Australian designer Christopher Doyle often finds the best way to differentiate a brand is by pointing out what it ISN’T.
Designer Christopher Doyle had seen far too many agencies’ bland What We Do pages filled with cliches like “Solve client communications issues,” “Create positive human experiences,” or “Help organizations create lasting impact,” so he focused more of his energies on a What We Don’t list. From “Know how to whistle with two fingers,” to “Enjoy roller coasters,” “Like peas,” and “Watch Homeland,” the clever approach reveals plenty about his personality and his approach to design.
“It’s an idea that came out of my advertising background: You can often say more about what you are by telling people what you’re not,” he says. “Almost every time I sit down with a client, the list becomes a topic of conversation. ‘What do you mean you don’t drink whiskey?’ they’ll ask. “It’s all very lighthearted, but it’s a way of sharing a lot of information that you don’t generally hear.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the more engaging portfolio pieces on his site is the branding and identity for New Zealand photographer Natasha Cantwell, which leverages her name for a clever series that focuses on the negative—“Natasha Cant Sleep Well,” “Natasha Cant Knit Well,” and “Natasha Cant Juggle Well”—all of which pair well with her unexpected images of taxidermied sharks, abandoned party favors, and runaway sweaters.
Doyle and his small team are adept at taking a simple theme and giving it just enough of a visual twist to earn a second look:
The identity for Australian Design Radio, a Sydney-based podcast, turns an outline of the country into a digital equalizer—one that changes its shape when an episode is “on air.”
A two-man strategy agency focused on healthcare sounds like a dull assignment, but Doyle’s team dubbed them Elbow—a moniker that “allows them to modulate their disruption—from a gentle nudge to a much needed shove,” paired with a visual pun that reinforces the idea.
Branding for Eat Burger is a study in contrasts: Simple, formal type takes the shape of a face, while a whimsical illustration enlivens a black-and-white palette; and, no surprise, in-store signage details a list of things one should NOT do with a burger.
The contrast of serious content with a knowing wink may have come from Doyle’s early years at design school, where he first pursued fine art.
“As I was learning exactly what graphic design was, I saw a platform for humor and cleverness that I didn’t see in abstract painting and fine-art photography,” he says. “Once I was exposed to advertising and the idea of copywriting, it really struck a chord in me—the idea that you can make people smile really attracted me to the work.” When Doyle discovered album covers by designers Peter Saville and Mark Farrow, he learned that there was room to combine fine art and humor in unexpected ways.
Early in his career, he was fortunate enough to create cover art for the Sydney band The Jezabels, whose manager had run the record label that also signed Doyle’s band.
“Every time someone asks me to work on an album cover, I get really excited and immediately say ‘yes,’ then I get into the work, and I really struggle,” he says. “You are essentially creating a piece of art in response to a piece of art, and that often means you’re wandering around in the dark looking for a certain feeling or tone that’s quite abstract, trying to sum up 10 to 12 small stories into one image. I have the benefit of a really long relationship with The Jezabels, which makes it a little easier, and it’s some of the work that I’m most proud of, but it’s still a pretty terrifying process.”
“I had a great agency experience over the course of twelve years, and I was mentored by some amazing creative directors,” he says. “But the more senior you get, the less actual design work you do, because you’re overseeing people and sitting in meetings. I still had a real appetite for hands-on work, so I was attracted to the idea of carving out my own routine and having the freedom and autonomy that come with starting your own agency.”
And that means a whole new world of challenges—one of which is pricing his work.
“We try not to sell our time,” he says. “Instead, we’re trying to sell our thinking and our skill. I have ideas all the time, so a solution to a problem might come in 2 days or in 20 minutes, at the gym or in the shower—it’s all so fluid.” Doyle admits it’s not easy to determine the objective “value” of a logo, a name, or an identity system that might be in use for 10 years or longer. Ultimately, he believes the goal is to earn enough to do the best possible job without cutting corners and without going into debt. So far, so good.
The next big challenge? Overseeing a successful firm without getting too separated from the work itself—the original reason he left agency life.
As an owner, it’s a delicate balance between spending your time directing and helping other people versus doing the work yourself,” he says. “It’s tricky. If the agency doesn’t grow, then you’re limiting the amount of work you can take on, and if you do grow, you have to step away from the work as well.”
Increasingly, he’s trying to step away from the internet, too. Although it’s a rich source of inspiration and connection, Doyle finds that sites like Brand New and others can often pit designers against one another rather than bringing them together.
“The struggle to be new is impossible, and my heart goes out to people who have to hear, ‘Oh, that logo looks like this logo,’” he says. “The idea you’re going to be able to draw a letter of the alphabet in a way that hasn’t been drawn is over. If one logo is for a coffee company in one part of the world and the other one is for a fashion label in a different country, is that really a problem? I’m not talking about straight-up mimicry—that’s not OK—but as we enter an era where brands are reverting to bold, economically drawn logo marks that scale down for social media, it’ll be even harder to do something entirely unique. Sure, the logo might be comparable to a mark from another point in time (like the 1988 mark that predates AirBnB’s logo), but if the thinking is new, and the website is new, and the user interaction is new, you’re creating a level of distinction and individuality that never existed before. And that’s all that really matters.”
See more work from Christopher Doyle & Co. here.