Zebra is an independent design consultancy based in Singapore and Perth. We caught up with Co-Founder, Martin Maher.
Why did you start Zebra?
Back in 2007 Michelle and myself were both at the Brand Union in Singapore working on the branding for BJETS, a private jet company. It was an interesting project to work on and included everything from the identity right through to the plane livery design. We got on well with both the Chairman and CEO of the holding company that owned BJETS and they asked me if I’d be interested in working for them full time. The role would have been as Creative Director for the various companies they owned. I was flattered but knew I didn’t want to work for someone else again. Michelle and myself had always talked about setting up our own small studio so we decided this would be a good time to do it, so we did. BJETS’ holding company then put us on a retainer for our first year. We’ve been working with them on various projects ever since.
We both always felt that there are only so many years we wanted to work for someone else, before we set up our own studio. Even though at that time I was a Creative Director with a good team, working for this big multinational branding firm, I still felt like I had no real ownership of anything. We both felt having that independence and freedom would be liberating. We knew it wouldn’t necessarily be easy and we’d make mistakes and we’d have to learn a lot about the business side of owning a company, but these would be our own challenges and problems, and we kind of liked that.
“We knew it wouldn't necessarily be easy.”
Do you have separate teams in Singapore and Perth? Or do you spend time between the two?
Zebra is still only Michelle in Singapore and myself in Perth. We’ve never really wanted to grow the studio and we bring in people with specific skill sets on projects that require it. Our clients are based all over so we do a lot of early morning or late night Skype calls with them, but generally Michelle and myself work together on all our projects. It’s nice if you find someone you can work really well with and you can take over a project halfway through if needed and vice versa. We’ve always collaborated well so are lucky in that respect. I’ll fly up to Singapore and base myself there for a week at a time when we have client meetings and presentations. It’s only a five hour flight from Perth and in the same time zone, so it works well.
What do you think the advantage is of having a small team?
We don’t have account directors so we manage projects ourselves. We work directly with our clients, from the start of a project right through to the end. This helps them feel more comfortable and we encourage them to collaborate with us, especially at the start of a project, as they’re a crucial part of the process. They also feel they’ve added something worthwhile and have more ownership of the end result. Our clients know more about their own company than we do as well as the problem they’re asking us to solve. We’re there to help solve that problem. They also know their customers or clients well, essentially the end users of a product or service we’re helping to brand or create. Having a small team keeps things more simple and also means we work in a more focused way.
You showcase more than just your work on Instagram. Do you think it’s important for studios to make the most of social media?
I know a lot of studios have specific Instagram accounts showcasing their work and processes, but ours started out as my own personal account, just me taking photos of things I’d seen or liked. Then I started adding some of our work in progress, so now we just combine the two. A lot are just basic shots taken on my old iPhone 5 and I’m sure people have become bored of seeing my design book collection, but I do like Instagram and seeing other people’s posts.
I think social media has helped us connect with other creative people and studios all over the world and made us feel like part of a wider design community. Designers are also really supportive of each other and offer advice and post helpful links of work or sites we might not otherwise see. It’s also been enjoyable chatting briefly on Instagram and Twitter to people I really respect and look up to. Designers like Michael C. Place from Build and Tim Beard from Bibliothèque in London for instance. More recently I had a quick (Instagram) chat with Chris Doyle, whose ideas and design work I absolutely love. I never thought that kind of thing would be possible a few years ago. Basically I’m a fanboy when it comes to design, the same way I am with music. Sad I know.
“The pastel stock was part of our cost cutting as it meant that Affinity could print just black onto the pastel stocks relatively cheaply.”
Tell us about your branding for Singapore based Affinity. The use of pastel colours is beautiful.
