5 mins with… Vince Frost
We take 5 Mins to chat with CEO/ Executive Creative Director, of the FROST* Collective, Vince Frost
What is your design origin story?
I stated FROST* design in November 1994, and for 10 years I grew that business in London; I was doing a lot of cultural projects as well as a lot of publishing projects (books, magazines that sort of thing). My business and personal reputation around this industry just grew and opened up doors for me.
These were projects that didn’t have a lot of money behind them – or really any money behind them. The team was very small and I was told I could basically do what ever I wanted, which is very intimidating but it did give me a chance to do what I thought was right. Ultimately it ended up touching a chord with a lot of people.
So budget isn’t a huge concern for you when accepting a job?
It’s certainly not the priority, no. The priority is the opportunity to look at what we as a business can learn from it, how we can help the clients. We have quite a broad team now; we have The Nest which is digital, Urbanite which is environments and FROST* which is branding, and as that collective we can go 360 across most projects – and that is something which is very powerful in terms of reaching the potential of those touch points. I love designing success in that way.
How did your “sister brands” eventuate from the original FROST* brand?
I redesigned the business last year, which was FROST* Design, and I decided to acquire The Nest, which is a digital company, rather than trying to create a whole new business from scratch. So the goal was to keep that brand (it had only been going for about three years, so it wasn’t super well-known or anything) but it had potential as a strong team. So we integrated that brand into the group. Then at the same time I looked at the environmental team and though ‘ok, let’s separate them from FROST* Design to make it really clear that FROST* is our strategic branding business, and urbanite is our environmental business.
Every time we’d meet someone we’d always get asked ‘ok, so what do you do?’ and it was always a confusing response of: ‘we do this, this, this, this, this and this’, and people’s eyes would usually glaze over and it became really hard for us to market ourselves to the world in clear terms.
So having all of those brands under one umbrella with a head of brand running each of those branches, having a strategist who sits across all of those companies and a creative director across all of those teams has been really beneficial.
Basically, I’ve designed the business in a way where each unit is made up of specialists, who are supported by the larger collective, all of whom work seamlessly across the different disciplines.
Do you think that a brand needs to have more depth and substance beyond how “pretty” it is? How do you tackle that challenge as someone who works largely in aesthetics?
Clients (and the market) are very wise about strategy. They are very wise about “design thinking” and they now see the value of that – which ten years ago when I came [to Australia], there was very little appreciation of even understanding for design thinking – people chose what they like based on how it looked.
Look at the property market, for example. It’s no longer this kind of ‘cut-throat developer type’ trying to scam people. More often than not now, these developers are well experienced; they care about the people they are trying to sell to, they care about public space and amenities, they want to add value to Sydney and design a better Sydney – and that’s what I really like – that it’s shifted to that.
What are the biggest differences doing business in Australia compared to Europe?
Things have really shifted towards a more holistic design philosophy in [Australia]. Ten years ago when I came here, people in the UK were saying “why would you want to go to Australia” mainly because people thought that Australian clients didn’t “get” design or even care about it, and that is just bullshit. It’s got nothing to do with Australia, it’s how you sell it, it’s your relationships; if you work closely with your clients and include them in the process, they are completely brilliant and are genuinely interested in adding value.
For me, an opportunity is an opportunity, it doesn’t matter where it is in the world. Sometimes I do think about it, you know “why did I leave London?” or “should I go to New York next? You are where you are. People will always think the grass is greener. It’s so important from a design perspective to live each day as much as it possibly can be lived, and have a positive, can-do attitude and genuinely enjoy what you do. It’s not necessarily better elsewhere at all.
Throughout your 25 years in design, what have been the major, pivotal changes in the industry that have really shifted everything?
I remember the days when I was at Pentagram when we didn’t even have computers. I was there for about two or three years before computers were brought in. At the time, they were really revolutionary, people were scared of them, they were saying things like “Oh my god, they’re going to destroy the industry” “it’s only a fad, it’s going to go away”. This was at a time when I was laying out magazines by hand, very mechanical, very hands on. I’m really thankful that I was around during that time though; it really helped me understand and appreciate the craft of design and trying to make things well.
Do you think the ‘handmade element’ is something that’s lacking in design today?
