Back in 1999, a few art school graduates with a passion for ideas jumped into the unknown and started a company in a garage in Kingsland, Auckland. Now two of them, Ben Corban and Dean Poole, run one of the world’s finest design studios, Alt Group, which has won practically every award that matters, continues to create work of ‘beautiful simplicity with a smile in the mind’ for companies big and small, and has managed to maintain its culture along the way. Ben Fahy gets a rare audience with the deep thinking co-founders and tries to find out what makes them so good.
Henry Oliver, ex-editor, October-ish, 2016: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a big profile of Alt Group in the Design Issue of Idealog?’
Me: ‘Yes. But not likely.’
For years, I, like many others, had admired the work of Alt Group from afar (and, occasionally, up close). During my time as editor of StopPress and NZ Marketing magazine, I would often receive press releases about yet another major award win. But every time I asked the PR agency that sent them if I could get an interview, it was always met with a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’.
Petty, egotistical, nosey parker journalists always find it slightly annoying to be rebuffed, but I also had a grudging respect for the strategy. The co-founders Ben Corban and Dean Poole occasionally did interviews, but they were very selective, they seemed to stay under the radar and, as a result, they created an aura of mystery and aloofness.
This slightly contrarian approach to media relations seemed to match the approach to online self-promotion. The only things on its website are the phrase ‘this page left intentionally blank’ and some contact details. There is no portfolio, no staff profiles, no manifesto. There’s an amazing self-confidence to it; a strong belief that the quality will eventually out, word of their work will spread organically and clients will want to find out more. It certainly worked on me. So I worked a few angles, explained the areas we were keen to explore in this story (and the design issue), and asked again. To my surprise, they agreed to meet. I had my white whale.
This wasn’t going to be a quick fling, however. There was still some romancing to be done, so we started with an off-the-record discussion/vetting process at their offices at the end of last year. We talked for over an hour and they agreed to meet again a month or so later. That day came and we talked for almost three hours, drank a whole heap of plunger coffee, ate a mince pie for lunch at the big communal table in their office with a few other staff members and then jumped into Corban’s big old blue Range Rover and headed for the hills – or, more specifically, Poole’s simple yet stunning Stevens Lawson-designed bach near Karekare Beach – to talk some more.
And therein lies one of the secrets to their success: when they agree to do something, they damn well make sure they do it properly.
As Corban says: “Belief and care are two really important ingredients.”
There’s no such thing as a good project, or a good client. You make it good.
Alt Group’s office on Mackelvie Street, on the fringes of Ponsonby, looks fairly unassuming. In fact, their name isn’t even on the outside of the white building, once again adding a dash of mystery. But an aesthete’s Pleasure Dome awaits once you’ve ascended the stairs.
After walking past the Marble Run installation, which Alt Group created for Auckland City Council, you see a series of white, modular display units featuring a collection of their work. At the end of the expansive space is a 20-metre-long magnetic white wall where a constantly changing roster of projects is displayed. In the middle of the room is a huge white bookshelf that separates the ‘gallery’ space from the workspace. And right in the middle of it all is the kitchen, the space Poole deems to be the most important.
This gallery vibe isn’t unintentional. Art has played an integral role in Alt Group’s evolution.
Corban and Poole met while they were studying at the Elam School of Fine Arts.
“Reflecting on that, that’s when I really begin to feel my age, because there was no such thing as a creative economy back then," says Poole. "There was no industry that was ready for it.”
After graduating, they ventured to London and became immersed in the art world. Post-Thatcherism meant the city was "incredibly depressive" and artists were doing really interesting things, because “usually interesting things happen when culturally they need to happen”. Damien Hirst and others were interacting with an increasingly broad audience around ideas and propositions – and then turning those ideas into businesses – and Poole and Corban became really interested in that idea of fusing art and design.
As Poole says: “People used to talk about branding like it was this new invention. But artists invented it. They’re an incredible model for businesses. They’re communicating an idea, they have a distinct visual language, they make outputs and offerings, and every time you see it you know it belongs to them.”
When the pair arrived back in New Zealand, they saw an opportunity to replicate that and start working for themselves. Plus, they were desperate.
