to either read some top-line leadership books or interesting stuff that you might follow. Even Sega Master. Just things you tap into where you– it just helps you to go, “Oh, okay, yep I remember that,” or “God, I’d forgotten that,” or “I need to do that.” So yeah, I try and be as influenced as I can without – if I’m really honest – without work consuming me. Because it has kind of become my glue, which isn’t a bad thing because I love it, but I do have to be careful that I need to have some downtime and walk away from it too, because I can live and breathe it.
And how have you seen the industry in New Zealand change over the last 21 years?
Fundamentally, I think it has changed dramatically. Anyone now can buy a Mac and set themselves up, so my brutal opinion is that we are commoditising design, devaluing it and doing average work. Now, I know that doesn’t just come down to the design community, because it is all about the client relationship, what the client wants as well. But I have seen so many entrants into design now, so many breakaways from advertising. Because I think you could say that the advertising world has fundamentally affected design as well, because they’re setting up their own design in-house studios. You’ve got an absolute emergence of in-house studios and businesses now, so they pull in their own designers. And are those designers – and I’m not meaning to be a design snob, because I’m definitely not, because I’m probably one of the most commercial design companies in New Zealand, maybe apart from Designworks and DNA and a few others, I’m not sure. There’s so many of us now. But I do feel that we are possibly not delivering the design level that we should.
But I also feel there’s a responsibility back to the marketing world as well, because I do think the marketing world has changed as well, which is affecting us too, so we seem to have a lot of people, and maybe less skills. Or less of the great skills that can design something beautiful, because I still believe that you can be commercial, but you still got to be beautiful, and you still got to be distinct. So I’ve seen it change dramatically. Is it going to be cyclic? I’m not sure. I think something about that GFC has reset the world, not just in design, but in any industry. But what I find fascinating, and I’ve often said to Donna, is the world talks about design across everything now, whether it’s strategic design, brand design, fashion design, whatever design, graphic design, architecture, interiors. There is so much around design that’s become more prevalent, yet we have commoditized it. We are dumbing it down. Is that a right or wrong thing? I don’t know. Back in the days when we were probably in our heyday, we had marketers that absolutely listened to what we had to say. There was a lot more collaboration. We talk about it being a really collaborative world. We have more collaboration with our ad agencies or whoever, PR companies, or whoever our clients are pulling together, design companies, whatever. There was a lot more round-the-table brainstorming and workshopping than there is today, and I think that’s probably because there just isn’t the money around. So everyone’s doing everything on a shoestring. Everyone’s doing lots of things. So they’re doing lots of little things, but are they doing great things?
And what do you think we can do as an industry?
I don’t know. It’s one thing I battle with every day, and I kind of think, how do we get together, so Dow Design is going on a bit of a PR spin again, and I haven’t done any PR for a long time, and so, part of the PR is this. Part of the PR is to try and lift the value of design in New Zealand again. I think we’ve got some incredibly creative people with some incredible talent coming out, and there’s some incredible, exciting new things, because there are new models, and I think– I love seeing the new models and the new ways of working, too, but I think there’s a lot to be learned from sort of 101 brand marketing as well. I think, unless you– in my mind, because I come from that visual communication scene, so it is what you see. If things aren’t integrated all the way through, and have a consistent voice, then I just think they do break down. So I have seen clients waste so much money on maybe an app that hasn’t worked. 200 people have downloaded it, they might have paid $150 grand for it. So I kind of get a little bit frustrated with how perhaps we’re not coming together like we used to, to really understand what a brand stood for, and then all of us would kind of collaborate to make sure that whatever campaign or – because it is a very digital world now – so even if it’s online, it’s all aligned. There’s nothing that I like more than seeing something we’ve worked on then go out to be completed by someone else that’s bringing their skill set to it, to be integrated all the way through. And then the customer completely understands, or the consumer or the client, at the end of the day. Or the B2B service, whoever it is, they just get that like that. They get the sense of it straightaway and it doesn’t have to be explained. I suppose Apple is one of the big case studies in the world for that, isn’t it.
So do you talk to other studios or business owners about this?
I would like to. I talk a little bit to others, at least lately, to be honest – I am in touch with two or three of them that I communicate with, and maybe there’s something we should be a bit more responsible about. Maybe there’s something I could do, being more of a– one of the older leaders in the design industry. Perhaps there’s something in that where we could get together and find out ways of how we could make a change or a ground swell. I do communicate, because we have come from a such an FMCG background and we are definitely moving out to other categories, but I do have a lot to do with the FGC, which is the Food and Grocery Council. So I’ve been talking to them about an initiative about trying to get marketers back into that category. Because food and beverage is a really, really important part of our export drive in New Zealand, and we are losing marketing skills in that area. So what kind of happened with the GFC is, those businesses felt the ricochet effect and started to lose momentum and the retailers gained momentum, and so the power shifted. And I guess marketing in those categories became less sexy and digital became the new sexy. So all the marketers were going into Vodafone in New Zealand, Google, you name it. And so that kind of B2B service, online, digital platform has become a little bit sexier. So a lot of the skill set’s gone out on true traditional – pets, food, and beverage consumer marketing.
