On the 6th of September I was fortunate enough to attend Brisbane’s first Sex, Drugs & Helvetica graphic design conference. I was excited to see the great line-up of designers that would each be talking about one of their projects – from initial beginnings to the final product. The conference, held in the Garden Theatre at QUT, had a great turn out and the speakers gave great insights into their thought processes and the challenges they faced.
The first speakers of the day were the creative director duo of Moffitt.Moffitt with their project Demo, a print and online magazine that featured emerging and undiscovered musicians. They considered this job to be a life changing personal project that defined their design identity and later brought them a lot of new business. The biggest achievement in the project was actually making it happen due to the many challenges that all creatives often face with personal work – stress, judgement, self-doubt, fear, risk and laziness among others. On this note, the brothers shared a quote – “If you do nothing, nothing happens” – which struck a chord with many in the audience (judging by the amount of retweets I saw of it later on).
The magazine was originally called Boys and Girls, a trendy fashion magazine for ‘fashion influentials’. They had already invested in big ‘cool’ 3D letters and photography before realising the project was just a copy of what was already out there and very self-indulgent. They literally ended up throwing the big letters out the window, accepting that it was an epic fail and began again from scratch. They realised from this experience that the project they wanted to create should allow them to help others in some way, channel their creativity, give them new frontiers and allow for collaboration with others.
Later that night the brothers attended a gig of an unknown band that inspired the beginnings of Demo with their passion, youthfulness, desperation and fearlessness. The magazine was also a reaction to venues shutting down, bands disbanding and the rise of digital music downloads. The aesthetic was intended to have the feeling of a music video on paper – using a large print format with full page photography. Moffitt.Moffitt purposely challenged the perceptions of how the artists were perceived or stereotyped by taking time to talk to them and create a concept that reflected their true identity or feelings. There were also other interesting stylistic choices like the use of vertical typography inspired by Japanese calligraphy. The magazine went on to win awards and has led to Moffitt.Moffitt receiving more commercial projects as a result, including work within the music industry. Demo also helped them realise the value of creating something they believed in.
I admired just how honest, down to earth and insightful these guys were. I liked their idea of the three ‘P’s that are part of the work they take on – Performance (quality of work), Profit (how much will we get paid?) and Personal (how do we feel about it? Is it enjoyable?). Preferably, these three P’s should have equal value but often this is not the case. I also took away the importance of targeting your work and having a strategy behind it even for personal projects like Demo and that we should consider what will be our design ‘famous last words’ – what will be our legacy that we leave behind with our work?
A Friend of Mine
Our second speaker was Suzy Tuxen from Melbourne studio A Friend of Mine, discussing her work for bar and restaurant the Town Mouse. The start of the project began with asking the client questions about the look and feel that would suit the restaurant, however the only feedback they got was something that gave an “emotional reaction”. After some more grilling, she gained insights into their appreciation for quality craftsmanship.
Her team then got to work sketching out ideas for a typography based logo, playing with scripts and shadows and aiming for a warm and neighborly feel. Inspiration for the project seemed to come from a few unexpected places with an original reference being a photo of skyscrapers that Tuxen received from her partner. At the time of the project she was also collecting and reading vintage detective novels, which also gave her ideas for the designs. These influences informed the geometric and structural letter forms that were translated to digital before having subtle brush strokes added as a final touch. A neon version of the letters was also created as a possible implementation which was eventually added to the business card as a glow in the dark varnish.
The letter styling was also incorporated into the menus with the earlier skyscraper reference used as inspiration for the geometric patterns and tall format. Getting these menus printed created a new challenge because they insisted that the gold should look consistent across both black and white paper, a process which ended up taking a whole day to get it right. This is why it’s important to form a good relationship with your printers! The identity was also extended further into the creation of gift vouchers that took inspiration from old aerograms while functioning as both a gift voucher and an envelope that could be sent in the mail.
