Seven Questions for Graphic Designer Kevin Finn, Founder of Open Manifesto


By Stephanie Murg Comments

Noam Chomsky, Alain de Botton, and Errol Morris are not the names one expects to see among the contributors to a journal about graphic design, but Open Manifesto is no ordinary publication. “It’s unlike most other design journals in the world,” says Open Manifesto founder, editor, and publisher Kevin Finn, a veteran of Saatchi Design. “Specifically, it focuses on the intersection of design with social, political, cultural, and economic issues and includes contributions from many significant people outside the design disciplines.” And so critical writing by the likes of Paula Scher and George Lois mingles with the musings of Edward de Bono and ex-CIA operative Larry J. Kolb. The latest issue (#6) is an entertaining, educational, and engaging look at the power of the myth. We seized the narrative-themed moment to ask Finn about his own story. Read on to learn how founding Open Manifesto saved his career as a designer, trends in Australian graphic design, and whose work you might see in a future issue.

1. How did Open Manifesto come about?
To be honest, I had been thinking of the idea for about eight years before I decided to finally go ahead and do it [in 2003]. So why did it take so long? Well, to start with I didn’t think I was qualified to produce anything like Open Manifesto, considering I was not a writer, an editor, a journalist, or a publisher. But I have a very curious mind, so–for better or worse–I figured that was qualification enough. But there were two specific turning points that led to creating Open Manifesto.

The first was when I was Joint Creative Director of Saatchi Design, Sydney. We were staging an exhibition of our work inside the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, partly for our clients and partly to further explain what we did to our advertising colleagues. At the time, we were fortunate enough to have also won a D&AD Yellow pencil. So I was standing in this room, surrounded by what we considered to be our best work and having just returned from London with a Yellow Pencil. I was 29, and I felt surprisingly empty. I asked myself: Is this it? Is this the height of what we do–take a brief, come up with a good idea, design something well, hope to win an award… take a brief, come up with a good idea, design something well…etcetera. I saw a hamster wheel of repetition ahead of me and, considering I had achieved way more than I had ever, ever expected by age 29, I decided perhaps I needed to leave the industry and learn something new.

But the alternative was just as interesting and challenging. I decided to question what it is that I do, and to question it deeply. That meant looking at how creative people in society think, which ultimately leads them to what they ‘do.’ I was interested in the ‘why’ and also in the connections between things. Most projects that a designer gets involves some aspect of research. But due to circumstances the research is narrow and myopic, simply because it needs to directly relate to the business, client or topic at hand. Open Manifesto allows me to pursue wider and deeper research and–to be honest–it saved my career as a designer.

The second specific turning point happened within a few days of the first. I wandered into a bookshop in Sydney and stumbled across Emigre #64 (Rant). I’d been a fan of Emigre in the 90s, but had somehow lost a connection to the magazine. But #64 was a catalyst and a motivator to continue with my ideas for Open Manifesto. I bought #64, walked out of the bookshop and across the road to a park where I sat down and read the issue in one sitting, from cover to cover.

From these events, Open Manifesto was born, with a very humble and uncertain plan.

2. Open Manifesto contributors have included everyone from Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister to Errol Morris and Noam Chomsky. Anyone you’re particularly eager to sign on as a contributor to the next issue?
Indeed, there have been many high-profile people who have contributed to Open Manifesto, something I am incredibly grateful for. In terms of specific people I would like to have in Open Manifesto, there are always new and interesting people whom I come across regularly in my research. However, I would dearly love to include Sir David Attenborough, partly because I believe him to be one of the most inspiring people on the planet and partly because nature is the most incredible design lab ever invented. Another is Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. I’ve been following Salman’s progress for years and I believe his vision for the future of education is astonishing. Having Sir Ken Robinson in Open Manifesto would also be wonderful. And there are many, many more…

3. You’re based in Australia. Marsupials notwithstanding, can you identify an interesting quirk, emerging trend, or overused design element that you’ve noticed in the Australian design world?
It’s interesting, the Australian design community often discusses (and argues) this specific topic regularly. Modern design is rather young in Australia and with such an immigrant and multi-cultural population we see a very wide range of design languages from various design studios. Some are ultra modern with an international bent, some produce work that is irreverent (following in the steps of Mambo, one might think), some focus on aesthetic, while others focus on ideas. Many combine much of the above. However, an overused element I find here in Australia is the use of Aboriginal dot painting as a shorthand visual for anything Indigenous Aboriginal. As an Irish immigrant myself, before I arrived in Australia I was under the impression that dot painting is an ancient traditional style and that all Aboriginal people painted like this at some point. The truth is dot painting is a contemporary form of artistic expression, and from a specific region in Australia. Other regions have different styles and expressions and some regions don’t include dot painting at all. When businesses, or designers for that matter, take the stereotypical route of using dot painting to quickly express Indigenous Aboriginal culture I find it is usually ill-informed, disrespectful, and lazy.

4. What was the last book you read?
I’m actually currently reading Salman Khan’s book The One World School House, which provides a visionary alternative for the future of education. Prior to this, I just finished reading Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Not because I am originally Irish, but because a good friend leant a copy to me and explained the book deals with the utter corruption that occurred in Boston from the late 60s to the late 90s. It is a fascinating, and scary book. Around the same I also read Occupy from Noam Chomsky as part of my preparation to interview Jonathan Barnbrook at an excluivse design event in Brisbane called Responsive Projects.

5. What is the last thing you bought and loved?
I just bought a fresh bunch of grapes and they are lovely! All joking aside, probably Salman Khan’s book.

6. What do you consider your best or most memorable design/designer-related encounter?
This is a difficult question because–I am fortunate to say–there have been many memorable encounters. Design and designers regularly inspire me and through Open Manifesto, in particular, this inspiration is further heightened. Perhaps I should reference some of the more recent events: it was really great to interview Jonathan Barnbrook live on stage for Responsive Projects at the beginning of November. I have admired Jonathan’s work for many years but had never met him. For the interview, I suggested that I take a counterpoint position, to challenge him in some cases and to ultimately uncover the reasons behind how he works and to discuss some of the ethical decisions we often face as designers. Jonathan was very gracious in accepting this approach (and my role) and we had an incredible conversation that could have continued for hours.

Another recent memorable encounter was a year ago when I was selected to work with Bruce Mau and his wife, Bisi, on their inaugural Massive Change Network event in Brisbane at the State Library of Queensland. Again, I have been an admirer of Bruce for many years, but had not met him. Working with Bruce, Bisi, and the 22 other participants that weekend, was rather memorable.

7. What do you consider your proudest design moment?
This is another difficult question because it requires one to isolate a specific experience as being more important or significant than another. The reality is we are the aggregation of everything we have done, everyone we have ever met. Though it might sound flippant or ‘hippie’, I truly believe everything is important. So can I say my proudest moment was working at the studio that produces all the design work for U2, or has it been developing Open Manifesto, or creating the DESIGNerd 100+ trivia series, or my role as Joint Creative Director of Saatchi Design for seven years, or leaving my role at Saatchi Design to set up an independent design practice in one of the most remote towns in Western Australia, or designing the identity for SBS, the most multi-cultural broadcaster in the world? This list is not to serve my ego or an attempt to impress anyone reading this interview. I have included these career high points simply to illustrate how difficult it is for me to isolate any of these as being my proudest moment or achievement. They all are. And I certainly acknowledge how fortunate I am to have experienced each of them. My only hope is there are more moments like this yet to come, where I can share what I know, use my abilities, or to simply facilitate the wisdom of much smarter people than me.