Lunchtime is a good period of day to visit Alt Group's studio, in the Grey Lynn district of Auckland on New Zealand's North Island. Unlike so many other workplaces around the world, there's no evacuation in the lunch hour. Nor does someone with a huge basket swing through and bellow, "Sandwiches!" People don't sit at their desks eating despondently and watching YouTube.
No, at Alt Group designer Aaron Edwards makes lunch for everyone and they all eat together. If he's not around, someone else steps into the breach.
Today, personalised wraps are on the menu. Another day the designers might be enjoying chicken with rice and salad, or oriental noodles with seafood. "It's everything from roast lamb to soups – it's like restaurant styles," says Dean Poole, creative director and co-founder of the studio. "He's a maker and so he can feed the 24 of us in half an hour. If you've been doing it for 14 years, you're getting pretty damn good."
Sharing meals has been part of the Alt Group culture since the company began in 2000. Poole believes creative ideas happen when you've got a full stomach. But it's more than that. The collective meals are part of the family-like atmosphere in the company's 4,000-squarefoot, open-plan workspace.
Bigger than a rugby field, the polished wood floor is divided into a work area – where you'll find the Macs – and a more playful zone. There you'll see pieces of art on plinths, prototypes of work in progress on the tables, and a seating area where the designers and their clients can meet and chat.
"We've got a 25-metre-long steel wall and work in progress is pinned up on it. It turns over at a reasonably high rate so the visual landscape changes quite a lot," explains Ben Corban, co-founder and managing director. "The physicality of working and thinking is quite important, because otherwise you find yourself staring into a screen or stuck in a meeting room the whole time.
"What we've found, with our team and also with clients, is that standing in the space and picking up things as they're being worked on, and seeing things as they're evolving on a wall or on a table, is very useful. It's a slightly different approach than sitting through linear presentations."
Founded by artists
The mentality is different too. Alt Group was founded by artists – Poole is a sculptor, and Corban, a painter. When they first started, they weren't totally focused on design, but more on ideas.
Art was mixed with design and design was mixed with music and video. Both had studied fine art in Auckland, before moving to London where they were inspired by the Young British Artists of the mid-90s. Damien Hirst was opening restaurants and Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas started their own shop.
One day, on their travels, the two New Zealanders sat down together to eat a leg of lamb from their home country. They talked about ways of building a business around ideas, and Alt Group was conceived. After returning to Auckland, they set up the company.
Alt Group has its own approach to design – one that is very conceptual when it comes to ideas, and yet highly practical. The studio presents only one idea to a client on any given project, and never pitches for work. Nowadays, the company block-books its time based on what each of its clients thinks it will need over the coming year or two.
The studio works in consultation with many companies on a long-term basis, rather than tendering for individual projects. For some clients, Alt has become like an internal design resource, even though it's actually a separate, independent studio.
Removing the line
On the one hand, it's all about efficiency. "Part of the working process is removing that line between client and agency," explains Corban. "The amount of work that you can get done is much better. Effectively, sitting at a table, presenting to people and playing ping-pong the whole time… it only gets you so far. Basically, we're saying: 'We're all on the same team, let's get the job done'."
As a consequence there aren't any project managers at Alt Group, and no account managers either. There are designers, writers and artists, and they work directly with the clients. Sometimes, clients will even set up desks in Alt's workspace and become part of the team as a project is developed. This demonstrates the other key aspect of Alt's approach to client work – close relationships.
"What we try and do with all of our clients is build long-term working relationships, so it's less isolated and project-focused and it's more building a relationship that will last five years, 10 years-plus," continues Corban. "Philosophically, that's quite different to the short pitch and the high turnover that you see at some kinds of agencies. There's a much greater yield in terms of quality of work, economy and everything else. It's more beneficial than a one-night stand."
Variety of clients
The work itself is incredibly varied. One project saw the studio come up with a process that a client could use to build and populate a community of 10,000 people over a six-year period. Working with appliance manufacturer Fisher & Paykel, Alt Group has actually managed to invent its own food – Riesling Sherbet, for example, as well as ginger nut tea and Earl Grey biscuits.
Visually, Alt stands apart from the crowd too. Just look at the studio's branding and promotional work for the Art Gallery of Auckland, New Zealand Opera, the Silo Theatre or even the brand of eggnog that Alt has been developing. In each case, the designers have served up clarity and simplicity, with plenty of white space, a light and colourful feel, and a clever idea.
Some have called the work minimal, but for Poole it's not this, nor modernism, that underpins the work. "It is kind of minimal, but also it's about getting a kind of purity," he explains. "I do think there's almost a generosity in our work. I always like trying to strip everything away so it communicates in a pure way."
Quality of light
If lightness and purity are qualities of Alt's work, this might just be because of its New Zealand location. The islands are sparsely populated, extremely varied in terrain, full of unspoiled natural scenery and there's greenery everywhere. There are only 4.5 million Kiwis, and a third of them live in Auckland itself.
"The light in this country is beautiful. It's incredible light. It's different from everywhere else," explains Poole. "Someone asked me recently, 'Does New Zealand have a vernacular?' Well, maybe. You won't find massive buildings with grandiose foyers, because things function on a domestic scale. You'll see natural design and things to do with nature coming through, with furniture designers like David Trubridge. That has to do with the fact that you're only three minutes away from the forest."
The New Zealand way
Though the country's past art and literature is often characterised as dark and melancholy – from Golden Age crime novelist Ngaio Marsh through to Booker winner Keri Hulme, and even the film The Piano – Alt Group is part of a new and more optimistic wave of creative talent.
The Alt creatives cite director Peter Jackson and fashion designer Karen Walker as examples of other New Zealanders who also have that can-do attitude. "I think there's a great sense of optimism and energy because essentially anything's possible. There aren't any limitations. If you want to start something, go and start it up," says Corban.
Auckland itself is full of inspiration. As the biggest city in the Pacific Islands, it draws Tongans and Samoans in, alongside Chinese and Thai newcomers, who mix in with the descendants of settlers from the British Isles and all over Europe. And yet, despite inward migration and today's technology, the country is very isolated. It's a three-and-ahalf hour flight to Sydney, for instance.
The answer has been to be very outward-looking, and Alt Group has been exporting its talent. "In the last three months we did 34 international flights. So that's Italy, North America, UK, Canada, Australia. If your market is really massive, like you're working in London or New York, you don't have to travel that much to have an influence or do work. It's all on your doorstep. We have to find other doorsteps," explains Poole.
Even so, Alt Group doesn't have a website displaying its portfolio. Instead, it prefers to live off referrals. When new clients get in touch, the team want to go and meet them or welcome them to New Zealand to start building a relationship.
It's a testament to the studio's talent that this approach hasn't hampered Alt's development into a global success story. Poole was the first New Zealander invited to join the Alliance Graphique International (AGI), and to date the studio has won over 400 awards, including numerous Best Awards in New Zealand, Webbies in the US, and even an Art Directors Club Gold Cube and an ADC Merit Award. As a result, one of the best places to see Alt's work is, in fact, on awards websites – which isn't such a bad position to be in.
Words: Garrick Webster
This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 223