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The Alt Group approach to brand design

For Alt Group, an Auckland design firm that scooped 55 design awards internationally in 2008, good brand design is more than just a Helvetica love-in. Steven Shaw gets with the Alt approach

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Photograph by Alistair Guthrie

For Alt Group, an Auckland design firm that scooped 55 design awards internationally in 2008, good brand design is more than just a Helvetica love-in. Steven Shaw gets with the Alt approach

Magazine layout

Auckland brand design company Alt Group operates in an area of design linked more to business growth and philosophy rather than design for design’s sake. Alt’s work is worlds away from just graphic design, logos and tasty fonts. Alt designers help companies on strategy and brand development, new product development, and they’ve been known to help change a business model.

“Although the end result is the interface with the consumer, where we work is right at the front end,” says creative director Dean Poole. “So we’re not a graphic design firm, we’re more of a strategic business partner. What we do is about them rather than us.”

Savoury smells waft from the Alt Group kitchen as I meet co-founders Poole and Ben Corban. For the staff, sitting down together to eat a lunch cooked on the premises helps to strip away the physical and mental obstructions of the working day, allowing for friendly interaction. And inevitably, the free exchange of work-related ideas.

Although they maintain a level of modesty about it—Poole says awards “aren’t about chest-beating”—they’ve won numerous accolades for their work. A total of 55 awards in 2008, including a haul of 31 at New Zealand’s BeST Design Awards, 19 at Australia’s Graphic Design Association Awards and a Webby Official Honoree for good measure. Their clients include big-note design firms like Lower Hutt’s Formway Design Studio as well as major power companies, fashion businesses, architectural firms here and abroad, law firms and boutique wineries.

None of Alt Group’s founders have a pure design training background. Instead, Alt was founded by four Elam art school graduates—Poole, Corban and fellow directors Aaron Edwards and Toby Curnow. The philosophy for Alt Group grew out of their time in London during the mid-90s, when British art was making headlines and speaking to a new generation. “It was getting attention,” says Corban, “because it was ideas- and conceptually-driven. Art was crossing boundaries, getting out of the galleries and into the marketplace—Damien Hirst starting setting up restaurants and other people started developing products and it really started wandering over into advertising, design and communication territories. And that’s fundamentally what we were interested in from the outset.”

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“As the thing grew,” says Poole, “it all centred on the idea of working with clients to come up with ideas that would have impact, whether it’s to create a better market or a more willing market. We weren’t really the type of firm that responded to a brief as a set of instructions. We were more inclined to say, ‘What if we do it like this?’”

One of the longest projects Alt has worked on is with Formway, four years spent developing a radical office furniture system called Hum—Minds At Work. The relationship has resulted in the Hum Research Book, a document of the heady research and thinking behind Hum.

Formway has also licensed the right to manufacture Hum to US Fortune 500 company Kimball Office, leading to more business for Alt. And the book itself has been shortlisted in the editorial category of the Design Week Awards 2009 in the UK, to be held in early March.

Alt was invited in at the start of the process, when Formway was still forming a strategic brief on its next product. “Most companies run a standard Stage-gate process,” says Poole, “with brand positioning and marketing at the end, before it goes to market. This was actually bringing brand positioning and brand story right upfront and into the brief. As they were developing physical prototypes and doing other research, we were collecting information and catching the knowledge.

“So when it came to the end, we did the naming for the product, we did the website, the brochures, the voice and language for the marketing materials. We also got to do this research book because we’d been part of the research team over four years.”

The book asks the fundamental question: does the world need another desk? Sure it does, says Poole. “If we’re going to make one and we’re going on a four-year journey to make one, we better figure out—if the furniture is made to fit our bodies, why isn’t it made to fit our minds?”

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Poole says while most furniture is designed around physical ergonomics, Minds at Work was looking at cognitive ergonomics. “Ideas of neuroscience—if you strip away a desk, what are you left with? People, interactions, and some communication tools. Innovation is a key driver for the next workplace, so how do you configure that environment to encourage ideas and interaction to happen? We’re saying the future of the workplace is really a framework for social interaction.”

“When we first brought them on to help with our thinking, it really was for internal branding,” says Ed Burak, senior designer and now general manager of marketing at Formway. “It allowed us to illustrate what we were trying to achieve before we’d finished designing the product. It allowed us to have this really clear vision and the ability to sell to our internal stakeholders what our big idea was. The payback is incredible.”

In addition to pleasing stakeholders and giving the Formway team ownership of that “big idea”, Burak says the final advantage was to simplify compiling the back story and language. “Then it’s just getting stuck in, talking to the market about it. We managed to convince Kimball Office to use Alt for all their marketing and brand development around Hum as well.’

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“When you buy a flat-screen TV,” says Corban, “you don’t give a tinker’s cuss what the story was or what happened behind it. But on this one, because of the market, people are interested in how to feel more comfortable and work better, communicate better and have better ideas.”

A project with Hawkes Bay winery Farmgate snowballed as Alt worked on it. Rather than creating a wine label that competes on the shelf, they concentrated on building a direct-to-consumer relationship. Twelve local ‘producers’ were picked. “Artisans of their craft, whether a breadmaker or cheesemaker, it’s their stories on that label,” says Poole. “It’s saying Farmgate is not about me the winery, it’s about the community. It’s changed the relationship consumers have with the bottle. It doesn’t have to stand out amongst the other bottles on the shelf; it’s not even with the other bottles anymore. It’s about locality being a differentiator, trends around the slow food movement, about food and wine matching. We’ve taken all those things and packed them into a brand proposition.”

“Authenticity, relevance—those words are bandied around a lot in our business,” says Simon Coley, a creative director who worked with Alt on New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s Better By Design initiative several years ago. “It’s pretty hard for a designer not to want to reinvent something. When you’re asked to do a new logo, you want to do a new logo—and it’s not always what the business needs. Maybe they need their old logo to work better. These guys get that.” Coley says Alt is developing a style of work that’s suited to New Zealand, “where firms don’t have huge resources and budgets aren’t necessarily as large as your international competitors.”

There’s also a Kiwi directness to Alt’s work. “A default setting for a lot of brand agencies is to start with lots of theory,” says Coley, “and Alt had a nice little phrase they would use—‘Brand onions make us cry’. Because when you start using too much of those strategic or structural diagrams to unpick something, you often miss the real material.”

“If you look at the difference between art and design,” says Poole, who’s been known to phone clients in the middle of the night to chew over an idea, “art is really about philosophy, and it’s about life. Whereas design is really about utility and about use. We like where those two things come together. The thing about designers is that they always think there’s a problem to solve. And really, you don’t solve problems, you just reorganise them.”