We pull out all the stops with every project,” says Vince Frost, CEO and creative director of Frost*. “We’re relentless in trying to invigorate, engage and generate positive energy for our clients.”
Some of those clients are local to Frost’s headquarters in Sydney, Australia; others are based in Asia, Europe and North America. The work is equally diverse: Australia Tourism promotions and museum signage, campaigns for real estate properties in China and Korea, books for publishers in London and New York and branding for hotels in Hong Kong, Bali and Abu Dhabi.
The studio mantra is “inspiring ideas to life,” which Frost defines as making a client’s theoretical concept for a company, institution, event or product succeed in the real world. “It’s all about simplification,” he states. But Frost’s direct, bold solutions demonstrate that he and his team do much more than simplify. They craft the right mix of concept, word and image to get people in motion: buying, supporting, attending, traveling—doing whatever is needed to fulfill the client’s mission. That could mean a redesigned brand identity plus a retail or entertainment environment, a print ad campaign, TV commercials, a clothing line, a book or magazine, YouTube videos, you name it.
Talking with Frost can pump you up, make you want to be part of the action. His conversation is sprinkled with expressions like, “Every day is a new opportunity to do great work!” “I love all of it!” and “Believe in not giving up!” Although his studio is staffed with talented collaborators, you sense that the firm’s success has been driven by the sheer force of his personality and convictions. Frost is someone who never gave up, who was neither born into privilege nor received the benefits of a fancy education; his working-class family moved a lot and he dropped out of art school to go to work. He was born in West Sussex, England, where his father was a printer. When he was very young, the family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. There, North American design—colorful and immediate—made its mark. “As a boy I took a personal interest in brands,” he recalls. “Especially sports teams. The bright color palette, the typefaces, the big bold numbers on the jerseys.” The family returned to England, “incredibly gray by comparison,” when he was sixteen. It was culturally different too. “We moved to Brighton, a little town with beautiful countryside, but I was still dressed in my bright blue and green Canuck caps and sneakers, in this place of school uniforms, devoid of color.
“I was always the new kid,” he adds, “trying to catch up, behind in academics and distracted by girls.” And then he found art. “I did art class in the sixth form, the year after high school, while figuring out my options,” he says. “Was it going into the army, or what? Mum and Dad said, ‘You’ve always been good at drawing’ and encouraged me to attend West Sussex Art College.” The design foundation class was life-changing. There was advertising, product design, packaging, animation, photography and fashion. “I loved all of it but, wow, I really connected with visual communication. Every brief motivated and excited me. I got an amazing buzz from bringing a blank piece of paper to life with an idea.” The teachers urged him to specialize, in packaging or editorial, but he insisted on remaining a generalist. He left school and got a job at a local advertising company. “A degree doesn’t matter,” he still maintains. “What matters are creative output and passion.”
His equally ambitious classmate John Powner had gone to London to work for Pentagram, and young Vince, still toiling at the local agency, came for a visit in 1989. “I didn’t know what Pentagram was,” he admits, but as soon as he entered the Notting Hill studio, he knew that’s where he wanted to be. “Design was being lived full-strength. Alan Fletcher was sketching ideas for a poster for the Globe Theatre; I listened to him and the other partners discussing various approaches, and, oh my God, I got it!,” he recalls. “I told them, ‘I’ll work here for free and do whatever you need.’” He made himself invaluable as Pentagram’s “good, strong pair of hands,” making photocopies and comps, absorbing everything, especially the designer’s power to communicate with the public. “I’d been fighting against being a specialist and now I was phenomenally lucky, walking into this office of generalists. I found my home: a place of big ideas.” He became an associate partner, primarily on the Polaroid account under John Rushworth, designing Polaroid’s P magazine and projects for music and arts clients. He spent his days generating ideas with Rushworth and “trying to beat him at them,” but ultimately didn’t generate enough business to become a Pentagram partner.
“After five years I needed to make a name for myself,” he states. “I was phenomenally naïve. I rented a desk in an un-beautiful building and bluffed it. After two years of hard work, I attracted decent-size projects: newspapers, magazines, charities, cultural institutions, all clients that needed to attract more people, to entertain, to communicate.” That was 1995, and little by little, Studio Frost acquired the accoutrements of a real business: assistants, a fax machine, computers and the “inspiring ideas to life” philosophy.
By 2000, the work was garnering significant international attention, and a Condé Nast executive offered him a job as art director of Japanese Vogue. “You don’t say no to an opportunity like that!” He lived in Tokyo for a year, working with great photographers and expressing the visions of Vogue, but found it challenging to work in a language he didn’t understand. Frost reestablished himself in London, and invitations to travel, speak and judge competitions continued to come in. “The Australian Graphic Design Association invited me to do a lecture tour, seven cities. I fell in love with the country.” A year later, in 2003, he was approached by an advertising conglomerate, the Clemenger Group, about joining forces in Australia. “I thought about it for a minute and said ‘yes.’ London was great, but hard and highly competitive.” By then, Frost was married with three children ages seven, four and six months. “I love moving to new cities, to hit the ground running—a fresh new beginning,” he says. His family agreed. After all, there would be wide-open spaces, sunshine, beaches—and Australia’s famously relaxed way of life.
