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Viral is a Verb

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A man puffs into a rubber dinghy on the beach. A boy patters toward him and flings himself onto it. The man’s head explodes. Seven years ago, Head Rush – a simple 10-second clip, carefully honed to 790k to punch through Hotmail’s attachment filters – launched Ed Robinson’s company, The Viral Factory. It’s since been viewed 100 million times. “It feels incredibly crass now,” he’s prepared to admit, “but that’s how it was then.”

Of course, in the Web 2.0 world the huge advertising potential in peer-to-peer networks is clear to a growing number of brands – but agencies exploiting the system are still shaking off those past associations. Ed for one is clearly weary of justifying himself to people who still think ‘viral’ just means a bedroom-produced funny.

“Viral is a terrible buzzword,” he concedes. “It’s a mechanism; it’ll probably disappear from our company name within a year. It’s been misconstrued. A viral isn’t a short, rude 30-second TV spot you couldn’t get past the BACC – it’s a mysterious peer-to-peer network. Viral is something that happens when a piece of content wins its own audience in an exponential way, and we use the term as a verb. It’s ‘gone’ viral.”

Head Rush unquestionably went viral, and it persuaded Ed to reach beyond his job as a TV ads producer in favour of something edgier. “I didn’t want to make ads. I wanted to make films. As a punter I resent advertising – I want an honest exchange. Either give me hard facts, or engage me; give me something. I resent people just selling eyeball space.”

Ironically, the original proposal was not too far removed from that of a traditional broadcaster – selling space either side of great content. “I had this image of not having a relationship with clients. I’d just make stuff, put it out there in a locked environment and then advertisers would buy a placement; their name at the end of it. Effectively I’d be a programme maker, making small bits of communication.”

In principle, it made sense – clients would buy media space in return for the content winning viewers. It works on TV. But perhaps it was a paradigm shift too far – part of the appeal of online content, after all, is stripping off the ads. “They didn’t buy it,” Ed recalls. So, with reluctance, he began to explore winning an audience with an integral advertising message. In other words, ads that people want to watch. And share.

Evil Twin Ka came a couple of years later: a deliciously sinister decapitation episode in which a black Ford Ka tempts an unsuspecting feline into its open sunroof, and then slides it back in place with a sickening clunk. In another version, a pigeon is splatted flat in the road by a timely flick of its bonnet. “That was back in the day when email peer-to-peer – ‘have you seen this’ – was key,” adds Ed, acknowledging Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as a useful reference on this kind of exponential growth.

“When people pull your content to them instead of having it pushed at them, you get a buzz,” he smiles. “But at the time it was an add-on thing. It’s only in the last two years that we’ve realised virals can be part of the bigger picture.”

And without the need to deal with media buyers, campaign budgets can be significantly lower. “The ad process can be quite stifling. You may have a million quid to make the ad, but they’ve got 10 million quid to buy the media for a couple of nights on Channel 4 – which is why everyone’s so anxious and sits around debating what colour a certain guy’s shirt should be. We have a much more fluid process – come up with an idea; make it for £50-100k; come back and hopefully they like it. We’re called a factory for a reason.”

Ed goes on to discuss their 2003 Trojan Games campaign for the UK launch of the condom brand, whose quirky notion of a sex Olympics persuaded 55 million visitors to spend an average of five minutes on the website, enjoying and recommending short videos of lycra-clad athletes engaging in acrobatic penetration. This equates to an army of excitable brand advocates roughly the size of the country’s population. Not bad, especially considering the clips contained no explicit sexual content whatsoever.

Sex, violence and slapstick humour – check, check, check. But within the viral space there remains infinite scope for creativity, depending entirely on who you’re targeting to disseminate your message, and why they’d be motivated to pass it on.

Web audiences are notoriously fickle with short attention spans, flitting from clip to clip on giant rambling sites like YouTube and MySpace, and are accordingly much more empowered than their passive TV counterparts. But with the growing interconnectivity between social networking sites, finding what you want (and dumping what you don’t) is only going to get easier. “Above all the advertising industry has to re-learn that they have to give something back,” is Ed’s take on it. “It’s an exchange.”

