Studio Culture Interview
Interview by Adrian Shaunessy
published in Studio Culture
Adrian Shaunessy: Inkahoots was formed as a public-access poster collective in 1990. In 1995 it became a design company. Robyn, you were there from the start. Can you talk about the personal journey you undertook from being part of an activist-based collective to being part of a fully-fledged design studio?
Robyn McDonald: A couple of years before Inkahoots there was Black Banana, a political poster group that I started with a few friends. But it quickly ground down with no wages and exposure to toxic screenprinting inks. We started Inkahoots with a commitment to make a screenprinting collective really work, both creatively and financially. Thanks to good people, hard work and a motivated community we succeeded.
The transition to a dedicated design studio seemed like a natural progression with a few pivotal events.
RMcD: A big shift came with the banning of street posters by the local City Council. A lot of community activists utilised the studio’s screenprinting facilities to get their messages onto the streets and the new law allowed the organisation behind the message to be prosecuted as well as the individual posters, so there was suddenly less of a demand for street posters. Next, was the fact that computers and offset printing became more affordable, and a lot of community activists took jobs in the new Labor State Government and commissioned Inkahoots to design information material. And finally Jason Grant joined the collective in 1994. While I’d studied illustration at Queensland College of Art, I didn’t have a formal education as a graphic designer. Jason started at Inkahoots at the young age of 23 but quickly and efficiently became my mentor – he was then, and always has been, a great teacher.
Jason, can you talk about your own personal journey?
Jason Grant: I started a fine art degree, focusing on print-making and drawing, before swapping to study graphic design. This was a time when ‘art’ still saw itself above the marketplace. I remember campus graffiti campaigns slagging off designers as prostitutes. And designers retaliating with accusations of irrelevancy. That was the binary. But the artists definitely had the best graffiti. Studying design in a traditional art college meant there were ideologies clashing in the classroom as well as on the toilet walls. The practical classes, with briefs to redesign toothpaste packaging, rubbed up against critical theory lessons introducing [John] Berger, [Ferdinand de] Saussure and [Antonio] Gramsci. The only real integration of theory and practice happened via an excruciating marketing class. I guess I’m just grateful ‘branding’ wasn’t around then.
Since high school I’d been reading philosophy and politics, and would go to political rallies with friends. The corrupt local cops were notoriously violent, and saw teenage socialists as sport. My mum’s got a collection of TV news clips with me escaping arrest (and headlocks). I also studied traditional Karate, which had a profound impact on my ideas of social justice and aesthetics, but it’s too much to get into that here. So anyway, I was never going to accept design as a tool for capitalism. I figured with all of design’s power, it could be a kind of resistance.
When I joined Inkahoots it was an artist collective with a raw engagement to the grass roots community. Unfortunately screenprinting was becoming less and less viable, as cheaper, more accessible technologies prevailed. So my intention for the studio was to stay in that cultural space but embrace the changing media landscape.
The studio still has a strong political and social ethos. This is at odds with most design studios where creative and commercial considerations predominate (you acknowledge this on your website when you pose the question - how many designers only burn to shift a unit, or grow a profit?). How do you maintain your stance in practical terms? You have rent and salaries and overheads to pay, does this mean that commercial demands sometimes take over?
JG: But every studio has a political ethos. Is ours any stronger than, say, Wolff Olins, or Interbrand? They’d certainly be opposed to ours in many ways, and ours might be more transparent, but they’re as equally political for sure.
Our clients generally have fewer resources than those of many commercial studios it’s true. But we’re a small, relatively efficient studio with aspirations for creative and financial sustainability, not a hunger for profit and growth. And I guess this situation also allows opportunities for independent practice – projects that are self initiated or collaborative. And really, it’s just who we are. We’ve got rent and salaries to pay, but to what end? If commercial demands ever took over, we’d be a different studio – the reason for our existence would disappear. We started as visual activists and advocates, and Inkahoots has always been a way to avoid dividing our personal and professional concerns.
