During these times we think it is important to reflect on the vitality of our industry and the people who have built it.
An Interview with Dave Clark
Dave Clark, FDINZ, and Best Design Awards 2009 DINZ Black Pin for Oustanding Achievement recipient.
Jonathan: Hi Dave, great to be able to have a chat with you. I was recently thinking back to when you and I first met. It was back in 1998 judging the Best Awards, I think. Cathy recently found a copy of the awards book for 1998 and dropped it off to me. Looking back at the work in that book brings back memories of a whole different time, people, companies, how we worked and the work we produced. Good memories!
Given that you too have been doing this for a while - can you cast you mind back and give us a few insights on how you began your career and Dave Clark's journey?
Dave: I grew up in India and Cyprus where I started to draw and paint. My parents moved to the UK when I was ten and I found it a bit of a shock — bad weather, new culture, and a different school system. I began Art School in 1967. Art School in the ‘60’s was mad — there was revolution in the air, with student activists coming around to try and get us to start sit-ins and demos. Exciting, innovative new Graphic Design work was being produced, feeding off the social and pop music revolution going on then, all of which I found intoxicating.
After graduating in 1972, I started a design company in the north of England doing hospitality and nightclub Advertising and design work.
In 1973 I left Britain on an ‘adventure holiday,' cycling around Europe, working on a kibbutz, mining in Australia, eventually arriving in New Zealand in 1976.
I started my New Zealand design career in Auckland as a freelancer in the 70’s, but found it very difficult to get people to understand what Graphic Design was about. They thought I was a sign-writer. My first kiwi work was doing t-shirt designs. A friend went around the North Island taking polaroids of pub exteriors, which I then used to create T-shirt designs to be sold back to these pubs, and from this I branched out doing design work for a range of different small companies. One design I remember was for the patch for one of the Gangs! I had to promise to destroy my design template after it was used to screen print the emblem!
Jonathan: I began my career in 1994 and I got my first job as a Graphic Designer in Wellington. It was a different landscape then. Not just in how we worked but the people and the companies many of the companies have gone now, but so many of the people are still around.
Dave Clark is a name that has been an industry constant in that evolving landscape. Over all these years! Can you tell us a little bit about the beginning of Dave Clark Design?
Dave: I started a studio in 1987, renting a big space in College Hill in Auckland, a month before the October ’87 crash, which wasn’t a good time to begin. All the work evaporated overnight. It was very hard. I had this big empty space to fill. As a way to dress up the big space, I put in a nice front desk with plush furniture, and had a big partition separating the decorated front area from the big, but empty back area, with just me in it.
I also couldn’t afford blinds so I had to push my drawing board into a corner to avoid being blinded by the harsh sunlight. One day, Andy Haden, the famous rugby player, who sadly has recently passed away, came into the office. He was so tall he could look over the partition and see the empty back part. He laughed at my attempt to look professional.
Andy brought me one of my favourite projects - the All Black Silver Fern design.
To begin with, I did a lot of research in the Auckland War Memorial Museum from army uniforms, photos of grave markers, rugby uniforms. I soon realized this was going to be a lot more difficult than I initially thought. I was getting quite worried about it and to make matters worse Andy began calling me and asking me where the design was, as I was taking a lot of time to do the work.
Then in the middle of the night, just as I thought I would have to get one of the less attractive designs and draw it up to full scale, I woke up at 3am with the idea fully formed in my mind. The simplicity of the idea was probably why I had missed it in my exploration process. The silver fern leaf is actually an elongated triangle and the idea that sprang into my head in the night was to make the internal leaves very simple elongated triangles, so that the overall shape echoed the internal small leaves. I got up with this fully formed idea and finished it all in a couple of hours. When I thought about it later, I realized that the new design also drew on some research I had done when I was in Leeds and Manchester Colleges of Art using geometric shapes. Because it was so simple, it also looked elegant. And this is what one often finds with good design - it mirrors nature - at the heart of nature is nearly always simplicity and elegance. The new design was launched in 1986, and has been very successful for the New Zealand Rugby Union as a marketing device.
To survive and pay the rent in my new studio, I used to go out all day to try and get work, and aim to design and produce the work in the evenings. One day I cold-called this man who seemed to want me to do some work for him. I drove for about two hours, eventually ending up down this back-country dirt road. His address turned out to be an old caravan parked in the middle of a recently ploughed field about a hundred yards away with an overhead phone line going to it from the road. After walking in mud up to my ankles, I knocked on the door. It turned out that he was just wanting to have someone to talk to, and didn’t have any work at all. A complete waste of time!
But I persevered and recruited many talented young designers to help me do the designs and build the business.
We developed a great client list ranging from the NZ Dairy Board to Air New Zealand, doing a brand and livery upgrade for Air New Zealand alongside a British company. It was fun, because I was able to go to London and New York to work through the project with design partners.
The 1980s was an exciting time for New Zealand graphic design. The computer revolution was starting to change the whole process and designers were making the transition to digital. There seemed to be a lot of big design companies starting up, probably because of the sharemarket-driven boom. There was a lot of innovative, highly creative work created because of this boom, with unbelievably lavish annual reports being designed and printed for high-flying companies like Chase Corporation. Printers made a fortune. This all came to an abrupt end in the ‘87 crash.
