They say good things come in threes and Motherbird have good things in spades. Friends and co-founders Jack Mussett, Dan Evans and Chris Murphy have made a name for themselves as the creative studio to watch, being named one of Tomorrow’s Top Ten Forces of Design by DQ Magazine, winning a 2012 AGDA award, 2010 SOYA award and, arguably, the award for the agency every design school graduate wants to work for.
It’s not just the awards that Motherbird are heralded for either; their designs straddle the balance between raw, precocious talent and the assured depth of their older contemporaries. With clients like MTV, Qantas and Billy Blue under their belt, who better to learn about how to make it out of the post-university starting gate than these three?
Our story is unique in many ways; the most interesting part is that the three of us met at high school. It was there that we found a shared passion for graphic design and we all followed it into university. All three of us studied at Swinburne University, a major reason for this decision was the industry based learning program they were offering at the time. Nothing beats real industry experience, and to this day it has been a very important factor in our professional development.
University and Beyond
During our studies we discussed opening a design studio, but it was always a bit of a pipe dream. Once we graduated we realised it was finally the right time to take the leap. We had the drive, the passion, the creativity and absolutely nothing to lose. We wanted to work for ourselves, have creative control, be proud of our work and open up our futures. We were fortunate enough to be offered a very affordable studio space, which certainly helped us come to the conclusion that opening a studio was a positive idea.
Fresh out of the design degree, our biggest hurdle at the time was the business aspect of running a studio. While we had all worked in small creative studios, absorbing professional environments, client relations, project management and business decisions, we still had no knowledge of how to put it all into practice. This has been the most important factor of our survival, not necessarily understanding business, but having an appreciation of the time that needs to be invested into it. Many young start-ups have an amazing skill set and portfolio, but fail to get through the first few years because they neglect to nurture the business side.
Another important business factor is choosing what work to take on and we’ve now adopted a measure for selecting new work. Each new project must fit under one or more of the categories: fortune, fame or fun. This was a strategy we adopted following a few years of us taking on most projects that walked through the door. We started to realise that we were taking on too much work and we therefore had to start distinguishing the value that each project would bring to the studio. Almost every design studio has work that pays the bills and will never see the light of day, and every studio has projects that are less financially rewarding but are stunning as a portfolio piece and in turn generate more new business. It is difficult to find clients that hit all three markers and usually there’s a trade off. This is the most effective way for us to measure new business. Understanding how each new project is going to benefit your studio is a good start, however, without effective time and client management, a project that ticked several boxes may no longer tick any. This is the hardest part of running a studio, measuring the management of your effectiveness to achieve the original goals, and having the efficiency to complete them in a timely and profitable manner. Our projects vary greatly in segment, size and creative output. This keeps things interesting in the studio and every day is different to the next.
One of the biggest factors in our success is the fact that we had nothing to lose and weren’t afraid to fail. This opened up many opportunities for us to push boundaries: with the way we approached our processes, our outcomes and the wider design community. We got involved with the design community very early on, joining the AGDA Council, and writing for several publications. It certainly paid dividends but wasn’t a conscious attempt to put our studio on the map, we just wanted to be part of something bigger. We wanted to have a voice and sit beside our peers, those who we had idolised through our design education.
Another factor in our success to date has been our ability to be honest to each other. Given our friendship, we are not afraid to give our honest advice or opinions when needed; we are firm but fair when critiquing each other’s work. Mutual respect is important in our studio, so even if there are conflicting opinions, they never get personal. We all have strengths and weaknesses but we try to work together so we are only showing our strengths. If one of us is struggling, another picks them up.
A big stepping-stone for us was winning the 2010 SOYA Award. We were still early in our journey at Motherbird, this gave us the belief that maybe we could make this work. We entered a mix of our client work and self-initiated work. The prize was a twelve-month mentorship with New York based Illustrator/Art Director Deanne Cheuk. Having won the award we spent three weeks in New York, meeting new people, absorbing the creative culture and learning from Deanne. While the mentorship was officially for a twelve-month period, we have certainly gained a good friend from the experience. We are still in regular contact with Deanne, and she has provided us with valuable advice. Putting us on a national stage, the award yielded a number of new clients and it has been extremely valuable for the credibility of the studio.
The future of design
The democratisation of design is a hot topic at this point in time. Increasingly, more people engage in the design process, undertake design courses or buy design software resulting in an over supply of designers and an under supply of design work. In the age of digital technologies there are many tools and programs that make ‘good’ design easy, allowing the masses and the general public to engage in their own DIY design projects. This is scary for many designers who feel they may be replaced by technology. On the other hand, it is currently one of the most dynamic and exciting periods to be a designer or creative. Many businesses are recognising the importance of implementing good design thinking into their everyday practices. Sure, technology may allow non-designers to design an acceptable business card or build a site without code but it won’t teach them design thinking, which requires an ingrained sense of empathy, creativity and an innate understanding of human behaviour. Across the board, design is finally being regarded as a valuable business tool for problem solving, culture building and of course profit generating. It is now up to industry and educational institutions to implement a ‘design thinking’ model into their practices and teachings to future proof the long-term prosperity of the design industry.
Advice for the next generation of designers
One of the main reasons for us being so active in the design community and giving back to younger designers is that we understand where they’re at, after all we were there 5 years ago. It’s very scary being at that void between tertiary and industry and there’s no soft entry either. The industry and designers within it are very welcoming and extremely warm people but it is about breaking the ice and getting that initial introduction to get involved that is difficult. We try to be as transparent as possible about our journey from tertiary to industry, giving as much advice as we can. It is really important for students and younger designers to understand that the process for achieving their goals can vary in many different ways and that there are no set rules or methods. It is extremely valuable to be involved in the industry as a young designer, as it increases work and collaboration opportunities.
When it comes to giving advice, the best we can possibly give is to work hard, trust your instincts and have fun. The graphic design profession is one of great opportunity and can be incredibly rewarding. It is unique in the fact that you can follow your creative passion while potentially having a profound impact on society. Designers are in a position where they have the ability to push boundaries, change the status quo and ultimately build a better world. This does not answer the age old question “can design save the world?” The answer to this is of course – no. However, implementing good design thinking can influence future decisions, change the way we think and work towards improving the quality of living.
In terms of the graphic design process, it’s really important that as a younger designer you explore your creativity, develop your skill set and find out what you love doing before you settle down in a full-time position.
Melbourne the unique city
Melbourne is a truly unique city with plenty to offer from a creative perspective. Having a studio in the heart of the CBD means we are amongst the hustle and bustle, constantly inspired or influenced by our surroundings. There are so many creative hubs in all corners of Melbourne, allowing designers, artists and creatives alike to collaborate wherever they feel comfortable. Melbourne’s graphic design industry is full of incredibly generous people who are willing to share ideas, resources and stories with one another; it never feels as though we are in competition, even though we are. When designers are pulling together rather than fragmenting, it benefits the industry and profession of graphic design as a whole, and Melbourne is a special place for this type of selflessness.
The next One to Watch
There is currently a lot of creative talent in Melbourne at the present time, so much so that it’s hard to pick the next big thing. From a typographic side, we’re really enjoying the work of Melbourne illustrator Kate Pullen, she’s one that’s really got the talent to go to the next level.