06 August 2011

Skyping Vince Frost

An interview with British ex-pat design legend Vince Frost

In ShellsuitZombie’s first international Skype interview ever we managed to get hold of Vince Frost, acclaimed designer, ex pentagram associate, winner of countless awards and founder of Frost design, an Australian powerhouse of fantastic creative work. The time difference meant that Vince was eating breakfast and this reporter was in his pyjamas (don’t ever say we aren’t professional) but despite that we managed to get through discussions on his work, advice for those starting out and his feelings on the royal family.

Vince, I first became a fan of yours when I saw your work with letterpress – are you still getting out the wood type?

Yeah, we used letterpress for an ad campaign for Northern Territories a few years ago. It’s a pretty raw place, it felt right to use that kind of imperfect typography. My dad used a letterpress so I was influenced by that and I love the work of Alan Kitching. Now though, working for a brand like Qantas, a wooden feel isn’t so appropriate. So I fit the medium to the job, I suppose.

Is there an area of design you’re favouring at the moment or is it a case by case basis. Is there something big in the next year that you’re excited about?

We have so much going on at any time in the studio that we’re working across all mediums. I wouldn’t be happy stuck in one area and though it creates more pressure, I enjoy working in a more general way. In terms of trends, we’re working at getting better at digital and collaborating with people who are excellent at that. I find online media hugely exciting, there’s a lot of potential there.

But you must still be a print designer at heart?

I started working 2 years before apples came out and even then they were basic, so yeah I consider myself print and there’s still masses of print in what we do. We also get involved in a lot of signage and I love branding - it’s great to work large and small.

As an ex pat Brit living in Australia is there anything about the UK that you miss?

I was born in the UK and spent a lot of time there, I lived there until about 7 years ago. I don’t get homesick as long as I stay busy. Luckily I live in a great country - Sydney is an amazing place to be and I still get to work around the world. What do I miss? I don’t really miss anything, though I always enjoyed working in London and being surrounded by people who have the same passion, being in such a creative country. It’s amazing the work that comes out of there.

So you have it pretty good in Oz?

Yeah I like it - I have three kids, we live 2 minutes from Bondi beach, ten minutes from work, it’s just easy. The thought of getting across London every day with people trying to run you off the road… (shudders [audibly?])

Since moving to Australia have you noticed any differences between education between there and the UK?

There are definite similarities – I’ve been involved out here in Australia – we have an internship program at Frost with flow of young talent coming in. I’ve always believed in doing that and some interns do end up working full time for us. The quality of design here is great - the world is smaller now with the internet so you find that the UK, US and Australian design is all good. The one thing that seems to affect design the most is language, you find that Japanese design is very different. Are you wearing pajamas?

Erm… yes. Sorry. You’ve had a well decorated career but the odd project has been less satisfying. How do you deal with being afraid to make mistakes? Are you still willing to try something out of your comfort zone?

It’s funny you ask that - we’re working on a new frost book and I was reading the one I did in 2006 and cringing at some of the fucking disasters in my career - I was telling it as it is and being too honest! I went there, it didn’t work, did that, it didn’t work, did this, it didn’t work, you know?

I’m definitely not risk averse, you take something on and know you’ll get through it and aim for perfection. Sometimes it doesn’t work quite as you imagined but 90% of the time it does. When I went to work in Japan to do Japanese Vogue it was a very exciting, challenging and flawed process from the start, and I have no regrets because I learned from doing that, and also learned that I love Japan.

So anyway yeah I looked through (sorry trees) and started panicking at the things that fucked up but I think people don’t tend to talk about the things that haven’t worked out when often that’s when you learn the most. You know though that whatever’s going on there’s going to be a tomorrow morning and you start to just enjoy the process.

You see a lot of people starting up straight from university in both design and illustration, what are your thoughts on that?

A computer and the internet allows you to work from anywhere and you don’t have to be a huge corporation to do great work. Having said that there’s no point sitting at home in your pajamas in front of a great computer if you have no connections. So whether you’re making those connections through another design agency or not, without that you’re in isolation and it will be difficult to be successful.

If you look at the classic design and advertising work none of it was done by individuals but now the lines between photographer, illustrator and designer are completely blurred, and at the same time big companies are losing out to small ones whose marketing directors are seeing as doing ‘cool stuff’. Big agencies provide security in how a project is managed though which is where individuals may struggle, but someone could be sitting in the outback in a tent and designing the cover for New York Times magazine for example. It’s just about finding the opportunities.

How do you mean opportunities?

Well just imagine the tens of thousands of people in your one street alone. Just think about what they do, what their family does, there’s thousands of connections there. I know if I’m at a conference or event and instead of sitting on a table with a glass of wine I go and talk to just three strangers, (I’m a bit shy so it’s difficult to make that first step, I usually need 2 glasses of wine!) something might come out of that. I was in a conference yesterday and a guy sat next to me was from Brighton where I was born. The woman next to him was from where I grew up in Vancouver. I was going to just sit there quietly but I never would have met these people.

What advice would you give to someone starting up?

Identity. Think of any design agency identity - they’re traditionally bland and minimal so as not to distract from the work, but with the momentum of social media, Facebook and stuff, your personal identity is increasingly important. So for someone new you have to to think hard about positioning yourself uniquely and establishing that personality. The amazing thing about design is that it’s so competitive but also so open, you can make yourself what you want to be and you can achieve your goals. If your goal is to meander along that’s fine but if you have drive and focus on what you want to do you’ll suddenly look back and think ‘fuck, I’m doing the work I was dreaming about.’ People ask me my dream job and I’m doing them every day.

When I was starting up I was doing little magazine projects and when they gained a bit of recognition people said ‘you’re so lucky you get to work on great briefs’. What are you talking about? It’s up to you to turn it into a great project. Thinking ‘there’s not enough money in it so I’m just going to bash it out’ is dangerous. Every single project has potential. Everything you do leaves a trail and creates a reaction. The things you’re doing today have come in because of something someone has seen months, maybe even years before. That’s something I never thought about at university.

What did you think of the royal wedding? Are you a royalist?

He was out here, whatsisname. On the front cover of magazines and that. I’m glad he’s thinning as much as I am! You know what, my dad left for Canada in ‘66, he was really pissed off with the class system in the UK. It still feels like that a bit you know? I don’t like to be pigeonholed, humans are meant to be free, I don’t care what school someone went to. Australians have a very can-do attitude, that’s what I love about this country. It’s not held back by the old-school school tie feel, it feels like anything is possible, which is really exciting.

This article was originally posted in ShellsuitZombie magazine issue 2 back in 2011, which you can see here.

Check out Vince’s work at frostdesign.com.au.