State by state: our design landscape

AUTHOR:  
Published:  August 7, 2012
Heath Killen
State by state: our design landscape

From the powerful, to the divisive, to the plain cringe-worthy – the symbols and logos used throughout Australia’s short history make up a constellation of cultural artefacts that indicate changing norms and tastes in every sector. But what do ‘state brands’ tell us about ourselves and the places in which we live?

Do they capture and condense the cultural zeitgeist – distilling the myriad of ideas that make up locality into one single, readable and meaningful symbol? Or are they simply ephemeral graphics, designed by committees, directed by trends and holding little value for examining our heritage or contemplating our future?

And beyond an inquiry into what these identities can tell us about beliefs, events and narratives from the past – how do we approach their design today? In a rapidly mutating cultural landscape, where do we begin to identify values, and how do we discern what aspects of our ‘places’ are unique or truly significant? Furthermore, can new technologies and increased public participation contribute to the process?

There’s clearly no master plan behind state branding. It’s largely a spectrum of tired clichés punctuated by flashes of brilliance and perplexity, but, by taking a holistic look at the visual identities of our governments, tourism campaigns, sporting teams, arts festivals, cultural centres and civic services, we begin to see connections emerge. While still a mere iceberg tip, this report offers a glimpse of the larger narratives of our social environments, and through it we can begin to uncover a sense of who we are, who we have been and who we might become tomorrow.

Australian Capital Territory

AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY
Interview with Ian Hill / ACT Tourism

Population: 366,900
Percentage of AGDA members in ACT: 5%

The ACT has a strong design heritage, with the city of Canberra having been designed by American architect and landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin and numerous local programs which launched some of our finest designers. However, the territory has been largely out of the spotlight in recent years. I speak with Ian Hill from ACT Tourism to get his perspective on what’s happening on the ground, and where it may be going in the future.

“Being a relatively young city (Canberra celebrates its centenary in 2013), there is an increasing sense and demonstration of change. It is a city that encourages exercise for the mind, body and soul. All of these rich and diverse experiences make up the personality of Australia’s capital.”

Canberra is a city with a clearly defined sense of place and purpose, but I wonder how this feeds into the design culture, and how that in turn feeds back into the development of the region. Hill’s insights are particularly interesting here, and could be applied to other city and state identities.

“The population of Canberra is energetic, educated and informed. As a result design work emanating from Canberra across a spectrum of fields is innovative. Building design for both commercial and residential spaces is driving much change in Canberra. New precincts are shaping a more contemporary and engaging experience for the local community and visitors alike.

“Canberra, the destination, does suffer from relatively low awareness levels and the negative perception that it is full of politicians. With constant media comment linking decisions of the Federal Government with Canberra ‘the place’, it is not surprising the wider population has a preconceived idea about their capital.

“Into the future, designers will continue to play a key role in shaping our brand. Canberra is already one of the architecturally greenest cities in the nation with some new developments upholding the highest eco-friendly standards. A new electric car network is another example of contemporary thinking. Being progressive is a critical element.”

New South Wales

NEW SOUTH WALES
Interview with Jo Sabin / Design Crowd

Population: 7,317,500
Percentage of AGDA members in NSW: 28%

Two of the most cententious issues in graphic design – crowdsourcing and institutional design – experienced a collision in 2008 over the New South Wales State Government rebrand. I speak with Jo Sabin from Design Crowd about her company’s speculative state rebrand competition and what its business model can contribute to state brands.

“We believe a good idea can come from anyone, anywhere and we scale this potential through our platform by linking 50,000-plus creative brains together to creatively solve problems.”

Naturally, as designers, we crave challenging, meaningful and progressive solutions, but could a crowdsourcing model really help expand the discussion and lead to better outcomes? On the surface, crowdsourcing does appear to offer an open, transparent platform for work of this nature, but in many ways it goes against the grain of the design process. Perhaps the solution is in finding a way to channel public engagement (with parameters to manage disruption and derailment) through traditional design practice – allowing for options and feedback to be driven by a clear and shared singular vision.

