Interview: Sean Hogan

Published:  April 23, 2013
Heath Killen
Interview: Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan is a Melbourne based designer and artists whose work is an unending investigation into form and visual language. Still just as passionate about experimentation and communication as he was when he started his self-directed studio Trampoline in 1996, Hogan speaks here about design education in the ’90s, mentorships, and the search for meaning in art.

What lead you to a career in design initially?
I remember finishing Year 10 and being faced with having to make some decisions regarding a career choice. I knew I wanted to do something creative as I had always drawn and painted and loved anything to do with art. I sat down with my parents to discuss some ideas and graphic design came up as an option. I think my parents thought this was a positive and practical solution as it seemed to combine an artistic outlet and a way of achieving an income at the same time. After finishing Year 12 I went on to do 2 years of an Advance Certificate of Art and Design at Tafe and then 3 years at Swinburne University completing my degree.

What sort of work were you drawn to at the time?
As with most youngsters my earliest idols were probably musicians and sports people. I loved music like Led Zeppelin, Tom Waits, The Doors, Talking Heads and Kraftwerk. In terms of art I liked Rauschenberg, Warhol and was particularly fond of the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism. I don’t think I even knew of a designer when I was in my teens. Of course, that’s all changed significantly now.

Paintings for music (2012)

Paintings for music (2012)

Your design education began in the early ’90s, a period of time that saw massive changes to the industry – particularly around technology. Did you have an awareness of  the changes occurring, and did you get the impression that design education was responding adequately?
Computers really became viable in the mass market around the early 90’s, and this was obviously revolutionary. They seemed to open up a whole new set of possibilities in design and marked a huge shift for the industry. I think I was quite aware of the shift at University and it was exciting. My memories of these early years are of the computers being incredibly slow. Working on the smallest of images seemed to take forever and saving them to floppy or SyQuest disks was a laborious task. There was definitely a buzz around typography. The growing number of fonts you could choose from, and the ease with which you could make your own was a big deal. Of course all that choice can sometimes be a burden when you are learning and I think there was tendency for overuse of digital fonts and filters. I don’t think that education was up to speed at this point – lecturers were learning the programs at the same rate we were, so I think it was difficult for them. Computers had well and truly started to infiltrate the industry, but at the same time us students were still being taught the traditional method of preparing artwork for print. It was all very useful and valuable, but it was starting to get out of step with what was happening in the workforce.

What were some of the ideas and who were some of the designers that had an impact on you during the this period?
In the early part of the decade the computer was such a new tool and it was leading to new forms of communication and visual styling. It seemed to allow for something more emotive, expressive, and abstract. Legibility took a backseat and traditional rules were abandoned. There was a far more experimental approach to typography. Designers such as Tomato, Designers Republic, Vaughan Oliver, David Carson, Tibor Kalman, and Neville Brody were all huge influences and they were all designers who had embraced this new frontier. As the decade rolled on I felt that designers refined their use of the computer and it’s relationship to design.

This period also saw the rise of grunge music, electronic music, and the rave scene. Artists like Aphex Twin, Underworld, and Daft Punk (to name a few) were also experimenting with a new digital landscape in the same way graphic designers were. I still think Chris Cunningham’s film clips for Aphex Twin feature some of the most beautiful, inventive, and chilling images ever set to music.

Now that we’re at a significant distance from it, what are your thoughts on the 90’s now?
It’s hard to try and sum up an entire decade in a few sentences, but overall I would say that what really defines the 90’s for design is the huge shift towards the digital era. This created an intense period of experimentation and re-evaluation of where the industry was headed. Technology has always created new ways of seeing. Galileo changed our understanding of the world when he looked at the stars through his new telescope. and when oil paints first came in portable tubes there was a massive development in how we made art. The tools help push the medium and our understanding forward.

Urban Realities. Visual identity for 3 day urban design challenge (2011)

Urban Realities. Visual identity for 3 day urban design challenge (2011)

One of your first major jobs after university was at LAB Architecture. What was your role there, and what did you learn from the experience?
My role was to work with LAB under the guidance of John Warwicker to develop the visual language and signage for the Federation Square project. This included everything from designing typefaces to facade design. I was also there to attend to any graphic needs LAB had including competition proposals, exhibition design, publication design and identity work. This was probably the most intense and exciting period of my design career. I was working with someone who’s work I admired and on a hugely important project in my hometown. I was fortunate to be able to work with architects, landscape architects, artists, and engineers from all over the globe too. I was there for over 4 years and it really was like doing a second University course.
John is an amazing mentor and to work with him one on one for so long was an unbelievable experience, as was working with Peter Davidson and Don Bates (the directors of LAB).

