05.09.17 / Designer Profile / Kelly Burton and Roger Nesbitt

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Kelly Burton and Roger Nesbitt / de.co

Kelly Burton and Roger Nesbitt, founders and creative directors of Adelaide studio de.co, celebrated their studio’s 30th birthday on 20 July. In this chaotic time, that’s a pretty special achievement.

Did they celebrate? Of course they did. But there was no big show, just a quiet trip away with time to reflect on memories, and maybe even think toward the future.

“We were deliberating for some time as to how we might mark the milestone,” says Kelly to AGDA. "We considered having a party, but, as is often the case, it was becoming bigger than Ben Hur in terms of what we would need to make it appropriate. We had a light bulb moment and decided that getting away as a team was a far better idea. We shut the studio for three days and all of us went to Bungaree Station in the Clare Valley. We cooked under the stars around a campfire to a 1980s compilation, sampled some local brews, and reminisced. Not a computer in sight. Brilliant.”

Now, if we adhere to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory (from Outliers, I think) that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a particular skill, and we assume a 30-hour work week, Kelly and Roger would have reached said mastery in around six and a half years — give or take. Imagine their skill level 23 years later! But they, like us all, had to start at the beginning. Kelly and Roger take us back, to a pivotal time in the history of Australian design.

“Back in those days, everyone who was going on to design or art started off in a one-year common course of fine art,” recalls Roger. “That first year I’d seen a lecture by Lyndon Whaite [most readers will likely be familiar with this national treasure, but for those unfamiliar, see here] — and George Tetlow, who was the illustration lecturer — and I thought ‘This sounds really cool. Maybe I’ll be an illustrator.’ Then you had a second year which was common for everybody doing illustration or vis comm, and by the end of that year I realised that even though I could draw, there were people who were incredibly good and that wasn’t my area so I channelled my energies into vis comm and finished the last two years doing that.”

Kelly’s introduction was a little different. While she was completing Year 12 Art, Kelly’s prescient Art teacher discovered there was a new university design course beginning the following year, and knowing Kelly was interested in doing Commercial Art, suggested it to her as an option.

“It sounded interesting, and had more weight being a Degree course, so I enrolled at Underdale,” recalls Kelly. But that meant commuting from Elizabeth to the then South Australian College of Advanced Education, Underdale campus, up to two hours, one-way, and back again by public transport. Every day. That is some serious commitment.

“Underdale was a really interesting place in those days,” says Kelly. “Sadly, it’s gone under the hammer since then and no longer exists. I remember my first day at the college: I was the only student from the northern suburbs, there were certainly no familiar faces, and I remember sitting on one of the amphitheatre steps at induction, alongside someone dressed in a green garbage bag. That was my introduction to this wild and exciting and exotic new place. Light-years away from Elizabeth West High School.”

[FYI & fashion context: from Complex.com “In the late ’70s, strikes by London trash collectors left large piles of garbage on the street. Johnny Rotten began to wear the trash bags, later saying: ‘That was a perfect, perfect item of clothing. You’d just cut out a hole for your head and your arms and put a belt on, and you looked stunning.’”]

“That was the early 80s: a lot of green garbage bags, camo, mohawks, lots of piercings from ear to nose,” says Roger.

Kelly and Roger would both later return to the Design School at Underdale — which eventually moved to the City West campus in around ’97 — some years later to teach Applied Design and Typography.

“The teaching spilled over into an association [with UniSA] where we get called, on occasion, to act as consultants or industry advisors — we are generally pretty willing to contribute,” says Kelly. “I think it’s always good to have representation in the University setting from a fairly experienced industry voice. There are a lot of people who do amazing things within AGDA and within our industry but it’s surprising how few of our vintage are still contributing.”

“We’ve done a bit of mentoring along the way with mixed results,” says Roger. “With some students, you feel it’s been a really good experience, whereas with others you’re not sure the students have benefited from it, but we find that’s probably more about the process than our input. We try to impart as much as we can in the time we have with each student.”  

In the interest of full disclosure: I’m on a mission to uncover the extent to which written communication is a functional and integral part of the visual communication process — from beginning to end. Kelly and Roger gave AGDA some insights on this topic from their point of view as current practitioners.

“There is absolutely a connectedness between these two disciplines,” says Kelly. “I think to move into the area of visual communication you have to embrace the visual and the written as two totally integrated components.” 

“Roger and I have always been very concerned about detail and accuracy, not just in the art and the composition of the art, but what you’re saying and how you’re saying it — the complete communication package. So those people whom we employ need to have the same interest, the same passion, and the same attention to detail. In terms of hiring, every element of the words that are communicated from the opening letter to any printed items or folio — all of it has to be considered and treated with as much care. This focus is part of what we have always provided and always will.”

“It’s also about the need to express it [ideas and concepts],” says Roger. “We’ve had young designers in and they can deliver their work but their ability to then talk to that work is limited. When you start delving into it, they struggle to explain the concept behind it. That’s a flow-on from an inability to write those concepts down.”

The process: problem, conceptualisation, ideation, communication, resolution — it all stems from one place. Education. de.co have a long, successful history of working with the institutions tasked with preparing the next wave of designers for industry.

“We’ve established a bit of a niche in our work with schools,” says Kelly. “To date, we’ve worked with over 40 schools and colleges, but it’s not just the big schools that we get the most fulfilment from. Currently, we’re working on a rebrand for a little school in the country with 80 kids, one of the smallest schools in SA. The Principal is an old scholar and has such pride in his appointment and what he’s now able to give back to his community. He approached us to help with the rebrand and we provided some costings. Even our modest budget proved insurmountable at the time, but he ended up saving for nearly two years to raise the funds and have us work on his project. We were humbled as he openly shared that he didn’t want anyone else to work on it, and was prepared to wait. He didn’t expect us to compromise and was incredibly excited when he was finally able to afford it."

“Those projects continue for us. We've had two rebrands for schools this year, which has been great, but aside from the schools we also have some terrific commercial clients, one in particular is MIGA, one of Australia’s largest medical insurers. A fantastic client with a diverse and interesting range of work.”

Kelly and Roger’s affinity with education brought them into contact with AGDA early in their careers. In fact, they were not only taught by, but also worked directly with, some of the founding members of AGDA in the late 80s. “We were sitting as young Designers then [at the birth of AGDA] alongside people like Ian Kidd and John Nowland, working with them as the younger voices of our industry. We were heavily involved with that vanguard of designers and felt grateful to be mentored by them, they were amazing,” says Roger.

"We know that AGDA supports our profession as a profession and not just a craft — having a recognised organisation that can validate and elevate our skill set is pivotal in the evolution of our profession.”

“Bob Miller-Smith was the head of the Design School when Roger and I were studying, and he was an absolute flag bearer as far as creating a voice for the value of Graphic Design in Australia,” says Kelly. “He was instrumental in seeking a Bachelor Degree for those studying Graphic Design at SACAE. At the time, Bob went directly to the Premier to gain support and was subsequently able to establish the first Bachelor of Design in Australia. This achievement was the beginning of our profession being recognised in a similar league to that of other professions.”

Now it’s come full circle. Kelly and Roger are the ones inspiring and teaching the younger generation, and AGDA — not to mention the greater design community — are the richer for it.

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Heath Campbell

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