Interview With Jonathan Wallace of Alter

I try to keep tabs on what’s happening that’s new and interesting as far as The Australian Graphic Design scene goes. If I see something that impresses me I’ll usually dig a little further to find out who did it. Such was the case while watching Foxtel one evening when I saw the advert spots for the Australian Music Video Awards. Not only were the spots pretty funny, poking fun at some of Australia’s best known musical artists, they also had a fantastic retro graphics style that immediately appealed and stood out. It wasn’t long before I recognised that this was the work of the same talents behind a lot of the great graphics of ultra hip local record label Modular. I’m talking about Melbourne design studio Alter. I talked to Jonathan Wallace about his work and aspirations for the studio,

Chris Bowden: When did you first decide to become a designer. Was there the proverbial ‘pivotal moment’?

Jonathan Wallace: I’m not sure how to pull history apart, so I’ll say that it’s more a succession of smaller moments. I’d left Melbourne University because the philosophy students were really annoying me. I loved the idea of philosophy, but in practice there were too many people talking about themselves. Then I worked in quite a few unrelated, menial areas. In one (an exhibition hire company) a friend told me ‘art’ at Tafe was great fun. I tried it. He was right, Tafe was fun, so I decided to continue to University. The Design people didn’t talk about themselves as much, but at times they did look at themselves in mirrors, windows, etc. Maybe I did that too.

I’m not sure that I ever really decided to be a designer. Though I do think of it as a very lucky job to have. I began to believe a career in design might be less implausible midway through my second year studying it at Monash University. Prior to that I was really just kidding myself with ideas that it could be a way of earning a living without working hard.

CB: Who or what inspires you at the moment?

JW: The usual suspects I’m afraid… art, film, music, pop culture, etc. I’m often inspired by the guys I work with (I know that’s really cheesy, but it’s essential really). Dan, Rick and Dion are all doing interesting things both on and off the field. I really loved some aspects of Daft Punk’s Electroma, it brought Eno back for me like a weird, romantic vision from memory. We’ve had some old Talking Heads on lately anyway, some German stuff and Ariel Pink. I’ve really enjoyed seeing people jumping at sold out Cutters shows and standing quietly watching a sold out Sly Hats show (I was slightly awed and think there might have been a few tears amongst the crowd). We’re also checking out the new Cut Copy release.

CB: Which of the projects that you have worked on in the past are you most proud of and why? I’ve been really blown away by the work you’ve done for Modular – they seem to be very open to pushing the boundaries in how they present themselves from their music releases to their online presence, could you also speak a little on your relationship with them?

JW: Tough question. Lots of them had a little moment that made them ‘real’. To single something out, Modular comes easily to mind. We’ve done quite a bit over a few years and there are certainly people whose perception of Modular is linked directly to the kind of coloured, layered and indiosyncratic work that we’ve produced. Who knows what the future will hold, but we’ve had a great run with them and made a contribution that we’re really proud of. I guess the freedom we enjoyed in the creation of the artwork has conveyed something of the nature of Modular and Alter at the same time. At its best, that’s how the relationship works… it’s like, symbiotic. Yes, I am joking. The Modular people are cool, it has been fun.

CB: One of the highlights of having Foxtel was the seeing the spots you did for The MTV Video Awards. Could you discuss a little about the work, how it came about, the process, how much freedom you were given, was it as much fun to do as it looks? Any plans to expand in this area?

JW: Thanks again! It was kind of a crazy job to have, putting together all the creative for the AVMAs. We began with the logo and a video camera. In the end it was everything aspect from animation, print, live action to the MTV channel branding itself. The freedom was amazing, we we’re suprised by the fact that the MTV guys were into our lo-fi cut and paste ideas. The ‘red carpet relay’ commercials with the bands was also a really simple concept to link in teaser band spots in the lead up to the awards. The idea was that we’d see the bands in less glamourous situations, sometimes just sitting doing nothing. Bands being boring… not something that’s entirely that easy to sell. It was great fun doing the shoots… attempting to get something out of a few minutes with a band and then a crazy rush to another location. Thinking about Adelaide for a moment, The Hilltop Hoods were good guys, they put a fair bit of effort into it and had to be patient while we negotiated to shoot on the tracks with the local rail authority.