“We didn’t know what else to do,” says Poole. "So we started what we believed would be an ideas company that would be multi-disciplinary because we had all these skillsets in knowing how to make things or how to design objects or do graphic design.”
The four original founders – Poole, Corban, Aaron Edwards and Toby Curnow – started with nothing, didn’t know anything and didn’t have a particular vision for the business. But they felt there was a growing demand for creative solutions and a lack of supply.
“It was a basic belief that if you put your mind to it, anything’s possible,” Corban says. “It sounds idealistic, but in the end it’s something we believed.”
For Poole, their mentality as artists prepared them well for risk.
“As an artist you need to make work, whether people want you to make work or not, and you need a place to do it in. So we basically rented a warehouse and started making work, with no sense that anyone would ever buy our service."
One of its first projects was helping to launch the iMax theatre in Auckland, which, at the time, was the biggest in the world.
“To us it was a piece of experience design. We engaged with this idea with the Tibetan community, made yak butter candles, there was music, a big manifestation of an eye that sat in Aotea Square, we got Graham Dingle to come in on a rope in a tuxedo, we had Edmund Hillary there, and everyone got a scarf that was blessed by the Dalai Lama because the first feature film was Everest.”
To them, it was art practice and, because they say they had no fear of failing, they did anything that came their way.
“If someone wanted a website, we’d do it," says Poole. "If someone needed a set design, we’d do it, if someone needed a new brand, we’d do it, if someone needed some copy, we’d do it, if someone needed a soundtrack for a TV commercial, we’d do it.”
Corban says it’s been a pioneering exercise from the outset. And, because they hadn’t really worked for anyone else before, they created everything from scratch.
“Our methodologies, our systems and ways of doing things.”
They didn’t think their approach was unusual. But around 2001, Pradeep Sharma, who was the director of design management at Unitec at the time and is now provost at the Rhode Island School of design, suggested to them that they were doing things differently by combining art practice and design management.
While the pair have similar artistic backgrounds, everyone I talked to for this story, whether clients or competitors, agreed that they have very different skills and personalities. And that was very evident from the time I spent with them.
Corban seems calm, considered, organised, serious and structured. But Poole is more animated, abstract and playful. He swears for effect; he enjoys meandering through the subject matter; and he punctuates many of his thoughts with the phrase ‘you know what I mean?’
It feels a bit like a yin and yang scenario, something perfectly illustrated by the very first on-the-record interaction I had with them around their boardroom table.
Corban: “Where shall we start from?”
Poole: “Just talk, dude.”
They’re both very deep thinkers, they just think and work in different ways.
“I’m interested in the creativity of creativity and he’s interested in the creativity of business,” says Poole. “And they overlap quite well."
Fisher & Paykel’s head of design Mark Elmore, who has been working with Alt for over seven years, thinks that combination of character traits and skills makes for a very potent combination.
“Dean is really the creative lead and Ben is the strategist,” he says, although he’s quick to point out that Poole is also strategic and Corban is also creative.
And that means they are able to attack problems from different perspectives.
“Creativity is a logical process, it isn’t a magical one," says Poole. "Sometimes you have to break a whole lot of information down into a series of parts. I'm more comfortable not knowing anything and just imagining something and I think that tension between those two approaches has led us to some really interesting places ... You are both doing analysis and synthesis but with quite different ways of doing it. I will say something in a meeting like ‘that’s what we’re doing!' But Ben will say ‘I can’t deal with that until I've read everything’. That happens quite often.”
Corban: "The dialogue and the conversation is the design process. Multiple perspectives and inputs, working through to possibility, then resolving a recommendation."
Poole says design is a conversation with yourself, it's a conversation with others, and it's a conversation a product has with the market on behalf of others. So keeping conversation open at the beginning of a process is key.
"That’s not about collaborative systems. That’s just an attitude. Because if you don’t keep talking, you just end up sharing facts. Facts just increase information, but not insights. You have to wobble around the subject area, like we’re doing right now,” Poole says.
And that attitude gets to a central philosophy: the idea of not knowing and finding out.
