In Conversation with Gene Bawden

Deputy Head, Department of Design, Monash Art Design & Architecture (MADA).

I grew up in Queensland… very, very remote Queensland… and always wanted to move far away from Queensland. Not because it was a red-neck, racist, homophobic, misogynistic hell-hole; though these are pretty compelling reasons to move; but because I knew I wanted to study design. In the mid ‘80s, Melbourne was the design education capital, so I moved here to study graphic design at Chisholm Institute of Technology, long ago swallowed up by Monash University.

After graduating I went to work for The Age when newspapers made huge amounts of money from classified ads, employed staff and believed in design and editorial rigor. I loved it. Working in the same space as Michael Leunig, John Spooner, Peter Nicholson, Ron Tanberg and the late, great Les Tanner was an experience like no other. It was a witty, funny, nurturing and a politically-charged environment that I am truly grateful to have experienced. After 8 years at The Age I tried my hand at teaching for a year, then decided to move to Rupert’s rag across the river as a senior editorial designer. I survived a very admirable 18 months. I thought it would be fun. It wasn’t. Since leaving newspapers I’ve been involved in design education at Monash for the last 17 years.

What inspired you to become a professional Graphic Designer and lecturer?

My sister. She lived in Melbourne and sent me all the information I needed to study here. When I finished year 12 I did the round of art and design interviews, much like students do now. I sat for an Industrial Design exam and had to draw a diagram demonstrating how a bicycle worked. I walked out. Clearly that design was not for me. After being rejected from every Melbourne design school I was not going to give up. In 1983, I passed up my offer to study architecture at UQ (seriously, I would have killed people) and I arrived in Melbourne to do a Tertiary Orientation Program (TOP) at Footscray Technical College. It was here that I really learned what graphic design was. The teaching staff at Footscray were amazing and cemented my desire to be a graphic designer. Plus it was the hedonistic ‘80s: graphic design was everywhere, ever-present and global. So was AIDS. It was a complicated decade.

How did you get your first break?

I dragged my cut-n-paste, bromide-infested folio through every studio and publication house that I could find in the yellow pages. I even applied for a job at a greeting card company and as a mural artist for a library. Luckily I missed out on those. 48 interviews and 6 months later I got the gig at The Age. Actually I found the job in its classifieds section. I earned a whopping $18000/ year.

What paths have you taken to get to where you are today?

My generation, despite its tendency to whine about being the ex-generation (ex-careers, ex-wives, ex-pensive children, ex-panding waistlines) has been pretty lucky. The path has been pretty rosy. My four-year degree was completely free for a start. I did have to work hard and start at the bottom; possibly slightly below the bottom. I cleaned toilets in a North Melbourne office building that used to be a brothel… the photocopier was balanced over an old pink spa bath… doesn’t warrant thinking about. When I began at The Age I did all the awful things most people were too embarrassed to do, like dress up as their goofy mascot at public events. But I also got to art direct fashion shoots, illustrate incredible stories and work with phenomenal people. I did long nights especially during key news events. I dreaded every Olympic Games. But your ability to cope with these situations means people trust you with more responsibility. It also creates a strange collegiality: people bonded through fatigue and crushing deadlines. Most importantly I moved out at 18. Independence and responsibility makes for a much more fulfilling life.

What advice about the do's and don'ts would you give to an aspiring Graphic Designer?

Do marry well; don’t sign the pre-nup.

Most of all, don’t be a prima donna. Suck it up kiddo, you ain’t getting the good jobs until you prove your worth. Too harsh? Too bad. Be versatile; be a sponge; be humble until you earn the right to be obnoxious.

Tell us about the what you are currently working on at Monash and what sets your classes apart form others?

What am I working on? My PhD. Boring as that may sound, I love it. My topic is all about home-obsessed Australians, and how they have — for the last 150 years or so— manifested a particular identity though the interiors of their homes. Its practice based, and being resolved through typography: the most beautiful of all graphic design elements. There will be an exhibition of the work in the new year… stay tuned. What sets my classes apart from others: Independence and a belief that communication design should nurture change and independent thinking. It should challenge accepted norms rather than blindly following the vagaries of fashion or that boring chorus of “but, this is how we’ve always done it”. What sets my classes apart from others: The work is the students’; not mine.

Gene Bawden

Monash University Art Design & Architecture (MADA)

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