In kōrero with... Matt Grantham Back to Discussion

21 May 2021

Published by
NIcole Arnett Phillips

Kia ora, this interview sits in a series of wānanga between Kātoitoi co-founder Nicole Arnett Phillips and our review panel. Nicole spoke with Matt Grantham the Creative Director of Onfire Design, Auckland.

Matt reviewed work in our Packaging – Pūhera, Identity – Tuakiri, and Campaign – Pānuitanga categories.

He has 24+ years in the creative industry in New Zealand, the UK and Holland; Matt is a versatile brand builder who has partnered with businesses on a national and international level, while working collaboratively with various design teams bringing ideas, creations and products to life. With a wide breadth of experience including brand creation, story building, new product development, packaging, brand implementation on a digital platform and copywriting he helps build robust brands and compelling stories, while looking for areas in the market to disrupt and exploit and ‘craft’ the visual message.

Matt Web 2000x3000 RGB

Nau mai Matt, thanks for your time today, can you tell us about any projects that stood out to you while reviewing the Kātoitoi submissions?

It took me a few hours just to get my head around the idea that I’m not judging for a competition – that I’m not judging in terms of tight visual or craft parameters – this is a very open inclusive brief, and required open interpretation of these works. To be honest with you; All of them have their merit in terms of levels of craft. There was some really cool freelance and independent work – really sound student work coming through, and then there was the likely suspects of studios where you expect amazing work, and it’s beautifully done, and it ticks all the boxes. So, it took a little while just to get my head around how I was interpreting these, and how – I don’t want to say judge, because judge is not the right word. But rather how to interpret the criteria that Kātoitoi put to us.

I reviewed the packaging, identity, and campaign output. It was really good to look at this range of work – because I tend – if I get asked to judge something it’s usually packaging, because that’s usually my wheelhouse. So, with Kātoitoi it was really cool to look at that identity, and campaign work, and to re-frame how I was looking at it.

Aroha Entry

The first project which really jumped out to me, blurred the lines between commercialisation and bringing a hand-rendered nature; the Aroha - Identity was one thing that really stood out.

I’d seen the posters around, and they immediately grabbed my attention, but it was really great to see in the submission, where the studio went through some of the process. It was just beautiful to see that they didn’t cut any corners. The Identity could have easily been done digitally – but they fully committed and made it by hand, that immediately brought it up a notch.

Actually that was one of the threads that I could see coming through many of the submissions; this commitment to medium, if we could do it by hand – studios are doing that – it was great to see these hand-created elements.

Aroha Entry2

It’s heartening to know that this sort of work is still going on. It’s a positive for studios and designers making it, but also, it’s great to see the clients are buying into that authenticity, because equally, there’s a timeline on that; these things can’t be turned around overnight. As time is money there’s obviously a cost element for the client, from that point of view. That sort of commitment really helped that piece of work stand out, and made me go, wow. Actually it’s one of those projects where you go, shit – I wish I’d done that!

Aroha Entry5

If you tried to create it digitally, it would have been okay, but it might have lost the softness and that raggedy edge -and those slight imperfections – the identity is really nice.

That really, as a piece of DNA in terms of showing what Kiwi design is, and can do, and in terms of a visual aesthetic, even down to combination of red and black – that for me, is a classic Kiwi-ism, in terms of a visual identity.

Kapsi by makebardo 01

Coming back into my wheelhouse of packaging; the Kapsi sauce was really cool, purely from the point of view of a commercial item being questioned, and challenging all the usual branded elements that go along with that product, because invariably, if that’s sitting on the shelf, there’s an expectation in terms of brand, product call-outs, messaging and imagery.

So, Kapsi was really great to see. Again; it’s a matter of the client being brave enough, and also the studio being there to question, push and also sell this idea to the client. It challenges all the standard category conventions. I mean, that’s really obvious, but purely from a finished article, it stands out by not playing the usual games, and by cutting through in its simplicity.

