Kevin is the founder and Creative Director of Made by Big. He has twenty years of global brand design experience in both top tier agencies and independently with strong experience in all aspects of brand identity and graphic design. He has over 35 international design awards including D&AD, ADC, New York Festivals, Mobius and AGDA. His approach to design is characterised by a belief in meaningful ideas and simple effective communication.
Kevin graduated in 1997 with a degree in graphic design from the University of Northumbria. His career began in London with a series of placements at some of the UK’s most respected design companies – Pentagram (Lippa Pearce), The Partners and Carter Wong. After a year working in an Italian design studio he returned to England to join The Chase. He was the first designer to be employed in the fledgling Leeds office, winning 3 D&AD ‘in books’ in his first year.
In 2002 he joined international design agency Elmwood, relocating after three years to the new studio in Melbourne. Growing from Senior Designer to Creative Director, he led a team of designers on projects for Nike, Just Group, Melbourne Writers Festival, National Sports Museum, ACMI, Federation Square, ANZ Bank and Melbourne Heart FC. As part of the Australian leadership team he helped grow the business from three to over twenty five individuals.
In 2010 he established Made by Big.
His work has been widely published and recognised with over thirty five international design awards including AGDA, D&AD, Design Week, DBA Design Effectiveness, Melbourne Art Directors Club, New York Festivals, New York Art Directors Club and Mobius.
AGDA INTERVIEW – 07.2017
The following article was conducted by the Australia Graphic Design Association and was intended for a audience largely made up of designers. The content is a narrative describing how I transitioned from University through to today, 20 years later. As a existing or potential client the article should give you an insight into MY overall design approach and thinking on the subject of meaningful and EFFECTIVE design.
“Northumbria was one of the leading universities for design in the UK,” says Kevin Blackburn, Creative Director and Founder of Australian studio Made by Big. “The faculty had a number of departments: graphic design, interiors, fashion, photography and product design, and it had really strong alumni. Jonathan Ive went there, in the product design section, along with Vaughan Oliver, a prolific UK graphic designer.”
“And a lot of idea-oriented design agencies in the UK are run by people from the Northumbria design faculty. There’s a small contingent that has followed Ive to Apple, so there’s a definite link to simple, relevant and thoughtful ideas.”
“I think for me it’s ideas that inform what I do as a designer, it’s always about ‘why’ — why is this relevant; what is it going to do; and how is it going to empower whoever you’re designing it for?
At Northumbria, Kevin and his classmates had tutors who worked at local studios. These tutors would come in and do real-world critiques of the students’ work. Students would be sat in small groups, present their work, and prepare for the onslaught (of wisdom, not abuse).
“The briefs were real-world. They were very much about, ok, this is a company or this is an entity, they want to sell themselves or they want to position themselves in this way. How would you bring that design to life?” asks Kevin.
“That informed the way that I approach design. I design for a reason — to solve a business problem or challenge, to identify and communicate difference, to connect with meaning, to provoke a thought or reaction, or simply raise a smile. It’s always about an idea.”
There is an argument that the more complex the message is to the customer, the more opportunities there are to lose them.
“You’re literally communicating what an individual, company or organisation does or stands for: that needs to be quick, that needs to be beautiful, and it needs to relevant. Finding a balance or tipping point and understanding where the customer is on that journey is so important,” explains Kevin.
“I think the guy who really opened my eyes to design, was a guy called Greg Quinton. He was and still is, creative director at The Partners (London, UK). It was around the same time that they’d brought out the original edition of A Smile in the Mind (1996), which sets the standard for engaging design and believes there’s a place for wit and humour within the context of an idea. As a designer, you’re searching for an idea that’s going to either raise a smile or do something playful and a little bit unexpected, with the aim of cutting through and being memorable.”
Kevin didn’t get to run a project from start to end at The Partners. “You’d be a small cog in a team of four or five, getting valuable exposure to the process and output, seeing how a proper design company worked,” says Kevin.