Let’s talk about the Inkahoots studio. Can you tell me how many people work there?
JG: There are six of us all up. Joel Booy and Kate Booy are designers, and Ben Mangan is a designer and works from Melbourne while teaching design down there. Joan Sheriff is our part-time accounts manager. Also Mat Johnson is an unofficial Inkahootser, who does all our programming for interactive stuff. I’m a director and designer. Robyn McDonald is a director and studio manager, but after nearly two decades of incredible commitment, is starting to focus on things outside the studio, such as going back to university to study Indigenous Art. We’re based in the inner city suburb of West End in Brisbane. We feel like we’re a part of the neighbourhood, traditionally a vibrant working class, student and immigrant enclave with a strong activist community. Of course the typical pressures of gentrification are changing the area, but it’s still the best place in the world to work!
What is the legal status of the company?
JG: We’re a Proprietary Limited Company.
Tell me about the physical space you work in?
JG: The studio is a narrow L-shaped open-plan space designed by our friend, furniture designer Luis Nheu. All the usual equipment.
It’s interesting that you had help with the layout of your studio space. Clearly your working environment is important to you. Does the way your space is arranged reflect the way you work?
JG: Sure. We’ve never been tempted by carpeted cubicles under blinking fluorescent tubes. Natural light, music, a vet next door for medical emergencies. A democratically arranged space with no special office for the boss. If you want to talk to someone, there’s no door to knock on, no appointment to schedule. You might need to turn the music down to answer a phone, but otherwise it’s great.
In 1998 you had a devastating fire that destroyed the studio - how did you survive that?
JG: Mainly thanks to the amazing support of clients and friends. And to the hard work and vision of Robyn and the team. We were very generously loaned all the equipment we needed and moved into a great temporary space paying only token rent. People even sent us money in the mail! Fortunately we had offsite file backup, so we could finish and get paid for projects we were working on. If we’d lost all the archived files I really don’t know if we would have made it. Great things can come from having to start again, and one of the ways we survived was approaching it all as a new beginning.
In 2002 Rick Poynor wrote that Inkahoots ‘has no stated hierarchy and all the workers earn the same salary, a situation that would be unthinkable in most studios in Australia, and abroad...’ Is this still the case, and if so what are the benefits of operating like this?
JG: It’s a practical as well as philosophical policy. Apart from during a probationary period for new studio members, all full-time members get paid the same. It’s a symbolic assurance of equality and solidarity. Everyone’s contribution is equally valued, so that individual and collaborative creativity is not just an ethos, but also a real structural imperative. This hopefully makes for an environment where creativity is respected and supported. I know it’s counterintuitive in a hyper hierarchical culture, but we trust difference can be celebrated without executive bonuses and pay disparity.
Who decides such questions as - how much of the studio’s turnover can be allocated to salaries? Are these decisions taken collectively or decided by the directors?
JG: They would generally be discussed and decided collectively. We’ll raise the salaries whenever we think the studio can sustain it. If there are other priorities for the profit, such as new equipment or a self funded project, we’ll usually make that decision collectively.
How does Inkahoots function creatively? When a client turns up with an assignment, how is it handled?
JG: We’d start by choosing who’ll be working on it – one or more designers? Who’s got the time? Does someone have a particular interest in the subject? We’ll often meet to generate ideas, which will then trigger research or more conceptual development. These meetings are always on the brink of descending into farce – which is exactly how it should be. Loose and playful and open-ended. There’s feedback from everybody throughout the remainder of the process, whether the project involves a single designer or a group. This is also why traditional studio hierarchy is a hindrance – even the least experienced designer can contribute significantly and benefit the most experienced ‘creative director’.
There are many bad creative directors, but it could be argued that a good creative director is someone who makes sure that the ’least experienced designer’ gets a hearing. Is there a danger that in Inkahoots’ egalitarian, collective approach, certain voices don’t get heard?