Perhaps their most innovative work to date was for Levi’s in 2006, ostensibly involving a gigantic jeans-wearing marionette being manoeuvred through the streets of Reykjavik by a trio of helicopters. Such a stunt would cost millions to stage for real, and it was considerably cheaper and savvier to mock the whole thing up in post-production, project it in cinematic glory onto a giant plasma screen – and film it on mobiles. The resulting clips, scattered over YouTube to give the illusion that random Icelandic passers-by had witnessed something wondrous, have garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

There’s an inherent talkability about a giant airborne puppet – even if people decide it’s a hoax, they’ve spread the clip, thought about it and engaged with other users about it on comment threads. That’s what a modern viral campaign needs to be about, and Ed is regularly frustrated by clients who want ‘something on YouTube’ – a request that, as he points out, is pretty meaningless. He turns 70 percent of potential work down, partly as a reality check for clients whose campaigns simply would never go viral.

“You can stick anything on YouTube – a picture of your product with you sticking your thumbs up in front of it. It doesn’t mean people will see it, and it doesn’t make it a viral. It only becomes a viral if you’ve specifically set out to generate an audience.”

Most important of all is to be straight with them once you have them. “They’ll turn against you if you try to ram a message down their throats, and that’s a massive turn-off to some clients,” he warns. “But if you do it right, you have free media, and an audience that voluntarily spreads your message.”

Ed took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine


Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 12:39 pm

All in the Detail

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A handful of brands have dominated the upper echelons of creative, memorable advertising over the last decade. Advertising for which people sit through the dross in the hope of catching again, and seek out on YouTube months after the TV run ceased – Abbott Mead Vickers for Guinness, HHCL for Tango, Fallon for Sony Bravia. But perhaps one of the most enduring, varied and consistently innovative campaigns of the past few years has been Wieden+Kennedy’s treatment of Honda UK.

A creative behind several of the most memorable of these – not least Cog, better known as the mesmerising two-minute chain reaction made from parts of a Honda Accord – is copywriter Ben Walker. And while he tips a nod to the surreal pin-striped, blender-headed mannequin and attention-grabbing staff self-portraits that adorn the entrance to W+K, much of his inspiration comes from a razor-sharp attention to everyday detail.

The Accord was one of the first briefs on the new account, and the initial feeling was that there was space to talk about ‘warm engineering’ – a satisfying, affable, gentle type of technology to contrast the cold, teutonic efficiency marketed by Germanic counterparts Mercedes, Audi and BMW, or as Ben’s art director Matt Gooden put it at the time, “like the way all the bits in Mousetrap fit together.”

This in turn sparked a recollection of an experimental chain reaction film by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and before they knew if they were dismantling a hatchback – then stringing the components back together like automotive dominos. ‘Isn’t it nice when things just work?’ was Ben’s beautifully simple tagline, and after more than 600 takes, it did – although they had to film it in two halves, simply because there wasn’t a warehouse long enough to cram it all in.

Incredible patience, precision and hours in the pursuit of that flawless take – it’s no surprise that Ben cites Michel Gondry and Stanley Kubrick as creative influences for their sharp attention to detail. But another of his ads, this time for the Honda Civic, drew inspiration from a less lofty source.

“There’s a Dorling Kindersley book in our office called The Way Things Work – which shows the actual way things work,” he grins. “They talk about something mundane like a stapler or a zip, and you think fuck me; that’s amazing. No-one ever points those things out to you.” A Civic, Ben reasons, is practical but not particularly cool – so they sprinkled this wonderment in the small unnoticed things in life onto a fast-cut editing technique inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

In the film the technique snapshots the pill-popping, tea-drinking, remote-clicking lifestyle of a desperately lonely menopausal woman on speed, and her deteriorating junkie son – unsurprisingly the ad brings a more wholesome Dorling Kindersley edge, integrating macro shots of certain life-enhancing features on a Civic with everyday items that make life easier, but tend to go forgotten. Again the tagline makes it all relevant, as a tagline should: ‘Why is it, the better something does its job, the more we take it for granted?’

