Corporal Identity

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“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” ventures Vince Frost as we wrap up our interview. Perhaps I look like someone. “You look like you,” he bounces back with a quizzical grin, somehow managing to sum up the last half-hour in four words. Because for the Brighton-born, Toronto-raised, Sydney-based design icon, it all boils down to identity.

His 30-strong studio in sun-soaked Sydney was founded on the simple premise of making the most of every possible opportunity – which includes never turning work down. One of the first Australian briefs to land on his desk back in 2003 was a company report for Supercheap Auto, a vast and hugely successful discount spare-parts retailer.

Not at face value the most creative brief for a designer with multiple gongs from across the world and D&AD yellow pencils tucked behind each ear, but it cemented the idea of applying great design where you’d least expect it – prising dry copy and statistics off the page with loud typography and chunky, pictorial graphs built with screwdrivers, wrenches and tape measures. Literally, Supercheap’s products made the report.

“The difference isn’t design, the difference is identity,” Vince asserts. “And identity isn’t just a logo; it’s a culmination of colour, format, editorial approach, all that kind of stuff. If a client says ‘I don’t like the colour’ it means you’re not doing a good job, because it’s not about the colour – unless it’s a colour shop.”

Fiddly isn’t the Frost* style. He’s an ideas man, his work instantly recognisable for its bold imagery, clean fonts and conceptual thought. As we meet he presses a small fluorescent-pink book into my hand, emblazoned with a giant letter F and his trademark asterisk – the symbol of freezers, frost and Frost. He’s used to being interviewed.

But softening the even tan and brisk efficiency are laughter lines, a twinkle in the eye and a dimpled grin that lend him a laid-back, slightly mischievous air. Topped with the hard-to-place drawl – seemingly rooted in Canadian, and laced with sun-kissed Australian – it immediately blows away pretensions and puts you at ease. He admits he owes a lot to his three children, who have made his style looser and more experimental.

“My kids are completely free,” he smiles. “I can see beautiful things coming out of them; beautiful paintings and beautiful questions. Then you see schools setting lines to get their handwriting neater, so it looks like an example of how the whole world is set. What does that do to us? It makes our handwriting neater, but it affects the way we think; our free flow. There is a very positive energy that is then made to feel like it’s wrong.”

“What they teach me is their incredibly inquisitive minds; they’re always making things,” he continues. “That’s what we should do as designers. Often we spend our whole life, our whole education, learning how not to be spontaneous, how not to question things. For me the most important thing is to have the freedom to have an open mind; a questioning mind.”

Interpretation, Vince insists, makes all the difference – and taking the time to glimpse the world through a child’s eyes can bring a refreshing sideways angle to almost anything. His D&AD Presidential Lecture the previous evening had kicked off with a holiday snap of two mating kangaroos in the zoo – a scene that at the time had prompted, ‘Daddy, that kangaroo’s trying to carry the other one.’ Ah, the wonder of youth.

Such quirky throwaway observations inform the Frost* Design philosophy as well as tickle his sense of humour. A flip through his little pink book – which boasts a single page of text amidst a flurry of snapshots, part portfolio, part stream of consciousness – throws up more such gems, like ‘NO PARKING’ painted haphazardly on the road, with PAR-KIN-G split three ways as if its creator had scrawled the word with abandon, yet was afraid to go over the lines.

“I just walk around, taking pictures of things,” he shrugs. “I can’t imagine looking straight ahead and not taking everything in. I often wonder what it’s like for people not in the design industry who don’t wonder why things are there, or how they got there.” While he wearily denies any obvious difference between Australian and British design, he admits his physical surroundings are more of an inspiration now than ever before.

“In Australia the graphics are everywhere. They completely surround you. Everybody here is screaming for attention, and you just do not know where to look. And they have flags and banners everywhere – it really makes the city feel alive,” he enthuses. “When I was working in London, it was primarily identities and magazines. In Australia I was introduced to three-dimensional design – signage, interiors and all that kind of stuff – and it was a really fantastic learning curve.”

Accordingly, in line with their ‘turn nothing down, anything is possible’ philosophy, Frost* Design have begun stretching beyond straightforward ‘graphic design’ into advertising, product design, web and multimedia. “It’s not about being precious, it’s about being open,” Vince believes. “Graphic design has moved on so much that I don’t think that’s the right term anymore. Some people say that we’re a multidisciplinary studio, but I think that sounds a bit wanky.”

Recent projects have included a giant inflatable stage and a full interior concept for Coast restaurant – which features a rippling wave of bright yellow Perspex, tracing the outline of the Australian coast. “It’s very beautiful. Nothing to do with typography, nothing to do with printing, but a fantastically fun thing to do,” he enthuses. “It cuts right through the restaurant and creates this amazing light effect.”

Another Perspex-based project – this time in neon pink – graces the entrance to the Frost* studio, the material twisted and contorted into a series of striking fluorescent letterforms. I put it to Vince that, even in his two-dimensional print work, the line between typography, imagery and the real world is consistently and playfully blurred. “I think we just have fun with it,” he grins. “I want to make it an interactive thing so it has impact. Everything we do, we want to give it an aura; a tangible appeal.”

A dancer hangs with perfect poise from a giant letter C on their poster for the Sydney Dance Company, for whose simple-but-effective logo Vince “added two letters to Sydney to make it dance.” The Last Magazine, a recent book project, played with the stat that half of all magazines end up as pulp by shredding fonts throughout the design, and stacking pull-quotes against shaped blocks of copy like magazines on a shelf.

And the Frost* identity for D&AD’s Ampersand magazine uses the simple cut-out motif of three overlapping circles, doubling as an ampersand and a thought bubble; the ultimate combo of collaboration, progress and ideas. Words become images and images become words, all part of the shared language of visual communication.

Ever-vocal about the pivotal role that great design can play in the fortunes of an organisation of any size, Vince enjoys taking on a tricky brief – after all, the lower the starting point, the bigger the difference you can make.

“Everything has potential to be better, so don’t judge things on what they look like now,” is his parting advice. “A lot of designers look at magazines and go, ‘Oh God, I’d like to work for them, they do nice stuff.’ Well if they do nice stuff now, they don’t need you.”

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 6 of TEN4 magazine

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