“Governments today have a unique opportunity to get more creative minds solving their problems. Social crowdsourcing platforms offer a democratic ‘bottom-up’ approach to creative problem-solving, rather than the typical approach where committees of bureaucrats and consultants take months or years to action problems. We live in the age of transparency. Crowdsourcing enables governments to access crowds and, in turn, citizens to share in and participate directly in solving problems.”

Northern Territory

NORTHERN TERRITORY
Interview with David Nixon / Transmediant

Population: 231,200
Percentage of AGDA members in NT: 0%

For those of us who live in the metropolitan, coastal regions of the country, the Northern Territory still remains something of a mystery. With an identity largely shaped by mass media, one can’t help but get swept up in ideas of the place that range from romantic to terrifying.

To find out if the truth lies somewhere in the middle, or somewhere else entirely, I speak with Alice Springs native and digital media specialist David Nixon.

“Given that TV is still the dominant media platform for the great unconscious and that TV thrives on portraying negative stereotypes, I reckon that urban Australia thinks that we’re a bunch of rednecks and hopeless blackfellas. This bears no resemblance to the world I live in.”

While Nixon agrees that the natural landscape can be beautiful, not all aspects of the Northern Territory infrastructure are supporting local needs.

“Tourism is in decline [and] Tourism NT only does marketing. There is little development assistance for attractions to help ‘share our story’. In marketing parlance, the product is a bit tired.”

In terms of changing perceptions, and developing a unique NT design ‘voice’, Nixon believes that technology can help drive the change.

“We need a lot more of them to create the critical mass required to overcome the inertia. Bring on the NBN (national broadband network). The internet is a disruptive technology, simultaneously transforming, destroying and creating new markets. There’s a bit of effort to be applied yet in raising digital literacy, but, in the end, I think regional Australia will embrace collective consumption platforms with gusto long before it becomes a necessity in urban Australia.”

There is obviously still much work to be done and outmoded ideas to replace, but it’s certainly going to be exciting to watch the territory come into its own.

Queensland

QUEENSLAND
Interview with Hugh Edwards / Creative Plantation

Population: 4,599,400
Percentage of AGDA members in QLD: 15%

If there us any Australian state that has truly managed to shake off perceptions of the past, and begin to push forward into a new cultural era, it’s Queensland. The state has emerged as a major player in the growth of Australian culture, while still preserving and celebrating its heritage.

Hugh Edwards has been there to witness these changes. As an elder statesman of the Queensland design community, Edwards shares his thoughts on the state’s design culture – particularly in relation to his landmark work for the 1982 Commonwealth Games, and his ongoing work for local business and government.

“This is definitely a parochial city and state, where the citizens are Queenslanders who happen to live in Australia. We still receive briefs that request a design with a ‘Q’ and/or the colour maroon and, even when requested to make an existing identity more contemporary, the preference is to maintain the corporate maroon colour due to brand equity.

“There’s still a tendency for subjective opinions on creative solutions, particularly when requested to design what is referred to as a ‘look and feel’ for a particular communication objective utilising an existing brand identity. We prefer to use the words ‘tone and manner’ as this is less subjective and is easily related to a brief as either appropriate or not.

“The creative community in general is very insular with only small groups consulting with one another. When we do get together and discuss these honestly, we actually find we are not alone. In ’77, there were only three design companies in the Yellow Pages and today there are nearly three pages, with the majority being relatively small. I, and others, have spent considerable time trying to resolve why this happens, as ultimately individuals lack critical mass and a common voice to resolve issues.”

On finding unique aspects to visually describe a place or event, Edwards has this to say. “Our approach is to read the brief thoroughly and then research as much as possible within the budget. We have found that it’s the personal involvement by the designer that assists them in taking ownership of a project rather than merely being handed the information. Once the information is digested, we then work towards defining a simple statement that’s relevant to the brief and this becomes the benchmark for how we assess the relativity of a design. Bob Gill called this ‘redefining the problem’. Others refer to it as ‘kick-start questions’, but it really is about fine-tuning which qualities are unique about a specific place.”

