MediaSeptember 13, 2023

Inside the once-in-a-generation design event landing in Auckland this weekend


The AGI Open and Congress is bringing some of the most acclaimed designers in the world to Aotearoa to talk about their work. Alt Group’s Mike Barrett explains its significance.

In 1951, a handful of French and Swiss practitioners of a then-new discipline, graphic design, founded the Alliance Graphique Internationale, a “professional club of common interest and shared knowledge”.

Today, there are around 500 members from 46 countries, all of whom have had an impact on visual culture. The trick? You can’t choose to join. You need to be invited. Invitations, which are relatively rare in the southern hemisphere, are based on a contribution to the field of graphic communication and a unique voice.

Each year the AGI hosts an open and congress in a different city around the world. “The open is community outreach,” says Dean Poole, an AGI member, ex-president of the organisation, and co-founder of design studio Alt Group. “But it’s like lining up to host the Olympics. For each city, it’s a once in a generation opportunity, maybe once in a lifetime, to host some of the best of the profession in large numbers.

This year, Auckland is hosting the Olympics of graphic design. Here are just a few notable attendees who’ll be presenting this weekend.

Of all the AGI Open speakers, Paula Scher probably needs the least introduction. A partner at Pentagram, she has designed identities for everything from Tiffany’s to Citibank, Shake Shack to the Museum of Modern Art. She’s featured in the Netflix series, Abstract: The Art of Design, and on the off chance you’re heading to Austria, drop into her exhibition at Munich’s Design Museum. You have a year to get there – it’s a solo exhibition of unprecedented length. 

One of Japan’s leading designers, Kenya Hara is a professor, curator and writer, and art director of Japanese retail brand Muji for more than two decades. “I only have two types of jobs,” Hara once said. “The first are jobs where I’m commissioned to make work and the second are jobs where I propose an idea to society, where I suggest another way of looking at something.”

Hara is a designer’s designer, thanks in part to numerous books on themes as esoteric as the colour White and as big as Designing Design. In Japan, centuries of craft plus decades of post-war innovation mean design is acknowledged at the highest levels as a critical part of unpicking life’s thorny problems. Reinforcing his credentials, a Japan Times profile said: “If there is one man in the country who can project what the future of Japanese design could (and should) involve, it’s Kenya Hara.”

Ariane Spanier is a Berlin-based designer whose work spans the profound – like the recent Phaidon book on Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf – and the pivotal, like the influential Fukt Magazine, which has charted the zeitgeist of contemporary drawing for almost 25 years. 

A significant part of Spanier’s practice is in the arts and cultural space. In Spanier’s world, type does magical things. Her GFX work for Specialized helps make riding an e-bike look like the most fun in the world.

The father of contemporary Korean type design, Ahn Sang-Soo’s first typeface, designed in 1985, broke the mould of Hangul’s traditional formatting, and introduced a path for experimentation. He essentially broke the syllabic block of Hangul into disassembled characters. 

While his career is long and storied, his “one-eye” photo project makes for an interesting anecdote. It starts with a photo he took for the first cover of arts-culture magazine Report/Report in 1988. That gesture, a hand over one eye, he later explained, made him realise that a person’s characteristics are fully revealed even if one eye is covered. In 2004, he hotwired the project, inviting public submissions of one-eyed photos. He received more than 30,000 – hard to imagine, pre-iPhone. For Ahn, each one was a precious story. 

The thing about graphic design today is that everything moves. And Liza Enebeis and her team at Studio Dunbar are pioneers in this field. They’ve rewritten the rules on motion design for the D&AD and MTV. And they’re so committed to motion that they created the DEMO Festival (Design in Motion Festival) in Amsterdam to celebrate motion design from around the world. 

What’s interesting about DEMO is that it looks at the digital infrastructure of streets, train stations and billboards – and says why should this just be for advertising? The real act of design has been to replace capitalism for 24 or 48 hours with great motion design from the finest studios, finest designers, upcoming talents, and art academies. 

Studio Dumbar was last year named Agency of the Year 2023 at the European Design Awards. Check out this work for the Utah Jazz, and you’ll see why. 

Brian Collins’ clients are a like a list of new-corporate West Coast America – Spotify, Robinhood, Twitch, CNET, Figma, Medium, South by Southwest. And Nike, Equinox, ESPN, etc. His studio has won Ad Age’s ‘Transformation Firm of the Year’ four times in the last five years. That might shape your view of him in advance, but he’s a systems guy who hates the militarised language of marketing and gives new staff members a book of poetry when they join (David Whyte, Consolations) because, as he has said, “A good poem is not a description of an experience, like a novel. A good poem is an experience in itself.”

Collins acknowledges that stakeholders are important but that the stakes are higher. “We have to look 10, 15, 20 years ahead. What’s really at risk beyond immediate gain? These are conversations about environmentalism, regeneration, sustainability, governance, diversity. These are longer-term issues with complex solutions.” 

Kōrero and reciprocity 

Running concurrently with the open is the AGI Congress, which reciprocates the generosity of visiting members (they pay their own way here and freely participate in the open – it’s also a carbon positive event) with a programme of deep cultural immersion. 

“We have an important emerging design language and something which global AGI members won’t have experienced before,” says Poole. “This is not just an important moment for AGI as an organisation, it’s an important moment for Aotearoa New Zealand design.” 

For his guests, Poole and team have pulled together a local tour of Aotearoa design. Cultural immersion with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, including te reo Māori with Ropata Pāora and tā moko with Arekatera (Katz) Maihi. 

Other stops include a visit to the Lighthouse with Michael Parekōwhai, a performance by Black Grace dance company, a tour of tāonga Māori at Auckland Museum with Nigel Borrell (curator of last year’s monumental Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art) and Weaving with the Pacifica Mamas. 

So when is it?

The AGI Open is happening soon, on September 18 and 19, and it’s not coming back next year. Tickets are for both days but can be split between two people for a day each.

Find out more about the AGI Open and buy tickets here.

Keep going!