“That month-long placement with The Partners was amazing for me. I’m quite lucky, because I had a [university] course that was idea-based with a strong focus on craft, and the studios I did placements with — at Lippa Pearce (now part of Pentagram) and Carter Wong — were all in themselves looking for a beautiful and engaging idea.”
During this time, in the late 90s, there was a shift away from corporate identity toward the modern idea of branding.
“Around ‘97, ‘98, ‘99, there was a move away from tradition, not a big shift, but everything started to evolve from graphic design and corporate identity to one of meaning. Looking for meaning and actually connecting a company’s or entity’s story with an idea, rather than, ‘OK here’s a typeface and a shape, let’s simply make them attractive.’ It needed to be something more,” says Kevin.
Kevin struggled to get full-time work after graduating. Did he let a little thing like rejection stop him? Of course not. He got stuck into some serious character building exploits.
“I did a placement in London for a month where you get paid just enough to live on, then I’d go back up home to Northern England, do a month in a stationery manufacturer factory (Sinclairs, Otley), earn some money, and then go back down to London,” recalls Kevin. “It was early days for mobile phones (Nokia 8110), so I set up a couple of interviews before I went down. I saw those people, showed my folio, had a chat and then got them to tell me if there was anyone else I could go and see. Because I’d only be down in London for three days, then I’d ring them from a phone box, and they’d say yeah or nay, and on that call, I’d say is there anyone else I could contact. There were some days I’d be zipping around on the tube or the bus and see five or six people, some would come to something, some would come to nothing. It was the idea of chasing studios, having conversations, showing your work and getting invaluable and honest feedback.”
One of Kevin’s most influential lessons took place in ’98 in Treviso, a little Italian town about 40 minutes out of Venice. The lesson centred on language and communication. And it was hard.
“I worked for an agency called Novaidea, run by Franco, who was the principal of the studio and underneath him there were a couple of local designers and the creative director who was English. It was hard because I couldn’t speak Italian and that was a real hurdle,” says Kevin.
“It moved from being a novelty to something quite enclosed and with obvious limitations; you’re almost walking around in a bubble. Just little things like going to the shop: you could pick up some language but you couldn’t actually have a conversation. Little things like cutting my own hair, I couldn’t go to a barber and ask for what I wanted. I think that was quite seminal for me in a sense that it showed me how important language is to design. You must understand the nuances. And that informed the direction I took when I got back [to the UK] in terms of looking at how visual identities and verbal identity join up, and a lot of our work now is informed by both, it’s not just what you look like, it’s what you sound like, and the overall tone in which you communicate. Much of my work is informed by that.”
Richard Scholey from The Chase in Manchester had kept one of Kevin’s CVs that he’d sent out in his Uni days — kept it on file for over a year.
“He contacted my mum while I was in Treviso — this is all pre-email — he contacted my mum, and my mum said ‘Richard Scholey’s on from the Chase.’ I was excited because it was one of those agencies at the time that you really wanted to work for. So I had a conversation with him and it went really well. He was Creative Director in Manchester but was setting up a new studio in Leeds. Rich is a well-renowned designer in the UK, got a lot of awards, he’s a thinking designer and he wanted to bring on a junior to start the new office slowly.”
Kevin had reached a point with his Treviso gig where he’d been thinking about heading home to the UK, so the timing of Scholey’s contact was perfect.
“So, I packed my bags and left Italy,” says Kevin. “I had an interview with Rich which seemed to go really, really well. I showed him some of the work I’d done in Italy which was more style based, which didn’t tend to have an idea, it was all about stylistic execution and the art direction. Richard liked the work I’d done at Uni and in all the placements, which were all based on an idea or simple but compelling thought. My CV was something he really liked. The idea was, I called myself BFG, which I used as an acronym — from the Roald Dahl book — but I used the idea of the Bright Friendly Graduate as the line. Rather than be on A4, my CV was on the larger A3 paper, as if sent by a giant. It was printed like a letter on bright yellow uncoated stock with individually handmade envelopes. For the identity I used handstamps and red ink and the letters were simply run through a black and white copier for low cost. Simple and memorable.”