Three years later, along with partners Carlo Giannasca and Ray Parslow, Frost bought the business back from Clemenger. Today, 35 people work in Frost’s open-plan studio, connecting brands and products with their audiences. The studio is a buzz of activity, with work pinned to walls by designers who’ve come from all over Australia, Asia and the UK.
“We try not to have a style. It’s diverse,” Frost says of the work. “We let the solution emanate from the problem, not inflict unnecessary decoration on it. We tend to simplify an idea to its essence to remove any distraction. We’re passionate about the power of creativity in enhancing business. We want to connect with people quickly and positively.” The work connects so well that in 2006 he was invited to have an exhibition at the Sydney Opera House. “It was quite a coup,” he admits. Over three months, 60,000 people attended. And there was the companion 400-page retrospective of work from the company’s 1995 London beginnings.
Is this kind of success beyond the hopes of most young designers? “You have great clients, and I don’t,” might claim a frustrated designer who works at a place like that “colorless” agency where Frost started. Frost’s reply: “Nonsense. Our clients are like everyone else’s. And budgets aren’t great right now. The difference might be that we are focused on stronger ideas, on collaborating with clients to maximize their businesses, getting feedback, making it better. We approach every project with open minds, learning everything we can about the client’s business and taking a global, holistic view. Some people presume they know the answer before they even know the problem. And our projects were not nice projects in the beginning; they were nothing. Every project has potential. It could turn out to be mediocre, or OK or great. Our focus is on adding value, on making it great.”
The talented, committed staff is also focused on making it great. Brand designer Adit Wardhana, who came from Indonesia to go to school in Melbourne, is working on big projects like the redesign of the Sydney Airport communications—projects that have morphed from environmental design into advertising. For example, in-house research showed that airports make people tense and agitated, Wardhana explains. The Frost* team invented a fictitious disease, PFT (Pre-Flight Tension), which Sydney Airport could cure via therapeutic shopping, eating and relaxing. A cheeky “Guide to Easing PFT” campaign has gotten lots of play in the advertising press. Senior environmental designer Natasha Bartoshefski, an Australian of Russian heritage, has been working for the past four years on wayfinding systems and interiors for research centers, recreation areas, primary schools and the National Australia Bank. Graziela Machado, who immigrated from São Paulo, began working at Frost* right after graduation from design school. Now she’s a “mid-weight,” halfway between junior and senior designer, working on projects such as a book about a renovated office building that the studio retitled, It’s Not About the Building to emphasize how its flexible workspaces allow for new kinds of collaboration. Partner Carlo Giannasca, a Sydney native, oversees all branding and environmental work. “It’s not good enough to settle for an adequate solution,” Giannasca sums up, “it has to be great. That’s what keeps us sharp. Being unsatisfied is what drives us to push harder and dig deeper.”
No matter where they were born, these designers find a lot to love about living and working in Australia. “This is a gorgeous place to work,” says Bartoshefski, whose outside-the-office passion is performing in musical theater. She describes the studio as colorful, fun and inspiring; the neighborhood, Surry Hills, an old printing and textile area that is rapidly filling with clubs, restaurants and fashion designers’ ateliers, as a creative hub; and Sydney as a major world city that offers unparalleled natural beauty in the form of beaches and lots of green spaces. “This country is a celebration of different cultures and open and friendly people,” adds Wardhana, who, after hours, plays guitar and sings in local cafés. “It’s pretty laid back,” agrees Ben Hennessey, a senior designer who’s been developing a strategy for Redfern, a Sydney suburb that was previously seen as a dangerous place. “We designed a brand to make people feel welcome, a welcoming spirit symbolized by a friendly smile. Community leaders support the campaign and the T-shirts and bumper stickers are very popular,” is Hennessey’s answer to the question, “How well did it work?”
If there’s one thing about the design business that Vince Frost is not 100 percent positive about, it’s the lack of a means to quantify how well design works. “In the digital realm you can measure success by clicks,” he points out. “In design, what is there beyond ‘the client likes it’ or ‘we answered the brief’? Clients don’t demand that design firms prove the success of their ideas. We get business based on recommendations or awards. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could prove how much our thinking contributes to our clients’ success?”
It would be grand. But in the meantime Frost* continues to thrive. “I’ve been working with my team to make sure we grow with the opportunities. You continuously redesign your business to improve the quality of the work and quality of the process,” says Frost. Any new directions he’d like to go in? “Sure,” he says with typical passion, “bigger problems to solve.” ca