Graphics for Good
12 March 2014 at 9:20 am
A Brisbane design agency is striving to apply creativity to social problems as it grapples with an increasingly competitive market, writes journalist Nadia Boyce.
Distilling the creativity of design professionals into a product that people value is the business challenge facing the team at Human Creative, an agency-style social enterprise providing graphic design, web and creative consultancy services.
As the enterprise arm of multidisciplinary creative and cultural development agency Human Ventures, Human Creative aims to extend the benefits of design thinking to broader society using skills in creativity and the arts to solve social problems.
The model is the product of nearly two decades of the development and growth of a more humble social enterprise, SpeakOut, founded in 1995 with a focus on t-shirt design and production by young people.
Fresh from the 2009 restructure and rebrand of Human Ventures, Human Creative has flourished into a successful social enterprise, securing major clients including the Brisbane City Council.
Profits from the agency service are now reinvested in community programs run by Human Ventures.
Yet a lasting challenge remains – winning over clients in the ultra-competitive creative market and selling design thinking as an innovative solution to society’s challenges.
A Tough Marketplace
Some 40 per cent of income is currently acquired through fee-for-service work with a vast range of clients, from government through to corporates and Not for Profits. The remaining funding is sourced through government, philanthropic funding and donations.
Andrew Gibbs, Creative Director at Human Ventures, says the social aspect of the business is not always an advantage.
“It’s a double-edged sword. Some see it as an excellent point of difference, but some corporates might think we can’t do as good a job,” he says.
“There’s a perception out there that services might not be as good if you’re attached to a Not for Profit or social enterprise.”
Human Ventures also has to grapple with new online platforms, which allow freelancers to compete, providing the public with access to relative design services and other small projects. Critics of the platforms say they are de-valuing professional design and saturating the market.
“It’s tough and we talk about it all the time,” Gibbs says.
“We just don’t want to compete in that space – we’re looking at larger projects you wouldn’t be able to do without a team.”
The fact that marketing and design budgets are on the small side or non-existent in many community-based organisations complicates the situation for the agency.
“If someone says they have absolutely no money, we look at it case by case,” Gibbs says. Some clients receive ultimately reduced rates, while for others, work is pro bono.
It is a situation compounded by the fact that revenue streams are key to Human Creative’s own sustainability as a business and that the team must also complete a significant amount of internal work, restricting their ability to donate time where it may be needed or warranted.
Gibbs says developing the business so that the value of their services is clearly communicated remains a priority.
“At the moment we’re working as a team. We don’t have anybody solely responsible for business development,” he says.
“We are working on communicating what we do and how we work, so people would say ‘I understand why I need that’.
“Human Creative has some work to go on nailing the offering and messaging – that does change so you have to be responsive.”
The agency is currently exploring a new niche – workplace murals and environmental graphics.
“They are another thing that’s packageable and marketable for us,” Gibbs says.
The Power of Design
The agency specialises in community engagement projects and digital storytelling, with an emphasis on undertaking a research process with clients and applying design thinking to solve problems.
Human Creative’s client base is vast, from government to corporates and Not for Profits – a diversity that reflects the multi-faceted nature of Human’s offering.
“The concept of design has shifted,” Gibbs says. “Design doesn’t have to be just graphic design.”
“We approach most issues with a design sensibility.
“The projects we tend to try to go for are the problem or solutions-based type approach…we look at a problem and say ‘here’s what to do’, rather than just creating websites.
“It’s completely open … there’s tremendous value in [design thinking].”
A recent project saw the agency working with young people to create digital stories for octogenarians in aged care.
“One of our goals is using creativity and the arts across the sectors that might not necessarily be engaged with them otherwise, like aged care or tourism. The last thing we want to do is be in our own little arts bubble,” he says.
Underpinning the agency’s work is Human Ventures’ manifesto, established on the premise that “we are human”.
“It comes from a place of openness and the idea that we all have something in common,” Gibbs says.
“The way we work is creating projects and creating outcomes that are all connectable.”
The programs funded by Human Creative’s revenue, generating the organisation's social impact, also fit in with this philosophy.
The Creative Tracks program works within Queensland communities to develop skills in dance, singing, music, video production and leadership, while Creative Pathways supports the development of young entrepreneurs to develop their skills in the creative industries, enterprise development and event production.
Creative Pathways culminates each year with the Shockwave Festival in Blackall, an event, which will soon be handed over to the community for management, having reached a point of sustainability.
“It’s always about building that capacity for community management,” Gibbs says.
Sketching a Future
The development of Human Creative is helping inform new social enterprises Human Ventures has developed, including Lowercase, Human Ventures’ youth-centred social enterprise focused on developing positive outcomes for young people through a range of creative arts-based projects.
Gibbs has learnt some key lessons from his experiences.
“Start with a pilot, start small. Don’t try and do everything from day one – we often find ourselves trying to do too many things,” he says.
“We try to do what we love and we try to draw on the strength of the team. It’s pretty much the only reason we do what we do.”
Going forward, Human intends to expand its programs, particularly those involving close work with the community.
There is one sizeable barrier in the way.
“We don’t want to impose on the community, we want to be invited,” Gibbs says.
He cites a philosophy he has picked up during the organisation’s work with the Westpac Foundation.
“Impact is something that happens over 20 years or a generation, outcomes can happen sooner,” he says. “It’s all about consolidating.”