John Warwicker is a 90’s icon that is still innovating and producing great work. What have you learnt from him, and do you think mentorships are important for designers?
I cannot possibly see how a mentorship can be a bad thing. Any education or experience that increases your knowledge can’t be a negative, and when you’re working with someone so closely over a long period you cover a lot of ground. John taught me so much and we spent many discussing everything from history to music to philosophy to sport. He was incredibly generous too. We would often go to bookshops where he would buy me books and tell me to go read them. John taught me so much about design processes, and the hours and discipline required to work through a problem. I am incredibly grateful for that experience. I think the biggest lesson I took away is that you never stop learning.

Cancer Council Victoria. Arts Awards Visual identity for the Cancer Council Arts Awards (2012)

Cancer Council Victoria. Arts Awards Visual identity for the Cancer Council Arts Awards (2012)

The sort of multi-disciplinary and transdisciplinary practice that you were a part of at LAB really started to become more common in the ’90s, continuing today. What are your thoughts on different disciplines working together?
This is a hard one to answer. I think the word multi-disciplinary is overused today and I wonder if its meaning has changed. The computer provides a singular platform for a broad range of creative work so it becomes easy to use the word multi-disciplinary. Having said that, I love the idea of different disciplines working together in one practice or as a team. The real trick is finding like-minded people, people that all share a common goal and trust each other implicitly to achieve something outstanding. We worked incredibly hard on the Fed Square project and I learnt so much about collaboration, flexibility, deadlines, patience, and the sheer volume of work required to get a huge, multi-faceted public project like that off the ground.

What’s the meaning behind your studio name, Trampoline?
I started Trampoline the day after I finished university with 2 other friends and fellow graduates. We never set it up to be a graphic design studio, rather a banner under which we could work together and put our own visual experiments out into the world. We were inspired by the practices coming out of England and overseas and their apparent freedom in pushing the boundaries of design. We wanted to be like them and they all seemed to have such un-corporate names. We ended up writing a whole list of words that we thought had absolutely nothing to do with design and the one we all agreed upon was Trampoline.

I’ve had clients come to me and say they ‘get’ the name and its reference to bouncing ideas around. Its funny, the more abstract something is the more meaning can be attached to it or drawn out of it. People find their own logic and connect their own dots, which I am happy with as it’s how I like my work to be interpreted too.

Landscape Architecture RMIT. Poster Series (2008)

Drawing Out Drawing Out Symposium. Logoform and visual language (2013)

How has Trampoline changed since its founding?
Not long after starting Trampoline my 2 friends left to pursue other interests and I decided to continue working under the name on my own. I put it all on hold between 1997 – 2001 to work with LAB and Tomato, and when I left I was fortunate enough to build my client base from that project. The business side of running a studio is a separate journey and I am assisted in this by my partner Kim Aleksandrowicz. I suppose the studio management side of things has become more focused, but I actually feel like I’ve stuck quite closely to my ambition of a self-directed studio that’s driven by experimentation and collaboration.

What have you observed about the Australian design industry since started Trampoline, and in what ways have you seen it change?
I think the biggest development in the Australian design industry is the emergence of the many small to mid-size design studios. In theory, anyone with a laptop and the right software can set up a studio. It’s created a rich and diverse community – which I find very exciting. The internet has made it easier for people to share their work, and connect with each other too. This too has raised the profile and understanding of design, not only within the industry, but the general public.

RMIT Landscape Architecture. Course poster and wrap (2010/11)

RMIT Landscape Architecture. Course poster and wrap (2010/11)

Many of your clients are Universities, such as RMIT. Do institutional clients differ in any way from “commercial” clients?
There is no real difference in my approach at all. Any work that involves a client becomes a partnership and the key to success is a general respect between the partners. I work for a few departments in the School of Architecture and Design and the people are all thought provoking and open minded. They are usually just as motivated to push the boundaries as I am.

How does your art and design work coexist? Do the two disciplines inform and influence each other, or do they operate as two separate and distinct things?
I’ve never really considered there to be much of a difference between them. They all seem to come from the same space. I like to visualise it as a continuing line that keeps moving forward. Sometimes this line is bisected with a specific design problem which I then try to resolve. In trying to resolve this problem I may hit upon another thought that will break off into something else. There are tangents and explorations, but ultimately the line keeps moving forward and I with it.

Floyd Experiments (2008)

Floyd Experiments (2008)

How do you determine when you’re finished with a composition?
This is tricky and I’m not too sure if there is a definitive answer. I was recently looking at Gerhard Richter’s Cage Paintings in a book that documented his process. Anyone of the stages photographed could have been the finished piece. They were all beautiful but Richter obviously had something in his mind that he was pursuing. Maybe it’s partly intuition, partly experience. Maybe it’s when you feel you have achieved a particular balance or harmony. I’m not too sure what it is, but something tells you its time to stop – or to start again.

This interview was first published in Desktop #291 — Back to the ’90s

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