We catch up with the crew at Melbourne’s Studio Alto. They talk design, mirror balls and the importance of going home on time.
Who’s on the team, what are their roles and why do you love them?
We have a small but vibrant team here at Alto, headed up by the brothers O’Keeffe. For the most part interchangeable, Andy and Mark run the team – usually in similar checked shirts – with a down-to-earth nature, a get-sh*t-done attitude and surprisingly good dance moves (for a couple of dads). Andy is an avid cyclist and enjoys punishing the hills over the weekend, while Mark owns the bass guitar. When he’s not putting out fires as a volunteer with the CFA, he’s starting them on dance floors all over Melbourne. Eunice is the go-to for print and visual identity, conjuring up various branding, editorial and illustration projects with just a few magical touches of her Wacom wand. Most weekends you’ll find her hiking around the hills of Victoria, or enjoying the many cafes that this city has to offer. Zoë is our digital designer. She has a knack for making complex systems seem easy, shifting seamlessly between design and code to create clean UI and intuitive UX. Outside of Alto, she is an alto-soprano, singing in an a cappella choir. On weekends, she can be found catching live music at Melbourne’s smaller venues. Lauren is our studio manager. Straight outta NZ via Europe, Lauren has honed her skills in the chilly Northern Hemisphere, keeping some great agencies on time and on track. She now ably steers the SS Alto, making sure it stays afloat, on course, and most importantly, well stocked with beer. When not working, Lauren is exploring all of the nooks, crannies and laneways that this city has to offer on her sturdy dutch style bike – rain, hail or shine.
What have been your highlights since you started out? Andy: We’ve worked with some great clients on some great jobs, but the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is being happy to come to work every morning and enjoy what I do (except the email bit) with the great team of people we have put together. And I get to work with my brother, that’s pretty cool. We’re not a studio that measures success via awards, we take more satisfaction in the feedback we get and the relationships we have with our clients. One of our clients in particular addresses emails to us ‘Dear Alto Legends’. Doesn’t really get any better than that. Our client, supplier and friends Christmas party is our yearly highlight, and our way of saying thanks to the people who we work with and who support us. We now have our own smoke machine, lighting set-up and two disco balls. Studio essentials.
What do you look for in a great portfolio? Mark: Conceptual thinking and simple solutions. I love seeing examples of work where the idea does the heavy lifting and the design elements are merely the tools for communicating the brilliant solution. Not the solution itself. When presenting your work make sure you can articulate your outcome. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Einstein. Better yet, present something that requires no explanation at all. Good solutions should speak for themselves. Tip: Good ideas always trump indulgent design. In other words don’t design for other designers, design for your audience.
What role does digital design play in your studio in 2015, and how do you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age? Zoe: Digital design is woven tightly with ‘traditional’ graphic design. We see them as inseparable – it’s all the same design thinking. When we create a brand visual identity, we think about how it could animate and interact. We think about the social media and marketing opportunities, the tone of voice, all consumer touch points as well as the tangible elements of the brand. When we cross-platforms in this way, new ideas pop up.
What advice would you give students starting out? Andy: 1. Work hard, go home on time. Don’t be passionate about design, be passionate about life. Which segues into…
2. Take inspiration from other places. Get away from your desk. Don’t rely on blogs to initiate ‘ideas’ for you. Read everything, talk to everyone. My best thinking nearly always comes on a long bike ride, rarely from behind a screen. 3. Trust your instinct. You got to this point because your instinct is pretty good. It’s probably only going to get better. But having said that, you don’t know everything so… 4. Ask a lot of questions. Listen more than you talk. Be nice to everyone. 5. Understand your work. At a minimum, read the text! In my early days as a freelance designer, our studio once turned up to a black tie event in fancy dress. We should have know it wasn’t, we designed the invitation!
If you were going to start your career what would you do differently? Mark: I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one. That’s not to say I’ve had a faultless career. A career in design isn’t all beer and skittles. I’ve had my fair share of road-blocks – how I’ve overcome these is what has defined me as an individual, a designer and paved my way through the industry. The most exciting and rewarding part is that you never know what opportunities are waiting around the corner. So keep on moving forward through the ups and downs. Put trust in your instincts and let them guide you. I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason. Network, collaborate and make awesome friends along the way (it’s a small industry) and don’t burn bridges (again, it’s a small industry). Most importantly have a life outside of design. You don’t need to live and breathe design to be a good designer.