One of the more difficult elements of the brand application was getting the approval for the outdoor signage. While they provided multiple solutions, the government knocked back each idea they proposed. They decided in the end to go with just traditional gliding on the front window, done by Bruce Johnson. He was able to provide a prototype that enabled them to choose the right colours for the sign and completed the gliding on the front window. As well as the gliding, hand painted signage was applied on the door step to welcome people and later on a hand crafted frame was created to display the menu in the front window. As Tuxen highlighted, it goes to show that these hand-made crafts can thrive in the modern world.
The Town Mouse project is continually growing bit by bit and still evolving. I was really glad to see the various craftsman employed throughout the project to achieve the proper aesthetic instead of trying to imitate it. I also admire the quality work and the dedication to get things right even if it takes time to achieve it, especially for a small studio.
Next up was Chris Maclean from Interbrand discussing their rebranding of Telstra, the talk I was most looking forward to since I wrote about the rebrand a while back. Maclean noted that brands were like people with particular personalities and if a brand is a person, then branding is getting the best out of that person. Interbrand recognised that Telstra’s old branding failed to connect with its target audience, the main problem being that more people bought from Telstra than liked them. With the new tag line “it’s how we connect” they had an opportunity to change this perception.
While Interbrand was asked to make standard ad templates, they decided to go ahead and rebrand Telstra for three different sectors over just eight days with a three man team. The brand needed be empathetic, expressive and connect with its audience through language and a flexible identity. To get the branding right, they needed to nail the main idea on day one. Inspiration came from Pink Floyd’s Dark side of the Moon album cover with the spectrum of expressive colours which could be flexible for the different markets.
After waiting two months, they were finally told they had won the account. They spent the next nine months redesigning all of Telstra’s branded materials while Maclean gave over 100 presentations to sell the concept across Australia. In the process they developed a system which focused on six different colour schemes for the spectrum. The tone of voice was re-evaluated across marketing materials to convey Telstra as tech savvy, human beings and that they had fully changed. They also trained departments and agencies in the new brand and tone of voice and even had their own ‘brand help desk’ to help people with questions and ensure promo materials were aligned with the new brand.
There was a major set-back late in the process that almost had the concept completely turned on its head. Thankfully, a brand guide that Maclean himself had written about the rationalisations for the changes saved them, allowing them to keep pushing forward with the new designs. After nine months, their hard work on the new brand was released into the public sphere. The internet went crazy over the refresh and the hoped for change in Telstra’s perception worked. There was a 30% increase in consumer consideration and even a bigger increase of 132% in positive social media mentions from 18 to 24 year olds.
I’m still amazed at the time it took these guys to turn around such a great redesign. Maclean’s presentation really showed just how much work really goes into changing the perception of brand and that it can’t just be a visual refresh, it has to be reflected in all aspects of the business.
Our fourth speaker was Dominic Hofstede from Melbourne studio Hofstede Design + Development with his project Hungry, a cookbook created with chef Guy Mirabella. You guys might know Hoftstede from his site Re:collection which has an inventory of Australian graphic design. Hoftstede noted that with the creation of books there are actually two clients – the author and the publisher, with the designer needing to juggle the expectations of both parties. The brief for the cookbook was for it to be bold, beautiful and cinematic with Mirabella suggesting the fruit scene from Pride and Prejudice as an inspiration for its sense of energy.
From this Hofstede started researching images before creating some mock-up, he prefers to create concepts within an actual book image to get a feel for the layout. At the same time, he was also putting together a photography guide for the actual photo shoot though unfortunately it ended up being completely ignored on the day (not that the photos didn’t turn out well). Once the final photos were selected for the page layouts, he began to feel the ‘chip, chip, chip’ of changes from the clients. He stated that good design means holding onto the things that are important and to fight for them when others want them changed. In the end there was around 55 revisions and 7 stages of concepts with one of the biggest challenges putting the right image combinations together. The book’s styling evolved with the project, becoming more elegant and meant that small elements in the design needed to change like the typography and font weighting. There were also many cover versions, though Hofstede informed us that sometimes you have to be strong against suggested changes.
After presenting his process and revealing the final product, Hofstede said “sometimes you only see whats wrong”. Personally, I thought the book looked great and captured that energy that was originally briefed in. At the end of the presentation he showed a few translated quotes from some chef notes he discovered, my favourite was “If you don’t take risks, you have nothing to chew”.