South Australia

SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Interview with Greg Clarke / Adelaide Fringe Festival

Population: 1,659,800
Percentage of AGDA members in SA: 10%

While not crowdsourced nor collaborative, the Adelaide Fringe Festival does have a social approach to its annual festival identity – by opening it up to an international competition. It’s an approach that connects well to its ethos, and sees interesting and unique designs emerge each year. But, given that this community driven design work is not necessarily contributed to by the local community, how does that shape the vision of Adelaide year by year? What can ‘outsiders’ contribute to the cultural identity, and can non-native perspectives offer something uniquely valuable to the process? Greg Clarke, director and chief executive of the Adelaide Fringe Festival has this to say.

“Adelaide Fringe is an international arts festival, recognised around the world, with artists participating from all over the world. Anyone can be in the Fringe and anyone can enter the poster competition. It’s always great when a local artist does win, but these days in such a global world that we live in, the term ‘outsider’ is pretty irrelevant.

“Any good work of art or design is usually reflective of the time it was created. Adelaide Fringe has grown to become one of South Australia’s premier arts events and its economic, social and cultural impact is immense. Its core value as an open access festival in which anyone can participate, provides unlimited opportunities for arts and cultural engagement on every level. It is a catalyst for bringing people together, contributing to a sustainable, diverse and thriving arts culture in South Australia.”

It’s this celebration of diversity and community that makes the competition model seem particularly relevant here, but how well does Clarke think it might work in different contexts and aspects of state branding?

“It is a very time-consuming and admin-heavy process, and you may not end up with what you want. At the end of the day, my preferred way to work would be to brief a professional designer or artist whose work I admire.

However, as Adelaide Fringe is an open access festival, I support the decision to open up the poster design competition to anyone and also respect the long history of this format for this festival.

“As we have set themes, the submissions tend to capture that theme rather than anything Adelaide specific. Our aim, though, is to choose a winning design that captures the zeitgeist in the world, not specifically Adelaide. Most logos and brands do have a shelf life and I’m all for revising.”

Tasmania

TASMANIA
Interview with Jonathan Price / SouthSouthWest

Population: 511,000
Percentage of AGDA members in TAS: 3%

Melbourne studio SouthSouthWest (or SSW, run by a team of Hobart expatriates) took a refreshing approach to state design. Not only did it initiate a Tasmania State Government redesign project itself, but it decided to engage the world in a largely transparent design process. I speak with Jonathan Price from SSW about the project outcomes, the value of collaborative input, and exactly how to determine what’s relevant and what’s not when distilling down a cultural identity.

“We were getting interested in how you break down complex ideas to create supremely simple brands. In the first instance, we just wanted enough feedback and thinking to validate the design process, but once we got rolling it soon attracted media attention, which started a really interesting debate.”

Unlike crowdsourcing, this process invokes a singular voice, with guiding outside input introduced along the way. Despite the collaborative process, SSW was very careful to avoid a design-by-committee forum – preserving the integrity of its vision and sidestepping a ‘lowest common denominator’ solution.

“We would listen to everyone’s views without prejudice and if 60 percent agreed with something, we would never overrule the majority. But on some more complex designrelated areas, for example, we held back from public polling and tried to engage an expert to contribute to the blog, so we were educating the reader as well as asking their opinion.

“Everyone has an equally valid point of view, but if you asked an audience collectively how to get there, they would have no idea. Before we put any conceptual work up for review we compiled a findings document that collated general opinions and trends from the first six weeks, so we had a solid anchor point to the design feedback. It was quite surreal when we would post three design options late at night, then come back in the morning and be able to know what were the percentage of likes and dislikes from a diverse audience.”

In terms of what goes into a state identity visually, SSW embarked on this journey with a fairly clear notion of how that should work too, and undertook extensive research on what qualities are genuinely unique to Tasmania. In the end, the team came away with a great looking design and a strong idea of the importance of a state brand.

