The Designers Institute Black Pin for Outstanding Achievement is conferred upon an individual, who, as a member of the Designers Institute of New Zealand, has made a lasting and valuable contribution to the design profession and to design in general.
Grenville Main, creative director and managing director of the design consultancy DNA and Fellow of the Designers Institute of New Zealand, has done more than most to improve the perception and raise the value of design in this country.
Across his career, Main has worked to improve the perception of graphic design above that of “the colouring in guys”. He works strategically with significant companies, improving their systems, communications and services. He has also played a key role in fostering the talents of a number of New Zealand’s top designers.
It was at a youngish age that Main discovered his own talents lay in the visual arts. As a student at school he recalls being “relatively aimless” until a career councillor suggested he venture into the art department. He took to it, and cites himself as being lucky to have someone at school suggest that he go to polytech to do a course in design. He was young, though, but already a potential disruptor: “I was seventeen-and-a-half when I began design school and loved it. I had a bit of a rocky road; I had a poor professional attitude and was actually put on probation for my last year, so I had to sharpen my attitude up. Actually, I’ve probably still got a poor professional attitude…”.
Out of design school, Main was employed by Gus van de Roer, who was confident enough to entrust him with the task of establishing Van de Roer Design in Auckland. He eventually returned to Wellington, “took a bit of a break to work on Wellington’s version of Metro magazine for while”.
“I can’t remember what it was originally called, Cosmo I think, which was a disastrous name, but then they called it City Mag”. Lloyd Jones was the editor, but Main was soon on the move to Bright Newlands and Associates (BNA), where he became a partner, helping to help drag the company through the post-1987 doldrums.
BNA was eventually renamed DNA in 2000. It is, says Main, “a classic little Kiwi company”.
“It started off with five people and grew to 60 at one point, until the recession said that that might have been a little on the high side. And, we’ve developed as the industry has. We’ve got people in service design, we’ve got people in digital, and we’ve got people researching services and experience out in the field with customers. We’ve become a lot more user-focused which has made us a lot better at what we do.”
What was once just “graphic design” has, for Main, become a constantly changing and ever-interesting field. Over the years, his firm has morphed from a graphic design team into a strategic consultancy with full digital capabilities, and he’s quick to point out that New Zealand design companies are selling themselves short by not seeking stronger quantitative analysis of the benefits their skills bring.
“Graphic design is where the discipline started, but I think that’s a term that really holds us back as an industry,” he says. “Graphic designer doesn’t sound hugely compelling any more. It’s a thing that everyone understands at one very simple level. But communicating what it does rather than what it is – that’s the thing that is the challenge. As an industry, we’ve just been woeful at selling the value of what we do.”
“We all think we’re pretty good. I mean in my case, I’ve lived through the 80s, you know, god forbid, where people were a bit obscene. There were pots of money being thrown around. From a design point of view, you might almost be fooled into thinking that people then appreciated design better than they do now – but it was all about showing off. Today, people really need design based on what it helps them do. Design has come to the fore and a lot of organisations really see its value – and that’s where Best Effect comes in.”
“Today, people really need design based on what it helps them do. Design has come to the fore and a lot of organisations really see its value.”
The Best Effect is, of course, the new Best Design Awards category for which Main was an influential agitator. It is a “business take on what has design done here, what’s it unlocked, what’s it achieved, rather than what does it look like.”
Main’s other keen interests have included harnessing talented young designers and putting them to work in effective ways. Ten or fifteen years ago, he says, employee selection might have been about picking the best craftspeople. “Now, effectively, before anything else, we’ve got to have listeners that are problem solvers that can increasingly work in a really collaborative and fast-paced manner. If you’re a really good craftsperson and a stylist but you don’t have an ability to communicate – that’s a fail. If you don’t have empathy for other people and it’s all about you – then that’s a fail. I look for people that are broad and ambidextrous.”
The current crop of talent impresses Main. “They’ve been open minded, they’ll have a crack at anything. They are here to learn. There’s also a bit of that classic kind of Gen Y of thing, they want to run faster than maybe they can, but at least they're ambitious, they learn remarkably fast, and are so capable.”
And what of Main’s work. Any chance of playing favourites? Not really. It’s hard, he says, to pull out key works. He enjoyed doing early strategy work around the All Blacks brand.
“I suppose that stands out in some respects, because it is quite nice to work on quiet iconic brands and organisations and really help them. I suppose that its really important to look at lots of other sectors – the power sector, the public service – where we’ve made massive inroads and transformational change into the way businesses do things. That’s all through design thinking and good delivery of a much better experience”.
After twenty-four years at DNA, and having witnessed his own industry’s transformational change, you get the feeling that design thinking is what it’s all about for Main.
“People choose us to help them because we’ve got particular methods, basic fundamental practises, that involve observing and finding different ways to unpick a problem before building it back up to deliver something – a better service experience, a communication, whatever it may be.”