Although fewer people are interested in the craft of advertising copy – and award-winning ads seem to be increasingly about effects and glamorous art direction – Ben insists that it’s still absolutely integral to brand communication. “It took me ages to write that line,” he grins.

And Grrr! – Honda’s rainbow-coloured award-magnet, which sees chugging diesel engines knocked out of the sky to the cheerful tune of ‘hate something, change something, make something better’ – is, he points out, built around a song. “There are optimistic visuals and the colour palette is good, but it’s all about the language. Copy makes it relevant to the brand. It’s still hugely important, but people don’t realise it.”

Ben took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 12:31 pm

A Remit to Provoke

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“You shouldn’t be in it unless you love ads,” declares 4Creative’s Richard Burdett. “If you’re lucky, once in your life you’ll be part of something great. I’ve been lucky enough to see that twice.” Interestingly, his examples flank a period of disillusionment and frustration with a stagnating industry that’s only recently shaking itself into shape.

First is a seminal moment in the history of advertising. The colossal smiling, winking face, splashed across a rich human canvas in vivid red, white and blue, that helped turn British Airways around while he was at Saatchi’s in 1989. The very picture of optimism: diverse cultures connected across an ever-shrinking globe.

Seventeen years later, visages of an altogether grittier nature: coalition soldiers, contorted in panic and despair beneath ghostly clown makeup as hollow Iraqi gunfire echoes around them. A trail for Iraq: the Bloody Circus – More4’s season of programming on the controversial conflict – while at 4Creative.
Fortunately for a man who grew bored with mainstream advertising over a decade ago, the environment in which he now finds himself at the head of Channel 4’s in-house agency – a role for which he was headhunted at Cannes to cover maternity leave, and has commanded ever since – is an “incredibly benign” incubator for great work.

“I have as my client possibly the only advertiser in the country with the guts to provoke every single time, and a remit to provoke,” he declares, citing a recent campaign that sat the cast of Shameless around the Last Supper table as a concept the BBC would have “stabbed to death hideously” after a string of committee meetings. “We know they’ll buy challenging work, so we’re not mitigating ideas before we even present them. And we’ve produced some pretty visceral images – but never gratuitous.”

One of Richard’s personal favourites is a Shameless poster where Frank Gallagher has ripped the ‘4’ logo off the wall and carried it off, leaving screw holes in the plaster. “It tells you nothing about Shameless and everything about Shameless; nothing about Channel 4 and everything about Channel 4,” he enthuses. “What other company would agree to have a space where their logo should be, and have it tucked under the arm of a villain?”

Likewise, you won’t find a morbidly obese Jamie Oliver wobbling after a bus, or Gordon Ramsey smashing junk food into mush with a baseball bat, in their respective shows. “Not one of our ads tells you the story of the show, but every one of them captures the spirit of the show,” reflects Richard. “I think that applies to any brand; that’s what advertising’s going to become. British Airways is a precursor of those; the first ad that didn’t say ‘our seat is bigger than their seat’ or some quantifiable element. It just owned an absolute generic of flying. You get to the other end, you meet people.”

It’s benign, but not too comfortable – Channel 4 can choose whether their in-house agency is best for the job, and 4Creative must pitch for work alongside rivals such as DDB, who handled the launch of More4. “There’s no coercion to use us, and they’re not cutting costs – we have incredibly healthy budgets.”

“Getting David LaChappelle to do Lost, we spent all the money you’d expect a big agency to spend. But we’re tiny: 18 people, split thirds between account handlers, production people and creatives. Then there’s massive use of freelancers, which means 35 people sitting in the office at any one time.”

Besides greater creative freedom from clients, Richard feels that a more democratic creative process all round can help ensure genuinely groundbreaking work. “The ad industry has an incredible division of labour,” he reflects. “Only an account man can do this, only a planner can do this, only a TV producer can do that. And I didn’t realise how debilitating that was until I came to a place where creativity is the job of everybody.”

Having worked on the other side of the divide, both at media agency CIA and selling airtime as Head of Sales at Discovery, Richard has seen plenty of noisy battles for the strategic high ground – and the resulting appreciation of what all parties want and need has helped build a culture of joined-up thinking.