“Everyone needs a structure to feel okay that we’re not wandering off into the ether. But in reality you are wandering off into the ether. It’s non-linear and there’s a level of abstraction. When you’re dealing with organisations that are really systems driven, or have overarching engineering gateways, accepting that takes time. But if you look around the world, a lot of great partnerships have been built on the design and engineering mindset. It’s two quite different points of view coming together to form something. That’s basically what Silicon Valley is based on.”
Any agency worth its salt exists to bring a sense of objectivity to an organisation and Alt sees itself as an empty vessel to be filled.
“The entity can’t often see itself and how it’s positioned within a competitive context,” says Corban. And he says gaining an indepth understanding about a client is all about improving the opportunity of success; the turnkey approach to product development communications.
“It’s product, it’s story and it’s not leaving anything to chance; it’s the package that’s going to take it through all the communications channels, trade partners, retailers and consumers. So the chance of it being fucked up is lessened.”
Just as starting their own business required optimism, so too does design. And they expect their clients to come with them on that journey.
“There’s a belief that we’re going to figure this out, but you have to venture into the unknown and embrace the fear of not knowing. And you might not come back with anything,” says Poole.
Corban: “Try to sell not knowing to a client. Saying ‘we’re in the business of not knowing and finding out can be reasonably confronting. And people say ‘Jesus, I thought you were specialists in this’."
But that 'design by not knowing' philosophy is what has led to the high levels of trust that eventually create great work.
“Rather than thinking of design as defined by what you do to things, early on we saw design as the way you go about doing those things,” says Poole. “We got involved early on in design thinking before it was a term that got popularised by Fast Company.”
Yeah man. We work all the time. This is our life. I can’t separate design as activity and design as life.
And by thinking that way, it allowed them to understand what companies really needed, not just what they thought they needed. And that comes down to a fairly simple question about now or next?
“They might ask for innovation, but that’s not what they need at the moment and that's not what they need to be sold," says Poole. "You might work on design processes and design strategies, not necessarily future ones ..."
These two mindsets are very different, however, says Corban. One’s like farming because you’re harvesting, and the other is inventing.
“One is about better, one is about different. So we would be brutally honest about what they want. The bridge between now and next takes time because businesses only work at a certain pace … If you look at the career of artists, they do both. They’re farmers and pioneers. And that tension is part of the creative process.”
All the best scientists have humility. They test their ideas, they are proud of their work, but they know that knowledge is a fluid concept and new ideas will eventually gain consensus. And there is also a humility about Poole and Corban. As Poole said in an interview back in 2009: “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.”
At a time when short-termism seems to be the dominant mindset in the business world, it’s refreshing to see an agency that values patience, both when it comes to their own business and to various client projects. They haven’t felt the need to start any new offices or expand overseas and they have retained a relatively stable workforce.
“The main thing that drives organisations is the time frame they’re working to and what their agenda is, says Poole. And he says Alt has always worked to a 50 year window.
“That changes how you operate,” says Corban. “You don’t need to run topline growth red hot and then check out, because we’re not checking out.”
“It’s not a five-year ramp. This is life,” says Poole. “But we could be smaller, or we could be bigger. Or we could be in another location. Or we could not even be here tomorrow. It actually doesn’t matter. I would do this if I was doing it by myself, or with others. Growth is not always good. I just really love doing it.”
But doing good things that make a difference always take time.
“Steve Jobs or Jony Ive said it takes seven to ten years to do something important or great that will change an organisation,” says Corban. “But often that doesn’t line up with the people who are going to be on the journey.”
And, increasingly, it doesn’t line up with the expectations – or incentives – of the market.
To get good things done, you need to find places that are receptive to your ideas. And that's why Alt had to go looking for the right conditions – and, often, be given permission by clients to do what they did best.
“We had this metaphor called the Monopoly board and you would look at all the streets and hotels,” says Poole. “A lot of people want Park Lane and Mayfair, because those are the expensive streets. But actually if you look around the board and define each sector and each street and how they interact with design currently, you go and look for places that are already set up to receive design activity and strategy.”
Effectively you’re doing multiple things at once. You do the work, get the work, build and maintain a culture and then you’re having to perpetuate it. In a standard eight-hour work day there aren’t enough hours to get all that done … You can stand and look from the outside and say ‘you get all the good stuff, why don’t we get it?’ I’m not getting the violin out, but it’s all hard won.
