Design life ... with Dow Design's Donna McCort

Donna McCort was one of the first hires at branding and packaging agency Dow Design, when it was set up in Auckland in 1993 by Annie Dow and the late Greg Dow. As creative director, she’s had her fingers on some high-profile make-overs – think Cookie Time, Rush Munro, L&P, Fresh ‘n Fruity and Speights. She talks tools of the trade, iconic brands, and what it’s like to work with a “freaky genius”.

What do you love most about your work?

When our work makes a significant difference to our clients’ business. It’s very feel-good to solve a problem, and to make positive change.

I particularly love working on iconic brands – ones that have been around a long time but have perhaps lost some of their mojo. I love rebooting them. There is more history there.

McCort spearheaded the Cookie Time rebranding in 2012. At the time she said reimagining the classic Kiwi brand was a "huge responsibility".

With older brands, there are archeological layers to excavate and there are often unarticulated, almost intangible associations and emotions in people’s experiences with that brand. It is a fun challenge to find the values and resurrect the good stuff, giving it the right viewpoint for today’s world.

And what inspires you?

Clever people. I’m lucky to be working with some, like group account director Simon Wedde. Also Tony Masterantonio, one of our senior designers, he is a freaky genius. While the rest of us are thinking of a number of ideas in one dimension, Tony has travelled a few star systems away and come back with new life forms.

When people around you are producing clever ideas it can be like a hit of dopamine. You feel uplifted, your world expands, and I think it’s like compound interest, it generates more good thinking.

Speights got a crafty makeover in 2012

What do you hate most?

In design it’s not feel-good to just be making stuff up. Design needs to be about truths, otherwise it’s just bullsh*t.

What are the tools of your trade?

Besides an iMac with a huge screen?

Designers need to be empathetic and sensitive. You need to have your feet on the ground so that you can put yourself in the shoes of the everyday consumers you are communicating with.

Good designers are also hyper-aware, sensitive to things that other people don’t always notice. They have an exceptional eye for what looks good - what’s interesting, what’s balanced and what looks beautiful. They are also naturally curious, and want to explore stuff that’s out on the periphery.

Designers act as a kind of filter, bringing the really interesting stuff into the mainstream.

In 2012, L&P had 184,000 Facebook likes and was the seventh most trusted brand in New Zealand. But sales didn't match. Hence a Dow redesign 

Then and now: after 25 years in the design business, what changes have you noticed?

First, that it seems everyone wants to be a designer. There are more design schools and the intakes are way bigger than 25 years ago. Sadly though the bell curve hasn’t shifted and the numbers of exceptional designers are still that little skinny bit on the right hand side.

And secondly, budgets have got meaner. Yet no one expects half a design for half of what their budget was 10 years ago. 

Got any tips for new (and not-so-new) designers?

Half of the secret to effective design is surprise; a brand should feel surprising in some way, so people really notice it. No one pays much attention to the same old wallpaper day after day.

Another thing is trying to stay focused on the bigger picture – what are you trying to say, and is the design doing that.

I think it’s very easy to get lost in the detail of design when it’s in its development stage.

You can involve too many people too early, receive too many different opinions and suggestions, and then – to quote Jesse Ventura in Predator – “you’re in a world of hurt”, because the design has effectively been overanalyzed. And you are not sure which way is up anymore.

Tip three: Stay humble and stay critical of your work. Strive to be better at what you do. Care about good work not titles.

Dow Design did the rebranding on Fresh 'n Fruity in 2009, Colenso BBDO made this ad.