“Direct marketing, ad agency, media agency, communications planning – everyone wants to boss the strategy,” he laments. “It’s like herding cats. As an industry we should never have allowed media to slip out of ad agencies. When I was there, the agencies could talk to the guys booking the space for a clear idea of what could and couldn’t be done. Now knowledge is fractured and fragmented.”

And in an increasingly multiplatform environment, so is the audience. Richard flags up the fact that Bullseye used to draw an audience of 23 million as something of an absurdity in the modern era – anything pulling in that many eyeballs on terrestrial television nowadays would be nothing short of a phenomenon. But while they may be carved into a greater number of niches, the numbers are still there.

“The television advertising industry has been useless at defending television,” he argues. “You’d think that nobody watches TV anymore, and everyone spends their life on the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are still fantastically robust, big numbers. But the sad truth is that most clients don’t want fantastic work. They want safe, box-ticking exercises. If you find someone that does, stick to them like glue.”

Richard took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 12:23 pm

Poetry in Motion

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It made a refreshing change from tinsel-clad sprites and magical reindeer. Alongside staple fare such as The Snowman, a fresh lynchpin of Channel 4’s 2006 Christmas schedule was Suzie Templeton’s deliciously dark adaptation of Peter and the Wolf. An unsettling psychological study of a baleful-eyed boy and his lupine alter-ego, it used stop-motion puppetry with a mythical intensity that felt faithful to the yarn’s Eastern European roots.

“I thought it would take about a year. It took five,” reveals Suzie of her Bafta-winning opus. “Three years to raise the money, two years to write the script, and a year to make it. It turned into a massive production. I went from working on my own in a basement to working in Poland with a team of 100 people, communicating through a translator.”

Like so many before her, Suzie started her animation career at Farnham College. It was her second degree, and she was 29 when the course began: “I always felt that being older was in my favour,” she reflects. “I had to set higher standards; be braver and naughtier.” So she threw herself into her first stop-frame film, Stanley – spending many months crafting sets, models and puppets.

It was all going beautifully until the first day on set. “I thought, ‘Shit, what do I do now?’ I don’t know how to animate.’ So I just made it up as I went along, as we all do.” Suzie recounts her first, and last, walk cycle: “The character kept getting lower and lower to the ground,” she giggles. “So I just cut out all the walk cycles. In fact, I’ve never done a walk cycle since. I got away with it.”

Stanley was more than just a stepping-stone. Once complete, Suzie was so proud of her student project that she sent it out to over 100 festivals, and they didn’t just accept it into the programme – it started winning awards. Surfing on success and optimistic for her future as an animator, she went straight from Farnham into the Royal College of Art and vowed to widen her skills-base.

“Caroline Leaf came and gave a talk, and I thought I’d try sand animation – but it was just impossible,” she says of her self-confessedly “hopeless” first dabble in a new technique. “I thought I’d try something else, but I just wasn’t good at anything else. I went back and did another stop-motion film in my second year called Dog. It’s really, really dark.”

Signaling the birth of a unique style that initially made producers wary of disturbing their audience, but would eventually win her the Peter and the Wolf commission, Dog sprang from a disturbing episode that her ex-boyfriend’s father had had with his pet: “The vet messed it up, and it was awful,” recalls Suzie. “This grew out of that.”

And the fact that the stop-motion studio at the Royal College was in a dark basement with no radio signal could only add spice to the new style. “Someone lent me a Tom Waites tape: The Black Rider,” she adds. “That’s the only tape I had. Somehow, I think, the Black Rider is in that film.”

Suzie took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Animation in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 12:15 pm

When Harry met William

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Animation as an art-form covers a vast spectrum, and if you have the skills to enhance footage with effects and 3D models then there’s scope to enter a thriving commercial industry. William Bartlett represents Framestore CFC, one of Soho’s foremost post-production houses.

Split into four divisions, the company handles effects for blockbusters such as X-Men, Harry Potter and Superman; feature-length animation, with upcoming mouse-flick The Tales of Despero in production; and long-form effects for TV series, including Walking with Dinosaurs. Finally, there’s the commercial division – for which William heads up the 2D effects and compositing departments.

