Written by Lana Lopesi
How are you approaching branding in the digital age? More clients are reorganising themselves to be more like agencies, where is our role and value now? Achieving the holy grail of work/life balance! How to do this in a deadline driven business? What works?! How do we talk and present ourselves as a unified industry to a bigger audience than ourselves (that avoids trolling and throw-away-criticism)? Is culture important to graphic design?
These were the questions Grant Alexander with design professionals Tana Mitchell and Emma Kaniuk from Akin, Jef Wong and Noel Blackwell from Designworks and Johnson Witehira from AUT University tackled at Design Assembly’s recent DA Conversations in Auckland. In just under 2 hours of informed and critical conversation on such a wide array of topics relating to graphic design today, we learned a few things we thought were worth sharing.
1. Nothing has really changed.
Digital as a medium provides design with a bigger, more powerful, more uncontrollable stage and the internet is something that designers — and all of us for that matter — are forced to consider more and more. This was at the centre of the evening’s first question posed to the both the panel and audience. Tana and Emma from Akin asked, “How are you approaching branding in the digital age?” and how are designers thinking about “creating intangible worlds” or “intangible branding”. The underlying answer was that, while there are new exciting tools to show design work, nothing has really changed in approaches to branding, the importance has been and will always be having great ideas and a great story.
But is the digital age creating a “mediocrity of design”? Meaning that with the accessibility of the internet mediocre design has become increasingly available to consumers, watering down good design. Again, the panel decided that this wasn’t new either and that there has always been the “$10 logo option”. We were reminded that design has always been about leading the way and while there will always be those that follow, the challenge to the industry is to keep pioneering and uphold the standards.
A side point which is worth mentioning is how the internet used — not on its own, but within a culture of collaboration and conversation — can be a new point of research for the community.
2. There is value in distance.
With many corporate organisations and clients taking their design thinking in-house, the next question came from Jef and Noel of Designworks which asked, “More clients are reorganising themselves to be more like agencies, where is our role and value now?” and how do we add value to ourselves as this trend grows? As well as the currency of our ideas and our creativity, the idea of distance came up as being one of the key sales points for studios, as it provides the ability to see things differently being outside of the corporation. What that really comes down to is working collaboratively with in-house designers who on the flip side have the opposite set of skills, which is the advantage of understanding the brand from an internal perspective. Because of this varied skill set we all need to lose the ego and work together toward the best product for the client, harvesting environments of mutual respect.
Ultimately, you are never going to be replaced, they set up in-house studios because they can’t afford you and need to set up a new economy, but your level of consultancy and experience will never be replaced. So, to reiterate what was said above, the challenge to the industry is to keep being a leading force so that your creativity can’t be manufactured.
3. Value yourself as a professional.
The age-old question of how to create work/life balance was met with one underlying answer, to value what you do and the services you provide. The term workaholic is a derogatory term for liking your work, so maybe we should look toward new terms to describe the work/life relationship, rather than re-hashing this tired phrase from the 70s. The design industry is pretty great and we are all pretty fortunate to be working in it, but again to reiterate the above, design is about leading the way and providing the best product and often that means working hard. What we must remember is that the product we are providing is our creativity and ideas and so to provide the best product we need to be looking after it which means looking after ourselves. Our clients are buying creativity and so you have to look out for yourself because you are the creativity. Therefore, the challenge to the industry is to be confident and professional enough to stand up for ourselves in order to represent quality.
With all that said, the best way to do that comes down to the individual. A few suggestions of these “circuit breakers” or little reality checks to break the circuits of non-stop working included spending time with your families, fitness, reading, or even changing the way you work which could mean working for six months of work followed by three months off or three years of work followed by one year off. Find out what works for you and do that.
Recent Mediaworks rebranding of the television channel three and the subsequent bashing in the media is one example of the public criticism for high profile rebranding.
4. We need more critical conversations, but the right ones.
There’s always a divide when talking about criticism and design is no different. While the panel agreed that we need critical conversations about design, it was apparent that we all have very different ideas of the role criticism should have, what it should look like and where it should live. The question asked by Tana was, “How do we talk and present ourselves as a unified industry to a bigger audience than ourselves (that avoids trolling and throw-away-criticism)?” The conversation went on to include the importance of proposing design as a unified industry in the media, as the public undermining of each other’s work makes everyone look stupid, forcing the industry to lose credibility as a whole. That partly boils down to knowing the difference between taste making or just simply liking work and knowing whether it is right for the client or not.
Johnson had a counter thought to that which was that we don’t have enough criticism at all, exclaiming that he would love to see more rigorous conversation here in Aotearoa, as there is very little to read which is in part because there are no platforms for design criticism to exist. This also creates problems in a teaching environment, as there are few resources about New Zealand design to point students to, which suggests that criticism is about the wider design ecology, it is an educational tool.
While it’s hard to disagree with the importance of criticism there is clearly a difference between critical conversations amongst designers themselves — such as events like DA Conversations — and then what happens in mainstream media. So, the trick becomes how do we have these conversations with our friends (because the industry is that small) to push things in a strong yet positive way. One counter this self-critiquing is fixing the lack of professional critics by finding well informed people who are observing and critiquing from outside of the industry. The challenge to the industry then is to both speak up and to each other and to support new and well informed perspectives to the conversation.
5. Don’t shy away from the cultural stuff.
The internet and globalisation means it’s becoming harder to distinguish specific regional design aesthetics. Often conversations looking at ‘what is New Zealand design’ seem to completely bypass the most obvious factor which makes this bicultural nation unique, and that is Tangata Whenua. So, it was great for Johnson to raise the question, “Is culture important to graphic design?” or its counter question, “Is graphic design important to culture?”. In New Zealand, design has been taught through a European perspective (which has a whole lot of assumptions about design and aesthetic) rather than Te Ao Māori. The absence of biculturalism from arts education is ironic and most importantly unfortunate as a country that is very happy to boast the haka and the koru. So, the question is how do we open up designers to Māori ways of thinking? (which is not the same as designers just using Māori content).
Many design studios have good intentions, but are not sure how to invite Te Ao Māori into their studios and often feel as though they are not allowed to. But the challenge to the industry is to not shy away from it, and as a bicultural nation there is no excuse for us to not be making progress. Johnson’s advice is that is about the little things like using Te Reo, shared eating, shared karakia, so let’s shift the focus from Māori content to opening ourselves up to Māori world views and protocols in a genuine and non-tokenistic way.