Milly Scott talks to Ryan Marx

Marx Design now

Ryan, PDINZ, runs the team at Marx Design, working across packaging, brand identity and communications design. Marx Design has been going from strength to strength from the day they opened the doors.

During these times we think it is important to reflect on the vitality of our industry and the people who have built it.

Milly Scott, DINZ, had a chat with Ryan about his practice and the people and experiences that have shaped his career and studio.


There have been many designers before us that have influenced our community and shaped our studios to what they are today. Is there a designer that has influenced you in your career?

There are so many people who have helped, mentored and encouraged me in my career. From the very first days out of study, flatting and mixing with people starting their own creative journeys to the leaders who had years of experience - and the patience to help me grow.  The time I spent working at Coats Design with Rob Coats was one of the most influential and significant to me both personally and professionally.

Straight out of study and I was finding my way as a budding designer back in 1999, we were flatting with a copywriter who was working at Colenso. One of his close friends - Kelvin Soh would share his album cover work and Drum & Base flyers, Kelvin was into custom typefaces and had big conceptual ideas. Kelvin’s approach to design had a huge impression on me, though at the time I was interested in becoming a web designer. Kelvin suggested I go and talk to a web company and see if I could get an intern position.

I had this terrible idea of making my portfolio into an eftpos machine interface, I even burnt the program I created onto a small square CD Rom that looked like a credit card. The interviewer put it into his new iMac, it got stuck and totally killed his computer. Not ideal, as he was on a heavy deadline, so I excused myself ‘to use the bathroom’ and made my escape. I soon realised my brain wasn’t wired that way and veered more towards other mediums.

You’ve mentioned Rob Coats and the influence he had on your career. What did you learn or take away from your time working with Rob?

Before meeting Rob and working at Coats I was working around Auckland doing a lot of freelance work. A close friend Tim Checkley and I used to do Huffer’s campaign work, it was a dream job back then and super creative. It helped that the client was keen to have fun with the brand. But I came to the realisation that a lot of the work we were doing lacked ideation, thinking? We would go off on tangents and land somewhere a little bit silly (this was great for Huffer, but it was not for everyone).

I decided I needed to go and get some experience, I was really passionate about design, but was pretty all over the place with my thinking. I would sometimes sit down to work on something and come out with work which was so off track I didn’t even know how I got there.

I realised how much I didn’t know. I really had to put my head down and work hard, I wasn’t a natural compared to the other people I was working with. I was at a point with design that I was actually going to throw it in. Then, a friend I meet in agency land who was going overseas and asked if I wanted his job at Coats.

I went in and meet Rob and his wife Vanessa for an interview. Instantly I knew they were different to other agencies, a real family environment and lovely people. They had been quite a big design agency and had downsized. Rob said one of the main reasons for downsizing Coats was that he didn’t want to run a design factory.

Rob didn’t use a computer and designed everything by hand, he was an incredible thinker and craftsman and he was freakishly fast. He taught me to first define the problem to solve, get your ideas and thinking down on paper and then be able to explain the idea in a single sentence. If I couldn’t do that - it wasn’t worthy of taking any further. I watched and listened; I was really in awe of him. He was a really top guy and being such a professional it was beautiful to watch

Coats Design

Rob and Vanessa looked after me in a way that corporates can’t, I had a very young family and their genuine support and kindness stays with me. Rob has influenced me to take care of my own team, and create a studio that is about learning, encouragement and having a really good time while doing it.

Coats Best Design Awards

Marx has grown over the years to be an award winning and internationally recognised studio.
What have been some of the milestones along the way? 
What were some of the challenges?

Marx has been around for 10 years this year, it been a fun journey so far. Starting with our first employee Alan Hughes, this was a major milestone. Before Alan, I was working myself blind literally. I had my first studio space on K'Rd, and Alan was at Natcoll and used to pop in after tech and say hello and hangout. He was really passionate about design. He asked if he could help out and when I could no longer manage on my own - I gave him a job. We got on really well, same humour maybe and after working alongside each other we got freakishly in tune and started creating work we were really proud of.

Marx’s next step was with Fracture, they were mainly a web design company and asked us if we were interested in taking care of the other design work for them, small identities and a few packaging projects. This is where I feel it all came together for us, we were in a really creative environment with great people. I purchased David Clark’s design book library on Trade Me of around 500 books. I set myself a task to read as many as I could and was really inspired by design from other eras and really wanted to bring this into our work.

We started attracting some really good briefs. We knew we had to make the most of every opportunity and push the work as much as possible. Our strategy was if you do an incredible job on one project it will attract more, which actually worked (we were happily surprised). At this point we really needed to put our heads down and we moved the studio to a shed in Birkenhead (local for us). I wanted to be close to the kids - I was working long hours. I thought it didn’t really matter where your studio is, it is the work you produce, you could be in a tent, it doesn’t matter.

We worked hard, saved some money and we were able to hire Janine Bickerton as our Account Director. I was surprised (grateful, but surprised) she saw something in us. It was like a switch flicked once she came on board, Janine offered amazing guidance and systems gained through her experience in the industry. She really pushed me and changed the business overnight. We owe Janine a lot. The business was growing organically, and the team was getting better and better.

Next milestone was bringing Tristan O’Shannessy on board (our Design Director), I always admired Tristan’s work and was excited about the type of work we could create together, he was the perfect fit for us.

Marx Design 2006

Did you set out with a particular vision for Marx or has it been a more organic process?

Our journey has been more organic than predetermined, although there was a never a plan B. My wife Prudence and I could see we had potential to build a design company and we have actively worked on facilitating that.

Some fundamentals:
__ Our vision is idea driven design that works, resonates and solves the problem.
__ We want people to feel something.
__ Our work is a reaction against stylised design that just looks nice but dates quickly.

We understand that we are only as good as our latest project; we know that good work attracts good briefs.

You have a lot of international clients.
Was this an intentional strategy?

In our first year (10 years ago) we had some great briefs and opportunities mainly from Melbourne, Australia. We put everything into these projects - there were actual tears! We didn’t make much money, but this was about investing in the opportunity.

Turns out these clients were only beginning their journey and we have been their design partners ever since, watching their growth and success is part of the reward and making some pretty good mates along the way!

Things are changing so quickly these days; is there a particular direction you see the studio going?
What is next for Marx?

We have got to a stage where the team has never been tighter and the way we are all working together has never been better, so we need to look after our team.

What’s next? We have lots of ideas of where we would like to be and how we would like to shape our future. Right now, we are in the middle of a global event that will reshape the way we live. Not sure what this will look like, but I am hopeful

Ryan and his team at Marx Design and Never Sit Still have been busy with the Best Design Awards campaign for 2020 - thanks team.

DINZ Interviews

When the opportunity arises, DINZ interviews leading designers from here and overseas. These interviews seek to dig beneath the surface to address the common and uncommon challenges, problems and opportunities the design community faces.