Zak Group’s Zak Kyes on collaborating with Prada and the relevance of graphic design in culture
Founded in 2005, Zak Group is a London-based design office that collaborates with individuals, institutions and brands on an international scale; developing considered, concise and challenging work for the likes of Prada, Paco Rabanne, Virgil Abloh, the Barbican, Kendall Jenner and Fact magazine. Guided by a belief in the necessity of cultural expression, they use design as a master key to build bridges between ideas, disciplines and people. Having admired Zak Group’s work from afar for several years, we had the opportunity to speak to founder Zak Kyes to learn a little bit more about what they do, and why they do it.
EM Since starting out in 2005, what has changed the most about Zak Group?
ZK Pretty much everything has changed since we started in 2005. Zak Group is constantly learning and adapting – and that feeds back into our work and our interests. We’re a complex dynamic feedback loop. We've made a conscious evolution to widen our understanding of what design for culture can be.
Initially, we were exclusively focused on Culture with a capital ‘C’ – and over the course of 15 years established a commitment to arts and culture that is almost without peers. But over time, we questioned our understanding of culture. We saw brands and individuals shape the conversation in ways that were just as valid. We now think of culture with a lowercase ‘c.’ There's a great quote from Marshall McLuhan, that “culture is what most people are doing most of the time.” That broad definition is what we find most interesting, and most importantly relevant.
There are also a few things that haven't changed. Zak Group remains convinced of the relevance of graphic design – and designers – in the wider conversation about shaping culture. It’s the profession of our times. Our field quite literally has the tools to give shape to ideas about culture and society. Architecture moves too slowly, art doesn't always speak to a wide audience and fashion is a contender, but its economic logic doesn’t allow everyone to participate.
EM What is something you’ve experienced during that time, that you’d be sure to never do again?
ZK The saying “in hindsight, everything is 20/20” is true. If we didn't make all the mistakes that we’ve made along the way – if we took a shortcut – then we wouldn't have learned our lessons and accumulated experience. Sometimes you have to make the same mistake several times to really learn. Now we can do in a very short time what might have taken weeks of trial-and-error. There is no substitute for learning the hard way.
As an industry, we're only as good as our next generation.
EM What’s the makeup of Zak Group at the moment? How many people do you have on the team?
ZK We’re a team of seven talented individuals: Belle, Asel, Florence, Marta, Chi-Long, Melissa and myself. Belle recently joined our team as Design Operations Manager which is the first time we’ve had a role dedicated to bridging our creative process and our clients.
EM As the founder, how has your role and what you do on the day-to-day changed as the team has grown?
ZK It’s allowed me to focus more sharply on what we want to say and do.
EM What’s the studio’s view been on remote working, throughout the height of the pandemic and beyond?
ZK The pandemic required us all to experiment with new ways of working and reassess our assumptions. Many of these changes have a lasting impact, but it also made us realise that nothing can replace the magic of creative people being in the same room.
EM How do you make sure that you work on projects and with clients that satisfy you creatively on a regular basis?
ZK I would say by finding great clients. People talk about what it takes to be a great designer, but rarely about becoming a great client…
EM When working with Prada on their FW 2022, who have so much heritage in their brand, how much creative control are you allowed?
ZK Prada’s bio is ‘thinking fashion since 1913.’ And it's really true. They are incredibly curious and intelligent and open to new ideas. But I don't think that it's really a question about having creative control – if you put a ‘creative genius’ in a room and give them complete creative control, the outcome will rarely be genius. So I don't necessarily believe in creative control. I believe in collaboration. Our work with Prada is a collaboration. And I should say that we don’t see ourselves as creative geniuses, but as a kind of creative infrastructure that our collaborations can kind of plug into and make something greater than the sum of its parts. This is liberating and we don't want to be constrained.
We need to expand opportunities for underrepresented communities.
EM What kind of work would you like to do more of, over the coming years?
ZK We're increasingly focused on combining creative direction with our capabilities as a design office. The outcome can take almost any form. We're not interested in specialising or attaching ourselves to a specific medium or output.
EM How much do you think about your image as a studio within the wider graphic design industry, compared to how you look to your existing and potential clients?
ZK How you think of your image, and how you choose to communicate are two different things. In terms of how we think of our image, there's a millennial habit to constantly sculpt one's identity, and turn oneself into a brand. We're less interested in that and more interested in communicating an idea or opening up the process.
We think that communication on social media, Instagram, etc… is an important part of our work because the work isn't always enough. You have to make a case: for the work, for design and, for example with our FUTURE FWD scholarship, the change we want to create in the industry.
EM Can you tell us more about that change? What are your future plans for FUTURE FWD?
ZK As an industry, we're only as good as our next generation. That’s why we established the FUTURE FWD scholarship. We need to expand opportunities for underrepresented communities – and as the director of a design studio, I realised that it’s my responsibility to address this imbalance. I think it's crucial that a scholarship like this is funded by graphic design studios that can offer mentorship and internship opportunities. Education is only one part of the equation. We’ll soon be announcing the names of three design studios partnering on the next chapter of FUTURE FWD. If you run a studio and are interested in joining, please get in touch.
EM Can you tell us about your Culture Is Not Cancelled initiative, and why you decided to start it?
ZK In the early days of the pandemic, we initiated the campaign Culture is Not Cancelled. It was a response to the lockdown that urged institutions, commissioners organisations not to cancel a culture. Our thinking was that if we cancelled culture, in the short term, we risk cancelling culture in the long term. So this became a call to action to advocate for cooperation and solidarity within the creative industries. That's now over two years ago. This message continues to be relevant, especially as things re-open, and we find that our old understanding of what’s culturally relevant needs to be rewired. It feels like we're in a paradigm shift and we're very interested in what comes next.