“Directors come to us with an idea of what they want to see at the end, and we discuss what we can shoot, where we should use models, and what could be computer-generated,” he explains. “In other words, we tell them how to get the best from their money.” Clearly from this angle animation is less a creative hobby than a service industry, with rigid budgets, targets and timeframes.

Part of his job is to think outside the box for maximum effect, such as pouring weed-killer on plants, speeding up the footage and running it backwards to replicate super-fast growth in Guinness’ acclaimed devolution ad, noitulovE. Another quick-fix trick in the same ad involved shooting rising dough on a hot-plate, treated to resemble a rock formation – freeing up the 3D animation team to focus on dinosaurs and flying squirrels.

“I wanted to be an animator really, but didn’t realise that until rather too late,” laments William who, despite an interest in art at school, found himself studying Pure Maths. Experimenting with photography as a creative outlet, he took a Super-8 camera and some blobs of Plasticine and started animating dinosaurs: “I thought I’d become the next Ray Harryhousen.” It’s tempting to wonder whether Harryhousen, creator of wobbly stop-motion monster-flicks One Million Years BC and Sinbad the Sailor, would be correspondingly impressed by Walking with Dinosaurs.

Maintaining this interest in film and photography, after graduating he got a job as a runner in a motion control studio. Gradually, he began to drift down to the post-production department – fascinated by an enigmatic new editing machine called Harry. “It was this huge computer like a load of fridges,” he reminisces. “When I saw what it was doing, that mixture of technical and artistic, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

“I could create things without having to be especially creative myself; help people solve problems,” enthuses William – and here his mathematical background was perhaps influential. “My wife did the same job as me but studied Fine Art, and she always moaned about how restrictive it was using these things. I thought it was great.”


One of Framestore’s most memorable ads is Adidas’ Impossible Field, where a handful of international football legends – including Beckham, Ballack and Raúl – take on contenders along the lines of a pitch, suspended in mid-air on metal bars.

“We were filming fast action on a number of cameras at once, cutting from one angle to another,” explains William. “That’s a problem for two reasons – you’re suspended in the air, which is complicated, and footballers didn’t have much time. There were also lots of problems with insurance, so we couldn’t do anything too dangerous.”

All of the actions were predetermined in a number of self-contained sequences – Beckham receives ball, flicks it over one contender, who falls off; kicks it into the chest of someone else, who also falls off; then jumps in the air and passes it.

These sequences were roughly animated first to determine the camera angles required. “The editor took these renders and edited a final sequence together, which was hugely helpful for planning the live-action blue-screen shoot. Time spent with real footballers was minimal.”

Back at Framestore, the overall geography of the match was pieced together – 3D pitch, ball and all.


Essentially a public safety campaign, Esuvee was funded by the Ford Motor Company in the wake of a successful law suit against them by a woman who’d been seriously injured in an SUV accident. “Their advert said she could drive it like a sports car, she did, and it turned over,” is William’s summation. Ford’s advertising was deemed negligent, and part of their penance was to spend thousands of dollars encouraging safer driving.

The ads depict SUVs as powerful and dangerous creatures – part-car, part-beast – at a rodeo. “The idea was that if you’re good enough you can handle the power. It was an odd job,” he smiles. “Our clients were lawyers with very specific things to communicate.”

The first challenge at Framestore’s end was building the creature; a cross between a prehistoric mammoth and a modern day car, with headlight eyes and brake-lights in its ankles. The second was getting a rider to sit convincingly on top. “We did lots of tests with different strides – walking, running, trotting – and sat the person on a horse, a bull and a buffalo. We used a mechanical bull in the end; it was easier to control.”

William took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Animation in Birmingham, May 2007 

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 11:57 am

A Third Way?

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Would you pass up a juicy brief from the swoosh, the golden arches or any other glossy global with cash to spend but a somewhat chequered back-story? Is there room for conscience in our glitzy, soundbite world?

