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Design by not knowing—Alt Group’s Dean Poole on why not having the answer leads to success

Design by not knowing—Alt Group’s Dean Poole on why not having the answer leads to success

Eleven years ago four young men started a conversation that eventually led to the super power in creativity that we know today as Alt Group. Having collected about a gazillion awards since its inception (roughly speaking), Alt's creative director and co-founder Dean Poole took the company's success another step further by snapping up the highly prestigious John Britten Black Pin award—for an individual who has made a major contribution to design nationally and internationally—at Friday’s Best Design Awards. So does winning this grandiose award change anything? No—life is as crazy as always he says. 

Awards aren’t everything, but they are something. “It means the idea that you’re communicating is universal. We’re doing our job because the idea is cutting through and communicating, which is what we get employed to do, says Poole.”

Aside from winning the Black Pin award, Alt group also took home seven Gold Pins, in a performance not too dissimilar to last years awards. You can add these recent additions to the very impressive trail of awards left in Alt’s wake, which in the last two years have included: Gold and Bronze at the Art Directors Club; Silver and Bronze and One Show Design in New York; winners in the Webby Awards; Silver and Gold at the Cannes Design Lions; Platinum and Gold in Graphis Design Annual and numerous red dot awards. Exhausted yet? 

Poole certainly isn’t. In fact, he says he’s still got the energy and curiosity of a teenager. “We feel like we’re still teenagers and we haven’t finished yet. There are so many things that we want to do and fix up." 

That’s an impressive stance, when you consider Poole started exhibiting his artwork at the tender age of 14. However he soon fell out of love with art and fell into design instead. 

“The great thing about design is that it’s the social life of ideas. You get to see ideas out in the wild rather than in a box and in a monitored, curated experience. Design is also much more collaborative. With design, you’re serving other people’s problems.” 

But Poole is adamant that Alt will never do design for design’s sake. “We’re really an ideas company. We work with the idea first and the execution second. We’re a multidisciplinary company.” 

It’s this multidisciplinary approach that has played a key role in the  company’s success, and while working across such a diverse range of areas has its challenges, Poole says the history of design has always been like this. 

“(Design was) a series of skills that then got applied to an opportunity. If you go back to the Bauhaus movement, that’s actually what they did. So we’re just trying to recreate that feeling where if you get a group of happy people and put them in a room with a set of skills and get them to fight something—be it the way people sit on a chair or helping people connect with a brand—inherently, that’s what designers are good at. They’re good at connections.” 

And when it comes to connection, the company has managed to connect with a wide range of clients over an equally wide range of outlets, including books and web. A clue to this success lies partially in the company’s webiste,—or lack thereof. Try and find Alt on the web and you come across not much more than a simple web page with contact details—an intentional move says Poole. 

“We don’t promote our work online because we don’t want people to come with an image in mind, but more of a problem or opportunity.” 

It’s a strategy Poole says has allowed the company to work with everyone from Karen Walker at one end to New Zealand Trade an Enterprise at the other. 

“None of those brands are alike. They’re all different. If you start with an image first you end up creating a house style, not communicating an idea.” 

The key is in diversity. “We work on big jobs and really small jobs, but we treat them the same way. For us it’s the opportunity to do good design.” 

The Print Counsel: awarded Gold at 2010 Best Design Awards

Another key to the company's success lies in literally having no idea. “We’re generally quite a curious culture,” says Poole. “We have this philosophy of design by not knowing. We actually don’t know. We tell our clients we don’t actually have the answer. It’s the joy of finding out.” 

Clearly Alt’s philosophy is working, with the company continuing to go from strength to strength. Not that the company is interested in exploding the size of its operation—though clearly it could. 

Poole says Alt has always had a dream that asks: “How can you have a global presence and still be in one place?” 

“It’s nice to keep the scale that you want because the right scale creates the right activity. But you don’t have to be all over the world to do that. You can do it from here,” he says. “You can export creativity.” 

He says Alt could be huge but it doesn’t actually want to be. “It just wants to be small, nimble and do good work for a long, long time.” 

When it comes to the health of the Kiwi design scene, Poole says that from where he sits, New Zealand is doing pretty well. 

“We’re a young, emerging design culture and like any culture, that takes time. In recent years, there’s been a new design culture emerging. You can see it happening in furniture with the success of people like David Trubridge. You can see it happening in architecture. People have said recently that we’re like the Scandinavia of the South Pacific. Design is a powerful expression of culture. It’s not just about good business. It also hints at who we are. Magazines and technology have exposed people to what New Zealand has to offer and I think people are finding a unique voice.” 

Karen Walker: awarded Silver at 2010 Best Design Awards

Having worked in so many areas, is there one area in particular outlet Alt would really like to sink its teeth into? “We kinda like film...we would love to do something in an entertainment space – it’s a different narrative — a different way of communicating,” says Poole. 

With a career that has included everything from fine arts, to sculpturing, to brand identity, is there anything the Black Pin winner can’t do? 

“I can’t cook, I’m really hopeless.” Poole explains that he has a friend who tells him that every designer should be able to cook because cooking and design are the same. It’s a series of ingredients that you need to put together in a unique way and then you serve up something that is an experience that everyone enjoys—so his friend says. Poole’s response? ”I’m only good at toast.”

Giltrap Group: awarded Silver at 2010 Best Design Awards

Eat Drink Merry: awarded Bronze at 2010 Best Design Awards

Be Project: awarded Bronze at 2010 Best Design Awards

Auckland Museum - LATE: awarded Bronze at 2010 Best Design Awards