“Ideas which connect to deep, fundamental ideas really should not need to be replaced too easily. Whilst we change our favicons and profile pictures every six weeks, I like the idea that the identity of something as grand as an island of 500,000 people, if done well, could last for 10 years at least.”

Victoria

VICTORIA
Interview with Richard Henderson / R-Co

Population: 5,640,900
Percentage of AGDA members in VIC: 31%

Some of the more expressive and boundary pushing design ideas from around the country come from arts festivals and cultural institutions, but there are few brands more lasting, loved and observed than those in the sporting landscape. Within that landscape, there is perhaps no more passionate and dedicated fan base than that which belongs to the AFL.

Design for this institution is a great example of lasting traditional values, and small incremental changes that preserve history, while also responding to changing cultural values and design practices. I speak with Richard Henderson of R-Co, who was involved with the most recent core AFL design and positioning, and has had years of experience with sporting identities and strategies.

“AFL football is about heritage, culture and heroic performance. Identity assists in giving the spirit of a club meaning through symbols and other iconography. Every successful corporate brand identity program must express authenticity to have any chance of success. Sporting clubs rely upon authenticity to express their reasons for being and overlay stories to create legends that reinforce significance.

“Heritage imagery is used to tap into the psyche of the game – which is a contest of skill, courage, determination and physical prowess. These essential ingredients make up a sporting contest. The use of shields and graphic elements relevant to contest or the Club story are touchstones of brand storytelling.”

Examining the AFL as a case study for state branding also exposes the place at which the values of a state brand intersect with larger national values.
Henderson expands on this. “The AFL is a national brand because of its football code focus and the position it occupies as an Australian influencer of people and behaviour. The AFL represents a unique Australian game and attitude.

“AFL club identities are an essential brand ingredient in the social fabric of Victoria and Australia because they signify a tribal activity. In some sectors of community, it defines who you are. Any brand project must take into consideration the competitive landscape; however, it is the truth of any organisation, be it sporting or other, that has to be uncovered by the identity designer to connect with, inspire and motivate the audience. What happens with a successful brand is that they represent how a person sees themselves – and that determines behaviour and loyalties.”

Western Australia

WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Interview with Daniel Elliot / Organ Studio

Population: 2,366,900
Percentage of AGDA members in WA: 8%

It’s 1993, and feeling disconnected from the rest of Australia, a cessation referendum is held in Western Australia, where 68 percent of the population vote in favour of starting their own country…

Despite the vote, the cessation never came to pass. Western Australia is still very much with us and becoming a more integrated and relevant part of the nation. I speak with Daniel Elliott, from Perth-based studio Organ about the changing face of Western Australia.

“It’s unfortunate that Western Australia doesn’t flaunt its identity more – this could be part of the reason for it often being overlooked culturally. Not only is WA’s economy flourishing due to a resources boom, we live in one of the most beautiful natural environments on the planet.”

Distance and isolation have always been an issue in Australia, but technology is providing links for cultural exchange and growth. Can we preserve our unique values and cultures through this change?

“A logo design that springs to mind immediately in terms of cultural impact is the Dingo Flour identity by Les Nash. The ocean facing flourmill it was painted on is now Heritage-listed and is a great example of design intrinsic to Western Australia’s cultural identity.”

Elliott also believes that the Western Australian design industry possibly isn’t pushing itself as much as it should. In order to compete with the dominant design hubs of Sydney and Melbourne, regional and emergent design cultures must take the initiative to change perception and grab attention.

“I think the evolving digital age is enhancing relationships between designers and clients in the city, regionally and Australia wide. Location is no longer the barrier that it used to be.

“WA needs to be more aware of what makes it unique. A state’s brand needs to be approached in a more collaborative fashion as well. Allowing a few people to dictate key decisions about the direction of the state’s cultural identity will ultimately only result in it feeling confused, stale and insipid. Establishing a clear sense of unity, understanding and community on major decisions can make a brand successful.”

From desktop magazine.

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