Che Douglas from Beyond the Pixels (BTP) spoke next about the work they did for the Australian whiskey Starward as well as the New World Whiskey Distillery. Neither of these brands existed before meeting the client, which actually came about by a chance event. Douglas highlighted that it was important to believe in your client’s work, especially if they were a start-up, but to make sure you also do your research on them. The work for these new brands was long process that started with ‘setting the scene’ and building trust with the client before gathering research, holding tastings and doing workshops. The brief for the whiskey was for it to be a modern masterpiece, with the challenge being to ensure it had the best of the old and the best of the new. Another hard decision was considering whether they should split the distillery as a brand from the product or not.
They began working on the whiskey’s name which became a hurdle due to considerations for international selling and trademarking. During this time they also did some group tastings of the wine followed by a survey about possible names. They finally choose an idea which saw the team going out and finding more information about a ‘Harry Bird’ who had a whiskey history in the area, but they unfortunately got too carried away. When the client saw the work, he told them it was the wrong direction and they needed to start again. Fortunately after discussing news ideas with the client many of their problems were actually solved in one hit.
Moving forward, they had one design team working across what was now two projects (product and distillery). The whiskey was given its final name – Starward – and after experimenting with several concepts, they focused on using star elements with gold foil detailing. They tested packaging designs in both shops and low light situations to see how it would look, ending up with 4 main concepts that used different techniques. The project wasn’t without it issues though. In the final stages of implementation 2,500 bottles had to be sent back when the gold wasn’t properly applied!
The distillery’s brand was built in tandem with Starward with a similar yet distinctive style that can used by itself or in sync with the product. The logo references the layout of a compass and the branding uses large outback and sky photography. BTP got to create all their branded collatoral which helped business investors learn more about the distillery and its product. The entire project took about nine months however Douglas said that to do something different, you need to have time and patience.
Our final and only international speaker was Geoff Cranko from the award-winning agency Strategy located in Christchurch. Cranko happened to also be the only speaker who worked on the client side of the business. He discussed their brand overhaul for Kathmandu, which I was surprised to learn is an Australian/New Zealand brand (I always thought they were American!). Cranko discussed the process that Strategy follows on all their projects that includes five main areas – Assess, Think, Create, Craft and Connect. These fall into 3 pillars of the process starting with the Strategic platform (Assess and Think) where the main strategy and brief is worked on, following onto the Creative Platform (Create, Craft) where all the creation relating to the brief is done and then finally the Channel Platform (Connect) in which the creative is put out to various channels.
Strategy was approached by Kathmandu with a brief to just redesign the logo to be bold, simple, memorable and inspire adventure all while considering how it would work with their various sub brands. They were also given two months to do it. Strategy decided to come back with a new, “real” brief that identified the real goals were to find new customers, make the brand more exciting so people noticed a change, make them more relevant while not alienating existing clients and being able to keep with existing competitors. Their approach was to look at how the identity would go into the market and in turn, completely re-scoped the project.
After the new brief was approved they did research and identified the targets markets. The ‘first cut’ showed the brand should be open and human, with a sense of freedom to live the dream. After some more digging they were able to name their focus groups and work on the brand story and verbal identity as well. All of this research informed both the branding and how the design would look and feel. The final logo design of the two peaks was rolled out across everything from packaging, product tags and signage and also worked well with incorporating their sub brands. The logo was also strong enough to be used on its own without the ‘Kathmandu’ type underneath. Accompanying the branding was rich photography that showed off the product and the potential activities you could be involved in. The brand architecture took around six to eight months to complete with the final style being flexible, fresh and distinctive with the ability to compete with a global market.
At the end of the day
Everyone who attended SD&H received a special poster for the event. Moffitt.Moffitt. were kind enough to bring issues of the latest Demo magazine and copies of the Collective magazine were also available.
Sex, Drugs & Helvetica turned out to be really interesting and much more insightful than any other conferences I’ve been to. It’s somewhat reassuring that even the pros struggle with idea creation, client changes and printer problems just as much as we do. I hope to see these guys in Brisbane again next year!