Studio profile: Mark Gowing Design

Published:  April 29, 2011
Studio profile: Mark Gowing Design

Mark Gowing Design has produced a large body of work over the past 13 years, and received an admirable list of accolades, both here and abroad. In the backyard studio, I meet with Gowing to discuss how he has got to this stage in his career and his views on the Australian design landscape, culture, country and the future of design.

It all starts somewhere
Gowing tells me that the person who led him to graphic arts as a teenager was his grandfather. A lifelong sign-writer and calligrapher, Gowing’s grandfather pointed out that Gowing’s hand drawn type and replicas of his favourite brands mapped out all over his maths book were actually logos and typography. He told his grandson that he could create a living out of this as a graphic artist.

Gowing began his career after attending work experience at a publishing company while still in high school. This work experience turned into a regular holiday stint, which then led him to being offered his first role as a designer. From here Gowing spent most of his youth working away as a designer. Twelve years in, he hit a wall of disillusionment and exhaustion – feeling a lack of passion and enthusiasm for what he was doing. Spurred by this feeling, he began his own studio, with the intention of working from his bedroom for three days a week and to have fun and live life for the rest of the time. From this down time, he regained his passion for design, began investing in great design books and studying the subject. It is from here that Gowing started to take his business more seriously and when the studio really began to flourish.

Optimism Australia Icograda, 2010. A poster to promote the 2010 Icograda conference in Brisbane.

Hemispheres 09 identity, Sydney Opera House, 2008 Campaign graphics for a season of world music

Dark Matter: works by Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro. Gallery Barry Keldoulis, 2009. A publication commemorating the Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Creating cultural design
To quote from the Mark Gowing Design website: “While good design is good business, it also demands a cultural responsibility.” I ask Gowing to elaborate on what this means to him and how he approaches his practice. “I get really idealistic about things,” he replies. “I really hate it when design lies. I think we can sometimes abuse not just our industry, but our contribution to culture and society when we lie through design.” He specifically nominates the BP logo as an example of a brand lying through its teeth. “It’s not about disliking the designers who created that mark. They are doing their job, but they work within a company where that is their job. It is really hard for designers to stand their ground and say, ‘I’m not going to design that’. Everyone has mouths to feed and bills to pay. You can’t blame everyone for it – and I don’t mean to do that – but it’s just an upsetting situation and that’s not the way forward. I feel that while I’m still running my business and I have the ability to choose, I will.”

So the sticky question here, of course, is: if the client is paying and you want the work, how do you navigate the worthiness of a client’s mission? “I talk about honesty with them, but I don’t get into all of the ideology of it, because I assume that they have researched my work a bit and that I wouldn’t really be there if they were worried about it and didn’t get it,” says Gowing. “We want to do everything, you know, don’t we all? So when a client comes along, you want it to be a great thing. It’s disappointing when you flip it over and you find it’s something that you really do not want to be attached to.”

Closer to home, and while on the theme of cultural design, a portion of Gowing’s work (both client-based and self-initiated) has expressed ideas and visuals of Australian culture through his often typographically driven, minimalistic, geometric style. How does the Australian designer find a place to express a culturally infused outcome within the mire of global generic design outputs in this day and age? For Gowing, this is about the landscape and the features of our country that inspire this.

“I love and hate Australia. Like most people love and hate their countries. I guess it’s normal. The thing I love about Australia is the land. I think it has this spellbinding nature about it. There is this minimalism here that is really beautiful. From the bushland to the sparsity of the deserts. You can walk up to the headlands of Botany Bay and there is just one species of plant that exists for as far as the eye can see. It’s amazing; it is full of texture and yet it is complete minimalism. That’s why I love Australia and I get really caught up in that. I reference it all the time, that repetition of form. I think that we have something that is our own and that’s all you need. No matter what it is, as long as it is yours – you can speak volumes. That’s our identity and that says more about who we are than just our buildings or our cities or our attitude or our ‘shrimps on the barbie’. What we have here is not present anywhere else in the world. So when you’re trying to make something Australian, it becomes really easy to do. I will use the land, the colour palette or the form and just distil it down. Look at Uluru, distil that down and you can simply express that with a curve – it’s still Uluru. There is so much iconography in the nothingness here. It’s just a red earth and a blue sky and this is an icon in itself. Just take the colour palette alone and immediately it’s Australian.”

What I particularly admire about Gowing’s work is that it does not literally express Australian identity visually, as it’s so often represented in mainstream culture. Rather, his design reflects a sense of place and identity through his own design aesthetic – forms and colours, conceptually weaving his connection to Australian cultural influences through his design explorations. It’s when it’s not strikingly obvious that it works most effectively and resonates as an Australian design. It’s a mysterious and personal connection to Australian influences.