Affinity didn’t have a huge budget but we wanted to work with them as the company was started by a good friend of ours. Plus at the time they were doing some admirable pro bono work for various charities in Singapore. The pastel stock was part of our cost cutting as it meant that Affinity could print just black onto the pastel stocks relatively cheaply. Plus the stock was really nice and we hadn’t used those types of colours before, so it all seemed to fit. The logo worked well too as it’s so simple but conveys the idea of affinity, with the two letter f’s facing each other and sharing an affinity. Any time we can create a logo or mark where the idea is obvious, without the need for any explanation, then we do it.
“We felt that mirroring the strong horizontal lines from the building within the logo itself helped to marry the architecture and identity nicely.”
Your logo for 100 Pasir Panjang mirrors the very unique look of the building. Why did you choose to go with this route?
Really for the exact reason you’ve pointed out. The architecture is relatively unique, especially for an industrial building. We felt that mirroring the strong horizontal lines from the building within the logo itself helped to marry the architecture and identity nicely. It’s good to have that obvious connection.
This project is a prime example of an idea breaking out of the logo and going across the collateral too. Do you think every good branding project needs to do this?
We often try and take an element or aspect of a logo and extend it as part of the broader design language. This could be in the form of a graphic device, a pattern or various supergraphics. It gives you more to play with and also means the brand look can grow and expand over time and not become stale or feel straightjacketed.
What project are you most proud of?
I’d say we’re proud of all our projects, for different reasons. Over time you realise you achieve different things with each project you take on. For instance we’ve always been proud that a company as small as ours has helped create visual identities for large, relatively well known organisations such as Clinique La Prairie in Switzerland and Raffles Institution in Singapore. Raffles is the school that the late Prime Minister and founder of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew attended. We’ve also designed credit cards for American Express and created interior graphics for the Google Android flagship store in Jakarta.
Recently we had the chance to work on the rebrand of Gloria Jean’s Coffee, or so we thought. The company that commissioned the project had almost finalised the acquisition and we spent over three months working on the branding, only to find out that the sale fell through at the very last minute. We were gutted as we’d worked so hard and created something we were really proud of. We also felt that Gloria Jean’s were more than overdue for a rebrand. But these things happen and we’re still showing some of that work on our website as it was a commissioned project so, why not..
Do you guys lean towards using certain typefaces or do you start from scratch with each new project?
We do like to use typefaces that are new and that we haven’t used previously, but usually it’s whatever works best for the project. If it’s a identity then we’ll work with a typeface that fits the look of the logo and wider design elements. We’ve also experimented with type foundries customising type for us, to add a more unique, bespoke look and to help further differentiate an identity. With certain logos we’ve either created our own type from scratch or customised an existing typeface to help it better reflect the idea behind that logo.
Like most designers we love some of the newer typefaces from Lineto, OurType, Colophon, Grilli Type etc. Some current faves include Maison Neue from Milieu Grotesque and of course the ubiquitous Circular from Lineto. We do try not to be type snobs though and often buy from the more reasonably priced YouWorkForThem and HypeForType. There are some pretty great and relatively cheap typefaces from smaller foundries such as Talbot Type too. Well worth looking at.
What’s next for you as a studio?
Mostly to keep doing what we love doing, which is designing. Helping companies and organisations with whatever branding or design problems they think we can help solve. Also to learn more about digital design. It’s a very steep learning curve for traditional graphic designers like ourselves to become fully clued-up on how to create beautiful looking, functional, fully responsive sites with great UI and UX. I think we’ll always need to work with good developers, rather than try and learn all the coding and language skills ourselves. It’s too specialist, fast-moving and advanced for us to learn but it’s important for us to know as much about the fundamentals as we can and what the possibilities are. There are some brilliant developers out there who are also exceptionally talented, traditional designers. People like Emil Olsson, the guys from Sons & Co. in NZ, Zann St Pierre here in Australia, to name just a few. There’s some amazing work being done. We still feel we’re pretty new to the digital side of things and will continue to collaborate with good developers with our digital work. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a pretty exciting time to be a designer, whatever field you work in.