This kind of work is really fast and we learned that it pays to have various alternative plans laid out. We also learned to be adaptive to circumstance. There are some real advantages and some fun in the speed of production. We’d love to do more work in the area. I really enjoyed the challenge of project managing a creative brief on that scale.

CB: You’ve done a few album covers, and obviously you’ve got a pretty close connection with Cut Copy, any artists you would absolutely love to do work for?

JW: Maybe Daft Punk and Beck… I think we’d do something that’d work for them.

CB: What are some of the things you do to keep yourself motivated?

JW: I ran. Past tense. Then a snowboarding injury meant I needed an operation and… need I go on? I’m currently between exercise regimes. Beer and wine can only provide so much motivation, so I’m looking forward to a full recovery. I also try to get out and see things. It doesn’t really matter what. I think once you’re looking there’s no shortage of inspiration. Cliché yes, but there’s a reason for that. Another great motivation tool is a holiday, though I don’t really have enough of them. I find different sources of motivation professionally, things like keeping up with the news and the odd good post on Design Observer.

I also think I need to spend more time with my family and friends. Again, simple things.

CB: How do you approach a new project? How do you overcome the ‘dreaded blank page’?

JW: Quite often we don’t do a thing once the briefing is over. We just keep working. And then the talking begins… maybe a week later. We’ve all been thinking about it. We’ve got quite few things on the go at any given time, some of it blends together, some ideas that we discuss together stay in the collective memory until they find a way into something we’re doing. Or planning to do.

We try to do the empirical thing when possible. It works when the quality of the brief is right. But since we are often working on very open briefs, some just don’t function in terms of empirical planning and execution. They require a period of gestation and don’t really seem bound by the same logic as more defined jobs. The client might say ‘do your thing, I just really love the Alter look’. We talk about what that might mean. Do we have a look? Is it Modular? We usually try to work away from a ‘look’. If someone wants us to do something a little unexpected, which is our interpretation of ‘do your thing’, it might mean that they actually do not expect what we present to them. This can have very mixed results… but it’s actually challenging for everyone in some way. That’s a major factor in motivation. We like to feel like we have an opportunity for creative change. It’s our name.

Lately we’re working within tight deadlines and this is dealt with through management. We usually work to a timeline laden with requirements from the client, various suppliers and for ourselves. I’m sure this is a more ‘real world’ situation and it’s something we’re becoming increasingly familiar with.

CB: What project and, or client that you haven’t worked on would you love to (go to town, think of this as your ultimate ‘fantasy assignment 🙂 and why?

JW: We’ve talked about Qatar… I think it would managing the entire process of developing a Museum of Modern Design in Qatar. Upon completion it would be inducted into the New Seven Wonders of the World. Say goodbye Mexican step pyramids of whatever…

CB: Alter’s work seems to run the gamut from the very experimental ‘arts inspired’ projects to a nice range of more corporate projects, is this a conscious decision to keep yourselves open and flexible, or is it just how things have worked out? What direction would you like Alter to take over the next ten years or so?

JW: As I mentioned earlier, in the past the business has developed in a mostly organic way. These days we’re actually consciously choosing direction a little more and have begun to pick the projects we’re taking on. We’re realistic about it as a business, but didn’t begin for that reason. I hope that we can continue to grow. But not too much. I’d like to think that we can expand our own ideas and build the freedom to express ourselves even more. Our own projects… we have an idea for a book. But that’s another story.

CB: Finally, you obviously enjoy and have a great affinity for the music design stuff, what music have you guys been listening to lately?

JW: Ariel Pink, Neu, Cluster, Hot Chip, Cornelius, J.P. Shilo, Mum Smokes, Fabulous Diamonds, Panda Bear, Brian Eno, Sly Hats, You Will Die Alone, Kes, Muscles, Ned Collette, Serge Gainsbourg… lots really. And, of course, that Cut Copy record coming soon…

Thanks to Jonathan for being so accomodating with his time and responses – one of the things I’ve found out from doing these interviews is that the most talented designers are more than often the most generous and friendliest! You can see more of Alter’s work at their website here (it’s a really nicely designed site as well). I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of their great work around the place in the future.