BeST Awards 2009: build up
The BeST Awards roll into town tomorrow (that is, Friday 16 October, Auckland Museum). Last year's big graphic design winner was Alt Group, picking up the overall graphic prize, the Stringer Award, and a slew of golds, silvers and bronzes. Alt's in the BeST Awards mix again this year, and seeing as the design firm has been on a hot streak for months, picking up awards all over the place (TDCs, ADCs, Graphis, Red Dots, etc…) we thought we'd re-run this interview from earlier in the year. Given that this year they have a number of entries in a number of categories you'd probably be a fool to bet against them picking up an award or two this year too. Here's Alt Group's Ben Corban and Dean Poole talking design.
ProDesign: How did Alt come together, what are your backgrounds?
Ben: Alt started as conversation when Dean and I were living in London, having finished and graduated from Elam. Dean was making work in London and I was studying over there. The conversation was around where the art world was going. It was at the time in the 90s when Brit art had shaken up the whole art world and all sorts of things were being done that hadn’t been done before. Art was crossing over to other media outside the gallery. Damian Hirst was doing his stuff, Gillian Waring was dancing in shopping malls, and Hirst had also started launching restaurants and the like. Everything started homogenising. Our real interest was art, but the thing that really drives art is ideas – ideas are the guts of any kind of communication. So our interest was in taking our training and thinking outside of the white box in which you exhibit, and putting it in other places. The idea was to start a company that sells ideas. So we got back to New Zealand and said, ‘let’s start an ideas company’. We got a phone, sat around, smoked cigarettes, drank coffee, and waited for the phone to ring – and then the phone never rang. In many ways we took a harder and more unconventional approach. The traditional way of getting into the design and advertising industry is to go and work for someone, learn how the industry works, and then leave however many years later with a back pocket full of clients, systems and processes and set up shop. Our way was to stare into the abyss and just start doing something, but now we’re eight years down the track…
Dean: Elam was about ideas training, not necessarily about processes, or tools, it was more about a way of thinking. That was really pushed through in the heyday by people like Greer Twiss. You know, creativity is kind of a dirty word to use in the art world but it’s not when it comes to business, it’s what business wants.
ProDesign: Are your art school peers condescending about the commercialisation of ideas?
Dean: There’s always been a direct relationship between art and design. Piet Mondrian designed the 3M logo. Kurt Schwitters had an advertising company. It’s this kind of thing that people never talk about. It’s not like we sold out, or sold our souls, we still think that art is about ideas in context, we just took the context from the white cube and applied it to something else. At the end of the day, you could say the only difference between an artist and a pizza is that a pizza can feed a family of four.
Ben: Art and commerce have had a relationship for centuries. If you look back at the Renaissance there was the Church, and everyone serviced the Church. There was always a client and designer relationship, which was always on commercial terms.
Dean: And if you look at Renaissance contracts they’re no different to contracts that get served up today. In a sense, Renaissance painters were the design and advertising practitioners of that time.
ProDesign: How does a Fine Arts education differentiate you from designers who have a design education?
Ben: What we were trained to do was understand the history before you produce something and that’s literally how we approach design. To get here has been an exercise in immersion and understanding…
Dean: I do think the Fine Arts tradition is about understanding history and life and how you fit in with that canon. It’s about looking backward, but you make things for the now… I don’t know what the formal difference is because I’ve never been through that [design school]… but artists are very conscious of history.
ProDesign: Is there anything new in this world?
Dean: No, I don’t think there is, you just reorganise existing things.
ProDesign: Is there an Alt vernacular or any systems that help produce a consistent standard?
Dean: Well, we don’t have a house style.
Ben: Essentially, we’ve got a group of 17 people from different backgrounds. Building a team is not about one identity crawling over another; it’s about a number of separate inquiries converging, and things being produced in a supportive environment that fosters those inquiries.
