Australian designer Christopher Doyle first caught our eye with his personal projects poking fun at designer clichés and has since set up his own studio in Sydney. Here, he discusses his album art for Chet Faker and The Jezabels, why he left agency work to run his own business, and why designers should take themselves less seriously...
Top and above: artwork for The Jezabels' album, Prisoner, which was nominated for an ARIA award in 2012 and formed the basis for a photographic exhibition in Sydney (see more images from the show here).
Doyle first caught our attention in 2009 with his Personal Identity Guidelines, in which he imagined his own identity in graphic design terms. A year later, he released This Year I Will Try Not To; a collaboration with Elliott Scott which highlighted visual trends and urged designers not to be seduced by them.
Based in Sydney, Doyle spent more than ten years in agencies – first as a senior designer at Saatchi and Saatchi, then creative group head at Moon Group and design director at Interbrand – before leaving to set up his own practice, Christopher Doyle & Co, in November 2012. He has since designed identities for a restaurant, a sportswear company and a candle making business, as well as a photographer and marketing agency, and has designed record sleeves for The Jezabels and electronic musician Chet Faker. We asked Doyle about the studio and his work so far.
Personal Identity Guidelines, a self-initiated project in which Doyle set a series of identity guidelines for himself
Why did you decide to set up your own studio?
I had spent about ten years in studios and agencies of various sizes, and really just needed a change. I had become more senior over the years, which meant more meetings than anything else, and I really started to miss ‘designing’. I was also keen to work small and quicker – as exciting as big brand projects could be, they also lasted for many months and it was often such an exhausting process just staggering across the finish line with something you were proud of. I was also doing more personal work for musicians and artists [but was] having to squeeze this in outside agency hours and it never got my full attention. I enjoyed that work so much more though – I wanted that to be my day job.
How many people are employed at the studio?
At the moment just myself and one other designer. Hopefully we’ll grow but I never want to be part of a big design studio again. Small is good.
How would you describe your approach – there seems to be a real love of simplicity in your work?
That’s a tough one. Designers love to say they don’t have a style. We act so offended when people say our work has a look or feel that’s recognisable. I used to really struggle with it too. But I have relaxed a little about over the years. I know at heart that I am a minimalist and yes, simplicity is a recurring trait.
My only hope for my work is that it is appropriate, idea based and that it provides people with an access point. Design is for everyone, not just for other designers. I try to avoid design that is purely decorative. But I have also learnt to embrace design that is purely visual, though it doesn’t come naturally to me. There can be great impact in simplicity. And doing less is always harder. Again, it’s about what is right for the project.
Brand identity for photographer Natasha Cantwell, which coupled her imagery with a text-based system playing on her surname
You’ve also just launched a studio paper – could you tell us a little more about it?
We have just released issue one of Seen Made Drawn Found. It’s really just a collection of ideas, images and illustrations that don’t have a home anywhere else. I make a lot of stuff with my son and his imagination is fascinating. I document a lot of it, like most dads do, and that stuff goes in there. There’s also some Instagram images and random written observations. It’s a cliché I know, but I love the scale of newspapers. I love Instagram but the output is so small. We’re all sitting there squinting at tiny squares trying to enjoy incredible images. It’s annoying. So part of it is about putting out something that isn’t screen based but also something physically bigger. We want to do two issues a year.
Spreads from Doyle's studio paper, Seen Made Drawn Found
We’ve previously featured your work with The Jezabels on our record sleeves of the month. How did you come to be working with them?
I’ve been working with the band for about six years. I first met them through their manager Dave, who used to run a small record label. The band I used to be in was signed to Dave’s label and after that all wrapped up we stayed friends and I did bits and pieces of music work for him over the years.
He picked The Jezabels up at a University band comp and got me in to design the first EP. We got on really well and there was two more EPs, then two LPs. It’s easily one of the most satisfying and rewarding ongoing projects I have. The band are very smart, driven people with a very clear vision. But they also trust me and over the years we have managed to create some work that I am really proud of.
Artwork for The Jezabels album, The Brink, which features paintings by Polish artist Jarek Puczel.
How do you approach the creative direction for each album – would you say there are any recurring themes in the band’s album art?
The process for each release involves listening to early cuts of the songs and long chats with the band around the themes and ideas behind each release. I find the work very challenging primarily because it puts me in quite an uncomfortable space. The process is very different to traditional problem solving for clients. The material is abstract and often very subjective. It’s about feel. You are essentially creating art in response to art. And I am not an artist. In terms of style, I guess the work as a whole is quite simple. Album covers can live in such visually noisy environments. I have always encouraged the band to embrace strikingly simple artwork ideas.
Above and below: branding for Chinta Kechil, an intimate 16-seat Malaysian restaurant run by chef Simon Goh. The identity centres around a monogram, which is used on bowls and plates, while hand painted signage, stamps, textured paper and old newspapers are used across stationery, packaging and menus for an authentic feel
Who, or what, would be your dream commission?
Oh man, that’s really hard. I guess any project that allows us to try different things. I never want to be doing the same thing over and over. I would love to do some hotel identity work, and some more restaurant work. And a gallery would be fun. I love writing, so large scale projects that involve creative writing are great. It’s always nice to work on projects that ultimately have a positive impact on people.
We really liked your personal projects – what motivated you to make these? They both seem to poke fun at clichés and encourage people not to take themselves too seriously...
That’s essentially all they are – fun. Designers take themselves so seriously. We need to sit back and laugh at ourselves occasionally. I actually got a lot of criticism for This Year I Will Try Not To. Designers were really offended – I found it very odd. I am serious about my work, I care about what I do and I am passionate about it but it’s just design. I’m not a surgeon.
Are you working on any more personal projects at the moment?
Sadly, no. Those just present themselves to me at random times. Hopefully, a new one rears its head soon.
You’re based in Sydney. What’s the design/creative scene like?
Sydney is a funny scene. I think it’s a lot healthier than it was a few years ago, but it’s quite cliquey and can be quite competitive. There are only a few big design studios. Lots of designers are setting up small studios though, which is exciting. And we are becoming more social too. AGDA, our national design body, has had an overhaul and Creative Mornings happen once a month so it’s feeling healthy and fun at the moment.
And who do you think's doing great work locally that our readers should check out?
In Sydney I am really enjoying Toko's work. It's nothing like mine but always really fun. Collider consistently produce great stuff too, in lots of mediums. Hofstede and Round in Melbourne seem to always be doing great work too. And just a short plane ride away in NZ you have Alt Group and Sons & Co - easily the most impressive studios I have seen in years.
Artwork for Chet Faker album, Thinking in Texture, with photography by Jefton Sungkar