They found those conditions within creative industries (and government organisations tasked with promoting them), architectural practices, design-led engineering companies, and service companies like lawyers which didn’t make anything but were willing to make interesting design part of their genetic make-up. And they stayed away from fast-moving consumer goods and other supposedly more appealing sectors because they didn’t match up with their philosophies – or the type of work they wanted to do.
“It’s very hard to sell design and design activity to companies that are driven by the amplification of an idea through marketing strategy and advertising," says Poole.
"A transformation doesn’t happen in a quarter," Corban adds.
Fisher & Paykel certainly understood that when it signed up for a multi-year partnership with Alt Group.
“As well as a whole lot of new product platforms, we set ourselves up to compete as a premium brand in the global market,” says Fisher & Paykel’s Elmore. “These are big capital investments that take a long time to execute. But we recognised that if we wanted to be a premium brand, we’d have to position ourselves there … They prepared us for that. And prepared us for the future.”
To understand what the brand was all about, they said they needed to get under the hood.
“They had open access to everyone in the company, whether the engineers or the C-suite. They found out what made us tick, what made us special. By having us open up like that, they helped us create a genuine manifestation of the company … We had some challenging conversations. But they were necessary.”
Then they took them on that journey and embedded the foundations of the brand deep into the organisation, he says. In a way, they’ve done so well they've done themselves out of a job, because they set up the systems and rules that have allowed Fisher & Paykel to take over and run the machine successfully.
“We’re a world-class brand now," says Elmore. "And their understanding of us and the work they’ve done have helped us to get there.”
Corban says empathy for and understanding of engineers is one of Alt’s major skills. And office furniture company Formway was another company that benefitted from this understanding.
Formway had just finished its Life chair and joint general managers Kent Parker and Paul Wilkinson were thinking about what was next. So they started working with Alt and created a seating philosophy that went on to inform the product development processes, the product and the communications.
What an amazing opportunity, and I was really proud of that work, but people go ‘it’s really easy because it’s an arts organisation’. Are you kidding me? They’ve got PHDs in visual semiotics and you’re trying to sell an idea to them? That is not easy. That is incredibly hard to do.
“The thing that was fundamentally different is that it wasn’t bolting branded communications onto the back of a product development process," says Corban. "It was basically two teams – industrial design and the design communications team – working side by side from pre-brief through a product development process over three or four years. It was a different way of doing things and it was extremely exciting. Basically you're building something from nothing and taking it to the world."
They were there before the product, and the seating philosophy they helped develop led to the creation of the world’s first multi-posture task chair. Poole says that level of intimacy between a client and agency is unusual, but the market conditions necessitate it.
“When Formway are inventing a new product there is a fear of failure, but they cannot fail, because it’s not like you can run six innovation projects like some big companies do and hope one of the six makes it. The one you pick as a New Zealand company has to fucking make it. It has to. You don’t invent it and then think about how you take it to market. You do those things collectively so as you’re developing the product, you’re also developing the storyline and how to communicate it.”
Not every opportunity is like that, they say, but that's when they do their best work and love their work the most. And that approach isn’t unique to large companies, either. With Lumojo, a startup high-end honey brand, Alt designed everything from the identity to the photographic styling to the honey pot itself. And it was also there from the start with software company PageProof.
“These processes that you learn with design and engineering businesses are quite similar to software companies,” says Poole. “What is it going to be, how is it going to look, how is it going to interact?”
Hear our voices we entreat
New Zealand often seems to exhibit that strange combination of pride and self-doubt, manifested most commonly in the question asked of almost every tourist, ‘are you having a good time?’ But there seems to have been a distinct increase in self-confidence in recent years. So has that impacted on New Zealand’s design culture? And can it even be defined?
“The design culture in New Zealand is relatively young,” says Ben Corban. “The actual industry is probably 30-40 years old. There’s a much bigger history of design within Maori culture and settlement and pioneering. But we’ve never been an industrialised nation and that’s basically what design as a practice area was built around. You look at Germany, the Netherlands or more recently Korea, they have all been industrialised, whereas we’ve been an island in the middle of an ocean with some grass on it.”
