James de Vries is a designer whose Australian-grown philosophy on visual communications and design – honed through a passion for international experience – has opened the door to global publishing success.
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Sydney-born de Vries first began to see a nascent creativity flourish during art classes at high school, when an interest in typography, graphic elements, and a desire to create album covers for his favourite bands, saw his teachers encourage him towards a career in design.
In 2009, de Luxe won an open competition against some of the best designers in the United States to revamp the prestigious Harvard Business Review magazine.
De Vries commenced a visual communications degree at the newly formed Sydney College of the Arts, at a time when design was being challenged by the counter-culture movements of the late seventies.
The Sydney zeitgeist at that time was the perfect platform to experiment and forge his own creative vision.
“The explosion of creativity that came about as a result of punk and new wave movements was really shaking up the design world, and it was an exciting time to immerse myself in something I loved,” says de Vries.
After graduating with the Sydney College of the Arts Council Award for academic achievement, de Vries began seeking out new professional experiences, and after a couple of years of freelance opportunities, left for Europe, establishing a base in Amsterdam, Holland from which to work and travel.
“Australians are really well equipped to live anywhere in the world. That feeling of confidence and independence means you can make connections with like-minded creatives, whether they are Dutch or Moroccan or Chinese, and that helps you have a much broader perspective on your work and life.”
After returning to Australia de Vries took on his first role as art director, soon realising he needed to sharpen his business skills before he could take his career to the next level. He took a job for a company specialising in corporate reports.
What might have seemed a step down from freelance awards and his European experience added vitally to his skill-set.
“That experience offered really valuable insights on how to run a business—learning how businesses think, and how design could help realise business goals.”
Shifts in desk-top-publishing technology made the goal of uniting these well-rounded skills into a design consultancy a reality, as large, manual production teams could be distilled down to software. He and wife Nicola purchased a Mac and started de Luxe & Associates in 1993, with a strong belief that visual communication and story telling combine as a powerful language.
“Our love for magazines and editorial, as well our growing knowledge of how businesses need to operate, put us in a good position for design consulting on publications, which is how we found our core business.”
“We did some really big jobs—the weekend edition of the Australian Financial Review, the Australian Financial Review Colour Magazine, and a major re-design of the Sydney Morning Herald in time for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.”
Success led to a contract to redesign The Age in Melbourne, the West Australian, and then the de Vries duo realised major publications in Australia they hadn’t already revamped were becoming thin on the ground.
“We had to look offshore to grow. First we secured some really interesting projects in Hong Kong, followed by New Zealand, then some titles in Indonesia. We stayed Sydney-based, but always with one eye on the international market.”
“In the US people see Australians as interesting, creative, fun, and very open, so we can work to the US culture of positivity and gregariousness very well, which really can help.”
In 2009, de Luxe won an open competition against some of the best designers in the United States to revamp the prestigious Harvard Business Review, a publication with a proud history going back to 1922, then struggling with the challenges facing print publishing amidst a plethora of emerging digital platforms.
The publication had begun to shrink in 2008 and 2009 as a result of the global financial crisis and the transitional state of conventional publishing. Their CEO was brave enough and had the insight to embrace major change. They hired a new editor, who in turn realised new design values would be key to the title’s future success.
“They chose de Luxe because we could implement design changes across all their platforms. We were enthusiastic because we could see they were one of the organisations genuinely investing in what it means to be a publishing brand in the new technology era.”
“To me, good design is the best of both of those worlds: A strong aesthetic, skills and talent component, but also the intelligence and ability to empathise with people. Beyond that you always need to be able to make a creative leap, and do something that has the power to surprise.”
The Harvard Business Review now does not see technology as a threat, or a second tier option to the beauty of real print. Instead technology is considered a wonderful opportunity to give more value to readers.
“Across all platforms our re-design was smart and contemporary, without losing the iconic, traditional Harvard Business Review quality that underpins its brand power.”
The faith placed in de Luxe & Associates paid such rewards the company lured de Vries back to stay on as art director across the suite of Harvard Business Review titles.
“They now have a profitable e-commerce element to their website, an iPad app, and we are looking at more mobile apps, all aimed at giving our readers a new experience. It’s exciting to be involved with that sort of forward thinking.”
“As a result we have been running counter to the trends that currently dominate magazine publishing.” In the US the sector shrank by 10 per cent last year, while the Harvard Business Review increased by about 20 per cent. “Subscriptions, newsstand, renewals, and advertising have all gone up, so the magazine is looking healthier than it has for a long time.”
On whether being an Australian was a help or hindrance in the Ivy League heights of Cambridge Massachusetts, de Vries says, “In the US people see Australians as interesting, creative, fun, and very open, so we can work to the US culture of positivity and gregariousness very well, which really can help.”
De Vries sees this perception as a global one, “We are in a great position because we enjoy terrific goodwill in large parts of the world, and the best way to capitalise is to be able to be gracious and work hard, and make the most of the optimism that is natural to us.”
Australians, to de Vries, are “blessed by our youth as a nation, our education system, and a compact population, which means we get to be good generalists very quickly, and that helps us be to be very flexible and open to new things.”
And for de Vries, design as a practice is so universally ever-present, that its success is not just about the designer’s internal confidence and faith in the power of creativity and ideas, but the interconnectedness of design to humanity and society as a whole.
“Design is more than people wearing serious glasses and black polo necks who feel they are above critique—the ‘I’m an artiste’ archetype of designers; or the other end of the spectrum that is analytical, and focused on facts, evidence and pragmatism. To me, good design is the best of both of those worlds: A strong aesthetic, skills and talent component, but also the intelligence and ability to empathise with people. Beyond that you always need to be able to make a creative leap, and do something that has the power to surprise.”
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