Dean: I still believe in what Greer Twiss said: “You fail as an educator if a student doesn’t leave the system with their own inquiry.” They don’t have to make great stuff; you don’t have to have good ideas. You just have to be able to change the world, which means that you’ve got to have a way of viewing, or having an inquiry, that is personal to you. I don’t care if you’re pumping coffee as long as you’ve got an inquiry. We actively pursue this here; everyone has an inquiry that impacts on the practice. Is there a vernacular? Well, it’s a cultural thing. Systems and processes are only enablers. Culture is actually where it all happens. That alignment, or hunger, or being perpetually dissatisfied, or being comfortable or uncomfortable are types of things that you need to have if you want to have an inquiring mind and an inquiring culture. You need to be perpetually dissatisfied. You don’t wake up in the morning and go, ‘today I’ve decided to be average, let’s do what that person's done’. You’ve got to go, ‘well, this is about the joy of finding out and bumping into the unexpected’. And that’s really what creativity is; it’s an uncomfortable journey that hopefully results in something.
ProDesign: So, if you wake up and go, ‘I’m comfortable with my lot, I’m not going to do anything new’, then you’re history?
Dean: Totally, if you can hear yourself wrinkling you’re not moving.
Ben: Creativity is a difficult process that’s best supported in one of two environments, either one that’s incredibly stable, or one that’s incredibly volatile. Most great thinkers live in either one of those camps. What we’ve got is a team has been built over a period of time, and it is very stable. In some organisations people will only be there for six or 12 months but it’s not long enough to get it working.
ProDesign: What about working with NZTE? The Music Convergence CDs have an unexpected undertone. How do you strike the right note?
Ben: We’ve worked with NZTE for five or six years. The interesting thing is that they support New Zealand business across a range of sectors, and it’s all outwardly facing. Our projects for them are all quite different. It’s not mass or general communications; it’s targeted and niche for specific audiences. With Music Convergence, the objective is to communicate to 500 people – the influencers, tastemakers, and critical decision makers – who dictate what people listen to in other media, what music gets selected for movies, games and TV campaigns.
ProDesign: The work seems edgy…
Dean: When you’re communicating with that audience it’s important that you look like you’re part of the music business first, before you look like you’re from somewhere. You’ve got to look relevant. It’s content, context, country. Content leads anything. It’s an ideas economy, and content’s going to win. That’s what gets your attention, that’s what valued; context is like, ‘does it fit?’ Does the content fit the context? If it does, then it’s relevant, it’s now, it’s useable – and oh, by the way it’s from this place. With an industry like creativity everyone knows that the idea is king. You can’t push a country position, like Cool Britannia, it can backfire on you. The idea has got to lead the conversation. NZTE being a sophisticated client knows how those different sectors have to operate.
Ben: The trick here was that it had to be a specific medium, a CD in a jewel case. That was the first thing. The people who make the decisions receive hundreds of these things a month; all these CDs are stamped, racked and filed in libraries. So it had to be in a specific format.
Dean: That’s the convention. You can’t go, ‘let’s send them an iPod with NZ music on it’; it’s not going to work. So, first of all, stick with the convention. Second, try and find something that is an undercurrent, a reason to start an idea, so obviously you’ve got birds – tuis, songbirds: New Zealand’s first kind of song maker. It’s a mimicking bird and all those sorts of things. Also, the music doesn’t have any sort of genre, there’s randomness to it. You want the thing to land on someone’s desk and be a total experience, like unpacking an iPod. And then there’s the shiny thing [the brooches that accompanied the CDs], which we call the magpie effect. It’s a series of things that make the direct mail experience a surprise. You build up a whole lot of anticipation, so someone may put the CD in the stereo. That’s all you’re trying to do.
ProDesign: Some of the projects you’ve done extend the boundaries of what one would expect from a design studio. For instance, I Kiss NZ was a multi-level campaign.
