A learning experience

Vince Frost went through “hassle and hell” in setting up his studio in Sydney, he tells Mark Sinclair

Looking back at the piece we ran on Vince Frost’s migration to Melbourne in 2004 (which acknowledged his itinerant nature as a person; his desire to grow a business organically as a designer)  it seems fitting that he now finds himself based in Sydney, overseeing a staff of 40 and on the verge of re-launching a London studio: all under the banner of his own company, Frost* Design. Things have, via various ups and downs along the way, worked out pretty well for Frost.

Of course, hindsight is reliably 20-20 and in Frost’s case it doesn’t quite take into account the trials and tribulations (or “hassle and hell” as he termed it at his recent D&AD lecture) of forming emeryfrost, the studio he became joint design director of with Australian Garry Emery in early 2004, only to split the company up just over a year later. Emery had originally approached Frost in 2002 about the prospect of him taking the business into the future but, as Frost alleges, theirs turned out to be a somewhat difficult working relationship from the very outset.

Emery originally founded his company in Melbourne in 1981 with Paul Vincent and developed an Emery Vincent Sydney office in 1987; the Melbourne office then trading as Garry Emery Design. With Frost’s international reputation and Emery’s tempting invitation, the two studios were then united under the one name, emeryfrost. Feeling that he wasn’t particularly welcome by Emery during his time there (Emery was jealously protective of his relationships with established clients, apparently) Frost’s unhappiness with the partnership came to a head in late 2005 – the Melbourne office becoming Emery Studio, while Frost* Design established itself in Sydney and is soon to open up a site in London again, the place where it all originally began for Frost in 1994.

Confused? Well, don’t be. According to Frost, it’s experiences like this that make you a better designer and – as he’s now learned – a better businessman. “I wasn’t prepared to give up. I wanted to make sure that I learned from that whole situation and came out stronger and wiser,” he says. “I like being in difficult situations, otherwise you get complacent.” Frost readily admits that in the lead up to the formation of emeryfrost, he was daunted by making such a big step. “Running a business at that scale – it’s something I got really nervous about,” he says. “I thought I might be completely out of my depth. But the whole culture here is great and now we’re continuing to grow and expand. To me, the most important thing I’ve realised is that design is a business, not an art form.”

His experiences have now left him in charge of a design studio of international standing and, more importantly, while he enjoys working with clients from all over the world, he’s been warmly welcomed as an adopted son by the Australian design community. The first public indication of this and, indeed, what amounted to a celebration of the emergence of his new company, was the Frost*Bite exhibition held in the Object Gallery of the Sydney Opera House in 2006. It was the gallery’s first ever exhibition dedicated to graphic design. “The show was a real sense of achievement for us,” says Frost, “as we changed to Frost* Design in November and had the exhibition in January. We couldn’t have planned it better: internally it was good to celebrate the change and 20,000 people visited so it really helped establish our immediate profile in Sydney.”

From then on, things have gone from strength to strength in terms of securing clients both abroad and at home in Australia. The studio has created some beautiful pieces for the Sydney Dance Company, motion graphics for Channel [V], redesigned the identity of Oz indie music institution Mushroom Records, designed the film classification symbols for Australia and New Zealand and have recently (in what Frost regards as a “true honour”) returned to work with the Opera House: this time on its own identity and brand philosophy.
“People often think that all a designer does is print, layouts or whatever, and the Opera House work is a really good example of this, where we haven’t just found a logo for them, it’s a whole new repositioning,” says Frost. “It’s all about live performance everyday. The people who worked there weren’t ‘performing’, they didn’t see themselves as performers, they thought of themselves as just having a job. The security guards would just stand there and their body language actually seemed to be saying ‘Don’t come in’! They should be standing there in a tutu.”

The main thinking behind Frost’s work for the Opera House is to change people’s attitudes towards the building and what it represents. It’s one of the most famous structures in the world, attracting some 4m visitors a year, but, says Frost, only 250,000 actually go inside. “People go there and take a picture and are onto the next thing. A lot don’t even know where the entrance is. We needed to help them communicate to the world what’s on and when it’s on.” Two simple Frost remedies have seen all the press ads for upcoming shows that were previously scattered throughout local editions brought into one double-page-spread in each issue, and paper menus in the surrounding restaurants detailing daily listings. 

It’s obvious that Frost is still fuelled by his love of solving problems, of generating creative ideas that make things work better. In a sense, being a “designer” simply doesn’t suit the scope of what he and his company do these days. “I’ve never wanted to specialise in one area,” he adds. “I don’t want the business to just be seen as a design studio. I really don’t like the term ‘design’ anymore – ‘creative’ is a better one.” With the structure of his new London base gradually taking shape  it seems that things have almost come full circle for Frost. But while the company is returning to the UK again, it’s clear that it’s found itself a real home, just as he has, in Sydney.

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