Not another three letter acronym!
“It’s a hard call when you’re advising clients against acronyms and you’ve got one yourself,” says Allison Hulett, co-director of successful Sydney design studio EKH Design, who’s been trading on a very well regarded acronym themselves for years.
“We became yet another three letter acronym because Eymont Kin-Yee Hulett was such a mouthful,” Hulett continues, “but there’s a company in Sydney — Burley Katon Halliday — who are known as BKH design, so it’s a point of constant confusion. As often as possible we try to discourage our clients from branding themselves with acronyms because there’s just too many around — they’re not distinctive.”
While they might not consider the tens of thousands of possible three letter acronym combinations in the alphabet (most of which invariably denote a real company), EKH Design is distinctive nevertheless.
Founder and co-director Anna Eymont disembarked in Australia from her native Poland in 1973 armed only with a command of English that made her reluctant to even answer the phone and a fine arts degree from the Warsaw Fine Arts Academy.
“Nobody has ever asked me to show them my degree or credentials,” Eymont says, “in our profession, talent is the basis [for selection], so I was lucky to get a job — in fact within three days of arriving in Australia.”
After working in design for the better part of the next decade, Eymont struck out on her own as Eymont design. After a few years she merged with EKH’s third principal, Miriam Kin-Yee. Hulett, an early employee of Eymont’s, was bought in as a partner soon after and Eymont Kin-Yee Hulett was born — shortened to (the regretful but convenient) EKH Design.
More recently (in 1999), they became part of the Issues and Images Group — one of the new wave of resources collectives springing up in the media industry (where a holding company owns small stakes in a number of niche providers and manages work referrals between them). It allows for a much broader range of services on offer from — or through — EKH Design.
As Desktop went to print, there were also confidential talks in session about another new venture and potentially big change, so watch this space.
EKH Design right now isn’t about being one of the names people say with the veneration usually reserved for design superstars, nor is it about having an Attik or Emery Vincent-like in-house style that instantly identities their work.
“We adapt and work to the brief,” Eymont explains, “We don’t have a successful mould or template that we apply to all projects. It’s a double edged sword when design companies take that approach — yes, clients go to those designers to get that look for their communications, but that’s the only kind of work you’re going to get if you have a house style.”
What they do believe in is their sense of plain old-fashioned service. “I can’t say branding in any form is exclusive to us,” Hulett says, “there are a lot of good design companies out there, so we put a lot of emphasis on service. When clients are comparing us to other design companies they’ve used, more often than not they say we offer excellent service.”
“The service is provided by three partners who are designers rather than account managers,” Eymont adds, perhaps touching on one aspect of their business that does distinguish EKH from the rest. “Clients really benefit from the hands-on experience we have in the industry. The difference between us and other similar-sized companies is that most are structured in a more standard way with accounts people who don’t necessarily understand design.”
Hulett jumps in again, and it’s as if my question (‘what sets you apart from your competitors?’) doesn’t get asked too much and has struck a sudden chord. “Also, because we’ve been in business for 20 years, Anna, Miriam and I understand business,” she explains. “It’s a skill even the best and most talented young designers don’t often have, so we understand our clients needs.”
But the heart of the matter — as it’s supposed to be for all designers — is solving the client’s problem. “Our philosophy is for design that works and communicates for the client rather than just visual decoration,” Hulett believes, “It’s about achieving communication objectives. To do that you have to know their business. We have a number of clients who say we almost feel like part of their company.”
Despite national level and large corporate clients, EKH Design doesn’t consider any job too big or small.
But it’s brand development and quality publications work for high profile, identity-driven organisations like Optus, Star City, the New South Wales RTA, Transurban and RM Williams that EKH is known for.
Ironically, that sort of thing is often the least exciting of the stuff that comes through EKH’s door.
“We like to be able to do cutting edge creative work,” Eymont says a little wistfully, “which you quite often can’t do for large organisations because the brand is established and you have to follow rules and regulations. Smaller clients give us the opportunity to experiment with more creative approaches.
“We have a varied mixture of brand development and production-style work like publications — close to 50/50. We have a steady flow of RM Williams work at the moment because we’ve been rebranding/evolving their brand for the last two years. It’s not cutting edge but good and solid.
“It’s more fun starting from scratch because it gives you the opportunity to do all the work, but with a large organisation that’s not always possible. With the RTA for example, we didn’t design their logo originally but we’ve contributed quite a lot to providing a look and feel for them — which includes modifying and streamlining the logo so it works better in its environment.
“Fortunately we have a number of smaller ones like Built and 185 Macquarie which are a bit more exciting.”
The variety of work is enough to keep EKH sane, so it’s the clients who make the difference when it comes to a good project. Their favourite clients aren’t the ones who ask for big, expensive embellishments, bells and whistles or let them rock the world with a Cato or Attik-style execution, but those who understand that you don’t just pull design out of a hat.
“Our favourite clients are the ones which are easygoing and appreciate the amount of effort and professionalism we put in,” Eymont laughs, “It’s frustrating to work for clients who don’t appreciate the quality and we do have some of those but I wouldn’t name them.”
Hulett is quick to praise her peers in the field. “Australia has a lot of very talented designers and the standard here is extremely high.”
But to reach that stage is no picnic. “People new to or outside the design field still think it’s glamourous,” Eymont warns, “but the glamour comes with many years of hard work — you won’t be an overnight success. It’s the result of 60 hours plus weeks for many years before you can claim the glamour.
“And because it’s competitive, you also have to be prepared not to give up when you’re discouraged — and it does happen. When you have a client who doesn’t like what you’ve done it can be devastating, so you need a thick skin to survive.
“You also need to realise that even though you put forward your best work, quite often it’s not the best work that goes ahead but something mediocre and safe. In fact, we believe it’s the best work that never gets published so we’ve always had it in mind to publish unpublished work as self-promotion.
“But what’s most difficult in design is proving that it’s helping the clients’ bottom line because of the awareness and consistency of brand. It’s very hard to quantify or prove it, but in some cases we’re able to and the result is fabulous.”
Ask Eymont or Hulett about certain topics on the periphery of design and it’s almost as if the answers don’t even warrant discussion. For example, after decades of female stewardship at EKH, the notion that men and women design or work differently is hardly an issue. “If you stick to the brief and question, that’s design” Eymont thinks, “Design is a process, you can’t have a feminine or a masculine design”.
What seems to matter at EKH is the service to clients, approach to the work and the opportunity to — as Eymont puts it — ‘be artistically inclined and be able to express myself in a visual way’.
And maybe that’s all there is to it.