5 mins with Dean Poole on the 2023 AGI Open Conference

9 months ago by

We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Dean Poole from Alt Group, who is spearheading the organisation of the AGI Open, which is coming to Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland on 18-19 September 2023.

In this interview, Dean shares something of the spirit of AGI, the influence he thinks the Open might have on Aotearoa’s design communities (and also on visiting AGI members!) and provides a sneak preview of the great experiences to look forward to at what will be Aotearoa’s biggest — in terms of speaker numbers and speaker reputations — design festival. 

The last time an AGI Open came to the Southern Hemisphere was back in the 1990s, so we’re calling this a once-in-a-generation design industry event that should not be missed.


Hey Dean, to begin with, can you share a little about the purpose of AGI. What roles does it play in the design industry?

Well, you really have to go back in time to the start of the graphic design or commercial arts industry. The Alliance Graphique Internationale was set up in 1952 by a couple of French and three Swiss designers. It was a post-war environment and they wanted to exchange ideas around design as an emerging discipline. 

Those early members were pioneers of the design industry, and they really came together to share ideas across borders. Decades later, that spirit lives on in the AGI ‘Open’. Today, the premise and purpose of the AGI remains the same – to share design across consciousness and cultures.

The reality of the AGI is that it’s people getting together. It’s a club in the spirit of friendship that’s non-competitive. Each year we gather in a different part of the world, we talk about design, we share our work. 

You were international president of the AGI for five or six years and now head up the New Zealand chapter. Have these roles given you any insights or opportunities to consider Aotearoa New Zealand design through a global lens?

I think the insight or learning is probably like that experienced by other New Zealand designers when they go to new places. 

In Aotearoa New Zealand we live on some islands surrounded by a massive moat. When you travel across that and arrive in some other place, you discover not only a different spoken language, culture and customs, but a very distinct visual language that is part of the identity of that place.

Aotearoa is what I’d call an emerging design culture — as befits the last discovered land mass on the planet. A whole lot of innovation happened here and out of that came an incredible design language that’s very distinctive. 

New Zealand is not the first place we think of when we think of design, but I do think the world needs to look to the Southern Hemisphere because something is happening here, and it’s quite special.

Will hosting the 2023 AGI Open shift or affect our design culture in some way?

I would hope so. When two minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts. People change and that goes both ways. 

One reason for the AGI coming here is to give members an opportunity to learn about us — as much as it is for us to learn from them. As an inter-generational club, going back to that origin story, the AGI has always prioritised sharing wisdom both ways. We’re a non-profit organisation, everyone pays their own way here, which means they’ve chosen to come here, and that spirit of reciprocity opens up so many opportunities.

We have 100 members coming to Auckland from all over the world — and 36 of them are speaking. It’s a challenge, really, which has made putting the programme together challenging in a good way. It’s also incredibly exciting because we have such a rare diversity of speakers — across gender, practice, place and culture. 

I think this event will change anybody who comes along. It’s going to be a great moment.

Unlike Europe or the ’States, Aotearoa is a long way for members to travel

It is a long way to come. We recognise that and appreciate the commitment of those coming. We also recognise that there are carbon costs associated with travelling here. So with that in mind, this is a climate-positive event. We’ve accounted for the carbon footprint of hosting the AGI Open and Congress, and we’re engaging in a native forestry replanting programme as a gesture of intent.

Our event opens on Tuku Whenua — 18 September — the day in 1840 that Ngāti Whātua chief Apihai Te Kawau gave 3000 acres of land to the Crown, establishing Auckland City as it is today. Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei is opening the conference for us, and we’re honoured to be sharing that special day with them.

How do you expect this year’s event to compare to those held overseas in the past? 

Well, they’re all different. In Europe, the AGI Open is the highlight of international design conferences, but it’s quite easy to catch a train from city to city in Europe, so students and the design industry flock to each Open. 

The recent AGI Open in London was massive. Tony Brook did an incredible job — it was a sell-out at 1800 people. The Rotterdam event was incredible — 60 speakers but separated into smaller groups. It was a great exchange, but it meant you had to pick which speaker to listen to and the speakers had to compete for an audience! 

