We had an epic chat with one half of Harmonica agency, Rachel Smith, about her journey through school, university and those first few proper jobs. We talk about how graphic design is almost becoming a dirty word; Harmonica’s design process, and how the concept and strategy is always the hero; plus focusing on what you’re truly good at as we become more specialised as creatives.
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started? I used to pass art class with flying colours in school. It was the one class I didn’t take time to study for; I found fun; and because the art department was geographically an ‘island’ separate from the regular school building, it let me ‘escape’ school at least once a day. Not that I hated school, but there’s something to be said for spending the majority of the day with a small crew that understand you, leave you be and/or make you happy. That’s not interesting, and I’m not trying to show-pony my ‘talent’ – it just proved to me that being artistically creative feels easier to me than other pursuits. And more enjoyable generally. The more interesting part to my story, is that the only time my art projects ever came unstuck, was when we were given free-reign on the parameters of the project. I found (find) it really hard to work creatively when there isn’t a ‘problem to solve’, or at the least a strict guide to what is required. Even in school I found it easier to push a boundary than create something unique for the sake of it. So when I was challenged with the question in Design School at uni “what is graphic design (how does it differ to art)?” – It was enlightening to realise that the graphic design course that I had enrolled in catered to my best-creative-self. Graphic design by my standard is the conceptualisation of visual communications for commercial benefit. Or design that gives a face or identity to a brand or event, to help it be better understood for its core values.
So in short, I fell in love with design when I realised it feels satisfying to me to create a visual solution for someone. It might have been while I was still learning my ‘trade’ in Design School (age 19), or maybe it was when I started working at Billabong (age 24) and felt akin with my fellow design colleagues because I’d found a place that encouraged people to not only love design and push themselves creatively, but also to balance that with surfing, skating, or some other outdoor lifestyle choice, mine of which was ocean and flatwater paddling. Or maybe it’s a more recent revelation (not until I started working for myself at age 29). It’s a challenge, but it’s also like completing a puzzle. It just feels good to put the pieces together and put forward the whole picture that works for the commercial benefit of something or someone.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs? After high school I was accepted to uni based on my art folio (thank goodness, because I didn’t have much else to show from school!). The course I enrolled in was a bachelor degree through Curtin Uni in WA. It was predominantly a course rooted in design theory. In first year we had students that would major in other areas besides graphic design. They branched into advertising, industrial design, photography, illustration. I hustled my way through learning Freehand, Photoshop and Quark. We spent time in the computer lab because the machines there had legit software and worked way faster than anything that anyone was using at home. It was probably the crappest way to learn the technical side of things. We were all essentially self-taught. Although, the more I understand about how everyone learns their skills, the more I realise that even when you’re not self-taught, you still basically are. That said, I’m grateful that the course considered design in a more universal sense than just learning the technical aspects.
During uni, people asked me to design things for them all the time, and so I registered my ABN to invoice them (a pittance) for the work. I thought I wanted to run a magazine when I was 20. I started working for a street press. It was fun. The pay was terrible, but there were perks like free albums, t-shirts and event tickets as well as the excitement of typesetting interviews with musicians and B grade celebrities. I did a lot of sport through the years, so my jobs often took a back seat to my training camps or trips overseas for competition. I kept my freelance work going throughout though. I found jobs that I could do part-time, and ended up in more than one print-house doing shit-kicker business card typesetting or throw-together logos. I let my magazine dream go because I realised that you needed to know and be in contact with a lot of people constantly to make it work. Any design work that was more like editorial though, I really enjoyed.
When I landed a job at Billabong I didn’t care that it was laying out catalogues. I let myself believe it was editorial-ish. Haha. Plus, it was so much fun. Sometimes we worked until the middle of the night, but often we also knocked off by 4pm in the afternoon. The main thing I loved, was working alongside like-minded creative folk, who enjoyed both good design that had a decent amount of casualness to it, and a good ration of exercise or surfing to balance it out. It was the height of the surfing industry’s commercial era. There were Monster Children magazines piled up. Frankie mag was just starting out. The leading surf mags were still being produced by Morrison Media down at Burleigh (and still being bought as printed mags by people). There was a decent dose of completely loose creative individuals, who were encouraged to be themselves which in turn made their design outcomes awesome, and inspiring to be around. I moved into a design role in the marketing department while I was there. More legendary creatives, managers and strategists to share the daily grind with was valuable. Pro surfers would drop in to the office often, and I cut my teeth art directing my first real seasonal campaign photo shoot. (Well, they let me believe I did!) Probably the best legacy of the role besides the incredible experiences was that I met one of my best mates at Billabong, and we’re business partners today.
