Can you tell us about the founding of Alter?
I founded Alter with two other people over 10 years ago now! And a lot has changed over that period. The three of us went to Monash University. The first partner, Brendan, left to work in fashion and he's still going now. The second is Dan and he has obviously moved on, being so busy these days with Cut Copy. He tried to hang on for a really long time but he couldn't do both. So that leaves me and my wife Louisa, who is a partner in the studio.
You have organised quite an extensive archive of work on your website and, going through it all, a real style emerges - very bold, very fun, bit of pop referencing - where does that come from?
I think it's a bit of an accident in some ways. it's a reflection of our interests and the designers who we have hired to work here have come because they are attracted to the same things too so we all do a bit of that. In terms of 'studio style', there isn't necessarily an intention for the work to reference a particular time but we try to work with colour, with humour and a sense of playfulness. I have always enjoyed design that doesn't take itself too seriously.
We read a quote from you that says something similar: "...the desire to explore the absurdity of our profession... we're a part of this sometimes ridiculous posturing, pitching and positioning, and we're conscious enough of our role within it to reflect on it..."
It's that pop culture thing - you can't remove yourself from the reality of what you are doing. We are in an industry where we are trying to advertise on behalf of a client but we are trying to do it without patronising people and in a way that we enjoy it ourselves. And that really is the main criticism that we apply to our work. We like it to have a certain integrity, which might just be the humour, or being thoughtful, or having a reference to graphic history.
You are "...sceptical but happy disciples..."
Yes, exactly. It's a good summation of our approach to design, and to the media world in general. Our criticism is mostly friendly, as it would be hypocritical to imagine ourselves removed from that process. And these days, we work for a few corporate clients as well...
Yes, the two types of clients you have are almost polarised...
Yes, and I like that, having to wear completely different hats, working with completely different people, who respond differently.
There is still a common approach through all the work
Yes, definitely. Is this a reflection of how you feel design can communicate?
Not really. I appreciate really pared-back design, the kind of design that is only recognisable to other designers. But it is not the sphere we operate in. Clients are attracted to the work that they see us do; it's self-fulfilling in a way. But we do respond to each brief and don't set out to be particularly bold or colourful.
Is there a typical process?
Yes, but it really turns out to be lots of conversations between all of us, looking at things and bringing it back to the group, asking what each other thinks... I never sit down with a client and tell them we go through a structured set of design tools, it's a lot more intuitive and it can be slow at times. If I have any criticism of how we work as a studio, it is that we are can be a bit slow! We like to think about stuff when the opportunity is presented.
What about deadlines?
Clients bring us deadlines and we do break work up into concept, development, etc. But we have never had a particular set of rules or a rigid way of doing things. We just get better at recognizing and getting to the point - and we learn to do this quicker. When we're happy, we then share ideas with the client and see if anything begins to resonate with them. When there are deadlines, we meet them!
We noticed also on your site that alongside all the usual details about a project - the client, the brief and the outcome - was that you readily stated your influences and references. Sometimes they are quite abstract, other times very blatant! It gives the work a whole other context and insight into what you are doing.
We like to think we aren't plagiarising! The intention is to pay homage where we feel it is appropriate and also give the job some context. For example, in the work we did for Monash University's Faculty of Art & Design, we were looking at Les Mason for Epicurean and I have had a fascination with the work of Milton Glaser forever. We felt the surreal qualities of both spoke perfectly to our ideas about the fact that it is a university where you are going to study art and design, it's a explorative playground, your mind is open and you're soaking up all this history and influence, which is key. When you look at the work Glaser did at New York School of Visual Art, they were simple but surreal images, and they conveyed a desire for exploration and meaning.
The "Crafted" image...
