We look back over a year in design with Melbourne studios Alter, The Hungry Workshop and Tin & Ed.
desktop: Let’s hear about a news event you really noticed this year, where a design element played an important role.
Tin Nguyen: When same-sex marriage was legalised in The States, Facebook made it really easy for people to show their support with the rainbow filter. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It made things as easy as possible for people to show support – I think nearly every single one of my Facebook friends used it.
Ed Cutting: It’s an example of the democratisation of design – it almost takes design work out of design. You can literally just press a button and be part of this thing. It’s about expressing yourself.
Conversely, do you remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? What was that for? It was hugely successful and it raised a lot of money, but people started doing it just because other people were doing it. But what was it raising money for again?
TN: The Ice Bucket Challenge lost its core message; as more people used it and it began to trend, some of its impact in terms of the core message was lost. But graphically, the Facebook rainbow is so connected to the whole message and the movement. Visually it is very beautiful too. I hope this visibility remains until we see a similar [policy shift] in Australia. You need lots of little things like this, because at the end of the day people create change, not politicians, and our power is in our voice. This was such a simple way to give people a voice.
Jonathan Wallace: Alex Farner (designer at Alter) picked Google’s change in policy around the term ‘mobile friendliness’ as an unfriendly moment for many businesses. The goalposts shift constantly online and while the change is exciting, it tends to impact many businesses that aren’t in a position to react quickly – especially the smaller ones.
Simon Hipgrave: The controversy over the origins and inspirations of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic logo by Kenjiro Sano was symptomatic of a global shift in design. It’s clear that the rate at which we consume visual media is rapidly increasing, and as a result graphic design is becoming more homogenised. What’s good for a theatre in Belgium might also work for the world’s longest-running sporting event.
If we are to have a unique voice – independently as a creative, or collectively as a city or country – it’s important to develop, maintain and cultivate our own points of reference, preferably offline.
What was the most fascinating design moment in 2015?
JW: In the studio we’ve been discussing cases where large organisations have plagiarised small business: the AFL ripping the image graphic designer Tyson Beck produced of the NBA’s LeBron James; Target replicating the artwork of small Melbourne business Peaches and Keen on its childrenswear. Some guilty parties apologise better than others. But equally it seems like a stretch to cry plagiarism in some cases.
I was thinking that the decision to scrap the 2020 Tokyo Olympic identity, following the claims it had stolen from a Belgian theatre company’s logo, seemed like an overreaction, especially following the plans for a $2.75 billion stadium which were abandoned. Then Symon McVilly (designer at Alter) came back from a trip to Japan and filled us in on further accusations levelled against Kenjiro Sano, such as the eight revoked tote bag designs by Sano for Suntory. Whatever the truth, it’s disappointing to see it go down like that.
EC: Our pick goes to the Google rebrand. You don’t normally get that much discussion around a rebrand. All the different points of view [were fascinating], and as a designer, I was surprised that Google made some of those choices. I really like the new logo, but it’s not what I would have expected them to do. I would have expected more that they’d hold onto the serifs for starters. It’s kind of amazing that one of the biggest companies in the world went with something that has so much youth and playfulness. It feels a bit childlike.
Google shows what an identity needs to do now. The Google identity never was presented as a static logo. It is presented as an animated thing that changes and evolves with what it needs to do. It has a whole other life to it, and that’s the way we think about our work today.
TN: Yes, the Google logo is interesting because it’s a case of seeing a logo become content. Every time you go to the site it’s different. It engages with something that happened in the past or is happening right now. So the fact that the logo is content is really interesting.
But just as interesting as the actual work of the rebrand is that this case brought things like typography and fonts into public discussion. People who had never talked type before had a passionate opinion. Google is one of those things we look at every day, and so the change perhaps made people more aware of the work designers do, and the choices and the decisions we make.