Dean: That was designed to promote New Zealand production companies off the back of some of our international film success. Everyone gathers at Cannes each year, everyone’s there for a big party. How do you come up with an idea that makes people engage with a country? You’re only going to come up with that idea if you understand how the context operates: people are there to have fun. We’re communicating to a diverse bunch of people, and we’re selling creativity to other creatives. It’s a pretty dodgy area. So, we had to pick a basic idea, something universal, and the best way to create meaning is to build on existing meaning. Blowing a kiss is a universal idea, so we know that’s going to work – there’s no doubt in my mind that the idea of a kiss is going to work. And we wanted to create an interaction that was active. This interaction wasn’t about read, listen and watch, it was about user-generated content. You can set up a process and the thing can make itself. And that’s what it is – an online artwork of kisses gathered from around the globe. Four thousand kisses were gathered, anticipation was built, but people didn’t know why they’re doing it. There’s a disconnection happening, and that’s why it works. If you don’t look like you’re directly selling something, then people are far more open about their interaction. If someone says, ‘blow me a kiss, take a photo of it, and send it to this address’, then why do you want to find out where that’s gone? It’s about basic human behavior – vanity. You want to see how your image contributes to something bigger. And that’s the success of MySpace, YouTube, Flickr. When you got to the [I Kiss NZ] website it bounced you on to the prospective companies. So it’s a long way of getting there, but the end is very short.
Last year you could see this trend in advertising. A gorilla plays some drums, that’s content. People need entertainment: context. Oh, and by the way, I’m selling chocolate. That’s gone from really direct storytelling to unexpected, oblique and adjunct.
Ben: It’s very hard to convince a client of those types of interactions. There’s a difference between saying ‘Briscoes, fifty percent off’ – because everyone understands what that is. Staging an experience changes things. Lead with an idea that’s obtuse, people engage with it, and the reveal happens afterwards. It’s a bit like Damien Hirst putting a shark in a tank. Hirst isn’t building a sculpture; he’s building an image of a sculpture, and the image is better known than the thing itself, and that’s how things operate.
ProDesign: At the other end of the scale, your work for Farmgate espouses the virtues of Hawke’s Bay wine and produce, and utilises the personalities of certain artisan producers in the packaging and labelling. It’s somewhat of a mind-shift don’t you think?
Dean: We like to get the idea and then the execution of that idea. It’s not like going we’re going to innovate with aesthetics. When Philippe Starck comes out with a new shoe he’s innovating with style – he’s not inventing a new way of walking. A lot of our philosophy is figuring out an idea and how it operates in context, and then figuring out the aesthetic execution that will turn that into a preference for somebody. A lot of the Farmgate process was about understanding what was changing in the context, so you can reorganise the problem of selling wine. Locality is becoming a bigger driver in the food and beverage sector, so is the slow food movement – slow is the new fast. These things are impacting on people’s decision making when it comes to buying wine.
Ben: You need to look broadly outside your discipline to figure all that stuff out. You can’t just say ‘I’m a designer’; you need to say ‘I’m a citizen’. Locality is one of the things the wine industry is based on, the concept of terroir, which is the unique aspects of place, microclimate, soil, and people. It’s taking those things and putting them together and presenting them in a slightly different way. To put people who care about what they’re making and growing on the labels helps create a network effect, with different companies supporting each other; it’s like an instant community, a business community, although in some ways it’s at odds with free market capitalist economies.
ProDesign: Last year was a successful year for Alt. Why do you think the judges appreciate your work so much?
Dean: I don’t really know – it’s been a good year for our clients. It’s sort of like alchemy. People always say, ‘where do you get your opportunities from?’ Well, you create your opportunities. There’s nothing in a brief from a client that says, ‘come up with a blinding insight that’s going to make a difference and add value to my business’. It doesn’t work like that. Design isn’t a silver bullet. You just have to do the hard graft, and wait.
Ben: The awards are another means of benchmarking work in a different way, not in a commercial sense.
Dean: Another reason why we enter awards is to help establish a visual culture. When a project gets judged well in a design award then that’s great because it’s been judged on purely aesthetic terms. We’re equally interested in the commercial success of our clients. We believe in creative excellence and commercial excellence, and if there’s no overlap don’t do it. Design is either a system of decoration or a system of innovation. We’re interested in the overlap.
