We’re big fans of Martin Maher from Zebra because he believes “The more we can give back as experienced designers the better really”. Martin also fills us in on who he’s crushing on in the design world AND even compares being a designer to Wolverine! (you’ll have to read on to find out why)
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started?
I first got into design through record sleeves. My older brother had lots of punk, new wave and reggae albums and the sleeves always fascinated me. I still think the Sex Pistol’s ‘Never Mind the Bollocks…’ album cover is one of the best ever. So direct and in your face. That cut and paste, ransom note style was spot on for the Sex Pistols and that punk era. That’s when I first saw what we might call ‘brand extension’ now. Where the singles from each album had a similar look to the album cover. That extended to ads, promotional posters, t-shirts, pin badges etc. Jamie Reid, who designed those Sex Pistols covers understood this well. His campaigns were really thorough and effective, even though punk was all about anarchy and DIY culture.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?
I went to art college in Salisbury, England. It’s quite rural once you leave the towns and Stonehenge is just down the road. In my final year my tutor got me an internship at Intro in London. Adrian Shaughnessy was one of the co-founders and was still there at the time. I was their first ever ‘work placement’ student. I recently contacted Adrian Talbot who is a Director there and asked if he remembered me. He said he did, but only after some prompting. I was quite shy back then so obviously didn’t make much of an impression. But for me to do an internship at a studio that designed album covers for bands like Primal Scream and Depeche Mode was pretty amazing.
After that I worked for an ad agency and then for two London-based branding companies. I was lucky as I got to work on some big accounts. British Airways and Porsche were two I remember well. I also worked at a small design studio here in Perth. I met my business partner Michelle there and we often talked about starting our own small studio one day. We eventually did that with Zebra a few years down the track.
Tell us a bit about yourself and the studio that you work for.
I’m a graphic designer and co-founder of Zebra, along with Michelle Tranter. We’re based in Singapore and Perth. We set up Zebra 10 years ago. We do mostly branding work as well as packaging and campaigns. Michelle was previously a creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi. I was previously creative director at the Brand Union in Singapore and Michelle worked there for a while too.
Whilst there I was offered a job to go and work for one of our clients. He’s US-based and his holding company owns several businesses worldwide. It was a tempting offer but I didn’t want to be an employee again, so we set up Zebra and the same client put us on a retainer. It was a great way to start a studio as we had guaranteed work. We still work with the same client 11 years later. For them we’ve designed identities for a private aviation company, an HR firm, a hotel resorts chain, a hydroponic farming business and more recently the rebranding for Clinique La Prairie in Switzerland. That one was a pleasure for a small studio like ours to work on as it’s well known worldwide.
Who are your top five design crushes right now?
I’m a huge fan of design and I kind of view design companies the way I do favourite music artists or bands. It’s a bit odd I know, but there are so many amazing designers and studios out there.
Build have been doing great work for a long time and continue to do so. We attended a ‘Sex, Drugs & Helvetica’ conference in Melbourne a few years ago and Build had designed all the promotional work. Michael C. Place had spoken at the same conference the year before and we’d seen that too. He came across as a very down to earth, friendly and normal bloke. I still didn’t have the nerve to approach him afterwards though. What do you say to one of your all time design heroes without getting tongue tied.
Hey from Barcelona. These guys also come across as very friendly. They seem like a group of good friends that decided to start a studio. Their work is original and colourful and it has a real warmth to it. They did an AGDA-organised talk in Perth last year which was really inspiring. We did manage to briefly meet Ricardo afterwards. I think me and my mate Tony scared the crap out of him as we approached him quite suddenly, whist he was checking his emails and we gruffly demanded a selfie, as you do. Hailey from TDK Perth was trying to introduce me to Veronica, but I was too late.
I very much like Christopher Doyle & Co from Sydney. There always seems to be a strong and simple idea or message in their work. A little quirk in a logo that you just ‘get’ the second you see it or brilliant copywriting that makes you think. There’s a clear brand story when they put a project together. A strong narrative.
MuirMcNeill do brilliant typographic and experimental design. Their work and how they put it together is fascinating.
Here in Perth I like Block. Their work is very ideas-led. They straddle that line between advertising and design. Not easy to pull off, but they do it well.
Lastly, there’s a Brazilian designer called Felipe Rocha. His work is well worth checking out.
Are you involved in any mentoring/teaching/workshops and if and how it shapes your practice?
We’d like to do more mentoring and teaching in future. I mentored a graduate two years ago and am still in touch with her. Her name is Bronte and I’ve seen her grow so much as a designer in the time I’ve known her. Her work is really thoughtful and well executed and she’s built up a client base here in Perth by doing consistently good work.
I did an AGDA talk a few years ago at the start of a portfolio day. It was basically offering advice to the students and graduates. I really enjoyed it and a few of the students asked some very pertinent questions during the folio reviews. I was taken aback by the professionalism they already displayed. Much more together than I was at that age. That talk is still on YouTube I think.
I gave some talks in Singapore. I also helped one of the art colleges as an external assessor during final year. The more we can give back as experienced designers the better really. Although it can get more tricky once you run a business of your own and are bringing up a young family. But I’ll mentor again later this year and would love to teach design in the future.
What advice would you give students starting out?
The best advice I can give is to always think of the target audience. Put yourself in their shoes. How does your design make you feel. Is the message clear and simple. Does the idea resonate with you. Would it make you buy that product or interact with that service or business? Would you remember the message?
At the moment there’s a lot of very experimental typographic design doing the rounds on Instagram. Work that looks like it’s been designed to appeal solely to other designers. It looks impressive but does it necessarily make for good communication design. Is it the kind of design that would appeal to the general public. I do think experimental work should always be encouraged, but so should work that is straightforward, effective, easily memorable. Something with a simple idea or message. Something that makes the target audience smile or think “I like that. I want it”. Rather than, “that looks cool, but what on earth does it say?” It also needs to be nicely designed of course.
Sometimes as designers we want to impress our peers with our work. That’s not necessarily wrong, but we can forget our work needs to communicate with a specific audience first and foremost.
Also, be yourself. It sounds a bit of a cliche, but it’s a relevant one. It’s ok to be shy or geeky, to be a bit rough around the edges, to be different. And it’s ok to not always be confident about your work. Even very experienced designers aren’t always confident about their work. Confidence grows over time, but creative people can be insecure and we need validation like everyone else. Don’t be afraid or too proud to ask someone you trust for a second opinion, or to ask for help when you need it.
No one needs to try and be the perfect designer. Perfect is boring. That’s why I always disliked Superman. He’s too perfect and clean cut. I always preferred Deadpool or Wolverine. Wolverine was a grumpy old bastard. I can relate to that.
And one last, really nice bit of advice, from the famous Anthony Burrill poster: ‘Work Hard & Be Nice To People’. You can’t go wrong if you try and follow that.