SH: Yes, Google underwent several changes this year. Firstly, launching a parent brand, Alphabet, then launching its new internally-designed logo. Both signal just how important brand and design is on a global scale.
It’s also a good reminder that working on your own brand is possible, no matter how hard it may seem – though it raises the question, would it be easier or harder to work on your own logo if you were Google?
What did you notice about the flavour of graphic design, or its use, this year?
JW: In Apple speak, “The only thing that’s changed is everything.” Only that’s not true at all. I think 2015, like at Apple, was a design ‘S year’ – that is, there are improvements under the bonnet but we’ll have to wait another year to see if there’s a the new model on the way.
This year was all gelato doughnut stretched pineapple neon pressed detox underlined ironic Simpsons. Again. Coloured backgrounds with loads of brush type. Memphis showing up. Maybe this is a hint? I hope Memphis is some kind of rebellious punk response. I’d like to think that we’ll see some Dada moments break into our status (quo) updates. Or comedy might break it open again; bring the satire.
@socalitybarbie blowing up might mean something. Or not. We’re all so authentic, right?
TN: We keep engaged with what’s happening around us, but not so much for the trends. We notice stuff that we’re interested in, but whether we notice it precisely because we are interested in it, or because there’s more of it out there, isn’t clear. But something we’ve always done a lot of is work with bright colours, and this year especially we started seeing more of that, with Pharrell’s Supercolor for Adidas, and [the art-direction] of Kenzo, which is still so big and colourful. So maybe being comfortable to use big, strong colours is something we noticed this year.
EC: Content is becoming much more a part of what we need to do too; it has been for a while now. Instead of doing a single thing or producing a single endpoint, we’re thinking from a content point of view, thinking about how we can turn one thing into many more things.
TN: Yes, the process of the story and everything in and around the work is becoming more relevant. Everyone is trying to find ways to create more content for themselves. I don’t know whether it’s specifically a design thing, but it does mean you’re more aware of documentation, and what the story is behind the work, and being able to express that is important.
What do you think is missing from the public conversation about design, either in design circles or beyond?
TN: Our suggestion is not necessarily something missing from conversation, but more something we’d like to see pushed more to the forefront of how we approach things. It’s about the impact of what we do as designers and how a business can create something that has an actual positive effect on society. Being around some of our friends who run businesses where such a big part of it is tied to its social impact, like Who Gives a Crap toilet paper, prompts us to figure out a way to alter the structure of our business to give back in a more significant way than the occasional charity giving. I think it’s important for businesses to have a social engagement that’s not just token.
EC: From a business point of view we’re trying to implement a model where we can give back on a more ingrained basis. We’re giving a service not producing a product, so we’re trying to figure out how we can create a service-based business where our ethics are inherent in its structure. There are designers and studios who take on pro bono or non-for-profit jobs, but these are individual cases, it’s not part of the profitable-business structure.
JW: In the words of David Berman, “Even this glass of water seems complicated now.” Social media is really accelerating the visual arms race; maybe we could discuss some kind of treaty or détente? I’m only half joking, we’ve just been discussing it in the studio and there’s consensus around the idea that we should slow it down sometimes.
SH: A friend of ours studied law in the US. Each year the bottom 25 percent of students are cut from the course, no matter what. Over a four-year course, the remaining students that graduate are brilliant: they know their material and they are incredibly driven. Want to hire a law graduate? The industry knows exactly which school to look to for the best students. By contrast, which design program in Australia produces the best students?
Our education system here is focused on graduating a large quantity of students, not a high quality. In an industry with few opportunities for graduates, this is not what anyone needs. We need universities and colleges with the courage to fail students.
Whose art direction caught your eye this year and why?
EC: We’re still looking to the work from Toilet Paper, Études, Ill Studio – people who have been around for quite a while, and it’s not that there’s been a great change in the work, but maybe there’s been a tipping point in the visibility.
