Ben Corban receives the Outstanding Achievement Black Pin for his commitment to promoting design as a tool for change, for his role in ensuring that Alt Group’s business is kept on an even keel, and for nurturing the young designers who have come through the studio doors – and stayed.

Corban knows a thing or two about hard work. His Lebanese great-grandparents were pioneers, founding Corbans Wines in the rugged gum lands of West Auckland in 1902. Two generations hence, and the family work ethic remains strong. “They started a commercial winery in an industry that was in its infancy in New Zealand,” says Corban. “We were brought up to understand the energy and perseverance it takes to build something. But to also love what you do – because you spend a lifetime doing it.”

Corban didn’t go the winemaking way. He studied painting at Elam School of Fine Arts and Goldsmiths, University of London. The art world was booming in the mid-nineties when he was in London, and he watched while the YBA movement turned traditional arts practice on its head. “When Damien Hirst sold his preserved shark to Charles Saatchi, he sold the idea of the work first,” says Corban. “That transaction was fascinating. It was the inverse of traditional arts practice.”

Corban and his friend Dean Poole were so taken by this creative model that they returned to New Zealand and in 1999 set up a design company with a difference. They would present clients with a strong idea and then develop the most appropriate execution of it ­– across multiple disciplines and media. They operated at the intersection of design, culture and business, with the ethos that it’s not what design is, it’s what design does that counts. 

“We live in a time where change is not only constant, but more amplified than it’s ever been,” says Corban. “Design, as one of the drivers for innovation, is now more important than ever.”

Alt Group was founded as a classic start-up in a garage in Grey Lynn. They read lots of books, learnt quickly and began by doing work initially for people they knew. Every job was important and each job led to the next. And the rest, as they say, is history. Seventeen years later, Alt Group is New Zealand’s most awarded design company, having won over 450 local and international design awards, including eight Purple Pins, 30 Red Dots and the German Design Award. Corban is now managing director, and responsible for a multidisciplinary team of 24 strategists, designers and content developers, who work across New Zealand and on an increasing number of international projects.

“Design is a process of not knowing and finding out,” says Corban. “And when you say that to a client, it can be reasonably confronting. But, simply, that is the process. We bring collective experience and an objective point of view to an organisation, along with established systems and processes. The steps, jumps and leaps forward happen from the intersection of different perspectives and ways of thinking. Design can be used to generate insights, give form to ideas and make thinking visible.”

As an artist first drawn to commerce, he now draws commercial clients to creative thinking. And with the firm belief that creativity is as important as any profession around the board table, Alt Group engages businesses with design even before a new product or service is invented. “There is an inherent tension in every organisation between the preservation of what’s now and the invention of what’s next. One is about control, analysis and optimisation, the other is about exploration, creation and vision – survival and ultimately success requires both.”

“We live in a time where change is not only constant, but more amplified than it’s ever been,” says Corban. “Design, as one of the drivers for innovation, is now more important than ever.”

—Andrea Stevens