Yeah, quite romantic, and there was a real intention in referencing that work. There are a lot of university promotions that feature an image of a student, smiling and holding a pen or some such. We felt it needed to be more engaging, a bit fun, telling students that you can go and do something more unexpected and that's your work, not having to conform to what the expectation might be if you put it to a vote of all the stakeholders. So for that time, our work was a representation of one interpretation of what a Faculty of Art & Design could or should be about. Monash could have gone to another studio or artist and got a different interpretation. They could do a series and build a diverse collection of interpretations which would set the whole scene on fire. The Monash work comes from a love of the unperfected image; having a sense of play and accident; images that ask questions and propose ridiculous answers. And - in terms of referencing Mason and Glaser - it's like what you were saying about style, they weren't afraid to have an approach that might not suit everybody. They were working with the style of the era but with a playfulness and at times a naivety. Most people aren't prepared to appear naive...
That's an element we noted in your work as well
Yes sometimes we are quite purposefully naive, if something can be said simply, if it can make you smile, then that's great. The naive has a real way of getting to people.
I like cliché! But you have to acknowledge the cliché to make it work.
But without being ironic?
We don't usually try to be ironic, it's too cruel
A bit judgmental?
Yes, we have never aimed to be the studio that is the coolest, or the daggiest. We just attempt to do work that resonates with people and gives them a sense of the humans behind it, humans who are enjoying themselves.
Have the people that you have hired along the way affected that Alter direction?
They have certainly all played a role in it. We began with a sort of shared appreciation and have had people gravitate to the studio who also really enjoy the work we have produced, so as we have developed there has also been a kind of consistency throughout. Some of the people who have worked here also enjoy their own artistic pursuits and most are also musicians of some sort. I'm not entirely sure how that's happened.
Is there something in particular you look for?
We really love the hand drawn stuff. We get so many folios sent in - including some really good ones - but it is difficult to separate them when you don't have a sense of who the person is. When we receive so many, it does become difficult to respond properly. It is easier when you have built a relationship already.
I remember that becoming apparent very quickly as a graduate—
Yes it can be a real barrier but it can also be done without the 'who you know' aspect. For example, one of our designers came to an AGIdeas Studio Access night and was the last guy chatting at the end of the night. He got in touch a few times; we saw and loved his work and one thing eventually led to another. I don't have any great wisdom as an employer on how to get a job. We are so small that hiring doesn't happen very often and we hope that when people join us, they stay.
Especially when you have such a close, collaborative way of working
Yes, and that's a good point, if there is anything different about what we do here, it is that whenever anyone hits a wall, they pass the work on to someone else and we are all pleased when someone can make an improvement. Sometimes it's all of us working on the one project and then coming together and pooling all of the ideas.
Your cover for Cut Copy's Zonoscope looks like a good case study for your studio practice—
It is an image by a Japanese artist called Tsunehisa Kimura. Dan wanted to do something like that. But in the end we decided we wouldn't try to reproduce something from the 70's in a contemporary way when *that* was the image. Using the weight of Modular and a bunch of connections, they were able to contact his family who licensed the image to be used and I think it ended up being the best decision. I have seen lots of record covers where there has been a lot of referencing but it leaves you wondering if it is a retro piece, or a contemporary piece? In this case I think it had to be the real thing.
It's literally a modern frame...
Yes, it's looking at that image through the so-called 'Zonoscope'.
What is it like working with Dan who would be, in these situations, one half client and one half Alter, in contrast to how you would work with a typical client...
I do a lot of listening. Working with Dan, he is an educated designer who has a very clear idea with each record he is making and a vision that he can communicate well. For example, with Zonoscope, he had begun creating the main images and we built it together from there. On the other hand, sometimes it's just an understanding, Dan just had a series of words that he felt were related to the direction on the singles. For example, on 'Where I'm Going' it began with words like 'zulu beach boy', 'dark tropical' and other gems along those lines. Coming from someone you don't know it might not seem like much to go on but it all plays a part in creating artwork that, hopefully, does justice to the influences and the kind of music the band is making.
Photography property of Jonathan Wallace/Alter and Double Days.