October 13th, 2020

Let’s start by saying I love my mum and dad. No matter what I’ve chosen to do with my life, and through multiple fuck-ups, they’ve had my back. In my mid-twenties I switched careers and vowed never to do a job I didn’t like ever again. I became what I’d always dreamed of being, a designer. But since making that decision, I’m still not sure my folks really know what I do day-to-day, or have done for the last fifteen years. I often wonder how they explain it to their friends or anyone that asks. So, in case there's any doubt, here goes...

I remember a few years back trying to explain it to my dad, and the conversation going a little bit like this:

“So like posters and leaflets?”

“Well, yes, but I do other stuff too. It depends what the problem or challenge is you are looking to solve as to what the best solution will be.”


“Yes, that too. But it’s more about the challenge or challenges a client has”



I can describe what we do in a simple list of physical output. Dad is right, it’s logos and websites, and everything in between. You can find a more extensive list of studio output on our What We Do page.

How we do it and why we think it’s important becomes more of a challenge to articulate, because I often feel it’s quite vast and can sound more complicated than it is. It can feel a bit wanky when verbalised, and will often tail off into the detail that, although feels relevant to me, adds complication that an audience can quickly tune out of.

Let me give you an example of what I could have said to my dad...

"We help clients identify who they are, what their specific challenges are, who their audience are and then deliver interesting, clever and beautiful visual communication solutions to solve those challenges.

But sometimes it’s not just visual…

It may be audio too…

Or, could even be a smell.

In fact we’re kind of open to using all the senses in order to communicate, by delivering a physical or emotional response. Human psychology and how our brains work plays a big part in what we do and how we communicate messages to an audience."

See… this is what happens. It feels complicated, even to me, and it’s my job. So, I relent and you’ll regularly hear me tell people “I colour stuff in for a living”. The irony of me finding it a challenge to articulate, working in the business of communication, is not lost on me.

My old Creative Director, Michael Smith of Cog Design would always use a neat little diagram to describe what we did in terms of visual communication. If I remember it correctly, it was something like this:

We are essentially the C in all this, communicating a message from the client to their audience. It’s bloody simple, and bloody clever, and a good way of showing actually what we do as graphic designers. But, there’s something that needs to come before that. Over the years, I have always come back to one word which has served us well when explaining how we tackle design and has also helped us deliver our best work.

That word is...

Why is ‘Why?’ so important? Well, it’s provocative. If you ask it enough it gets to the route of the purpose of what we are doing. Without a purpose you’ll struggle to measure if something has been successful.

However, asking it over and over can have two negative effects. It can make people feel like you are questioning whether they are right in their assumptions or actions, and most people don’t like that – so it relies on a client that is open minded enough to engage in a deeper dialogue about what they want to achieve. It can also be exhausting. It’s a bit like an irritating child that won’t stop asking ‘Why?”. It can even feel like it adds unnecessary process and delay to a project – and as most of us know it’s rare that you’ll ever get a project where the deadline is “well, take as long as you need to do it thoroughly and properly”.

But if you can get past any negative connotations, it forms the backbone of what we do. When we start working on a project my first question is ‘Why?’. Our clients love this bit. Because it’s collaborative. Everyone gets involved. Inclusion and ownership are important. It also allows us, the designers, rapid insight into the client's extensive knowledge of their brand. It spurs unusual responses to everyday questions. It promotes creativity… from all parties. It’s proof that everyone is critical to the success of the process.

Quite often a client will come to us with an idea of what they want to do, physically. A proposed solution, if you like. The vast majority of the time, that’s completely valid. We can action this pre-disclosed solution, but more often than not we can add additional value to a project by understanding the motivation; by asking “Why?”.

Let’s chat about a recent project we completed for Organix, who approached us about creating a selection of graphics to go on the walls around their office. They’d just updated their packaging (award winning, fyi) and had some top level brand updates completed and they wanted to celebrate this. You guessed it, we asked “Why?”. And here’s a demonstration of how ‘why?’ is so effective.

From that simple dialogue we were able to ascertain the brief was actually two-fold. Making staff happy. Making visitors ‘buy in’ to the brand. Because both of these outcomes have a positive impact on the business. The constraints of the brief were a large office space and a desire to showcase their latest brand work.

We identified that for visitors the visiting experience was sometimes confusing and could be clearer, so it turned into a signage and wayfinding project too. We found that just writing values on the walls could be more engaging, so we created various magnetic spaces to encourage interaction and add multi-use functionality to each space – plus, who doesn’t like spelling out rude words with fridge magnets? We explored the idea of play and how we are more likely to be discouraged by society to engage with this in adulthood, but by making things oversized and making the staff member or visitor feel physically small we could encourage them to feel more like child-like and become more playful. Play drives innovation. We also found there was a gap in the visual language that was needed to join up the physical pack re-design and the brand values work. Ultimately, we added more value and we did this by asking one simple question, “Why?”.

So, mum and dad, that’s half my job... I’m still that annoying little boy that keeps asking “Why?” even when you think you’ve answered the question a dozen times. The difference is now, I get paid for that. From our business standpoint, it forms a lot of the ‘Clever’ in Pretty Clever.

The other half of my job? Physical output. With the answers from our questioning, we create physical things and experiences.

We start this process by researching other sectors and solutions to similar problems, visually and emotionally. It’s finding visual connections between the answers to ‘why’ and the elements of Michael’s ‘A-B-C’ model. It’s identifying or reaffirming who ‘A’ and ‘B’ actually are. It’s looking at things like how we can use colour, or lack thereof, to conjure an emotional response. It’s empathy through typography. It’s choosing the right materials. It’s moodboards. It’s touch, smell, taste, sight and sound.

It’s the translation of all of that ‘stuff’ into pretty things. The traditional things a design studio might output. It’s the printed comms, the logos, the visual identity systems, the appropriate UX and UI for a digital platform (ok, so we’re going to need to have another conversation about some of these other things at a later date). It’s the bit that most people see. The tangible. It’s a lot of the ‘Pretty’ in Pretty Clever, but also with some more ‘Clever’ thrown in.

So, Mum and Dad, that is what we do. That is how I spend a lot of my time. It’s how we at Pretty Clever add value to the design process. We explore our fascination in the physical and emotional reaction to communication. And then we create ‘stuff’ that replicates or represents that. Yes, like posters and leaflets and logos and websites. And if that sounds too wanky for you, you can always just tell people I colour stuff in for a living.