As an example, he says Germany’s economy is built on about 300 companies that each have a turnover of between $3 and $5 billion.
“We have one big company and a lot of little ones.” And while there were design companies that were set up related to early advertising agencies, he estimates there’s just a 40-year history of graphic design as a practice area.
“It’s all relatively new. Which is weird. Bauhaus wasn’t that long ago.”
One of the challenges with globalisation is maintaining a point of difference, says Poole.
“If the world sees us as a place with a 100 percent pure image, how can you define what a country offers? Mountains don’t smile back, people do. It’s people that define culture and what they make, so can we use those things to talk about a place and who we are? Fashion is a really good way, music is a really good way ...
“I still think it’s emerging, but the number of fashion businesses now is amazing,” says Poole. “They’re not the biggest companies in the world, but there are more of them. Same with furniture companies.”
New Zealand architecture is also emerging, Poole says, and starting to find a distinct design voice.
“There are some humanist principles that underlie most of New Zealand’s products or services,” says Poole. “They’re very aware of and empathetic to who they’re talking to. The DishDrawer isn’t a mistake. It’s awareness of a human-centred design process. I think Allbirds and using new material in a shoe and the style of that object is humanist in its belief. A very technical chair with performance attributes like Formway’s task chair is humanist for its understanding of how the body moves. We’re not chasing down simple ideas. You would say there’s some awareness of humans. I think Air New Zealand does that when it gives you a safety video. It’s built around an understanding a journey, to take the edge off. And you could argue it’s an understanding of the passenger’s journey that has led to the creation of the self-check-in kiosk, or biometric bag drop, or Airband.
All of this creation, Poole says, is manifested from a certain set of values.
“We’re the least corrupt nation. We’re people centric. We believe in those interactions. And I do think they inform product designers and creativity. If you think of design as material culture and service culture and how you communicate, you would say a couple of the founding principles are the idea of a playful intellectualism. We’ve got something serious to say but we’ll say it in a playful way to take the edge off that interaction. You can see that with New Zealand advertising, filmmaking, politics, businesses. And then you’ve got that other idea that is sort of pragmatic inventiveness. We’re not flash, we’re pragmatic and we want to make it easier for people to use.”
He says that’s very different than the flair you’d find in Italian design, or the warmth you’d find in Scandinavian ideas. But the humanist focus is a really strong idea.
Within New Zealand’s design culture, Auckland plays a crucial role and, for obvious reasons, holds a special place in Alt's heart.
“The reason we’re here is that we believed and still believe that design is the operating culture of a place,” says Poole. “I say place, not nation, because opportunities happen when things are changing. And when we returned home there were changes in technology, but also changes in place and recently in city. And there’s always design to do. We really believed in contributing to building a design culture, which is different than just being a business. I still sometimes get romantic about that stuff. I really do love it. I love seeing new design companies emerge. You feel like you’re making your own design histories.”
Auckland has changed markedly since they started. And from their office on the fringes, they’ve literally seen it grow around them. And there’s still a sense of agitation.
“Agitation is good, because things are feeling alive … How we act over the next 10-15 years is critical to our success as the city changes, and that goes from the educational framework to make sure that educators are aware of the emerging business opportunities and actually training people with the skillsets to seize those opportunities, to working with some of those old ideas like clustering skillsets in a place that would enable those cross disciplinary discussions to happen. Next I would go into an idea of a promotional strategy to make people aware of design and its role in the economy and out the end of that you would want to create businesses that can scale fast at the rate of change.”
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to see the success of something, or someone, and overlook the toil required to get to that point. One thing Corban and Poole do hear occasionally is that Alt gets to do all the fun stuff and work with all the good clients.
“There’s no such thing as a good project, or a good client," Corban says. "You make it good.”
And you also have to see things through. Or, as Corban says, success is 99 percent administration.
“That’s what takes the time, that implementation. Unless you can get commonality of vision around it, then it’s worthless,” he says. And that can be very difficult in large organisations.
While optimism and naivety are essential for design – and for the continuing progress of humanity – Corban says starting a business is often romanticised and the amount of energy required to build something from scratch is almost always underestimated.