Give us the elevator pitch on what you do. We build and improve brands. We’re strategic designers. We focus on listening to who you are or what you’re doing, and we create or refine that visual identity or communication tool for you so that it best represents you and engages most successfully with your desired market.
What role does digital design play in your studio in 2017, and how to you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age? The digital landscape is vast. As a society we have made it our navigation tool to search for answers, locations, entertainment or advice in daily life. It’s important to remember though that we live in an analogue world, where digital is a tool. As humans, our interpersonal relationships are as important as ever, and our engagement with the world around us, including brands, is very much a tactile experience. In our studio we don’t focus on digital, we include it as part of the way people experience a brand. We consider human interactions and sensory stimulation to be as important in both face-to-face interactions, as well as digital ones. The most important factor to us is that all experiences about the brand are consistent.
We feel that graphic design is becoming a dirty word. I realise we studied graphic design, and have our learning to thank for part of what we know, however [at Harmonica] we identify moreso now simply as designers, or strategic thinkers. With the flood of get-your-logo-dirt-cheap online platforms and desktop applications that make regular business folk feel empowered to be able to create presentations or marketing materials themselves (eye-roll, exhale, pause, breath again), it’s important that we remember the design thinking we have learnt while becoming graphic designers, and put that thinking into action for each project, whether print or digital.
First and foremost we listen to the problem, or the brief. Often we ask to change the brief so that the needs of the request can be better met. For example, “We have a website in development, and we need a logo for it and some brochures.” (Uuuum.. it still baffles me that people think this is the order of priority for a well executed brand! – Rant over.) Our approach would be to pull the reigns on that web development, understand what the clients’ venture does, why they do it, who they do it for, why they called it what they did, what’s unique about them, and then set them up with a brand concept. Check that the business name is suitable; come up with a tagline for them if it’s relevant; create a unique combination of logo / fonts / colour / image style / graphic elements / icon suite / copywriting style that is presented to them as their brand concept. The functionality and user-experience of their website will then be reassessed with a focus on the brand strategy. The internal and external elements for the brand will then be planned. Stationery both print and electronic, social profiles, marketing materials including printed and digital brochures, signage, uniform, point of sale, internal document templates etc.
Essentially, while both print and digital are a part of the rollout for a brand, the brand concept and strategy is always the hero. It’s the distribution of the communications to the target market that defines whether it will be printed or online. Sometimes budget constraints make it a more viable option to opt for more digital communications than printed, but the quality of the design to convey the all-important message about the brand is the key.
What has been your highlight since you started out? To be honest, out of everything, I feel most proud of a proposal that was approved for an Australian wholefoods supermarket. We busted ourselves to get it over the line, and it scraped through. Doing the design work was actually easier than writing the proposal! I was seriously nail biting for a few days about it, and something that my husband said made me more in the moment than I’ve ever felt. He said “If it’s hard – then it’s going to be bloody rewarding if you get it. If you don’t then you don’t, but if you do, then it’ll be worth it. You know you’re only putting this pressure on yourself don’t you?” Such simple words about something that felt really important. It was good perspective, and he was right.
Where do you think design is heading in the next five years and how will you adapt? I honestly don’t know. I know where I’d like to see it head, so the challenge is to shape the future in that direction. There are forces greater than what we can control, however, we feel that the trickle down of ‘design work’ from marketing managers and via PR or marketing consultants is quickly becoming a dated model. Graphic designers are being treated more like mac operators than ever before, and it’s time for our design thinking to be the hero for brand experiences. Strong brand concept work first and foremost, the strategy for how customers engage with that to be overseen by the design agency, and supported with associated digital developers, content creators and press/event co-ordinators etc.
We are also becoming more specialised as creative individuals, so the collaborative model will become more prevalent than ever before. Similar to the ‘eat street’ chose-your-own-adventure-dining model, I believe creatives should focus on what they are truly good at, or what makes them happiest, and then projects should come together with the most relevant team for the project based on the associated skills of the individuals.