I don’t think it’s lacking per se, people are still meticulous and care about what they do. The only difference is maybe that it’s easier than what it was and faster and probably even more experimental. Is it better? Am I more stressed? I was stressed before! Computers have made our lives so much easier; phones, texting, emails, social media – it’s absolutely phenomenal.
Do you think that technology has democratised design?
Absolutely. It’s about sharing. Look at Instagram or Pintrest; a continuous mood board that people can interact with. I’m interested to see what that does to design. Because so far it doesn’t seem to be homogenising it, people seem to be collecting ideas and pushing them further and further.
Because of technology I think people are also realising that you don’t have to be “a designer” – everyone is a designer. It’s a way of thinking which is usually beaten out of us as kids; that we conform and colour between the lines and be neat and tidy, but deep down, naturally you come into the world being very questioning, very expressive, less restricted, more open, and I really think that people are beginning to be more that way in there lives – and that’s design.
In the book I wrote, Design Your Life, I really tried to express the idea that everyone is a designer, everybody can use design thinking to tackle their problems and change their approach to plan and design their life, rather than trying to use a pre-determined template for someone else.
How do you get your clients to think in line with that philosophy?
I’m always kind of surprised how excited and engaged they are. I think it’s really because we bring them along the journey, they are part of the process. It’s never “ok, here’s the brief, come back in three weeks and you can present to us”, it’s much more about having more conversations, more dialogue, we need to find out about you, what makes you tick, what does success loo like for you? What would be the best outcome from this? And you work towards that and break down those barriers and try to be open, transparent, inclusive, very honest, and really care about the people and the opportunity itself.
Something you mentioned earlier was the importance of honesty and dialogue. The deFROST* discussion series are a great example of this philosophy, and they have been really successful. How did that initiative eventuate?
I actually started doing that in London, when I had like five staff. A photographer for example, came in and talk to the staff about their world. But about two years ago I decided to do it more officially to make sure that we stuck to it internally.
It is really fun, but it does take a lot of effort to produce it. At first I did it for my staff, although very few of them came to them (laughs), and then my clients because it’s so nice – and quite an honor – to have people express their lives and what they do and how they do it. I find that it helps me enormously; it gives me faith in humanity because it makes you realise you’re not alone in your questioning and determination and your aspirations – no matter industry you’re in.
In the future, would you look at working with clients and businesses to produce their own deFROST* style speaker series?
Absolutely. There is a law firm that we are working with who have just started to do that – to do their own defrost* style seminar events. I really want to get it beyond us. We are working on a business model to get it to go beyond our studio. I’d love to get it to go broader to a bigger audience, and we are in the process of designing that system.
You’ve really got a solid mix of experiential, print and digital skills throughout your firm. Do you think that dynamic is what design should be perusing for the future?
100 per cent. Definitely. There was a time, when I was in London, that I thought we had to do everything ourselves, that everything had to be in house. And something I learned over time was how much value could be added to bringing in another person or even another industry. It adds so much more value and completely changes the direction of what you would have done yourself.
It’s not to say that you can’t work alone, I’ve learned to understand the value of working with people and the collaborative spirit of cross-discipline, cross-industry, and not trying to own the whole thing but enable the outcome.
Throughout your 25 years, what has changed the most about your role?
Learning to work “on” the business instead of “in” the business”. In two years I learned how to be a designer. You go to design school then you’re a designer. It’s a little bit bullshit, but I did learn that design is a profession that has the potential to enhance life. But no one ever taught me about business, and I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to figure out how it can work commercially.
But the fundamentals of business are something I think I tried to avoid, I knew that it was important but I didn’t want to conform to it either. I never did an MBA in business – although now I’d like to because now it sounds really interesting – but at the time I was so obsessed with design I didn’t want to think about business, there was no room in my life for it.
Its funny, I used to think working “on” the business was selling out verses being a designer. Then I realised that like designing a chair, or a website or a phone, that I could design a business.
Writing the book last year was a big thing for me – it was hard. It was fucking hard and I almost gave up. There were days where it was so exciting and days that just made me doubt why I was doing this and ‘who was I to be saying these things’ and I really felt like a fraud. I’m saying to all these people “design your life” but right now I’m fucked. It was a really good thing to do and made really think about working the future of my business.