TN: The guys at Études come from an art direction background and they’re running a fashion label, and they do everything at Ill Studio. They’re not just graphic designers or illustrators or photographers or set builders, and that collapse of disciplines is interesting to us. In our own practice, the discipline is almost irrelevant.
EC: We look to the models of those studios to see how we can get all those seemingly disparate things to work together. But maybe they’re the same thing, and it’s the outcomes that are different, and getting people to understand what it is you do.
SH: We really enjoy the work of Mexican studio Anagrama. Their simple, bold approach and considered execution is always fantastic. By contrast, but equally fantastic, local studio Mash produces work that is bold but never predictable.
JW: There are too many going around so we’ll stick to the big ones. Apple introducing San Francisco was a relief, we were never comfortable with Helvetica on the mobile platform. Repeat for Google: the old logo was always a disconnect from our (probably entirely inaccurate) perception of the organisation.
To go back to Google, we think the new version is much better, too. It presents as much more contemporary, flexible and positive. Why they took so long to do it is baffling, but the timing ended up being perfect as Google split from the newly-minted Alphabet conglomerate to become another new thing that most of still won’t understand. But at least it’s a happy, new looking thing now. That fits.
These organisations usually lead, but in both of these examples the change seemed overdue.
What trends do you think started running out of steam in 2015?
TN: The way that I see trends is that they work on layered time frames, and depending on what discipline you’re in or what country you’re in, different trends overlaps and exist at different times.
EC: My response here is more reflexive. Tin and I find things and explore them for a while, and then we reach a point where we feel that it’s time to move on. We’re interested in things we don’t know about yet, and we want to understand new processes. If you had asked me a few years ago what I was bored doing I might have said I was moving away from graphic design towards image making or whatever else, but having time and space has helped me enjoy graphic design again. Now we’re trying to reduce things to their core, to be succinct.
TN: With our own still lifes we’re becoming more minimal. Previously with these still lifes and installations we’d use a bunch of objects to make a composition and tell a story, but now we’re more about disrupting the nature of one object with another, for example, or using two objects to change the nature of both of them.
JW: Refer back to question three for the beginnings of a longer list but for one example, the new Victorian state identity provides a clear demarcation point for angles.
I like the ‘Big V’ logo and for me it’s stronger than the literally literal book thing that preceded it. That was prosaic. I also like the use of the background colour split by an angle, but this motif has become almost as ubiquitous as pieces of fruit dipped in pastel paint and photographed on a coloured paper background (many also having angles and colour). We are not disparaging anyone, we enjoyed it as much as the next guy and are active participants too, but l hope we’re on the other side of the angle arc now.
SH: I’m not sure that trends run out of steam, but rather they evolve. It’s interesting to see how the rise of hand lettering has spurred on the pioneers of the practice to evolve and push their personal style and craft.
In recent years, what attitudinal shifts have you noticed in your peers – in terms of industry, education and practice?
TN: That collapse of disciplines comes up again here. Even within traditional design studios we’re seeing lots of different tasks being done in-house, learning from the people around you. People seem more unafraid to step into other roles, or to try different things. There are so many tutorials online, all you need to do is google and you can figure anything out!
JW: Design is increasingly looking further afield, recognising complexity and placing value on broad experience and understanding. Cross disciplinary conversations and combinations are the expectation now. More value is recognised in the opportunities this presents than the older, more singular and laser-focused notion of being a designer.
SH: Cheryl Heller’s talk at Sex, Drugs & Helvetica this year was a real catalyst for many creatives. She articulated ideas and raised questions that have been bubbling away for many over the past few years. What are we doing with design and down what path are we leading our clients?
Predictions for 2016 and beyond?
TN: Australian design seems to be gaining more visibility on an international scale. It certainly happened in the music industry, and I think it’s happening in design and other fields too. I think the work and the industry here is only going to grow.
JW: Lookout Volkswagen.
This article first appeared in the Create 2015 issue of desktop. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Feature thumbnail from our Create issue cover by Tin & Ed.