“You’re basically getting something off the ground into space. And the input doesn’t stop, it’s basically forward thrust continuously, and when you take your foot off it, everything slows down or stops. It sounds dorkish. But good shit doesn’t come from a walk in, walk out.”
Corban was recently asked by a woman whose husband had started a business how long it would take for him to come out the other side and he told her it would probably be another 20 years.
“She just burst into tears. It’s actually easier to go work for someone,” he says. “Effectively you’re doing multiple things at once. You do the work, get the work, build and maintain a culture and then you’re having to perpetuate it. In a standard eight-hour work day there aren’t enough hours to get all that done … You can stand and look from the outside and say ‘you get all the good stuff, why don’t we get it?’ I’m not getting the violin out, but it’s all hard won.”
Poole points to its widely-admired work on the Auckland Art Gallery brand as an example of that flawed perception.
“What an amazing opportunity, and I was really proud of that work, but people go ‘it’s really easy because it’s an arts organisation’. Are you kidding me? They’ve got PHDs in visual semiotics and you’re trying to sell an idea to them? That is not easy. That is incredibly hard to do.”
Behind all of their finished projects – and everyone else’s projects – Corban says there’s a brutality to getting things to market. You’re often navigating big complex projects, complex people, complex organisations, complex markets. And you’re often having to make compromises along the way.
“People don’t often talk about it. But you have to be persistent. It’s quite easy to throw in the towel and walk out the door. The output looks easy, but the path to get there is always difficult.”
Put simply, it's all about having pride in your work. And Alt has plenty of that.
“It’s pretty basic shit,” says Poole. “A lot of people come in to work and clock in and clock out. They don’t do that here … Good designers want to see themselves in the work and they do care.”
That can even be seen in the lengths they've gone to for client Christmas presents. No Cadbury Favourites and a mass-produced card here. Everything communicates, they say, so instead they created 3 beers in 2014: a baby bear (1%), a mama beer (5%) and a papa beer (9%). Then they did a recording with a jazz trio.
"There was an a-side and a b-side and on the b-side they sung it slightly drunk," says Poole.
You can also see that pride – and a sense of playfulness – when Poole talks about his own year-long design experiment, in which he had 365 t-shirts printed with the date to wear on the appropriate day.
“Part of being a good designer, and it’s an attribute you want to encourage in individuals and companies, is to be reflective practitioners," says Poole. "It’s really important to do what you do, but to reflect on why you’re doing it, while you’re doing it. The craft of business is that the material talks back. You have to have awareness of your actions and what they mean in the marketplace and what that says. Call it throwing the pot. You need to be aware of the pot you’re making. Crafting strategy is about seeing what those interactions are and deciding if we should carry on doing that.”
When Corban spoke with Architecture Now about the office fit-out, he said: “We like the idea that we’re in an unbranded building, on the fringe rather than in the centre; it’s always been our style… we always laugh that we’re a design studio without a brand.”
But brand isn’t about logos or names on buildings. It’s all about how people perceive you. Advertising commentator/philosopher Jeremy Bullmore once wrote that “people build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon”. He updated that later and said those scraps and straws are actually “laid in our path by the brand's owner – the packs, the promotions, the price, the advertising – in the cunning hope and expectation that the brand we thereby build will be the one we'll come to love and favour.”
That’s certainly true of Alt Group. They think very deeply about their clients, and also about themselves, so nothing is done by accident. As Poole says when asked about their selective media strategy and very basic website: not communicating is also a form of communication. There’s a danger this kind of experimentation could come across as slightly pretentious or exclusionary, but the workplace culture seems to be one of openness and inclusiveness. Or, as Poole calls it “serious fun”.
“We know a culture has to be aware of what it makes and it has to be aware of itself to make it," Poole says. "We know the type of work that we want to make. We want to make work that’s generous and communicates to people, not creates distance and excludes others. We really like things like that.”
And one of the things it has become known for is its generous lunch policy, where staff gather almost every day to eat a meal cooked by longtime Alt designer Aaron Edwards. Poole says the idea of a shared lunch started organically. They were so poor in the early days that they all cooked lunch together. Edwards liked to cook, so he took over that job.
“We cooked every day because we couldn’t afford anything else. We basically bought food like we were flatting and we would make rice because that’s how we survived,” says Corban. And they’ve continued that tradition with the now 24-strong team.
