Catherine Griffiths

We get the pleasure of chatting to New Zealand typography legend herself, Catherine Griffiths. Catherine splits her time between Auckland and Paris - so so cool! She shares with us three naughty things she did to get ahead in the industry and how she got started in her career.

If you were going to start your career what would you do differently?

Now, or back in the 80s? Listen to music. Read. Write. Walk. Record. Take more pictures. I did do those things, but I guess I mean in a more purposeful way.

Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?

School of Design, Wellington Polytechnic, New Zealand, 1984–86. I studied Visual Communication Design. One of my first jobs was working weekends on the desk at the City Gallery, before it moved to what was originally the Wellington Public Library. I did the catering for openings (I remember being given $100 to spend at the Dixon St Deli, and making blue cheese dip in my flat’s cockroach-visited kitchen!). I designed photocopied flyers for the Gallery’s events under the eye of a can’t-have-been-much-older-than-me G. Burke who arrived as new curator in 1987.

Above: Poster and animated gif for Man-Made, a choreographic work by Oliver Connew, 2015

Above: From the archive: typography exercise: A—Z, 1—10, 1984

What does a typical working day include for you right now?

Doing much the same as I did back then! Just with more experience. A little love perhaps, a jog, a bathe, freshly-pressed green vegetable juice, a coffee, sometimes a boiled egg. Over to the studio, look at my priorities, respond to email, put others aside for the moment to squeeze in some thinking, and, depending on the project status (of each, there are myriad parts), focus on design — whether concept, developed, or finished artwork (gone are the days of my mac operator!) — troubleshoot if needed (I’m both tech nerd and therapist), perhaps a Skype meeting, or a tête-à-tête with Bruce, back to interview questions, and onto the next … alternatively, out the door and into the DS to drive 45 minutes into the city for a meeting, which can mean several hours out. It all takes time, my effort is into the evenings, and weekends, and I am my own head and pair of hands. No set rhythm. Twitter, Instagram, Messenger with the children, etc, all get slotted in as and when.

What three naughty things have you done in your career to get ahead?

None are naughty. All are accidental —
1. I once left a sticky note on my boss’s chair with the words “I’m gone”. Interpreted as my resignation, that note propelled me off into a trajectory of independence. A few weeks later, my own practice was born.
2. Fell in love with one of New Zealand’s eminent photographers, Bruce Connew — I was in my late twenties, married, and he was older (still is), with five children. Without Bruce, I don’t think I would be where I am today — he has only ever supported and encouraged the particular way I think and feel, challenged me, helped me navigate difficult paths. What a gift!
3. My refusal to participate in an unpaid tender process to eight design studios for an existing (and wonderful) client of nine years — new broom marketing manager (ugh!) strolled in to make a mark, irrespective of good history — a loss of useful income, but it pushed me to other realms. Two of the staff cried.

Above: Self-portrait in C, cover for Japan’s BRAIN magazine, 2014

Above: From the archive: collage illustration, detail (left), collected riff-raff (right), 1986

I designed photocopied flyers for the Gallery’s events under the eye of a can’t-have-been-much-older-than-me G. Burke who arrived as new curator in 1987.

What are the three worst jobs you have done? and how did you apply what you learnt from them to what you do today?

Bullied into executing a boss’s concept for a potential major client, and, under duress, not being able to pull it off to his satisfaction, which only made matters worse. Made my concept. Both his and mine were presented. The client ran with mine. A typed-out list of my transgressions was left on my desk. My respect for him evaporated.

Bullying is unacceptable.

Witnessed an inflexible client be so inflexible to insist his brand dominate a series of music CDs. There was little room to do right by the content. To me, this stood in the way completely of the musician and the work. Philosophically, we were on different planets. We shook hands and parted ways. But not after I had printed his logo in gold on Rubine Red for one of New Zealand’s most well-known contemporary composers. Still the best cover and poster from that series!

Common design sense can walk me away with my principles unsullied.

In the 2000s, I was lucky enough to work with the CEO and her second-in-command at a government ministry. A re-brand over several years, I produced everything from the identity to interior signage, printed matter, to special projects including a film. As the communications department adopted the brand templates, they consistently tendered out the design and print work, and I saw myself edged out by others, my role consequently diminishing to occasional print orders for the next set of business cards. How depressing! I remained as the “special projects” designer until the CEO departed.

I don’t advocate the tender process. To be hired for what I offer with a fee that recognises this, makes for the best relationships. There is always room for negotiation. A great example of this is Australia’s Parlour : women, equity, architecture — who I work with. The relationship is built on trust and respect. They advocate gender and pay equity, and they are making a difference. It’s an honour to be part of that change.

Where to find Catherine online:

Facebook: /Studio Catherine Griffiths

Instagram:  @studiocatherine

Twitter:  @studiocatherine


Above: I Must Behave, photobook by Bruce Connew, published by Vapour Momenta Books, 2009

Above: Poster and animated gif for Man-Made, a choreographic work by Oliver Connew, 2015

Above: From the archive: typography exercise: A—Z, 1—10, 1984

Above: Self-portrait in C, cover for Japan’s BRAIN magazine, 2014

Above: From the archive: collage illustration, detail (left), collected riff-raff (right), 1986

Above: From the archive: identity and CV: photocopied, with colour Omnicrom transfer, 1987

Above: Detail from The Phone Book, 2013 (left), Club de Conversation Keyhole rug #4, 2012 (right)

Above: From the archive: typography exercise, 1985

Above: One of 15 large-scale concrete text sculptures, Wellington Writers Walk, 2002 – 2004

Above: Stopover, by Bruce Connew, published by VUW and UHP, 2007

Above: AEIOU, a typo/sound sculpture, Wellington, NZ, 2009

Above: Two letters from A Hillside Intervention, Athfield Architects, 2010

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