Each host chapter gets to choose how they would like to run the Open. For us, firstly we wanted to take the opportunity to get as many people on stage as possible — and make sure that they’re all iconic. Then we wanted to find and create moments for people to interact with the speakers and talk with them during the breaks. So, the Aotearoa AGI Open will be very different from your typical design conference.

Additionally, we’ll have a bookstore area setup — we’ve got plenty of members bringing their books, including Kenya Hara and Lars Müller, of course, is a real figurehead of contemporary arts, architecture and design publishing, with more than 800 titles to his name. As an aside, he also interned with Josef Müller-Brockmann, so make sure you ask him about that when you can. 

With respect to attendee-speaker interaction, during the breaks there will be time to hang out. We’ve created a design game that everyone can play, because it’s important to have a bit of fun and loosen up the atmosphere. I’ve always found it hard to go up to someone and ask a question, but games are a good way to break the ice. We’ll also have members launching new books with book signings, and some great free merch!

This is the first AGI Open to be held in Aotearoa — and it hasn’t come to the Southern Hemisphere since the 1990s. Can we expect to see another one any time soon? 

Well, most likely it will be another 20 or 30 years because there are a lot of cities in the world. It’s like the Olympics, host countries are stacked up. On our list are Basel in Switzerland, Vietnam, Thailand, Iceland one day hopefully…

What’s also cool is that we’re attracting an overseas audience to Tāmaki Makaurau— we have students travelling with their design professors from Korea, China and Australia to hear iconic speakers like Ahn Sang-soo, who modernised the Hangul writing system; Stanley Wong — the only AGI member who has represented his country at a Venice Biennale; Eddie Opara, Pentagram partner and one of the most thoughtful designers on the planet. 

And then there’s Kenya Hara, art director of Muji, Taku Satoh, Astrid Stavro, Liza Enebeis, Thonik…they’re all very inspiring human beings to be around. Even though I’m 50, I always feel like a teenager when we get together, because there is so much to learn.

Ahn Sang soo
Stanley Wong
Is the AGI Open a welcoming event for those entering the profession? 

One hundred percent — that’s what it is. The AGI Open is part of a wider event, the AGI Congress, which is where we immerse the AGI members in Aotearoa New Zealand culture. But the Open is really ‘open’. Open arms and open minds; we’re here to show people that design can be a way of life, and not just through the eyes of capitalism. This is very much about individual expression. Anyone that wants to invest in themselves will get a lot out of this.

AGI members are celebrated for their individual influence and their unique voice in the world. But at this event, they’re trying to inspire you to find your own voice and place in the world and realise that if you know who and what you are, you can amplify that and make a difference. That’s what good design does.

In your opinion what will be some of the biggest takeaways designers can expect to walk away from the AGI Open with?

One of the biggest takeaways will be about your design philosophy. Taku Satoh will talk to his — ‘Hodo-hodo’, which means ‘just enough design’. 

People will learn about world-building in the sense of their own visual universe — Paul Boudens, the Belgian designer who works with leading avant-garde fashion houses often talks about his work as universes. It will be exciting to see him here. You’ll take away ideas on the future of motion design. You’ll discover writing systems from around the world — not just Latin writing systems but typographic writing systems that we don’t see here often in Aotearoa New Zealand. You’ll learn from book designers from China who are reinventing what a book can be from a human craft perspective.

Everyone is going to get something different out of this event. Individual speakers will cover all the design disciplines — from architecture to product design. Thonik’s Thomas Widdershoven on graphic architecture, while Nikki Gonnissen will be doing a great piece on the history of women in design. Irene Pereyra on UX principles, Brian Collins on the magic of modern brand systems… I think there’s something for everyone. 

My studio, Alt Group, has been supporting me and working hard for 10 months to help us pull off this event. It is really a gift to the community — and hopefully the community will come! 

Nikki Gonnissen
Anything else folks should know before they purchase their ticket?

We’ve tried to make this accessible for students. Two people can essentially go halves in a ticket and attend one day each. The details are on agi-open.com. But if you can, I would devote both Monday and Tuesday to this event and just go for it.

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