Jef Wong, 43, is the group creative director, and Noel Blackwell, 40, is the group head of strategy at Designworks, working on brand strategies for some of this country’s biggest companies. The firm is among the major winners of this year’s Best Design Awards. NOEL/ We met at a DB golf day. At that stage I wasn’t working for Designworks, I’d just signed the contract. Jef – being the friendly man that he is – was saying how great it is that you’re coming to work with us, and I was playing golf with my current employer at the time. It was a “Hello! S…, don’t say anything!” kind of moment.
I knew he was a hell of a designer and a great creative but when I met him – and it’s still true to this day – he’s a really approachable, down-to-earth guy for someone who’s achieved so much. He’s always been like that.
He’s got a really good sense of humour. While he’s serious about his work and the craft, he still likes having fun and a having a good time. He’s like a great coach – he really cares about creating a good environment and a good vibe, he’s a good motivator. He’s got a really nice energy about him. He’s always laughing, always got a big smile on his face.
We’ve known each other for 12 or 13 years. We’ve always been mates. We run the business very personally; we got through a lot together at the professional level and we’re close on a family level. Jef and I have had kids at similar times and got married at similar times and have been promoted to more managerial roles within Designworks at similar times. As the business got more consuming, it’s gotten a bit more stressful, but we always fall back on that friendship. We’re all relatively good at going: “Hey, we’re in a professional moment here,” then as buddies you can check in on each other later.
We’ve got family, food, design and creativity in common but I’m a surfer whereas Jef’s into league; Jef’s into music, [but] I play music probably a bit more than Jef does...
We’ve got similar values as leaders and a similar passion for design, but I’m probably more verbal than Jef is; I’m a lot louder, I’m more extroverted. He’s a lot more thoughtful, probably – as a lot of creatives are – a bit quieter. I’ll be banging on and getting excited and going a million miles an hour. He’ll sit there and take it in quietly and when the time’s right, he’ll sum it up perfectly and make it work for the team.
Three of us lead the business. Jef’s the head of design and runs the design team, I’m the head of strategy. I’m about what’s actually going on, what we’re trying to do, what are the things we’ve got to watch out for. Jef’s more about creatively exploring it and taking it to a new place and doing something differently.
He does this thing where he goes: “I might be stupid, but...” or: “I’m just a designer, but...” or: “This is a silly idea, but...” He talks himself down, and then delivers this really beautiful, simple thought and everyone just goes: “Oh that’s so good, you’re such a d...head!”
I’m always super proud of the work that comes out here. I don’t make the design or the finished thing so I’m always proud of that, because I can’t do it without him. He handles so much, I don’t know how he gets through the amount of work he does and still stays so positive.
We often joke he’s the hungriest man in design. He’s a really good cook and he’ll often order for big tables of people, because he always makes really great choices. But he’ll never share his dessert. It’s something that’s very close to his heart. JEF/ My first impression of Noel was this really enthusiastic and really passionate guy who wanted to be part of the company. What you see is what you get. When I first met him, obviously he was super friendly and super enthusiastic; he was trying to make a really big career change from being a marketer to being on the creative side.
He can be super, super serious but he can be a bit of a goof as well. He can let his guard down quite a bit. Those times when you’re up against it, he can cut the air with a bit of a joke.
He pretty much runs the brand strategy side and I’m the creative director, so I run the creative and design aspects. You need both to do great work. When it goes from strategy into design, we really debate how it transfers over. It’s not just illustrating the strategy, it’s also designers using the strategy at the same time. Sometimes, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the two.
My leadership style is a lot quieter. Because of my role – I work across a lot more individuals – my style’s a lot more collaborative and more open. Noel’s style is very direct and very focused, probably a bit more definitive than mine. I leave things open and then make a decision when I need to.
We definitely do have disagreements, quite often. I kinda really stew on stuff and it takes me a while to realise I’m not very happy with something. Noel’s a bit more direct; when he disagrees with something, he does it straight away. Because we are good mates, we sit down, talk about it like adults, and then just move on.
He’s a passionate surfer – he loves surfing – he loves buying new surfboards, he looks at them like pieces of art. And he’s a harmonica player. We both love food. Whenever we go to restaurants you can guarantee he’ll order the weirdest thing on the menu.