“Be open. Be enthusiastic. Be collaborative” – Jef Wong, Designworksby Corinne Smith on 29/07/2012
We start the week speaking to Jef Wong, Group Head of Design at Designworks in Auckland. Wong is responsible for design reputation and creative output, meaning he is involved in all stages of the design process and is behind big brands you will be very familiar with. This work has won an impressive amount of awards: Best Design Awards, IABC Gold Quill, Design Down Under, UK’s Design Week and American Art Directors Club.
How did you start out in design?
I always loved art, design and pop culture growing up as a kid. As a kid I loved drawing and would draw for hours on end, heavily influenced by comics and cartoon culture. It wasn’t till later I figured out what I loved about comics on one level was the craft and technical side of the illustration, but above all it was the story telling and creativity of the characters that really got me interested. This interest opened me up to find out more about ideas, art, design, typography, art history, everything and I think that has never changed for me. This took me to design school and it went from there.
What was your ‘big break’?
Hard one to answer as every job or project can be a big break but after being at Designworks for a few years I wanted to travel and they let me go for 8months and that for me was a moment in my career that changed the way I looked at things, thought about things and where I wanted to be long-term. It also got me excited again, It was a time in my career when I needed a good jolt!
Tell us about your studio/ work environment: what are its best/worst points, why is it like it is/how important is it to your creative process?
We have been in our space for a long, long time and initially we had about 18 people, now we now have around 35 people and we are still in the same space! I think the studio space and environment are hugely important, our space hasn’t grown with us which is not ideal but what I love about our studio is we encourage openness and collaboration. No one really has an office, I sit in the middle of my design team, we hear each others conversations, see what other people are working on and all talk about how we can make work better. A few years ago we created a large communal table in the middle of the studio for informal meetings, brainstorming and laying out work, its a great way for people to indirectly ‘pick up’ ways of working and try and integrate the growing numbers. As we have outgrown our space the thing we are missing in our studio are more work in progress spaces and quiet thinking spaces. Overall the culture makes the team and the everyday energy at Designworks is magic, it makes the work fun.
Does your personal creative process differ from your studios?
Even with personal work I need an idea. That’s the only thing that would be a consistent element in the process, how I get to the idea and how we execute the idea can be different every time.
Or as a senior member of the team, do you think you have influenced their creative process?
I hope I have! As a studio we have always been about having a great idea central to everything, not just from an aesthetic point of view but from a cultural and experience point of view. If you had to say there was a signature for Designworks or a essence that we were known for, its the idea driving the thinking. We pride ourselves on not having a signature ‘aesthetic style’ to our work and this has stayed true through 30 years of the company. I hope I have influenced a real collaborative way of creating great work in our studio, we try and blend strategy, design and execution throughout the process. We have a saying here that all strategy is creative and all creative is strategic.
Do you feel your physical environment, where in the world you work has shaped your creative process and outputs and continues to?
The great thing about New Zealand is that you can get on and ‘create’ things. Being a small industry/country you get involved in a variety of situations and it challenges you to approach things in different ways. You also have to still be hands on in terms of making stuff happen which is great to as there are not an abundance of specialists, you get to learn by doing. Being in New Zealand though means travel is so important and that is the hardest thing to constantly do. Being able to see whats happening in the world refreshes you.
What’s the biggest professional lesson you’ve learnt and how has it shaped your career direction?
There are so many things you learn through your career but the skill of truly collaborating is a biggest and most constant area of learning for me. Great ideas can only be realised by collaborating with great clients, collaborating to create ideas with good strategic insight, great design created by collaborating with a talented team, it all takes the ability to get people to see what you can see, never an easy thing to achieve. Another big lesson is how to clearly articulate and present your work in a compelling way. Designers can be terrible at this part and get annoyed when clients don’t like the work or don’t understand it.
What design project, personal or professional are you must proud of and why?
We have been lucky enough to have several longstanding client relationships so we are definitely proud of the longevity of our work with these clients. In my opinion its the only way to do meaningful work that stands the test of time. DB Breweries, Air New Zealand, Silver Fern Farms to name a few and we are very proud of the work and the opportunities we continue to have with them. Individual projects like Monteith’s are a personal favourite, another was collaborating with Air New Zealand on rethinking their long haul journey, the Hangar 9 experience and black plane and working with Silver Fern Farms on switching their focus from a processor to a global marketer and great food brand have all been highlights. Just recently there have been some ‘soul’ projects that I have loved being involved in, creating The New Zealand Dance Company and also a refresh of a mentoring program called the First Foundation, great things to do.
Name a designer or design studio you admire, and why?
I have always been a big fan of Pentagram and how they have managed over time, to keep the essence of what they are about from Alan Fletcher to Paula Scher. I also love Wolff Olins as a studio who tackles work on a ‘big stage’ with bravery and creativity. Work that is seen as ‘big and corporate’ can sometimes be perceived as not that creative but its the type of work that does make a difference to a broad audience and Wolff Olins do it well and creatively. Sid Lee I think are exciting in blurring the lines of advertising/design studio/experience agency and creating some amazing experiential work. I’m really interested in total brand experiences and the story telling. Smaller studios I think do some lovely crafted work like Farrow, Hat-trick, made-thought . Designers I admire and always return to are the likes of Alan Fletcher, Saul Bass, Peter Saville – all great powerful thinkers.
What are you currently working on? Professionally and personally?
Professionally continuing to produce high caliber work with our clients. I also see the culture and studio as a continual project, trying to keep it fresh and positive is the challenge. Also getting more involved in the design industry. Personally there is not a lot of time for other projects especially with a 2 year old! But always looking out for something inspiring….
Where do you find your inspiration?
I like my inspiration and influences to be very wide and varied, not narrow and one dimensional. I think its really important to have the traditional foundations of art and design history—which going to art/design school gives you, i.e. Bauhaus, post-modernism, pop art etc, but for me it is how other influences mash with these to create new ideas, the things that get you personally excited. I am influenced by pop culture, movies, comics, toys, kids books, the 80′s, fine art, music, street art on & on…it can come from any where or any combination. I think also like being ‘open’ to ideas and new conversations and others influences, that is key for me as well – always listening out for more.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to people starting out in this industry?