JG: I suppose so. On the other hand, if it’s a genuinely egalitarian collective, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to ensure everyone is heard – it’s not the lone duty of a creative director.
I’m guessing you don’t have account handlers?
JG: We don’t have account handlers and all that stuff. A designer will liaise directly with the client and suppliers and see the job through to production – print, fabrication, online or whatever.
And if Pepsi turned up? Would they be turned away?
JG: There’s a strange romance that has developed around design. I encounter it among some of my students – it’s the romance of superficial creativity enabling participation in consumer myths. That’s a certain kind of designer’s identity now. It’s a designer lifestyle. But it was never my idea of romance. Pablo Neruda testing his poetry on the run in worker’s homes, as families hid him from government forces was romantic to me. Or activists living in treetops to prevent ancient forests being turned into toilet paper. Selling cola? Designers Republic courted counter-culture cool with anti-consumer posters, and with the same visual language flogged Coca Cola. That kind of cynicism is just corrosive.
I agree with your comments about the corrosive effects of an all-pervading commercial culture. So do I take it that Pepsi would be turned away?
JG: Yes. They represent an ideology that’s fucking up the planet.
Authorship is a hot subject in many design studios. I’m thinking of the perfectly natural desire of most designers to be personally recognised and credited for their work. How is this dealt with within the collective nature of Inkahoots?
JG: Our experience is that the practical process of design in terms of authorship is actually pretty slippery. Generally, in a studio context, a single designer claiming authorship is an oversimplification of a rich process. If I’ve had an idea and I’m working away independently for days on a project and someone makes even a slight suggestion, the whole direction and outcome can be affected. It could easily end up as a radically different work. So what does it mean if I claim authorship, when without this input, the ultimate outcome wouldn’t exist? Not to mention the many layers of more subtle but just as concrete influence: other people’s moods; encouragement; music; client feedback; who’s running the country. Attributing work to the studio is just more realistic. It’s not to say that an individual’s personal sensibility or vision is diverted, but that it’s fed by many sources. Usually the most interesting design is fundamentally collaborative.
Then there’s a philosophical dimension that aims to downplay the exaggerated and exploited phoney individualism of consumer culture.
I’m guessing that all work is credited to Inkahoots, and individual designers are not named?
JG: That’s right. Although there have been times when a designer has been attributed by an editor or such.
Presumably, for the Inkahoots ethos to work, it needs everyone to believe in it?
JG: I’m not sure it requires an act of faith exactly... But like any successful relationship there needs to be shared values and goals. There have been members in the past that probably would have been better off elsewhere – but that’s a lesson we’ve tried to learn. A really important aspect of Inkahoots, and probably any team, is the recognition that everyone has different strengths but that these strengths overlap and evolve. The studio should be a personal and cultural laboratory – a supportive space that encourages creative growth. That’s the ideal. Of course it doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally want to kill each other.
Interns are a morally ambiguous area for designers. They are often exploited by studios. What is your policy towards interns?
JG: Well, massage isn’t discouraged. No, there’s no coffee making or car washing. Because we’re a busy, relatively small studio we don’t pretend to have the resources to properly cater for longer-term interns. And Australia doesn’t really have the same kind of intern tradition that the UK or the States has. We’ll sometimes take one or two students a year for a two-week period each and try and make it a constructive experience.
What will Inkahoots be like in 10 years time?
JG: Hopefully better at answering questions about the future. I don’t know. Your own perspective is never fixed. Sometimes you grandly see the designer’s mission as working at the interface of consumption and culture, creating and mediating the messages that become the very idea of who we are. And sometimes it feels like you’re just helping out some good people or worthwhile organisations. One of the reasons I’m happy here is that it’s always been new. It’s always felt like we’re just about to catch our own aspirations, but not just yet. Is that an admission of failure? There’s just so much to learn and to accomplish.