In his time, Jonathan Barnbrook has turned down Coca-Cola, Nike and a seemingly innocuous leisure company who, after some digging, turned out to be owned by a landmine manufacturer linked with the Korean War. And while he stresses that ranting for its own sake can be counterproductive, if the opportunity arises he’ll make it abundantly clear why that client has been crossed off the list.

“You have to take responsibility for what your clients do,” he shrugs. Consumers and commissioners are waking up to the power of visual communication as a prime shaper of our culture, but the transition from determination to disillusionment is all-too common. His Soho-based studio regularly receives correspondence from design graduates unsure of how to balance watertight morals with a half-decent living.

“I’m sure I’d be a lot richer if I agreed to work for large corporates, but I’d be unhappy,” is Jonathan’s take on the issue. “It’s an outdated idea to put over the client’s message and not think about what you’re doing. Working for a trendy sports manufacturer isn’t necessarily the ultimate job. I don’t see it as kudos – to me, kudos would be working for a charity. Money is an issue; you have to keep going. But I’m not starving. I can turn down work and still survive.”
So has he burnt his bridges with the agencies that came bearing accounts that for many designers would carve a reputation and top their folio with a crown, albeit a thorny one? “They’ve never been in touch again,” he’s prepared to admit. “But to be honest, we don’t want to be desperate to get work from these sorts of people.”

Jonathan’s close ties with the global underground scene inform his often politically-motivated design and typography. When the Coca-Cola brief landed on his desk, he immediately picked up the phone to Kalle Lasn, founder of Vancouver-based counter-culture organisation Adbusters, to work through the ethical dilemma.
Kalle himself is optimistic. “People are more aware now; creative people are starting to feel their responsibility,” he insists. “They had to bow low before corporate clients and kiss their arses – now the feeling is that it’s us, not the corporations, who are the cool-makers and the cool-breakers.”

Jonathan first crossed paths with Adbusters and their culture-jamming magazine back in 2000, when they set out their individualist stall in a manifesto entitled First Things First. “Too much design energy is being spent to promote pointless consumerism,” it read, “and too little to help people understand an increasingly complex and fragile world.”

It created “quite a ruckus,” Kalle recalls, with many ‘old-school’ designers protesting that client satisfaction must always be top of the list of priorities. Their argument boiled down to the scale of success: two hundred employees polishing the corporate crown are better than twenty who subvert it. But the ruckus was there, and many young design and advertising students signed up.

One of Adbusters’ central concerns, he explains, is that the culture many of us swear by is “spoon-fed to us” – filtered down from the top echelons of the multinationals as they scrabble over each other in a “quest to put a glow around brands. To create cool.”

In a world that is gradually fabricated around us, fashion and social acceptability are handed down ready-made: “Culture no longer grows from the bottom-up. We should be able to decide for ourselves what we like.”

Almost from birth, we’re told what is fashionable to eat, drink and wear – and it’s only through the ever-expanding mouthpiece of the media that this is made possible. So in a world so firmly under the control of the ‘creators of cool’, is the brand-polishing bandwagon the only way to make a name in the design industry?

“It’s the job of every human being to be proud of what they’re doing, and do it wholeheartedly,” he declares. “But visual communicators have become part of the marketing arm of corporations. It’s not the job of designers to give clients everything they want, but to try to be ethical whilst making the world a better place. They should have the courage and ethical guts to say no.”

But clearly it oversimplifies the situation to polarise all potential clients into good and bad, light and dark, ethical and unethical. I challenge Jonathan to draw a line in the sand. “Ethical clients are concerned about the impact they have, and will have in the future,” is his considered response. But while certain issues – such as worker exploitation, war profiteering or wanton destruction of the environment – will automatically warrant a firm refusal, there are inevitably grey areas.

“With some companies it’s more about what they represent,” he goes on. “We’ll always research around a company before making a decision, find out who they might be owned by and so on.” So after 17 years in the industry, has he felt any sense of disillusionment himself since the heady days of student activism?

“If anything our work has become more extreme; more confident,” he reflects. “Graphic designers are finally standing up and saying no. Of course it’s difficult if you work for someone else; if it’s not your choice. But then you can always use your talent to do something useful in your own time.”