My work with the Designers Institute of New Zealand, (DINZ) where I was president twice and three times convenor of the Best Awards, was a fascinating way to get to know the breadth and scope of Design in Product, Architecture, Interior and Fashion Design, as opposed to just Graphics, in this country. It was great to be able to mix and mingle with senior designers of every stripe and to realise how interrelated these disciplines are.
We moved into a big old picturesque studio in Albert St, and also had an Nissan Escargo as a promotional vehicle.
Jonathan: Thats pretty impressive Dave. I used to walk past your studio on Albert Street often, and remember how impressive the big Dave Clark Design letters looked. We were all a little worried as the year 2000 began and our computer clocks would all "self combust" ! A period of turmoil and change for many of us. What were your thoughts on this time and how did you adapt? Any highlights that you can share from Dave Clark Design's journey?
Dave: Come 2000, we had over 40 people in two offices and had a lot of happy clients, but for various reasons I decided to sell the company to Brave New World. On the 2nd July 2001, I began a new company with three shareholders and partners, Andy Brown, Jonathan Tillick, and Andrew Smith. We were able to call it Dave Clark Design, just like the old company.
We had some key goals right at the beginning which we have kept to over the nineteen years since. The key principles we agreed on was that the quality of the work, together with the quality of the service must always be paramount.
People matter in the design business. We learned from the earlier business to concentrate hard on staff morale and happiness. Andy, Andrew, Jonathan, and I kept on focusing on making sure that our colleagues in the business are looked after as well as possible within the constraints of trying to run an efficient and creatively focused business. The four of us partners have kept working together for over twenty years now. I’m deeply grateful to them for sticking with the company and producing such good work and creating so many satisfied clients.
Jonathan: One of the things that I value over last 40 years is all the people I have gotten to know. Many who have become life long friends. People and relationships are a big part of what we do and why many of us are in the design business. Any reflections on that?
Dave: Going from being a one-man-band to a larger company means I’ve been privileged to work with some wonderful clients over the years. I treasure the memory of many of these clients. Highly professional people trying to do their very best and treating suppliers like me in a polite and kind way. I’ve worked with a lot of small companies and start-ups, Kiwis seem to love the idea of working for themselves and will do anything to give business a go, taking phenomenal risks to achieve their goals. They’re often very innovative and often think in fresh, novel ways.
I’ve worked in any industry you could think of, particularly in the early days pre-1984, when there was an import tariff system that meant that most things were made in NZ. I’ve learned a lot from working with these clients from all these industries, and feel enriched and rewarded from a human angle, as well of course in business ways.
Jonathan: This is an industry where, I believe, age doesn't matter. In fact I reckon I have probably gotten better. Staying interested and being open to everything, culture and society, and not to discount what is happening today is probably the bigger challenge! Obviously being in business for all these years means you have mastered the skill of staying relevant. Any thoughts or words of advice here?
Dave: There have been some immense changes in our industry over the years, which have changed the whole design process and the way people work in our industry. The key difference is the new technology that’s used in the design process, it’s positively breathtaking.
I believe that New Zealand is in a sweet spot - positioned right in the hemisphere best suited to take advantage of the growth of Asia, with exploding opportunities in all areas of design, but particularly in digital design, where the design of the interface is becoming a crucial area of differentiation for clients. Design thinking and skills have become a lot more important in the digital age.
New Zealand is known as being a bit like Switzerland - innovative, beautiful, producing quality products, and there’s many opportunities exist for Kiwi companies in all fields to take advantage of this well-earned reputation. The business crisis caused by Covid 19 is speeding up the changes in the design industry, like many others, and changes that would have taken years are now taking weeks. For those of us who embrace change, there’s many exciting new opportunities.
Welcome to our industry
Jonathan: What advice do you have for younger people who just starting out or are interested in the industry as a career?
Dave: For those of you who are thinking of a future in the design Industry, I’d offer a cautious welcome and a few caveats. I’ve been Chair and a member of the AUT Graphic Design Advisory Committee for 30 years, on numerous design industry panels and boards, and take a real interest in design education, as well as being in DINZ since its early days. I do think that there is a lot of wastage in the Tertiary Design Education sector nowadays, (there always has been, its just that its got a lot worse), which students should try and circumvent. My advice for young people getting into our industry is to try to get a decent training as early and quickly as you can and attach yourself to a studio or design company as fast as possible after you’ve done a Degree or Diploma.
Jonathan: What keeps you going and what do you still enjoy about working?
Dave: What keeps me going in this strange and exciting design industry of ours, (I turned 70 in April this year) is just the sheer fun of witnessing rapid change, the pleasure of working with so many creative and talented colleagues within our business, (we’ve got over sixty staff now), and together with my three partners, Andy, Andrew and Jonathan, building a business that has five offices in Asia, NZ and Australia. Also, one benefit of my being a ‘design veteran,' is having the knowledge that the age-old virtues of persistence, good taste, creative thinking, kind and polite behaviour, and having a keen eye on the future are still crucially important.
Jonno Sagar, PDINZ