We talk to Frontier's Design Director, Paul Kawai, about not sticking to 'the plan', how the general public is more engaged in design conversations than ever before, tracing skateboard logos, and Frontier's ongoing passion projects - Frontier Magazine & Frontier Ventures.
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design?
I was just a kid that drew a lot to be honest. I can’t remember an age before I had an actual job where I didn’t spend most of my free time drawing. Oddly enough, I remember spending a lot time either tracing logos I liked (mostly skateboard and snowboard brands) or trying to invent my own. At the time I had no idea that graphic design or branding were even real career paths. Relatives kept telling me I should become an architect, likely because it’s a more widely accepted career path for someone showing artistic promise. Architecture was actually my first way into design. I studied Environmental Design at OCAD, which eventually led me towards a more multi-disciplinary approach, finding work that allowed for more intersection between architecture and graphic design. Long story short, I just kept looking for ways to keep drawing.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened?
I was lucky to find my way into a few internships while I was still in school. The most helpful of these ended up being at Bruce Mau Design. I dove into the work pretty intensely and made sure I got the most I could out of that summer. When September came, I went back to OCAD to finish my degree, but always kept in touch with the people I’d worked with at Bruce Mau in hopes that an opportunity might present itself there when I graduated. I definitely had a plan — I’m a planner. But when graduation rolled around, I was a bit burnt out and tired of planning every little detail. I bought a ticket to London and decided to travel around the UK and Europe for a couple months. It was a much needed separation from “the plan”. I would post photos of my trip online and an old prof of mine happened upon them, then got in touch about an opportunity in Brooklyn to work with The Pratt Institute on an urban renewal project in The Bronx. When I got home, I spent a few days with family, then hopped back on a plane to spend the next month working in Brooklyn. Sometimes I wonder if this opportunity would have even presented itself at all had I simply “stuck to the plan.”
What are your three must-read design books/blogs/podcasts and why?
I’m focusing intentionally on non-design podcasts here. The best designers I know have expansive interests about the world around them. They stay curious about things outside their bubble.
On The Media by WNYC
More than ever, we need to learn all we can about how where our news comes from, who’s behind it, and what’s even real news anymore. The line between pure entertainment and actual journalism is blurring every day. On The Media delivers a deep dive into the week’s biggest news and peels back the layers behind how and why each story is reported — basically the story behind every story.
Startup by Gimlet Media
This is definitely a studio favourite. Anyone looking to start a company of their own one day (or even just planning to join a new one) should really listen to Startup’s first season. It’s a first person account by Alex Bloomberg as he launches his now widely successful podcast/media company, Gimlet Media. New seasons of the show have since followed other entrepreneurs on their quests to start companies of their own.
Reply All by Gimlet Media
Gimlet gets another shout out here. They’re just that good. Reply All is super entertaining and always surprising. Simply described as “a show about the internet," hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman are two of the most curious and experimental podcasters out there. Their recent non-stop 48 hour call-in special was a triumph of simplicity and heartfelt naivety done right.
What qualities and skills do you look for in a graduate?
We’re a pretty tightly knit studio. Our numbers tend to hover between 6-10 people on any given day, depending on the projects we have on the go. Because of this, every team member needs to be ready to pivot to unexpected tasks when needed. When it comes to new team members who might be fresh out of school, we tend to look more for creative generalists than focused specialists. As recent graduates, you likely haven’t had enough time yet to develop multiple skill sets to the level you’d feel fully comfortable applying to a client project. But as an intern or junior designer, we believe it’s far more important to try new things and learn as much as you can in the process. A good studio should act as a bit of a safety net in those situations, providing guidance and nurturing new skills. We try to create that environment at Frontier as much as possible.
Any passion projects you would like to share?
Frontier Magazine explores and celebrates stories of creative risk-taking, be it a remote hotel designed to breathe new life into the economy of a small island in Newfoundland, or an ex-Google executive striking out on his own to rethink the soon-to-be legal marijuana business. The magazine is designed entirely in house, and all content is researched and written mostly by members of our team as well. Each issue is centred around a theme of our choosing, and we publish annually.
Frontier Ventures gives us space to take on self-initiated projects. Our latest venture took on the brief of designing and producing the world’s best tuque (basically a knit hat or beanie to our friends outside of Canada). The result is a complete rethinking of a Canadian icon. We call it The Frontier Tuque, and we were blown away at the positive response for the project. As of today, we are officially sold out and hope to relaunch the project again next winter to fulfil new interest that continues to come our way.
Who’s on the team, what are their roles and why do you love them?
Tristan Marantos is a super talented graphic designer, animator, and writer. Raylene Knutson is our tireless managing editor on the magazine and somehow also finds time to project manage client work. Michael Gormley is our business director and makes sure the lights stay on and our designers have the freedom to explore territory beyond what’s expected. Jessica Leong is our senior designer as well as our expert typographer, hand-letterer, and snack curator. Tala Berkes is our fashion consultant on the Frontier Tuque and keeps our Ventures engine running. Jacqueline Schiller is our master knitter — essentially the hands behind each handmade Frontier Tuque. Paddy Harrington is our fearless leader and the founder of Frontier. And I’m Paul Kawai, Frontier’s design director. I’m constantly in awe of what this team accomplishes every day and I just do my best to continually drive the work forward.
Where do you think design is heading in the next five years and how will you adapt?
This is a loaded question. The answer I tend to hear most often these days highlights the democratization of design. The general public is more engaged in design conversations than ever before and if you have the time and interest, the tools to enter into that world are widely accessible. Online services like Fiverr and 99 Designs promise a community of designers ready to provide dozens of options relating to your company’s project need. Sounds pretty exciting, right? But to be perfectly honest, I worry about the state of design within the framework of these new models. To return to an architectural mode of thought for a second, I worry we’re training a generation of designers to care only about a building’s facade without first learning to true value of a strong foundation. How effective can a logo, or an editorial layout, or a UI really be starting at $5 a pop online? At our studio, we’ve developed what we call a journalistic approach to addressing a client’s problems. We believe good design begins with a deep understanding of a client’s history, their goals, their dreams. We research. We investigate. We report. Good design comes as a result of a strong relationship one builds with a client throughout the course of a project. We push and pull within that process based on budgets, timeframes, etc… but at the end of the day, we always find a way to build a strong foundation so what we build on top can push the boundaries that much more, and with real purpose. For us, that sounds like a design future we’d like to be a part of.
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