That might sound like a cliché, and I think a lot of brands try to do that, but there’s always this glass wall with commercial products where you’ve got to tick some boxes. Kapsi just chucks all the boxes out, and just does things very simply. So, that was really cool.

BEST AWARDS Island Gin 2

Within the packaging area, the one that really stands out – not just in the New Zealand environment; for me, it stands out on a global level, is Island Gin.

The commitment to create in that bottle shouldn’t be downplayed. There was obviously a lot of work – a lot of preparatory investigation – a lot of investigating structural elements of that – the textual elements – the tactility of it, making sure it holds exactly what it needs to hold, in terms of liquid volume.

BEST AWARDS Island Gin 4

Obviously, the brand is super-simple – even if you take off all the labels, you just recognise it as Island Gin, and that’s really key for me – a piece of graphic design being an iconic silhouette and something that you can spot without any of the embellishments.

BEST AWARDS Island Gin 3

I’m keeping my eye on all the global chains, and everything that’s happening overseas, Island Gin stands equally as good as anything that’s coming out on a global level.

So, from a Kiwi point of view, that’s great there’s clients here that really go the whole hog, in terms of committing to a project.

Equally; just from a design craft and design-thinking point of view, that project really stands out.

1 UAC 19 Elements

In campaign; the Covid 19 Unite Against – when that whole shit show started to happen last year, and the campaign was deployed, I looked at it, and I questioned the aesthetics of it, but very quickly, as it rolled out, I understood the simplicity of it, not just from a colour point of view – the simple type and graphic elements, but even the sound-branding.

When it came on TV or the radio, you immediately knew what it was talking about, its amazing really how quick that was rolled out, and that it was committed and it was consistent throughout, and the simple clear messages and we readily saw these things, they grabbed and held our attention – these posters – the TV adverts – radio – it was all consistent, consistent, consistent. So, it’s the old cliché; repeat, repeat, repeat.

4 UAC 19 Posters

Having family and friends in the UK, Europe and America, I think from a New Zealand point of view – that campaign shows a commitment to a strategy, and commitment to a message, of not changing tack. I think that’s where a lot of the countries around the world lost sight, and there were a lot of mixed messages going out all over the place.

Especially, talking to my family in the UK, I was showing them a few of these Covid things, and trying to explain what was going on here, and the disparity between the messaging that we were getting, as opposed to what they were getting, was chalk and cheese. So, that was great.

Mate Act Now Campaign katoitoi V15

Finally, purely from a designer point of view I have to say, the Mate Act Now posters – it’s a very simple projects, but it was beautifully created and considered, all the people that entered, produced amazing work, and just the wide variety of styles – the wide variety of storytelling really shows the design diversity within a small country like New Zealand – the variety of storytelling and aesthetics that we have here across different studios is really heartening.

I completely understand why they would be standouts for you. There was some amazing mahi submitted, and those projects in particular all have a tremendous merit.

Yeah, but hey, to come back to it; there was a lot of great work in there, there was some excellent work submitted that is not in the archive too. I had to park my judging mentality and come back to what these things actually meant – what these things were saying, and the social impact of a lot of these projects were bang-on. So, from that point of view, a thumbs up to everybody who entered!

Mate Act Now Campaign katoitoi V14

The intent, the values, the constraints, the reach – all of those underpinning things, we see as really important. Our design is more than the visual craft. By understanding the kaupapa and context of each project we see what our community’s impact is in the greater economic and societal make-up of New Zealand. So, Kātoitoi is not purely about the aesthetics of our outcomes – it’s about contextualising our practice.

I was thinking about it the last couple of days, and I think, because this is the first year for it, it’s a little snapshot, and it’s great to see what’s come through already. But I think it will take two or three years to start building this as a more extensive archive, and then we will start to get an idea of what our style of storytelling – where we’re at in terms of graphic design, what we’re saying – a collection like this is about getting a broader perspective – not just the calibre of work – but the different styles of work. So, I think as a test pilot, it’s great, but I think Katoitoi will start to really pick up pace in the next couple of years, once people get their head around what it is – what it’s for, who its for and what you guys are trying to do.

