By Day By Night is an interview series that profiles graphic design tutors from design schools throughout New Zealand. We learn about their role as a teacher and their own personal design practice.
Today we hear from David Coventon who works at AUT’s School of Art & Design in Auckland.
What is your official title at work?
Senior Lecturer and Second year Leader on the Bachelor of Design — Communication Design, School of Art & Design at AUT.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your career path, and how you got into teaching?
I grew up in Crystal Palace, South London. Studied Foundation Art & Design at London College of Printing, Elephant & Castle, then a Bachelor in Graphic Design at Newcastle-upon Tyne Polytechnic. I learned a few life lessons on the fringes of the Bigg Market and the terraces at St James’ Park, got to use early Mac SEs, and chewed through boxes of Ilford Photographic paper in the dark rooms. I won a D&AD Student Award judged by Why Not Associates and was offered a place at Central Saint Martins on the MA Graphic Design. Tim Foster was the course leader, and he taught me a huge amount, not least of which was staff team building. Tim wove together amazing tutors — Phil Baines often wandered in the studios, Jon Warwicker and Graham Wood from Tomato would shred our work and taught us about looking at design through philosophical lenses and contexts, Jonathon Barnbrook was my personal tutor, encouraging my tussle with language, politics, typography and graphic design. I ‘lived’ in the basement letterpress workshops run by Ken Godfrey and Nick Nineham. I loved the autonomy that I had by taking my own words into print.
After graduating and a year or two of working at Edge Design Consultants, fellow Newcastle and CSM graduate Graham Peake asked if I might be able to help him with some extra freelance which he had picked up for Sony Music’s Columbia Records, and some band called the Fugees the label was trying to break into the UK. Long story short we went on to found TWO:design London Ltd, based in Camden. It was an exciting era of emerging small start-up studios, many of which served the thriving music industry, and we were kitted out with little more than two G4 Macs and Nokia phones. We ran the company together for seven years during which time Tim Foster approached us to do some visiting lecturer work at the University of East London (UeL) in Docklands. I enjoyed the teaching so much that I decided to leave the studio, freelanced and did a two-year part-time Tertiary teacher training with in-service lecturer work at UeL. Then a role came up at Camberwell College of Art, part of University of the Arts London. I worked alongside some great staff colleagues, Patrick Roberts, Peter Anderson, Jim Fielding, Sam Winston, Ed Gill, Derek Yates, Sigunne Hamman, Garry Mouat, Christian Kusters… That team thing again.
During this time I met my wife — a New Zealander working in the Publishing Industry in London — and she didn’t have to work too hard to convince me of moving to Aotearoa. Leaving Camberwell was a tough decision as I had been acting course leader of the Bachelor in Graphic Design, but I don’t regret it at all. After a very enjoyable stint as a home dad settling our two daughters into school, I was lucky enough to work part-time at Unitec supporting Kim Meek and Fiona Grieve and found a very similar spark, sense of purpose and course culture there to Camberwell.
Outside of work hours what creative projects or research are you involved with?
Last year saw me leave a full-time position of four years as Graphic Designer Brand at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum and join the staff at AUT. We had just taken the Museum through a Brand refresh working with Sven Baker at DesignWorks, which was necessarily quite a big focus. Consequently time for creative projects had been limited to running Type workshops at a couple of ZineFests. My first-year at AUT was similalrly very busy, but I did manage to squeeze in a couple of design projects. Firstly work to support the 2018 Hui Conference ‘He whānau whare kore, he kai mate hau/Addressing whānau homelessness’ for the New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness, and later the design of the MAGS Artshow catalogue. I was invited to convene the judging panel of the Publishers Association New Zealand (PANZ) Book Design Awards, which was a great treat to get to see so many exceptional examples of New Zealand typography and book design.
Some of the projects we support the students with, demand outside of work hours to make them happen, which impinges some what on time for research. One such was last year when I supported Karol Wilczynksa and Marcos Mortensen Steagall in bringing the three day Beyond: Ethics, Futures & Values speaker series to final year students at AUT. We had over 30 speakers, across three consecutive days, a lot of hard work but well worth it for the value and learning it brought to the students. Later in the year there was some behind the scenes outside work hours supporting the staff and students for the graduate show https://www.shiftexhibition.com.
How does your personal practice feed into your role as an educator?
Well it all starts with wordplay, language, transmission, reception and exploring temporal constraints. I found my way into graphic design through writing. I can trace the moment I ‘became’ a graphic designer during a life drawing class at LCP when we were set a three-hour life drawing class. I thought “F*** this, I can’t draw” and believing myself to be a ‘rebellious student’, thought “right; I’m going to write what I see for three hours”. So, three words per line, three lines at a time, for three hours, I had unwittingly established some constraints and designed a way out of a problem. I think my tutor rolled his eyes, but with a smile of acknowledgement.
My personal practice always starts with words, unpicking the brief, re-writing it, taking words on a journey, through tests to extract meaning or juice, and then create images for others to interpret. I take a passion for vocabulary building and exploration of ideas through language as the first way in for students. So many of them are like me and don’t back themselves to draw their ideas ‘well’. I encourage them to speak in their terms and shape things that come easily to them and from their experience. Inevitably I want them to express it through typography!
What are you inspired by, and how do you keep the momentum for your personal work alive?
My daughters and the way they encounter the world — the shorthand sense they try and make of it, or sometimes the nonsense they point out.
The same really with the students I work with. They inspire a confidence that communication design and its simple core elements of words + pictures + time, are always going to maintain interest and give opportunity for storytelling and an individual’s experience to have currency. Oh, and the Adana Treadle Press that I keep meaning to find time to get going in the sleep out… so many pieces of writing waiting to be locked up in wood or metal and meet ink and paper.
How do you balance these two roles (educator and practitioner)? Are there any particular benefits and/or challenges?
It is a juggling act! The challenges I’ve probably already touched on, but the benefits? — Well I am currently led by and working alongside some fantastic designers and design educators and our conversations are seeking to determine what shape the curriculum can take moving forward. It’s a pleasure, when we can, to have time to talk about where the design business and design education meet and where it might be going. Curriculum design and content development is certainly an area of interest. So watch this space for future research and practioner outputs and benefits.
What are the best bits about working at AUT?
The same as it has been at UeL, Unitec and Camberwell College of Arts — working with students — and alongside some great colleagues — working in teams.
Above all though it is setting a brief and getting 30-45 different responses in a flood of ideas — half baked, crazy, workable, unworkable, new, old, fresh, surprising. Helping students navigate their way through building skills, confidence, identifying context and delivering the ideas. At AUT the School of Art & Design also has some of the best technical workshops and skilled support staff available. Oh, and we are also trying to resurrect letterpress…
And, finally, where can we see more of your own work?