Gowing also shares with me his experience of working on an Indigenous project, as a non-Indigenous designer. “I designed an identity for the Kanyini Foundation. What was fascinating about that process was that, when designing for film and Foundation identities, I started to form a point of view. I started to ask myself the questions: What is it to design for an Indigenous community? What does it mean and how do you do it? What’s at stake? What should you do? What is your responsibility? I was not sure how to approach it.”

Gowing describes the challenges of trying to visually articulate a design language and culture to fit within the frameworks of a design medium that is not one’s own. “What came out of it that was really interesting was working with the people. When designing the identity, I had meetings with the Kanyini board that included some Aboriginal Elders from the community. There was this one chap who came in and gave me a painting. It was a painting of Kanyini that he had made. It was one great big circle in the middle, four big circles that sat around the north, south, west and east axes and four little circles between those and the diagonal. He explained to me that this was what Kanyini meant. I looked at this spiritual painting that explained the meaning and that is what formed the basis for the identity. We then designed an educational poster for schools explaining what Kanyini meant. We referenced the original painting and used the form of that, mixed with photos of the land, which was well-received by the team in the board meetings.”

Kanyini. The Kanyini Foundation, 2009 Educational poster to explain the meaning and values of the Aboriginal belief system, Kanyini.

The Turner Collective identity. The Turner Collective, 2010. Trademark for a furniture object design company and campaign graphics promoting their launch exhibition.

The future of design here and abroad
Gowing currently sits on the Council for the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA). As he’s a designer who is constantly representing his country on an international level, it’s interested to hear his views on the future of design in Australia and how he sees the local design industry both in Sydney and nationally supporting itself and gaining further recognition. “Tough question,” he says. “I think we support ourselves pretty well. Obviously AGDA has a massive role to play here. I think there are real factions at the moment [like] Semi-Permanent, AGDA and AgIdeas. There are sort of three groups, in a way, and they don’t talk to one another enough; however, they are beginning to talk and I think those walls are coming down. I think it’s really important that we stop the faction thing, as we are all in the same boat. We are all working designers and we all have the same problems, the same hopes and the same fears.”

I tend to agree that unity is required across all design organisations to work towards common Australian goals, especially as the industry grows and work opportunities are expanding due to technology and streamlined communication platforms. How will the Australian designer keep up with this and does an internationally recognised designer like Gowing feel pressure to perform at a global level?

“In terms of commerce, I don’t,” he says. “I don’t feel pressure to perform globally, because I like doing good work here in Australia. I always used to get upset by good designers who left. The tendency is to leave to pursue greener pastures. I think we produce so much creative talent in Australia. I’d love to live overseas for a while, just for the experience, but not because I think it’s better. There are some designers here in Australia who are some of the best in the world. Creatively, we are a really good bunch, but we probably sell ourselves short when we look overseas and say it’s better there. There is just more. I think it’s all here if you want it and, if we stay and do it well, then there will be more here.”

Packages Australian Poster Annual, 2010 Ideological response to the overuse of plastic in packaging.

Show and Tell identity Hopscotch Films, 2010 Campaign graphics promoting a Hopscotch film event.

Hopscotch Films identity. Hopscotch Films, 2002. A trademark, motion identity spot and still set for an art house film distributor.

Where Gowing does feel pressure to perform internationally is when it comes to excelling with the ‘fun stuff’. “It’s mostly through the poster biennales and things that I really love to do, because, well, there is no commerce involved and they are such fun,” he explains. “There is a community of people around the world that attend and participate in all of them. It’s a great community of passionate designers. Also to know that you can apply your design skills to something with business aside and contribute to the cultural side of things, purely for the doing, is really human.”

The role that a contemporary designer plays is one of diversity, complexity, influence and rigour. It’s nice to know that within the Australian industry and internationally we have a fraternity of like-minded passionate individuals, quietly and sometimes not so quietly working to redefine the mission design can have within our own backyard.

Sitting down with Gowing, it is clear to me why he has earned so many accolades over the years. He is a highly energetic and passionate designer who cares very much about what he and his fellow design colleagues produce and contribute to this world. Passion for what we do and a sense of community is what we need, in order to create great, long-lasting outcomes and to make a real difference. Mark Gowing is certainly a part of this.

Three Drunk Monkeys identity. Three Drunk Monkeys, 2009. A trademark and motion identity spot for an advertising agency.

FirstCut Studio identity. FirstCut Studio, 2010. Trademark for a music composition and production company.

Thumbnail image: Labelled – 8 poster set. Immigrant, Celebrity, Terrorist, Religious, Homeless, Activist, Refugee, Indigenous. EyeSaw, 2009. Ideological response to the prejudice of labelling people based on appearances. Ready-made stickers on laser plotter prints.

Images copyright Mark Gowing Design.

Cover design for desktop's April 2011 issue

From desktop magazine.

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