Me: Kate Owen

Published:  October 13, 2011
Me: Kate Owen

Each month desktop asks a creative to write about their background, inspirations, mentors and views on design.

With no formal training in graphic design, Kate Owen naturally challenges the norm, common trends and rules. State president of AGDA Tasmania, and owner of small Hobart based studio Futago, Kate is full of passion for her local design community and its embrace of time and tradition.

The beginning and the future. In personally looking back 25 years – to when desktop was launched – as a seven-year-old, I had, unbeknown to me, already started developing a passion for type.

I was given a copy of The Lettering Book, by Noelene Morris and from then on ‘typography’ (dare I call it) took precedence in all my schoolwork. Hours and hours were spent on front covers and titles for my assignments, with the actual content often left until the last minute, with little thought or care.

If only I had known there was a job waiting for me where I could be surrounded by type and letters!

One of the typographers who inspires me the most is New Zealand’s Catherine Griffiths. Her talent at creating typography that sits beautifully in the built and natural landscape never ceases to inspire me. I was lucky enough to attend Catherine’s type-o-centric conference TypeSHED11 in Wellington, where I met her, as well as the likes of Stephen Banham, Paul Elliman, Experimental Jetset, Masayoshi Kodaira, Indra Kupferschmid, Christian Schwartz and Leonardo Sonnoli. This was a defining moment for me, verifying my love of type.

Permanence versus ephemerality. As this issue is a metaphorical time capsule, focused on what today’s design landscape will look like 25 years from now, I was drawn to thinking about how temporary our work is and what impact – or limited impact – it has on the world around us.

I was reminded of a project at university when I was studying architecture, where our lecturer was purposely forcing us to think beyond the immediate future, or even what would normally be considered the life of a building. We were asked to design a building that would last not for 25 years, 250 or even 2500 years, but 25,000 years! This ridiculous project was incredibly difficult to grapple with, considering the impossibility of knowing what could last that long or what the world might look like that far into the future. It certainly made it clear how insignificant our lifetimes are in relation to the history of our world.

One of the things that drew me towards a career in graphic design rather than architecture was its ephemeral nature. The fast turnaround, quick gratitude and fleeting existence for whatever you might be producing seemed far more appealing than having to work on projects for a number of years before seeing them realised. I can now, however, see the benefits in having as much of that luxury of time as possible on certain projects. In my experience, projects that have been allowed the time to mature as ideas, to percolate and evolve, end up having a much longer shelf-life than ideas that need to be developed quickly to meet a client’s immediate demand.

With the growing popularity of slow food and slow culture, I’m interested in discovering what I can learn from this philosophy. In a place, like Tasmania, where we can perhaps afford time more than money, this should possibly be the asset we chase and request of our clients.

It’s reassuring to see the resurgence in the handmade. There is a willingness to invest in good quality production through rediscovering outdated technology like traditional printing and letterpress. I wonder how long this fascination will last?

One advantage of living in a place with a slow-paced economy, where development occurs sporadically, is that layers of history are allowed to survive. Hobart and Tasmania’s relatively static economy has created a perfect environment for a slow culture, which has only recently been embraced. Our tiny population means we are largely exempt from fast-paced, in-your-face advertising, large billboards and neon, which undoubtedly compete for our attention in bigger cities. Instead, in our CBD we are lucky enough to still have traditional signs and old-fashioned, hand-painted ads gracing the sides of buildings. It’s incredible that if installed today, a billboard might last, at most a year, whereas in the past so much time and energy went into creating outdoor advertising and signage, that from its outset was destined to have a certain permanence. Rather than easily being removed and replaced, billboards were allowed to weather and gradually disappear or blend into the fabric of the building and their environment. I’m wondering whether these skills and techniques will be revived – as letterpress printing has – before they are lost forever.

I’ve not yet managed to make it off this little island. For more than just holidays that is – and the longer I stay, the harder it is to think about leaving. Finally, Tasmania is coming of age, and mostly (unfortunately) not through ourselves, but through other people discovering what we have and capitalising on it. Barely a week goes by without me discovering some new talent or passionate person who has moved here, or has a desire to move here – as a local, I find this exciting and reinvigorating. I’ve been recently asked by one such person – from Hong Kong – to sit on the inaugural jury of the TADAs (Tasmania Advertising and Design Awards). The TADAs have been created with three goals in mind – to nurture and develop a uniquely Tasmanian creative vernacular, to raise standards in commercial creativity and to celebrate the very best of what we do. I’m hoping that when looking back in 25 years’ time, initiatives like this, and the likes of MONA, will have strengthened our cultural capital while maintaining a uniquely local perspective.

Almost everything I have ever done has been as a result of collaboration or co-creation. This started very young for me, as my identical twin sister and I were mostly inseparable, pretty much doing everything together, which created an in-ground reliance on always having input from someone else on my work. It is the foundation to the way my studio Futago works (it was originally established with my twin), where nothing we create is the result of any one person. This approach has given us the ability to create much larger, more ambitious projects than would usually be possible by a studio our size, as we not only collaborate internally, but we regularly collaborate or form alliances with people outside the studio walls.

I’m privileged to be involved in creating works of a public and a more permanent nature through our public art arm. These works at least, should be still around in 25 years, and some for longer. This is a daunting and exciting thought for someone who was initially drawn to the idea of the impermanence of graphic design.

Photography: Jonathan Wherrett

From desktop magazine.

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