Challenges and opportunities: Best Awards Black Pin winner Sven Baker talks shop

Designworks chief executive Sven Baker was MIA at the 2011 Best Awards, preferring instead to direct his focus at fundraising for Christchurch. Last year Baker was back to pick up the Black Pin award. Josh Martin puts the design heavyweight under the grill.

Designworks chief executive Sven Baker was MIA at the 2011 Best Awards, preferring instead to direct his focus at fundraising for Christchurch. Last year Baker was back to pick up the Black Pin award. Josh Martin puts the design heavyweight under the grill.

sven baker designworks best awards purple pin 2012Now you’ve got offices in Melbourne and Sydney, do you have to operate and create differently in Australia for their marketplace?

Fifty percent of our business is now based in Australia. The markets are different but the themes and challenges facing design business are pretty universal. We run our business as a single company and have a similar culture and methodology throughout.

What have some of the highlights you’ve witnessed in design in 2012?

So, so many. The clients we offer business transformation with – companies like Silver Fern Farms – they have been through a massive transformation over the past three years they have partnered with us. The work we are doing with Kiwibank to refresh and re-energise the brand and the customer experience [is another].

The all black All Black plane must’ve been a highlight?

Yes, it’s lovely, isn’t it? But not as easy as you’d expect, because of the complexities – the use of a dark colour and balancing the thermodynamics of painting a plane black – but the wizards at Air New Zealand really helped overcome that. There was a reason no-one’s ever done it before.

What’s exciting for you in design at the moment?

The most exciting thing in design is the maturing of what design is and it being seen as a strategic business tool at a senior CEO level. The enlightened leaders really understand its value at the core of a business. That’s obviously something that Air New Zealand and others get.

You put out a call in 2011 for Best Award entrants to instead donate their entry fees to the Christchurch rebuild. Was that successful in mobilising support?

I think it was controversial and it got a mixed response. We weren’t successful in mobilising all of the industry to support the Christchurch rebuild but we, as a company, certainly put programmes in place and did what we could. We did a hell of a lot, such as Let’s Fix It, [a client partnership that offered free plumbing services]. So we achieved what we wanted to, but we had to go it alone [laughs]. I think some in the industry misinterpreted my intent, but all I was suggesting is a temporary reprioritisation. I mean, it was our discretionary spend, which our whole company was behind as a moral decision to reprioritise.

You were on the ground in the Christchurch earthquake. Did it affect your work and how you want to balance it with other parts of your life?

Yes, you couldn’t live through that and have it not impact you deeply and how you view and prioritise things. Obviously it has shaped our business, particularly the human dynamics are more important than ever – we’re moving our Wellington office to a safer location for that very reason. When you experience something so large, you are highly motivated to do things and make big changes.

Do you think the event has changed the themes for design in Christchurch businesses when they look to rebuild and reinvigorate again?

I think the role in design is massively important, not only in the city rebuild and civic buildings, but in Christchurch companies looking to build on their competitive advantage, how they understand their storytelling.
Companies like Tait, the University of Canterbury and others who are highly committed to the region are hugely rewarding for us. We are certainly committed to the region as well, in fact we are hiring and looking to grow our office there.

You’ve been in the design industry for three decades, so how do you keep things fresh for Designworks?

It fundamentally comes down to two things. First and foremost it’s the people and we have such high-quality people, some with very long tenures. Secondly, we are very clear about where we want to go with the business. Obviously we have commercial ambition to grow and be the significant strategic design business in this part of the world – that ambition is pretty hardwired into everything we do.