So for your team, I think that’s got to be the key piece of communication moving forward.

Agreed. This was an encapsulated project. And the resource will only become more valuable with time. We’ve got a piece of funding to support the pilot, and we do have a longer-term vision for the project, but where we take it next will be guided by Aotearoa Design. Once we complete the current programme, our next steps will be community engagement and consultation, a strategic review, and then provided there is hunger for the initiative and our design community see the value in what we are building, we can go back to the various funding partners and avenues, to see where and how we can push it. Just as Katoitoi is about responses we need to be responsive to what the community wants. So we hope we can build this with the community’s support, so they can take ownership, participate and shape the direction to get whatever value they need out of it.

I think the key differentiator of this project will be the opportunity for anybody within the community to come in with that dialogue. An opportunity to say; what’s this work – why was it entered, not just its merits, but just starting to question each one, conversation – the dialogue between yourselves, whoever was part of the panel that year, and the wider community.

By talking about it and figuring out these things, and what’s important and what’s not, I think these are important questions to have, and as you say; it’s not the pure craft thing. I think people have to get their head around the fact this project it’s more subject matter, what we are contributing to and a snapshot in time. But it will help build a kiwi design identity.

To come back to it; everything I looked at was on a global scale, beautifully crafted, I think as a country we always punch above our weight in terms of size and in terms of scale. I think that’s a merit to the studios, but also to the clients that we have here.

I think New Zealand has a very unique story to tell from a product point of view, all the way from FMCG projects, all the way through to charity campaigns. There’s always an intangible Kiwi-ness to it, which across different projects is difficult to put your finger on, but you can always tell that’s a Kiwi project – that’s done by a Kiwi designer. It could be a colour pallet. It could be the slight sort of wry humour – the sort of commitment to telling that Kiwi people/place/story. There’s always a Kiwi-ism which no matter how subtle or how obvious it is, I think you can always tell a Kiwi design project.

That’s one of the critical reasons Aotearoa needs a design archive; so that we can start understanding and articulating what that Kiwi-ness is.

Yeah absolutely!

So, Matt what was something that you were surprised to discover – something you didn’t expect that came through in the work that you reviewed?

I was surprised that there wasn’t more student work, and more freelance work. I think that’s again a key thing that differentiates this from a design competition; it’s an open forum for all sorts of work to come in. What you tend to get with competitions is very strict criteria in terms of where things sit, and that restricts who takes part, whereas this, I found a lot more open.

Moving forward, what I’d really like to see is a lot more people take part. Especially, outside of established studios, because we’ll start to get a much better idea in terms of storytelling, identity and what’s our voice, because again, from the bigger studios –there was lots of beautiful work – I’m sounding like a stuck record, but; a lot of it was from a commercial point of view, what I hope you’ll get in the coming years will be more representation from freelancers, students, more self-initiated work, and also work which is based on more art or academic based criteria. So, it’s more open-ended, more free, – it’s more blue-sky thinking. And I think with that we’ll start to get more challenging and different work coming through.

I was surprised not see so much of that in this round. There was some nice and bits and pieces, but ideally, I would like to see a lot more of those sorts of projects coming through, this is the place for that sort of work which might not fit into a design competition.

To come back to my earlier point – I shouldn’t be surprised, but through everything, there was a really strong Kiwi tone of voice. Again; whether that was down to certain usage of colour pallet – certain usage of that wry Kiwi humour.

The storytelling around place was really evident, especially in those categories I was looking at. There was some beautiful work that really helps tell the story of a place within New Zealand. That might have been a wider area, or it could have been a small farm area. So, while I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that in a New Zealand design archive, when I looked across the breadth of those different categories, that was definitely a DNA thread which went through.

