In this series, SEGD connects young designers with the design leaders they admire so they can ask their burning questions and find answers to help guide them on their career path. In this article, recent Massey University grad Stephen Hight interviews Stephen Minning, SEGD board member, founder and director of BrandCulture and PAM Wayfinding.
Interview by Stephen Hight
I have been an SEGD member for two years and recently was invited to conduct an interview with someone in the field whom I admire. For my interviewee, I wanted someone inspirational, ambitious and authentic—whose work is on the cutting-edge of design. I chose wayfinding and branding specialist Stephen Minning.
Minning is a 2018 SEGD board member and founder and director of both BrandCulture and PAM Wayfinding (Sydney). With over 20 years of international experience in the field of experiential graphic design working with blue-chip companies and public-sector organizations, he is a recognized leader in his field.
I am a young designer with a passion for typography, environmental graphics and information design who graduated in 2017 with honors from Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, with a visual communication degree.
Our conversation was a pleasure; Minning has a relaxed yet focused way of sharing his insight, expertise and passion. I hope that in reading this you will be inspired like I have been!
SH: Where has your passion for design taken you?
SM: Physically, I’ve been all over the world: I’ve seen big cities and have done a lot of exploration. I find that when you look at the intricacies of nature compared to design, we’ve hardly got a touch on it. If you go diving off the Great Barrier Reef or in the Red Sea or you go into the forest and really look at the flora and fauna, the beauty, structure, colors of nature’s designs are unbelievably inspiring. We think we’re clever, but there’s something bigger than us out there.
SH: Do you find that nature influences your design and thought processes?
SM: All the time! I watch documentaries constantly and am inspired, whether it’s an insect, or a giant mammal, or just something that makes me pause and think, ‘Wow, I’ve never really seen that before.’
Take a moment out of every day and look at something—whether it’s a shadow off a nail on a wall at a particular time of the day, a piece of moss, or a big hole in the ground—and marvel at what’s actually happening and what that means in context; it’ll blow you away. You’re looking out over the lines from the elements that have washed away the sandstone, or the way a tree grows through a fence and the integration points there. I think the symbiotic nature of things is quite beautiful.
The intersection of art, culture and communications also inspires me. If you pull together our various backgrounds, previous and recent experiences and what our expectations are around the future, you can create contextual experiences that are empowering.
SH: Looking back so far, what are the projects—or even the moments—that have influenced your career the most?
SM: Thank you for saying ‘so far’ by the way, because it’s not over just yet. I think I’m still at the beginning of my journey.
To answer your question: It’s the people I’ve worked with.
I like the people who are particularly passionate, who have an interest in what they’re doing and are part of the conversation. Some of these passionate, driven people are confrontational, or not politically correct in their approach; I find them interesting. It’s important to keep an open mind and listen to what people have to say. Thank goodness we’ve still got the pub—that equal ground where everyone can relax and have a good laugh.
I’m a great believer in human rights, being decent and doing the right thing. It’s one of my biggest drivers in life. One little mantra that I tell my son when he goes to school is, ‘Be cool and be kind.’ Be responsible for the people around you, help someone up when they fall down.
SH: What do you think are the biggest challenges in this industry?
SM: Digital technologies are presenting a confrontational experience in environments in a way that is ever-changing, more connected and increasingly visual. I feel that the days of having a social life on your mobile phone, disconnected from everyone sitting around you, are numbered.
The contextual expectation that we have for environments is becoming more demanding: We want the environments to respond to us, we want to be recognized within that environment for our own personal needs. Environments need to change around us to facilitate that.
SH: How do you combat designing for the future when the evolution of technology can render solutions obsolete so quickly?
SM: We need to remember that technology is just a set of tools that enable us to do certain things and all these tools eventually get replaced. Remember to come back to the person; think about what they’re doing and how it’s relevant to them.
Has SEGD had an impact on your career? If so, how?
SM: [SEGD had an impact] at a point where I was trying to work out what I wanted to do—not in terms of being a designer, but more how I was connecting to my community. When I became aware of SEGD, I thought, ‘This is definitely something I want to be part of.’ Then I started to meet more members and understand what was driving them, which inspired me to become progressively more involved.
What I love most about the community is the attitude of ‘we’re all in it together,’ even though we are often competitors. To me, what that does is raise the professional standard of our industry. The community coming together shows solidarity; it’s a unified force to be reckoned with!
As I am looking for employment at design firms, how can I stand out among other applicants with similar experience?
SM: Talent, commitment and passion are the three main things that make the difference. These characteristics set similar candidates apart by a long-shot.
I think everyone is afraid of the commitment part. It’s difficult when you have someone coming through the ranks and they always have an eye out for the next opportunity. As an employer, you are weighing how much effort to commit to training and acclimating a new hire who may only stay for six months.
Be passionate about what you do, be driven, be inspired and don’t always wait for your boss to inspire you; instead, be the person who brings something to the table. Also, understand that it takes time—one or two years—to integrate with your team before you see the benefit.
What advice can you offer about how to approach a firm if I don’t have the expected experience?
SM: Find a way in! Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. If you really want something, do some research: Find how to get over that obstacle and make it happen. If you believe in yourself, everyone else will believe in you.
What were your thoughts following the 2015 Rugby World Cup final?
SM: A winner is a winner! I don’t think anyone should be begrudging.
I love rugby—I can’t think of a better sport—it puts a smile on my face, every game.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.