The Designers: Studio South’s Liam Ooi on demanding deadlines, dream clients and avoiding burnout
The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For the tenth part of the series, we caught up with Liam Ooi, a graphic designer at Studio South in Auckland.
EM Hi Liam. How’s it going?
LO Hi Elliott! Exhausted, content, thankful. I’m pretty lucky to be in a country with almost no lockdown restrictions, working with a bunch of awesome humans at Studio South.
EM Can you place where your interest in design originated?
LO My father worked in the print industry. When I was 9 or 10, he set me up on an old PC along with some cracked copies of CorelDraw and Macromedia Flash. For a while, I even told people I wanted to be a graphic designer, having no idea what the job actually was. I just liked drawing pictures and making crude animations. But as I reached high school, this interest took a back seat for music. Playing in a couple of bands and with a small home recording set-up, I decided that I wanted to work in a recording studio.
In my final year of high school, I took the graphic design class as something fun to balance the maths classes you needed to enter the audio engineering degree. Pretty quickly, I came to realise design was something I could do for the rest of my life. Calculus, however, not so much.
For a while, I even told people I wanted to be a graphic designer.
EM What does your journey to joining the team at Studio South look like?
LO My first job was at Strategy in Christchurch, where I worked for a few years before getting the opportunity to work at South at the start of 2020. I was ready to be in a bigger city with a more established design scene. By the time I had just started settling into Auckland, we were placed into our first COVID-19 lockdown. Definitely not what I expected my move to be! But I was extraordinarily lucky to be at a studio that could weather the storm, as a lot of people weren’t so fortunate.
EM Can you highlight something you’ve learnt during your time there?
LO The business of design. As a designer at South, you wear a lot of hats. We are generally our own account managers, producers, strategists, art directors, copywriters. You learn to be across all aspects of the job.
EM Would you say those are the main differences between your current role in a small team and your past experience at the much larger Strategy?
LO Perception is a funny thing – the team I’m in now is actually larger, but we are seen as a more boutique operation. Being in a larger city, there’s more opportunity for our studio to define the types of projects we want and how we approach them. Our work is generally much more focused on branding and design, whereas Strategy tackle a broader range of strategy and communication jobs. The main difference would be the level of personal responsibility and client management to deliver projects.
I think the real success was how it gave our industry such a strong sense of community.
EM Do you have a favourite piece of work you’ve produced so far?
LO The highlight of this year has to be Mate Act Now – a digital poster protest to drive climate action. My old mentor, Chris Flack, got me involved to design the publication. I also designed the website, built in partnership with New Territory. We managed to raise a bit of money for our mates in Aussie, but I think the real success was how it gave our industry such a strong sense of community and meaning, at a time when we were all so isolated from each other.
EM It was amazing to see how the initiative resulted in no two posters looking vaguely alike, despite the united topic. The design of the book itself is obviously quite pared back in order to let the posters do the talking. Was that always the intention?
LO It certainly was. We experimented with a range of potential volumes for the Mate Act Now look and feel. Anything that felt like too much of a ‘graphic design flex’ just didn’t seem appropriate. We stuck to a single weight typeface (Maria by Phil Baber) with a predominantly black and white colour palette.
EM What did the process of putting it together like?
LO Demanding! We only started designing everything 12 days before launch. I drafted the website in Figma in 2-3 days, giving Paul only a week to build the site while still having time to refine and bug test. There was quite a bit of manual data entry and file management to get all the submissions live, so he built out the backend first to make things more efficient.
The book itself was a bit less intense, as we ran the pre-sale from mock-ups only. We had a few more weeks to properly craft, artwork and proof the entire publication. The biggest challenge was confirming a print spec and costing from home, making sure our sale price would actually raise money.
EM What does your setup look like?
Don’t go burning the candle at both ends.
EM As designers, we’re expected to produce highly creative work all of the time. How do you approach days where you don’t feel so creative?
LO Get a second (third, or fourth) opinion. Do something less creatively intensive: artworking, timesheets, emails. Depending on deadlines, sometimes you just have to work through it and hope it works out. I also think it’s quite important to spend most of your time outside of work not being a designer – don’t go burning the candle at both ends too often. Creative industries are notorious for burn-out and poor mental health. Never Not Creative is a great initiative trying to do something about this.
EM What would you like to learn but haven’t found the time to so far?
LO I’d like to get my head around Cinema4D. I also have a few typeface projects running on the side, but I’m not actively working on these most weeks. I’d be pretty happy to just release one or two typefaces in the course of my career!
EM Who would your dream client be?
LO My design project at high school was based around driving youth engagement and input into the redevelopment of Christchurch after the 2011 earthquakes. One of the big reasons I chose to follow design was realising that I could help shape the places we live in. Any work that feels inline with this purpose has the potential to be pretty rewarding.
That being said, I don’t really think the ‘dream client’ exists, or at least not in the way you might expect. The glamorous, big-name clients tend to be the most frustrating. A good client can be many things: great work, good opportunity, friendly people, pay well, pay on time, show trust in you and your work. So I suppose a dream client is one that ticks all those boxes?
EM Do you see the benefit in engaging in side projects outside of the studio, or do you like to switch off outside of work?
LO I think if you have the headspace for the occasional side project, they can be great. But I don’t think it’s necessary to be constantly searching for the next side hustle or Instagram 30 day project. It’s important to enjoy a life outside of design – that’s how our clients and audiences live, right? I spend a lot of time cooking myself. Maybe there’ll be a design crossover with that passion at some point…
EM Do you see yourself starting your own studio one day?
LO Yeah, I think that will be a natural progression for me at some point.
EM What can we look forward to from yourself and the team at South in 2021?
LO South has evolved a lot in the last couple of years – I think that’s pretty evident in a lot of the work we’ve been sharing. It’s great to be a part of this, so you’ll continue to see that evolution play out. A long of the products and brands we’re working with have a much stronger and more inclusive focus on the end-user – we want to produce work that feels human. The studio has also been involved with a few initiatives within the design community, and we’re keen to really amplify that next year.