Jonathan’s ethos sits at odds with much of the London design community, which he identifies as “very commercial, intensely competitive and very much about the money.” But Barnbrook Design has always kept an international outlook.

“There’s a lot of underground stuff in London, but nothing compared to New York or Berlin,” he observes. So why continue to be based in the Capital? “Our work is very British in style, particularly our typography,” he asserts. “We have lots of connections with Tokyo, and our British aesthetic is very different to what they’re used to.”

In an industry where smooth, clean-cut visuals can put a glossy sheen on a rotten core, Jonathan has touched on a buzzword that Kalle believes is an early signpost of change from the ground up. “The last couple of generations have seen a slick, commercial, corporate aesthetic,” he observes. “The big project of the next generation is to develop a new aesthetic not driven by big branding, that has a sustainable future.”

“Design anarchy is hard to predict, but I sense a bold move away from modernism and slickness,” Kalle goes on. “A ratty, organic feel that moves away from straight lines to reflect stalks of plants, perhaps. There’s a public feeling about slickness within the design community, an acceptance of uncoated paper as a medium and so on.”

“Grids and straight lines mark the archetypal designer of the past, sat in front of a computer with a template, dividing the page into little bits, creating slickness so it pops off the page and highlights the product.” A distancing effect, perhaps, that separates the consumer from the client with thick, shiny plate glass? “It’s boring,” is Kalle’s less complicated way of putting it. “And no-one has the guts to break the paradigm.”

If design is the language that shapes and reflects our culture, he argues, forcing a regimented structure of images and typography into a tight grid will inevitably cause a backlash; an overspill; an organic sprouting elsewhere.

“Designers have not realised what power they have. With power comes responsibility, and just by realising that, the designers of the future are making a step forward. The designers of the past by-and-large sold out – they were the foot-soldiers of consumer culture. But the black-and-white choice between corporate design and small non-profit creative projects is a false route. There’s a third way emerging that’s much more tantalising and lucrative.”

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 6 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

April 19, 2007 at 8:05 pm

Corporal Identity

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“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” ventures Vince Frost as we wrap up our interview. Perhaps I look like someone. “You look like you,” he bounces back with a quizzical grin, somehow managing to sum up the last half-hour in four words. Because for the Brighton-born, Toronto-raised, Sydney-based design icon, it all boils down to identity.

His 30-strong studio in sun-soaked Sydney was founded on the simple premise of making the most of every possible opportunity – which includes never turning work down. One of the first Australian briefs to land on his desk back in 2003 was a company report for Supercheap Auto, a vast and hugely successful discount spare-parts retailer.

Not at face value the most creative brief for a designer with multiple gongs from across the world and D&AD yellow pencils tucked behind each ear, but it cemented the idea of applying great design where you’d least expect it – prising dry copy and statistics off the page with loud typography and chunky, pictorial graphs built with screwdrivers, wrenches and tape measures. Literally, Supercheap’s products made the report.

“The difference isn’t design, the difference is identity,” Vince asserts. “And identity isn’t just a logo; it’s a culmination of colour, format, editorial approach, all that kind of stuff. If a client says ‘I don’t like the colour’ it means you’re not doing a good job, because it’s not about the colour – unless it’s a colour shop.”

Fiddly isn’t the Frost* style. He’s an ideas man, his work instantly recognisable for its bold imagery, clean fonts and conceptual thought. As we meet he presses a small fluorescent-pink book into my hand, emblazoned with a giant letter F and his trademark asterisk – the symbol of freezers, frost and Frost. He’s used to being interviewed.

But softening the even tan and brisk efficiency are laughter lines, a twinkle in the eye and a dimpled grin that lend him a laid-back, slightly mischievous air. Topped with the hard-to-place drawl – seemingly rooted in Canadian, and laced with sun-kissed Australian – it immediately blows away pretensions and puts you at ease. He admits he owes a lot to his three children, who have made his style looser and more experimental.

“My kids are completely free,” he smiles. “I can see beautiful things coming out of them; beautiful paintings and beautiful questions. Then you see schools setting lines to get their handwriting neater, so it looks like an example of how the whole world is set. What does that do to us? It makes our handwriting neater, but it affects the way we think; our free flow. There is a very positive energy that is then made to feel like it’s wrong.”