“I worked with Rich for quite a while I eventually followed him to Elmwood. We had a diverse mix of clients like Arthur Anderson, Red Ladder Theatre Company, and the Royal Mail, so it was a really interesting work, designing everything from identities, campaigns, posters, and books.”
“The studio grew, and in two or three years I’d moved up from junior to kind of a senior designer position. Rich had made a conscious decision to move me up over time and not just bring in someone more senior. I grew quickly, and I got to understand how a design team works, how a design studio operates, and how a smaller business unit works as a part of a larger studio. Being small, everyone just rolled their sleeves up and got on with it.”
Kevin came out to Australia with Richard Scholey and Chris Wilson in 2005 to open an Australian office of Elmwood in Melbourne.
“When we started out here [in Melbourne], initially we were doing a lot of the packaging for the Coles Home Brand, then we got Nike, and there were a lot of smaller, nice things like the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, which was refreshing. It was a good studio with strong sense of identity doing great work,” says Kevin.
By the time Kevin left Elmwood, Richard had returned to the UK and Kevin was Design Director.
“At that point, my relationship had become strained with the new figurehead of the Melbourne office. I got to a point where I was becoming quite jaded,” admits Kevin. “I like systems and processes that allow you and your design team to thrive, to work through something with a client and actually create something really fulfilling and effective for the both of you, and that had gone — it was about management, the design was secondary, which for me felt wrong.”
“At that time I’d met my partner early in 2007 and she gave me the confidence to say ‘stuff it, just walk away’ — which was hard because Elmwood, on the whole, had been really, really good to me over the years.”
“So I freelanced in Melbourne for 6-8 months. Starting my own studio wasn’t an immediate thing — I got clients as they came along. I worked in a lot of different studios, got exposure to the local scene, and picked up my own projects, which grew organically over time.”
“One of the hardest jobs as a designer is actually what you do for your clients: how am I going to position myself; what services am I going to offer; what’s the one thing that’s going to make me stand out? It’s experience. It’s the work I’ve done and am doing, it’s how I talk about myself, and all of those add together to paint a picture. It’s the sum of everything.”
“We moved to Brisbane from Melbourne in 2014. The client base up here is a little different, and as an individual, there’s been a natural shift with some of my existing clients in Melbourne. I’ve been fortunate having done projects for Origin Energy, Capital Smart (Suncorp joint-venture), Boost Juice, and Virgin Australia, which have been my mainstays. Alongside that, I had individual small-to-medium businesses and cultural clients who we were creating ideas-based identities, packaging and communication from scratch.”
“I’ve been running Made by Big for over six years and I’ve been fortunate. I’ve never had to chase new business, business has always come my way through recommendations or referrals. I’m not a natural sales or new business person, in the traditional sense, but that’s ok, I guess it’s understanding your own strengths and really playing to them. That’s where I’m at now: looking for nice people to do meaningful and thought-provoking work for. Simple.”
The Age, Australia
Axis Magazine, Japan
Creative Review, UK
D&AD Creativity Works 4, UK
D&AD Flag Project, UK
Design Week, UK
Epica 16, UK
Fifty Two Network, UK
The Financial Times, UK
The Guardian, UK
Huffington Post, US
Los Logos 6, UK
Men’s Style, Australia
The Project, Australia
AGDA Design Awards 2010
AGDA Design Awards 2010
ISTD Student Awards 2009
New York Festivals Design Awards 2009
City of Bendigo
Capital Smart Repairs
Country Chef Bakery Co
City of Port Phillip
Committee for Melbourne
Liana Raine Artisan Pops
Lite & Healthy
Melbourne Writers Festival
Melbourne Heart FC
Non Fiction Foods
Red Ladder Theatre Company
City of Salford
Scottish & Newcastle Breweries
Victoria Department of Justice
Victoria Department of Innovation
The Wool Company
Walking the Dog