Focal Length

Matthew Robertson

“I’m afraid I don’t really have any thoughts on Australian design.” So wrote the editor of one of the world’s most respected communication design magazines in answer to my question as to where he felt Australia figures in relation to the broader realm of western graphic design. To be fair, his response was hastily written amidst sending his recent publication to press, and he did list others who might have a better idea. However, the statement triggered my ingrained, self-critical anxieties about Australian design: the repressed fear that it continues to exist outside the sphere of recognised international design. That is, that Australian design has not yet had a recognised collective impact despite winning awards over the years, as well as having representative members in organisations like the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), hosting international industry events and Australian designers taking high profile posts abroad.

My concern is in line with the views of several other practitioners and academics who were approached about the topic, and parallels the absence of Australian design in many traditional subject histories. There would be good reason for anyone to feel indifference if their assessment were informed by textbooks and monographs alone. These studies have tended to centre their interests on key manufacturing and exporting countries, especially those that commanded influence after the Second World War. Australia barely gets a walk-on role in such narratives.

Reg Mombassa (for Mambo Graphics)
Mambo Faith  1995
Offset print, 99 x 69 cm
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, gift of Mambo Graphics Pty Ltd 2008

It is fair to say that no local graphic designer has attained the recognition of international designers like Matthew Carter (typography), Irma Boom (book design) or John Maeda (digital design); not to mention join the pantheon of design superstars like Stefan Sagmeister (but maybe that is a good thing). English graphic designer Russell Warren-Fisher posits that so much design attention has been focused on the centres of London, Paris, Berlin, Japan and New York, that it is difficult “to see a noticeable figure emerge from outside these zones.”(Warren-Fisher)

“Is Australia’s global cultural impact reflected in its graphic design?”

In 2002 Eye magazine, ‘The International Review of Graphic Design’, dedicated a special issue to Australia. This edition had “its origins in a disbelief that such a remarkable and fascinating country could be so quiet in a graphic sense and in a hunch that there was more going on than meets the eye.” (19) This critical survey included the work of several contemporary practitioners and studios including Stephen Banham/Letterbox and Fabio Ongarato Design, a profile on the Mambo clothing brand and covered other subjects including graphic activism and the socially concerned design of Inkahoots. A ten page overview by the review’s editor-at large, Rick Poynor, posed the question: “Is Australia’s global cultural impact reflected in its graphic design?” Here Poynor offered some other valid explanations for Australia’s low profile at the time, citing the aversion to self-promotion and absence of a critical and vigorous design press. On the whole the issue gave an optimistic appraisal and showcased a dynamic and distinctive body of work. This was a positive step towards raising awareness about Australia on a global design stage.

Since then Australian design has steadily become more noticeable due in part to the rise of communications technologies, global travel and migration. It appears that designers of a younger generation seem to have a far greater awareness than those that preceded them. This writer spoke to several designers who had either spent time working in Australia, collaborating with Australian designers abroad or kept abreast of the developments via the internet and social media. Individuals had noticed a significant amount of Australian work in recent times. Others were impressed by work they thought was creative and experimental compared to their ‘stuffy British equivalents’. The number of high profile designers who relocated to Australia did not go unnoticed and a shared opinion that a fair amount of this country’s output is as interesting and challenging as anything from around the world. These favourable and flattering observations, although anecdotal, point to a change in perception since 2002.

In 2011 the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that there were more people employed as graphic designers than any other cultural occupation. According to these figures there were more designers than painters, musicians, photographers, architects and funeral directors (thankfully). One would expect that such a significant concentration in one field would bear some fruits. In 2013 Australia was ranked third in the annual Design and Art Directors (D&AD) awards. Originally established in the early 1960s in England, the organisation sought to ‘celebrate creative communication and raise the standard within their industry’. D&AD is internationally renowned and their awards carry substantial gravitas for any recipient. Australian designers have received a number of awards over the years, but reached new heights last year receiving fifty seven for categories including Art Direction, Graphic Design, and Packaging Design. The recipients of these awards included Container, Mash Design, Re, and The Monkeys/MAUD. The organisation recently released a statement in relation to the 2014 awards, announcing that the number of Australians on the award judging panel would be increased by fifty percent reflecting “the growing influence of Australian creatives on the international stage.”(D&AD)

It could be argued that much of this recognised work, whether in awards, books or blogs, sits comfortably with that produced in other capitals of the design world. It could come from anywhere if one were to conceal its origin. This is not to accuse Australian designers of plagiarism — designers from all over the world are too prone to adopting or drawing from the palettes of their time. In a corporate context it manifests in a generic multi-national visual language rolled out across all four corners of the globe. Adopting shared and familiar visual codes eases acceptance abroad. By contrast Warren– Fisher believes that Australia, like much of the international graphic design community, has failed to notice “the inherent beauty of their own particular culture”, and  appropriated the dominant visual language of another. He believes that designers should look closer to home for their inspiration and enjoy a greater sense of self-awareness which would increase their chances of being noticed by the international design community. A similar sentiment was shared by Poyner in the aforementioned article.

"...designers should look closer to home for their inspiration and enjoy a greater sense of self-awareness ..."

Eye (cover)
Ed. Rick Poynor
Issue 46, Winter 2002

Yet the general evaluation of graphic design work is not always a rigorous or critical exercise. The specific context and ephemeral nature of communication design makes it difficult for global audiences to see work first hand or in situ, unlike a film in a cinema. Opinions of design, and their creators, are often based on decontextualised representations in publications, blogs and lectures. The crystallised outcome of the design process is the result of any number of decisive factors including function, client, audience, budget and ethics. However, these are not always taken into consideration and designers are prone to assessing work in formal and superficial terms; that is, design audiences seem somewhat easier to convince.

As a student of design in the 1990s, I was guilty of cultural cringe and desperately looking abroad for inspiration. Twenty years later, that outlook seems misguided. Although Australia has not acquired the kind of international design status as the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, awards are one of the indicators that it is gaining greater recognition than before. Notions of isolation and eminence are outdated and, despite the gravitational pull of the Northern Hemisphere, Australia is doing things on its own terms.



“D&AD opens call for entries for 52nd Awards.”

D&AD press release. 17 October 2013.

Editor to remain anonymous. Email interview. 4 Feb. 2014.

Poynor, Rick. “Looking Forward.” Eye. 46.12. 2002: 18-27.

Warren-Fisher, Russell. Email interview. 22 Jan. 2014.


Read in full via the online issue