“He’s been doing that every day for 19 years. I’ve been eating his food since I was 12,” says Poole. “He's a maker."
Not surprisingly, given their attention to detail, they have even crunched the numbers to estimate how many meals Edwards has cooked and they reckon, with an average of 30 covers a day, he’s cooked close to two million meals.
"That's a lot of lunches," Corban says. "Maybe we should be in the restaurant business."
As Sven Baker, the chairman and chief executive of Designworks Group said when I asked him if he could define Alt Group’s secret sauce: “As a designer there’s an emotion that sweeps over you when you see a great piece of work, that is ‘WOW, I wish I had done that’. Alt’s work has always had that effect on me. Beautiful simplicity with a smile in the mind. Every time I walk out of our Auckland office I'm greeted by one of their finest, The Auckland Art Gallery identity. Just an exquisitely simple and understated typographic solution, which allows the ever-changing exhibitions to be the hero. Alt’s work enriches our creative landscape with its masterfully crafted convergence of art and design.”
Formway’s Parker and Wilkinson agree and say the combination of creativity and commercial nous has made them a very important partner. Whenever they visit Auckland, or whenever the Alt team visits them in Wellington, they say they always come away feeling inspired, motivated and challenged. It’s a little bit like having a hit of the Alt drug, they say, because they always want more – and they come out feeling like they’re not doing enough.
It’s not just about the founders, either, the pair say. They have clustered a great bunch of people who are committed to the same principles and bring a whole heap of very clever thinking to the table.
So how do Corban and Poole think the rest of the industry perceives them? Expensive? Elitist? Premium? Pretentious? Brilliant? They have some ideas. But just as clients find it hard to be objective about themselves, they say that’s for others to judge.
“Do people think we’re expensive?” Poole asks.
“They definitely think you’re premium,” I say, “and the two are usually linked. But you pay for quality. As the old phrase goes, ‘if you think the professional is expensive, wait until you see the amateur.'”
They didn't want to discuss the studio’s financials, but Poole says they haven’t changed their hourly rate for 19 years.
“If that’s defined as being expensive, I don’t know what game I’m in.” And, as he points out, as with any time and cost business, you can get the best architect in the world if you’re willing to pay their hourly rate.
Corban: “It’s a funny thing, value. Everyone’s got a different view. Either you find consensus or you don’t.”
Because of their rather unique artistic heritage, Poole believes they are really fast, “because we had to be”.
“We’re optimised and really efficient.”
That seems to contrast with the statements around good things taking time – and a perception that they must spend countless hours discussing, crafting and honing their ideas. But even now, with a number of major clients, he says they’ve maintained that urgency.
“Yeah man. We work all the time. This is our life. I can’t separate design as activity and design as life,” says Poole.
Being fair and reasonable is something the pair have also held onto from the beginning. And they are confident that’s something they’ve maintained.
“Relationships are built on those kinds of principles. We’d hope we’re seen as good people, who do good work and are good to work with,” says Corban.
Alt Group has achieved an incredible amount in its time, not just individually, but also for New Zealand’s design culture. So what haven’t they done that they wish they had?
“Quit,” says Poole, almost immediately.
“That’s probably the greatest single word answer to a question I’ve ever heard,” laughs Corban.
After a bit more thought, Poole says “I’d like to be a filmmaker. I could give up tomorrow and do that.” And after a bit more thought, he says he’d like to put more focus on education.
As a member of the elite Zurich-based Alliance Graphique Internationale, Poole regularly gets asked to speak at universities and he used one of his speaking opportunities on stage at last year’s Best Awards to compliment all of the brilliant student work that was on display (Corban, who was given the John Britten Black Pin at last year’s ceremony, thanked every single member of the Alt team during his speech).
“Education is fundamental. It’s weird. You get to a stage in your career when you want to give back. I really want to use the experiences and inform them while I’ve still got the energy to help another generation. I know I’m sounding like an old fuck, but I’m only 46. I just wonder if they’re equipped and if they are being taught the right things?”
And if Corban and Poole are teaching them, the future is in very good hands.
This story originally stated that Poole's bach was created by Fearon Hay.
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