07.02.17 / Designer Profile / Maree Coote

Maree Coote 976 607

Maree Coote / MelbourneStyle + Maree Coote Advertising

Maree Coote: passionate Melburnian, alphabet sculptor, educator, publisher, illustrator, creative director, and award-winning author. Not bad.

Creative director at Melbourne-based publishers and graphic design studio MelbourneStyle, Maree began her creative career in the mysterious world of advertising.

Upon graduating from a graphic design degree at RMIT, Maree worked as a junior art director doing graphic design and directing photography throughout the 80s, and ended up being recruited in ’92 as creative director for the Melbourne office of the influential John Singleton Advertising agency. Eager to satisfy a literary bent, in ’94 Maree founded MelbourneStyle and duly took a break from the ad world.

“When I skipped across from advertising, I started to write books about Melbourne because there were none — no good ones anyway,” begins Maree.

“They were adult stories, but I soon realised there was nothing on the shelf for kids. You could buy books about ‘When you go to New York’, or ‘A Day in Paris’, but I thought, Damn it! Why aren’t there any books on the shelf for kids about Melbourne? So I wrote a kid’s book called When You Go to Melbourne about four years ago, which was really successful and is still going strong.”

Within her multitude of Melbourne-centric publications, Maree highlights examples of cultural capital which are sometimes hidden in plain sight, particularly within the city of Melbourne, and documents those examples for the greater community.

“What you don’t notice, you lose,” says Maree.

“If you don’t treasure it, some jerk’s going to pull it down. Even if it’s just a drinking fountain or a bench or something, they’re so easy to push aside for some other meaningless rubbish. I hope to encourage a sense of belonging and a sense of place in the minds of Melburnians.”

The Melbourne Book: A History of Now is a collection of stories from Melbourne's past and present which focuseson the people and history of Melbourne, first published in 2001, with subsequent new editions coming out in 2009, 2010, and 2013.

“I’ve been shooting the city for years for The Melbourne Book and I’d always think, 'that looks like a really cool M in that roof shape’, so I collected the images,” says Maree.

“I thought ‘I should put this together’, and so I did Alphabet City Melbourne (2013), a kid’s alphabet book about letter shapes hidden in Melbourne's architecture. It's really about noticing — a rapidly disappearing skill.”

The Melbourne Writers Festival invited Maree to take some kids’ groups and introduce them to graphic design using her own special tools and methods. They failed to mention one minor detail to Maree, though.

“They gave me babies!” cries Maree.

“Which was ridiculous because babies are way beyond letter shapes, so I realised that I very quickly [read: overnight] had to transform the class into something a little more literally typographic. So I created all these images from letters (which was the beginning of the letter art thing) saying to kids; ‘Can you see an A there in the gable of that roof?’ Then I realised I had to throw that all out and make the words actually spell the picture to avoid confusing the child — if you put the letter A in the gable of a roof, you just confuse the child because there’s no A in R-o-o-f.”

This sounds way more complex than I first thought.

“I had to throw out what I’d done and start all over again and make every picture only work with the letters in a structure’s name. So, it did my head in a bit, but that’s how Spellbound (2016) came to be. One thing leads you to another: you do Melbourne books, then Melbourne kid’s books, then a photo essay, then typography, and then turn that into Spellbound, and on it goes. It’s all about Melbourne-ness.”

“The book [Spellbound] has three sections in it which cover what I call architext, which is typographic buildings and scenes; alphabeasts, which are typographically created animals; and letterheads, which are typographically created portraits. For letterheads I pulled out a lot of Melburnians [including Tim Minchin, Julia Zemiro, Germaine Greer, and Kylie Minogue!] along with some international icons.”

For her latest publication, Maree is launching a book called Andy Web: Artist, a book about art for kids, the first in a planned series of books which will focus on creative careers.

“It’s about an ambitious spider who lives in the national gallery and wants to have an exhibition there,” says Maree.

“He has a big problem with colour* — his father wants him to be a web developer — dad said he’d never make it as an artist because spiders can’t work in colour.”

“Andy Web is a primer on art appreciation and art history: it’s got images I’ve redrawn that are of work originally by Frida Kahlo, Miró, Andy Warhol, the masters, so it’s a little history of art. As this spider goes through the museum he tries to learn from all the masters. So without being too heavy about it, you can give 2nd graders an intro to art via the journey of this little spider.”

Maree was asked to speak at a local primary school — they wanted her to talk about When You Go to Melbourne, but guess what? More surprises.

“When I got there I discovered they’d been using that book as part of the curriculum,” says Maree.

“They’d been taking the kids around the city and doing these Melbourne tours, and then they got the children to do projects about When You Go to Port Melbourne [fictional book used for the purpose of education], which is where this little school is.”

“I think children are natural graphic designers,” explains Maree. “They’re just so brain-to-hand when they draw their basic, beautiful drawings. It just gets all knocked out of them along the way, doesn’t it?”**

Sounds bleak, but with designers like Maree Coote on the case, I get the feeling the next crop of creative kids will be better armed to navigate their world without losing most of their will to explore, experiment, and make mistakes. Mistakes are, after all, the best way to learn.


Andy Web: Artist will be launched at The Ian Potter Museum on Swanston Street, tonight, Tuesday, 7 February. If you’re around, head on down and say hi to Maree.


* For an example of the problems some poor spiders can have: Adanson's spiders ordinarily depend on green wavelengths for depth perception. When only red light is available the spiders can still see but perceive objects as being closer than they really are. As a result, the spiders jump short of their target. (Science/AAAS) from Wired: Spiders Hunt With 3D Vision (21/1/12).

** Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on education.



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