Aroha Entry3

You’ve already spoken about the things that stood out, and particularly about the Island Gin being something that resonated because of the quality and the complexity of that project, but I was wondering if you could tell us about a moment of delight that perhaps there was something that sparked or spoke to you personally when you were looking through and reviewing the submissions.

Yeah, just to come back to the Aroha – Identity; the way that it was manufactured by hand – in my university years I discovered how to transition designs between mediums and make printing plates, to reproduce designs in ink to blur those lines between tightly-crafted design on the Mac, and then transfer it into gritty print – Aroha took me back to my last couple of years at university, and it reminded me that not everything needs that digital craft polish. Things can still look absolutely stunning if you park all of the usual commercialised equipment. If it helps imbue the story, then do something by hand – do something mechanically, and then obviously scan it in – get into all your usual formats and take it from there.

For me, that blurring of commercialisation and taking a little bit of fine art – a little bit of hand-rendering – a little bit of imperfection. The imperfections were fantastic. I really loved that, and when I see that, no matter what it’s in, whether it’s a piece of identity – whether it’s a piece of packaging, or even a website, a little bit of imperfection or quirk – a little bit of junkiness to it, that just gives another level of warmth, and humanity.

There was nothing submitted that I looked at which felt cold or corporatized. There was some big work in there, and there were some big roll-outs, but everything had a warmth to it, which really came through. Perhaps that is part of the kiwi-ness.

The Aroha project just really pulled on at a heartstring of mine, and I did sort of linger on that project for quite a while, just looking through their submission images, and especially how they created it. So, definite thumbs up there.

Aroha Entry8

It is a beautiful project. So, finally – I don’t want to take up too much of your time, because you’re incredibly busy, but is there anything else that you wanted to share, either about the archive, its intent or its value? As you’ve played a critical role for us on our review panel, helping shape this first collection, is there anything you want to share with the community about that?

Yeah, again just to reiterate as this thing hopefully grows – I want to see a lot more work coming in from all corners of the country. Even the budding graphic designers who maybe haven’t had the strict design education. I see this archive as more of an opportunity to talk about design, rather than critique it. That means more people can and should participate.

That’s really key, moving forward and I think that’s going to be important for Design Assembly, in terms of how you message this, moving forward. I don’t think people should think about their work in terms of a level of craft; it’s thinking about their work in terms of what am I trying to say with this piece of work, and what am I trying to say as a Kiwi designer through this piece of work?

So, I’d like to see is a wide variety of design work come through, and I think, as I said, this is a really good start, but it’s going to take a year or two to really hit its tracks, and get going. Then, with a volume of work we can start to have this opportunity to talk about what’s coming through, again not from an execution point of view, but in terms of who we are.

It’s going to be a valuable tool. It’s just a matter of getting a variety of people – more diverse backgrounds – more variety of studios coming in and actually submitting this work, and having the opportunity to talk about it.

That’s definitely one of our biggest ambitions; diverse representation, including the whole design ecosystem so that the work is about as broad a reach of the community as we can. So, thank you so much on all the levels, Matt – for your participation, for sharing your thoughts, and also for your support and kind words about what we’re trying to achieve with this pilot.

Oh, you’re welcome. It’s always good. Design Assembly gives a different slant to what else is on offer within New Zealand, and I think that’s really important. I think it’s good to have different opportunities for designers to catch up – to show their work, connect and just generally help people. It’s been great to be involved right at the start of this project, because I think it’s really important to have a different avenue for celebrating and talking about design work, and showing what’s going on.

I think the archive is going to be an important thing to grow over these next few years. I enjoyed myself. I really did. So, thank you for the opportunity.

The portrait artwork to accompany this interview is by Bonnie Brown

Thanks to Creative New Zealand who funded the 2020 Kātoitoi pilot. This interview and illustration sits within a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 12 weeks supported by CNZ.