Profile: Burnwater

The multidisciplinary Burnwater Design Studios is making waves around the world from its island base in the Philippines. Mark Ramshaw reports

There can be few design teams who relish improving and broadening their skills as much as Burnwater Design Studios. Having made the transition from video production a mere four years ago, the Manila-based outfit has rapidly extended its reach through a series of online, print, packaging and broadcast projects. Web design, 3D animation, music video production, this handful of young artists do it all.

The company even tackles PR and branding, catering to global clients as well as local players. The latter includes the Rockwell Power Plant Mall, which in February appointed Burnwater as its creative design arm. A curious move for a company at home working for the likes of Nestl, Unilever and Levi's, perhaps, but for the studio's managing director Noel Guevara it's an important development - and not only because the team are big fans of Manila's fashionable mall.

"Rockwell has always been one of our dream clients," he reveals - the studio has worked for them several times. They offer real artistic freedom, and this latest role calls for the conceptualising and rendering of almost all the mall's creative requirements. Indeed, this year's Rockwell Easter Carnival gave Burnwater the opportunity to handle one of its first multicollateral campaigns.

"The event utilised a full range of advertising media, including posters, digital displays, print ads and even billboard work," says Guevara. "The end result was a very successful event that enjoyed one of the client's highest turnouts in the last few years."

Rewind to 1998 and Burnwater was little more than an online gallery for studio founder Guevara, then a 15-year-old student searching for professional design opportunities: "I knew I was going to be an artist the minute I first found out what an artist was. I started drawing and sketching when I was eight, then went through formal workshops in painting and fine arts when I was ten."

From there he began working his way through the various digital tools of the era - including Microsoft Paint, trueSpace, Premiere, 3ds Max and Photoshop - learning with the help of magazines and the internet, the latter still something of a novelty in the Philippines a decade ago.

"It was difficult to find freelance work while still in high school, as my age was a big disadvantage," admits Guevara. "But I eventually got some low-hanging fruit, with which I could prove my skills."

Just three years later Burnwater was operating as a successful video production suite, finally becoming a multidisciplinary design studio in 2004. Having just graduated with a degree in marketing communications, Guevara realised that the studio would grow faster if its services were expanded to cover print, the web and branding. By this point most of the bigger clients already had their agencies, and Burnwater only had a limited design portfolio to call upon when trying to win bids. But higher education came with additional benefits.

"For accounts I got some of my classmates who had similar training, connections came from other classmates who had been hired by top multinational companies, and then for artists I hired fresh grads from one of the top colleges," says Guevara. "We were also lucky with our first client, Citibank, in that we got professional training and mentorship, giving us a sudden, exponential growth in terms of experience."

The Philippines might not often be associated with design at a global level, but chief project manager Carlo Mendoza believes that will soon change: "There's definitely been a boom of creative talent in the Philippines of late. It's borne out by the bigger design market here and by the related courses being offered in all the major universities, although more impressively it's also proven by the amount of art already outsourced to Philippine talent. It's a common occurrence for us to be impressed by a particular international ad campaign or a foreign cartoon, only to later find out that it was actually conceptualised or drawn and animated here. I think this is proof that Filipino creative talent is world-class."

The Philippines also offers the best of both worlds in terms of cultural influences, adds Guevara. This is a country with strong Western connections and English as an official language, after all. "It's the most Americanised country in Asia, with a scene that's different in comparison to, say, Malaysia," he explains.

Ultimately, though, art transcends borders, and for Burnwater inspiration comes from all over the globe. "We tend towards European design, just because it appeals to us and it's more thought-provoking. British, Dutch and German visual semantics are usually what we study. There are no particular design studios that I can say influence us, but we religiously browse through Computer Arts to check out what's new and fresh, and read the New Talent Design Annual for creative ad ideas.

"I'm always fascinated with adapting design from a certain medium and have it work in a totally different one," continues Guevara. "Like drawing inspiration from the design of a mobile phone and using it as the style for a motion graphic. Breaking boundaries is what we're good at. However, we don't forget the classic rules of art - most of us are painters too - so we still refer to the great masters."

It's the company's approach, rather than its location, that matters, says Mendoza: "What defines a Burnwater project is our involvement. We work closely with our clients, from conceptualisation to production and revisions on the artwork, up until final artwork is delivered and sometimes even beyond. We treat our clients as partners and find that this close collaboration brings the best out of both the client and ourselves. It's been central to the way we've managed to establish lasting, long-term relationships with our illustrious clientele."

This commitment to providing clients with a more comprehensive service reflects the fact that the entire Burnwater team have management backgrounds. Guevara says, "Burnwater's biggest strength lies in the strategic thinking and workflow practised and advocated by its artists. We are a hybrid of a design firm and an advertising agency, with the creative aggressiveness of the former coupled with the strategic approach of the latter. Our selling point has always been 'smart imaginations', and our mantra always has been, and will continue to be, 'form and function'. "

See examples of Burnwater's work at www.burnwater.com.ph.