“What they teach me is their incredibly inquisitive minds; they’re always making things,” he continues. “That’s what we should do as designers. Often we spend our whole life, our whole education, learning how not to be spontaneous, how not to question things. For me the most important thing is to have the freedom to have an open mind; a questioning mind.”

Interpretation, Vince insists, makes all the difference – and taking the time to glimpse the world through a child’s eyes can bring a refreshing sideways angle to almost anything. His D&AD Presidential Lecture the previous evening had kicked off with a holiday snap of two mating kangaroos in the zoo – a scene that at the time had prompted, ‘Daddy, that kangaroo’s trying to carry the other one.’ Ah, the wonder of youth.

Such quirky throwaway observations inform the Frost* Design philosophy as well as tickle his sense of humour. A flip through his little pink book – which boasts a single page of text amidst a flurry of snapshots, part portfolio, part stream of consciousness – throws up more such gems, like ‘NO PARKING’ painted haphazardly on the road, with PAR-KIN-G split three ways as if its creator had scrawled the word with abandon, yet was afraid to go over the lines.

“I just walk around, taking pictures of things,” he shrugs. “I can’t imagine looking straight ahead and not taking everything in. I often wonder what it’s like for people not in the design industry who don’t wonder why things are there, or how they got there.” While he wearily denies any obvious difference between Australian and British design, he admits his physical surroundings are more of an inspiration now than ever before.

“In Australia the graphics are everywhere. They completely surround you. Everybody here is screaming for attention, and you just do not know where to look. And they have flags and banners everywhere – it really makes the city feel alive,” he enthuses. “When I was working in London, it was primarily identities and magazines. In Australia I was introduced to three-dimensional design – signage, interiors and all that kind of stuff – and it was a really fantastic learning curve.”

Accordingly, in line with their ‘turn nothing down, anything is possible’ philosophy, Frost* Design have begun stretching beyond straightforward ‘graphic design’ into advertising, product design, web and multimedia. “It’s not about being precious, it’s about being open,” Vince believes. “Graphic design has moved on so much that I don’t think that’s the right term anymore. Some people say that we’re a multidisciplinary studio, but I think that sounds a bit wanky.”

Recent projects have included a giant inflatable stage and a full interior concept for Coast restaurant – which features a rippling wave of bright yellow Perspex, tracing the outline of the Australian coast. “It’s very beautiful. Nothing to do with typography, nothing to do with printing, but a fantastically fun thing to do,” he enthuses. “It cuts right through the restaurant and creates this amazing light effect.”

Another Perspex-based project – this time in neon pink – graces the entrance to the Frost* studio, the material twisted and contorted into a series of striking fluorescent letterforms. I put it to Vince that, even in his two-dimensional print work, the line between typography, imagery and the real world is consistently and playfully blurred. “I think we just have fun with it,” he grins. “I want to make it an interactive thing so it has impact. Everything we do, we want to give it an aura; a tangible appeal.”

A dancer hangs with perfect poise from a giant letter C on their poster for the Sydney Dance Company, for whose simple-but-effective logo Vince “added two letters to Sydney to make it dance.” The Last Magazine, a recent book project, played with the stat that half of all magazines end up as pulp by shredding fonts throughout the design, and stacking pull-quotes against shaped blocks of copy like magazines on a shelf.

And the Frost* identity for D&AD’s Ampersand magazine uses the simple cut-out motif of three overlapping circles, doubling as an ampersand and a thought bubble; the ultimate combo of collaboration, progress and ideas. Words become images and images become words, all part of the shared language of visual communication.

Ever-vocal about the pivotal role that great design can play in the fortunes of an organisation of any size, Vince enjoys taking on a tricky brief – after all, the lower the starting point, the bigger the difference you can make.

“Everything has potential to be better, so don’t judge things on what they look like now,” is his parting advice. “A lot of designers look at magazines and go, ‘Oh God, I’d like to work for them, they do nice stuff.’ Well if they do nice stuff now, they don’t need you.”

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 6 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

April 10, 2007 at 9:33 am