Milly Scott talks to Studio Round

We had the chance to interview Michaela Webb and Rob Nudds who are the founders of Studio Round in Melbourne. Studio Round’s work has been recognised in the Best Awards with several Gold Pins over the years. Michaela is the Creative Director at Round and a member of the AGI Alliance Graphique Internationale. Rob is the strategic brains behind the studio in his role as Strategy Director.

We spoke to Michaela and Rob about their approach to their studio, how they think about the culture of the places they create and how they weave their art and hospitality background into the work at Studio Round.

 While they have both spent more time working outside New Zealand, they still call New Zealand home.


Michaela and Rob, you are partners in business and partners in life. Tell us about your respective journeys and how you came to form Studio Round?

Rob: We’ve both come from very different professional backgrounds, but as we’ve found, they’ve been complementary in creating Round.  

I started out as chef, returning from Wellington to Hamilton to open my first restaurant when I was 21. Following that, I continued to work with other hospitality ventures in London, helping brands define their offering and expand their retail footprints before switching to the agency side as the Head of Client Services for a boutique design agency.

Michaela: No surprises, my background has always been in art and design. I started off studying fine arts at Mediarts in New Zealand, and then moved to graphic design. I believe I still bring both of these disciplines together. I think like an artist. When I was 25, I moved to London where I worked for Wolff Olins and then Spin. From Wolff Olins, where the focus was on strategy at the front-end to a design firm like Spin, where craft was paramount, I developed a vision for what a design practice needed to offer.

Rob: After five years in London, we settled down and formed Round in Melbourne in 2003, with the idea that we could combine our experience and bring an understanding of placemaking and culture, together with an understanding of audiences and communication.

Michaela: Rob’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit. When he opened his restaurant, he’d identified a need emerging that hadn’t yet reached Hamilton. I think that spirit informs a lot of what we do today–we want to create brands and experiences that bring people together in new ways and anticipate how they want to live tomorrow. By understanding what brands are best at, we can then align those competencies with human needs. 

Studio Round’s work spans the whole spectrum—from strategy to design craft. How do you strike a balance between what are often contrasting disciplines?

Michaela: Our view has been that the two disciplines are complementary—one informs the other. While I do think that good strategy can live alone, and great design craft can too, when they come together, they mutually reinforce each other and make the work stronger. Our approach to brand is that it’s never a façade—brand is business, and strategy informs how every part of a business operates, behaves, communicates and performs.  

Rob: Our team of strategists, writers and designers work collaboratively—toward a common goal. Strategy informs the approach we take so ideas come before identities, and outcomes are considered ahead of outputs. Our role is to help brands find a unique place to stand, to overcome challenges and lead the market, so strategy and design go hand-in-hand.

Unique work comes from a unique culture. How do you foster culture at Studio Round?

Michaela: Culturally, we’re a diverse studio—our people come from many places and professional backgrounds. While it’s important for us to have structure, we operate in a way that flattens any hierarchy.

Rob: Collaboration and participation are really important to us and to the life of our studio. I must say also, that food is a very big deal at Round.

Almost one third of our office space is dedicated to an open plan kitchen where we share meals, drink, cook together, and come together. All our special moments celebrate food front and centre, and while we work very hard, we always make time to eat!

You have both worked overseas previously. How has this experience influenced your careers?

Michaela: I think that for us, being ‘outsiders’— both being from New Zealand, and then working in London and now Melbourne, a sense of belonging and human connection has been intrinsic to our work. We want to create brands that connect with people on a deeper level, and brands that have a very clear point of view on where they belong.

Rob: Our work spans local and international clients, many of whom are speaking to very different audiences. We’re lucky that from our base in Melbourne we’re perfectly placed culturally, creatively and geographically to help brands embrace the rise of Asia in particular—the new powerhouse of the global economy.

You seem to work across a range of project scales from boutique to large scale identities. Can you tell us about some of the projects Round has done?

Rob: The past few years have been a very busy time at Round, with our client base and our capabilities diversifying across new categories—from chocolate, to skincare, property to retail. To give you a bit of a snapshot, just last year we launched a new urban neighbourhood for Sydney with Darling Square, democratised cosmeceutical-grade skincare with the innovators at Script, and created a sales campaign for architect Kengo Kuma’s first building in Australia. We’ve also continued our journey repositioning Koko Black—while eating our weight in chocolate, of course. 

True to our heartland in hospitality, we’ve recently enabled Toji Sake founders Shar and Yuta Kobayashi to bring their experience of Japan to Melbourne, with restaurant, Eazy Peazy, and worked with Chef Kazuki Tsuya and his partner Saori to bring their acclaimed regional dining destination Kazuki’s to the city. The restaurant has since received multiple accolades, including a chef’s hat, which is so exciting.

Michaela: In partnership with The Wheeler Centre, we also helped launch the inaugural Broadside—a feminist festival that welcomed speakers like Monica Lewinsky and Zadie Smith. Giving voice to these types of debates and ensuring a festival could be relevant to an entire city, not just a female population, was really important to us.  

We’ve recently entered the fourth year of our partnership with Melbourne Fashion Week too. It’s been quite powerful to be part of the evolution of a brand that has found its identity and its voice and is now brave enough to take a stance on issues facing the world of fashion. Last year, the focus on sustainable style meant that contrary to everything you’d expect from a fashion festival, M/FW encouraged audiences to buy less not more, and to participate in small acts each day that collectively have a significant impact on our planet. It was a big move, and one that certainly paid off.

You mentioned the term placemaking. How do you define this? How does this differ from branding?

Rob: For us, placemaking is about a deep understanding of what places need and about paying attention to the fine-grained activities that transform places into magnetic destinations where people want to be. Placemaking considers not just the many components of a built environment, but the connections formed by people toward those places, and the connections between individuals. Placemaking builds brands and creates communities. 

Michaela: I think this is the case with any approach to brand, but particularly in placemaking, it’s important to begin with a deep understanding of audience. When we’re creating places, our responsibility is to them. And by understanding, reflecting and responding to people’s needs-both current and future, that’s when you create places with longevity.

Rob: A good example is Darling Square in Sydney—a recent project we completed in partnership with Lendlease. While our brief was to brand a new urban neighbourhood for Sydney’s CBD, the work became much bigger than that. Based on insights around the escalating sense of loneliness in the world’s major cities, and the craving for physical connection, our strategy for Darling Square focused on the places and spaces between the buildings and the everyday moments that become the real glue for community. 

We created a strategy that reflected the intimacy and spirit of a neighbourhood, but also considered how the many different parts of its built environment come together. Ultimately, we had to ensure that a space in the city became a place that people could connect with and relate to. 

I think it is important to note that you are originally from New Zealand. Is there anything you have taken with you from New Zealand out into the world? A particular ethos or set of influences?

Michaela: Something that we’ve always held dear to us, and something that still informs our approach to working today is the idea of turangawaewae. 

When we reflect on the clients we’ve worked with throughout our careers, up until now, we’ve always been compelled toward brands with intrinsic ties to culture, people, and place—which is so important in an increasingly digital world. 

Since establishing Round, a significant part of our role has been helping brands define what turangawaewae means to them— partnering with organisations to carve out a place where they can stand.

Rob: We believe brands are like people in that way. They need to find their purpose and what they value, but they also need to discover their place in the world. This means understanding where they’ve come from, where they’re going, and having confidence that even as internal and external forces may shake them, they’ve always got a compass, a central point, to steer their course.

For some, this place is a mindset, or a way of behaving. For others, it’s more literal, and you can chart it on a map.

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.