In a speech made at a recent Optimism Conference, guest speaker and design luminary Mimmo Cozzolino challenged the audience – eager to soak up the ingredients to his lifelong creative success – to not ‘design in a bubble’ and to instead foster an open mind to their surroundings and to forge an understanding of what it means to make your own trademark as a designer.

Cozzolino’s advice to play a valuable role within the wider design industry did not fall on deaf ears and his message to belong to a tradition and to commit to a culture was absorbed with respect and with a regard fit for the legacy he has carved out for the Australian design landscape.

Perhaps it was Cozzolino’s personal experience of growing up in Melbourne as an Italian immigrant in the mid 60’s that influenced his lifelong appreciation for identity (at all levels) and an awareness of the inherent value that contributing to society brings to individual designers; a symbolic act that is bigger than one man’s journey alone.

Spending the first 12 years of his life in Italy, before his father made the decision to relocate the family to Melbourne, Cozzolino had a distinct appreciation and understanding of what if felt like to be an outsider looking in. He trained as a graphic designer, attending Melbourne’s Prahran cae (now Swinburne University) and in 1971 landed his first job in Sydney, working for Monad Marketing.

However the city stay was destined to be short lived with Cozzolino missing his friends and family, he retuned to Melbourne to launch his career as a freelance designer, working alongside best friend and Greek immigrant Con Aslanis. The pair produced a number of projects together under the name All Australian Graphics before changing the name to All Australian Graffiti (AAG) in 1975, getting on board business partners Geoff Cook, Izi Marmur, Tony Ward, Neil Curtis and Meg Williams.

“In the beginning, Con and I were two ‘wogs’ looking for an identity and the name All Australian Graphics was a joke of sorts,” says Cozzolino. Characteristic of the initial studio name was the tongue and cheek proposition: Can migrants create design content that is ‘All Australian’, and in turn, what is Australian design anyway?

“In the early 70’s these were rather oddball if not philosophical questions that not many designers were asking,” he says. “As migrants, we needed to ask them in order to help define ourselves and commercially it differentiated our studio from all the other Melbourne outfits and helped us to land really interesting work.”

An ability to promote a unique outlook on the world around them was a point of difference and a quality feather in the company’s hat, with AAG quick to pick up a stable of high profile clients including The Campaign Palace, Leo Burnett, McCann Erikson, Clemenger, JWT, Grey and Penguin Books. All Australian Graffiti enjoyed working on a diverse range of illustration briefs for publishing and advertising clients, in a time before ad agencies viewed design studios as direct competition, building strong connections to Australia’s leading creative thinkers of the time.

“Whilst the work was always taken seriously, the people were often light hearted and that’s the fantastic upside of working in advertising. Compared with most professions, your personality and your point of difference was, and still is, celebrated,” he says.

Among the thousands of illustrations produced was a project Cozzolino records as one of the highlights of his career – the creation of the irreverent Kevin Pappas Tear Out Postcard Book (Penguin, 1977). The book made it to the bestsellers list in 1977 and sold over 20,000 copies, an outstanding result for Australian publishing at that time.

As fate would have it, Cozzolino was destined to enjoy more triumphs in publishing, with the release of his second book venture, titled Symbols of Australia (Penguin, 1980), selling an impressive 45,000 to date. When AAG disbanded in 1978, Cozzolino decided to take a sabbatical from design to complete the research for the symbols book, the first of its kind to trace the history of Australian trademarks, which he later credits as “the book that launched the rest of my career.”

To Cozzolino, producing Symbols of Australia was about wanting to become accepted as an Australian and thus presented a greater insight into the mind of the designer and his poignant road to discovering the power of symbols. Dedicating over two years to the personal project, turning down paid work and living off his savings, it was a fantastic relief when the sales from the book paid back the long hours, and more importantly, earned him the industry trust and recognition that he craved.

“It took me a decade to make this dream project a reality,” reflects Cozzolino. “When I was studying at college, I was really keen to discover more information about Australian trademarks and went to look for a book that covered this topic but I couldn’t find anything,” he explains. It was this early run in with a lack of cultural preservation that ignited the spark of determination in Cozzolino to start his own recording of Australia’s trademark design history.

“When I look back on this personal achievement, I realise that I spent most of my time outside of working hours researching the project, which took me part-time, about seven years to complete,” he adds. According to Cozzolino, it’s a common wisdom of sorts that every seven years brings with it the natural cycle for all creative people to desire a break from the daily grind in order to develop their own self-motivated, personal projects.

Through his research for the book, Cozzolino was introduced to many of the country’s established designers, including the now highly respected Ken Cato and Brian Sadgrove. It was then that he was asked to be a part of the founding committee of the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA), which in the late 80’s was attracting only a hundred or so designers to member meetings.

Although initially a reluctant recruit, Cozzolino saw the intrinsic value in the existence of a professional industry body that could help to build a stronger design community and improve collective industry standards and educational best practice.

“I’m not a committee person – I run the other way and nor am I a political manoeuverer. However, I wasn’t afraid of sharing information and ideas, especially considering all of the contact I had enjoyed with Australian designers, which I met whilst completing Symbols of Australia.”

Whilst Cozzolino has now retired from the design profession after running a number of design studios, including Cozzolino Hughes (1980 to 1984) and Cozzolino/Ellett Design D’Vision (1986 to 2001), he continues to stay creatively inspired by studying and teaching photomedia at Monash University. “I still participate in education today because I learn as much from teaching as my students do,” he explains.

Referring back to his pitch at the Optimism Conference and the importance of design cultural awareness, Cozzolino is trying to convince AGDA to add a new category to the biannual awards program that encourages excellence in the advancement and promotion of Australian design culture.

“I feel that the time has come to highlight, encourage and acknowledge, in a formal setting, the people who promote the cultural aspects of our profession. Australian designers not only need to make eloquent marks, they also need to write about and discuss those marks in a critical and eloquent way.”

Larissa Meikle (co-writer: Kate McDonald)

This text was first published in On the Shoulders of Giants, 2014.