ProDesign: So you’re trying to help establish a New Zealand visual culture? Is that patriotic?
Dean: Yeah, I think it is. It’s a difficult place to go to. Is there a New Zealand design vernacular? That conversation is quite difficult, it either falls into cringe or whinge.
ProDesign: These days borders don’t contain ideas, so in that respect is design above country?
Dean: I think there are some places where you can lead with country but you’ll always be niche. My hope is that New Zealand companies become pocket-sized multinationals that know their global niche rather than their local one. And they can scale it appropriately without a competitor taking them out. Global niche is the ultimate. It’s how we’re going to compete as a country. For New Zealand design, if you’re not operating internationally, and you don’t know what trends are in markets, then I don’t know how you can have a nation of exporters that are relevant. Regionalism, let alone nationalism is a bit of a problem, but you get that with a young design culture.
Ben: And we do have a young design culture.
Dean: So we do have an identity issue, built around neo-tribalism, which is not the best thing to trade off in an offshore market. It happened in the artworld.
Ben: The identity decade of the nineties…
Dean: That we got through, but that we needed to get through as a young nation.
ProDesign: Now that you’re established and have won numerous awards, do clients come asking for that silver bullet?
Dean: We’re honest. We’ll say we don’t know the answer, but the joy of finding out is what we’re interested in. Is there a prescribed process? Are we going to go through a brand camp? I mean, how many more Venn diagrams do you need to show clients to prove to them that strategy doesn’t work. All you need to do is have a plan to get somewhere. That’s all it is, and that plan’s got to shift as fast as the market does. Productivity and quality and those types of things are table stakes in today’s business. Ideas are currency, and you’ve got to operate incredibly fast for that. You’ve got to be agile and adaptive. Finding clients with those qualities is where the best work comes from.
Ben: The strategy and execution thing is interesting, because you really need both. You need an approach and a driver to do something. No one sees the strategy; they interact with the execution. If you’ve got a great strategy and a bad execution, then you’re going to have a bad experience. If you’ve got a bad strategy and a great execution, and there’s nothing behind it, then you’re going to have an equally bad experience. Strategy is an enabler for getting on and doing something. There’s a great story about a group of soldiers stuck up a mountain, and they were well and truly stuffed, no gear, nowhere to stay, minus twenty. So they all lie down and get ready to die. Then one guy says, ‘I’ve found a map’, so everyone gets up off the ground. He says, ‘we’re going to go this way; we’re going to get out of the mountains’. So they march their way out, and somehow find a hut. After they get rescued, the guy looks at the map and discovers it wasn’t even a map for the right mountain.
Dean: You need a sense of direction to achieve anything, and you need purpose.
Ben: The rubber hits the road whether the interaction works or not. Don’t chisel anything in stone because it won’t survive. In the end, nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next day – you can only make an informed decision.
ProDesign: Are there any identifiable trends in design?
Ben: When you’re building an experience it doesn’t happen at one point in one channel. So if you communicate over a range of mediums it means you have more control over curating that experience, rather than providing one slice of it. In the future they’ll be two styles: more companies doing more things, and more companies that are deep specialists.
Dean: One thing that is changing is the way brands are interacting with audiences. People talk a lot about brand storytelling. Storytelling to me is a one-way flow, and people don’t buy into that anymore. Most of our experiences are a series of micro-events that add up to something. With a multi-disciplinary approach, which is what we’ve taken, we’re able to manage lots of fingertip events that add up to something bigger, rather than saying I’ve got a story and I’m going to tame the market with it. Value has changed, and probably the biggest thing that will change in the market is people’s perception of value. Value is only what you choose to call important, and what you choose to call important changes all the time. So if design really wants to create value for business, first of all it needs to figure out what it means in the market, then how to capture it, turn it into an offering and deliver it.