Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - THE GRILL - In­ter­view/ Britt Mann Pho­to­graph/ Lawrence Smith

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.

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