We had a good old chat to Mirella and Nicolas of Studio Vertigo about discovering design, stressful ad agencies and good portfolios; plus they have some top notch advice for students. Mirella tells us about how she got where she is now, with a nod to Alfred Hitchcock and Saul Bass. The pair share their design bible with us (quick, go find that library card in your old wallet from 2014!), what it’s like working with such a small team, and how to start finding your own voice – Pinterest!
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started? Mirella: Art and design were always part of my family home growing up, and my father’s love of Swiss and Scandinavian design, cubism, modernism and constructivism helped develop my interest. We watched a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films together when I was young, which introduced me to the work of Saul Bass who created many of Hitchcock’s title sequences. Many years later I discovered Bass was also a brand identity designer and it was then that I really started exploring graphic design. When I was 21 I enrolled in a diploma course with a folio of handmade collages influenced by the constructivist design and Polish political posters I’d seen in my father’s art books.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs? Mirella: I studied at the QLD Institute of Graphic Art. I learned design through traditional techniques and principles, and all of my work was done by hand. I learned technical drawing, airbrushing, fine art painting, paste-up and layout, using acetate overlays for colour separation, creating typography with French curves, etc. During my course I interned at the Gold Coast Bulletin newspaper where I stayed for a year after graduating. I designed collateral (tickets, flyers, posters) for tons of local events, which was fun. From there I worked at an ad agency in Sydney for three years where I designed newspaper ads for some of the biggest brands in the world, which was stressful. The one lesson I learned from that job was I never wanted to work in an ad agency again.
What are your three must-read design books/blogs/podcasts and why? Book: Simplicity: A Matter of Design by Per Mollerup. “To present complexity in simple ways is the designer’s noblest aspiration.” This book examines the relationship between simplicity and functionality, aesthetics and ethics, and distinguishes between complex and complicated. Our practice, work and ethos are driven by simplicity, so this book is our bible (and Per Mollerup is one of our design luminaries).
Blog: The Brand Identity. We love this blog because while it features outstanding design from around the world, it’s not exclusive like most design blogs that always showcase the usual suspects in the design industry. TBI shares projects by a wide range of designers, from freelancers to small studios to big agencies. It also includes interviews which is a great way to get to know other designers and their projects, as well as the design landscape in their cities/countries.
Podcast: Australian Design Radio. ADR is a podcast based in Sydney that provides fantastic commentary on Australian design. We love learning about our industry peers and the stories behind their successes (and failures).
What do you look for in a great portfolio? Nicolas: Conceptual thinking and simplicity in solutions. We want to see ideas, their context and substance. If a project had limitations or challenges, what were they? How were they overcome? Presentation, syntax, grammar and spelling are also very important. We understand that student portfolios have limited commercial projects, so a good mix of student and self-initiated works is ideal to demonstrate ability, creativity and strengths. We would rather not see design trends, or design for other designers. Idiosyncrasy can be a good thing and this is often where the most creative and groundbreaking work will come from.
Who’s on the team, what are their roles and why do you love them? We are a small team at Vertigo, led by Mirella and Nicolas. Mirella is principal and creative director. Her role is managing Vertigo’s design projects and partnerships, client services, and general running of the studio. Nicolas is art director. His role is leading the studio’s art direction and managing its quality control and technical production of all output for print. We come from different backgrounds (Mirella: graphic design, Nicolas: fine art and printing), so we complement each other and work well together as a team.
Mirella: What I love about Nicolas is his fresh perspective that can challenge your thinking. He also has a great sense of humour, is easy to get along with, and has an uncanny ability to retain useless facts.
Nicolas: What I love about Mirella is the clarity of her vision, her passion for the work and ideas that she loves, her sneaker collection and her unerring ability to cut through the bullshit.
What advice would you give students starting out? 1. Have interests outside of design and use them to inform your ideas and creativity. While it’s totally understandable to look at what everyone else is doing when starting out, it’s important to find your own voice. An easy and practical way to start developing it is to create a Pinterest board of things you like that aren’t graphic design related. Look for recurring themes, elements or similarities, which you can then use to help give yourself some clarity and direction.
2. Read more books and ask more questions. Critical thinking is an important part of design. It will help you understand what you’ve learned and help you achieve solutions to design challenges. In turn you will become a better designer, and probably more interesting at parties.
3. When applying for jobs or internships, always do your research first. Don’t send out a mass email BCC’d to every design studio in the country. Always personalise your emails and use first names and spellcheck. Keep your message short and concise, and only focus on what you can bring to the studio/agency. A good way to do this is to pick a project from their website and explain how you would do it differently.
4. You have to really love graphic design, because passion is the only thing that will keep you going when you want to give up.
5. You know all those big-name designers and studios you admire? They were where you are right now. The only difference is they started sooner.