So I am talking to them, I said, “Can we do some kind of trade show at the university, where little food companies can have stands or something and students can come in and learn about what marketing means in that kind of world?” Or I don’t know. There’s a few ideas we have, so I do definitely try and connect with other leaders and talk about ways we can, I guess, help each other. Because everyone’s feeling it. I think it’s just– I hear it from everyone, and actually, not just in our own industry. Because I’m networked. I’ve got huge networks. Even in service industries like lawyers, accountants, the same thing is happening where they feel expertise and skills of a certain value are being commoditized, because a one-man-band lawyer can start up and do his own thing. And look, there’s nothing wrong with that, and that model has been around a lifetime. That’s how businesses grow. You grow with an idea. You can’t change that. But I do feel that we need to have a stronger voice, and some of our service areas where you do have certain companies that have a higher skill level. I have skilled people in here on high wages. They are senior designers and senior people, so that is my model. Of course, I’ve got to feed that, but I also like to deliver enormous value back to the clients, and so that means you want to have the skilled people that are really delivering the right result. So yeah, it is. It’s a changing, changing community. Where it’s leading, God, I’m not sure, because I think this next young generation, they just think quite differently to us. So maybe they’ll bring in completely new models. Who knows. It’s unknown, isn’t it.
And what are you working on now in the studio?
Well, I can’t really tell you. There are some exciting things that we’ve definitely been working on, so there are some exciting launches. We’re working on more provincial businesses – because I can’t tell you brands and names, because they haven’t quite launched. And of course, in a lot of the categories I work in, the launches take quite a while. There’s a lot of work involved, so it might take at least 6 to 8 months to 9 months to 12 to 18 to launch something. But the provincial companies, what I’m really, really liking is that, once there was a lot of talk about brand and design, and there’s a lot of people doing it. Also, for a company like ours, that can bring benefits, because there are a lot of provincial companies that really know they have to invest in brand, so they’re looking to invest with skilled people, skilled practitioners that can really bring great value. Who’s been around a long time? What have they done? Who knows their stuff? Who can I trust? This is new for us. And they’re starting to invest quite good money. So that is really exciting for me, because most of our work over the years has come from Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch. It’s now the Palmerston Norths, New Plymouths, Taurangas. It’s exciting. Whangarei. There are businesses going, “We need to invest in brand. We don’t know about it, we want it done well.” So that’s some of the new ground swell that’s happening for us.
That sounds exciting. And perhaps it reflects a little of the population shifting from Auckland and Christchurch and into the regions, which I think is going to be a benefit to the regions and New Zealand as a whole, that professionals, more skilled people will be living outside of Auckland.
Oh, look, I think you’re absolutely right, because let’s face it, it’s tough in Auckland, isn’t it. Gosh, all the conversations we’re having at the moment about housing crisises and everything. It’s really, really hard. Hamilton is another sort of burgeoning little area. There is a benefit back to those little provinces where you have got some new design companies starting there as well, which is great. But it is nice for us to be recognized as well, and for those businesses or manufacturers in many different categories coming to us, because they feel like they need their sort of hiring skills. It’s quite diverse now. And interestingly, my business was founded on the corporates. So what’s happened with the corporate world is, the corporate world is the least privately owned and owned by internationals. So all out big beer companies, our big biscuit companies – apart from our dairy company – our bigger companies have been bought out by big international companies. So they are more and more answerable to what they have to deliver to the corporate books. So the spin has shrunken, probably, for them as they place more emphasis or focus on larger growth markets like Asia. But then again, what we’re also seeing is a lot of the clients that are coming to us are definitely launching in America and East Asia. Those are two emerging markets for New Zealand exporters. So we are seeing some interesting export clients come to us, and a lot of new start-ups that are coming with new products that they’re developing for a certain market. Lots of change.
And finally, what is your advice to designers and creatives working out there?
Don’t undervalue design. That’s what I think. Oh, let me think about that. Be passionate. Really love that. It’s not easy. This has become a tough market, and it is about business. Design means business. But I also think that beautiful things sell. So be very conscious to not plagiarize or– nothing’s new. We all kind of reinvent ourselves, and new trends come back in a new ways from old historic learnings or whatever. But I think you have to be true to yourself, try not to undervalue what you do, believe in yourself. Believe in your worth. Be passionate about it, be committed because it isn’t easy. And yeah, try and help all of us to grow a design committee in New Zealand that’s really globally respected. I think that’s quite important. I think we do have a very good name in certain categories. Film, we’ve been put on the map with film. We’ve been put on the map in Silicon Valley with a lot of our products that we’ve created there and online products. But how well are we really doing with going, “Wow, that’s a fantastic New Zeland brand.” Because that’s where I think we’re really not building our nation to a great strength. Because it’s always talked about Fonterra, but Fonterra and the Obelix – we’re a lot more than that. So I think in these categories that we work in, I’d love to see us really get some strong gains where businesses are growing, and become brands that have got some kind of inherent beauty that may be– is all about New Zealand or something. Or it’s done in such a way that it’s– it becomes like an inpour to New Zealand. I’d love to see that, because I do think even Fonterra – and I love them, they’re my client – but they are putting a corporate spin on everything they do. They’re not doing anything wildly distinct, so that’s what I like to see. I like to see new things.
Well, thanks for your time today, Annie.
Thank you very much. And I love what you do, Louise, so keep up the good work.