This text was first published in On the Shoulders of Giants, 2014.
As the co-founder and principal of one of Sydney’s most distinguished branding agencies, the former EKH Design, it’s quite peculiar to hear that Myriam Kin-Yee considers herself to be a better team developer than she is a designer. It’s apparent that the straight-talking, smoothly spoken Kin-Yee, who describes her long-lasting love affair with design as fearless, is as humble as she is charming.
Born in Vanuatu and at the tender age of nine sent to a strict Sydney catholic boarding school, Kin-Yee reflects back on her early educational years as ‘tough love’. “I remember being disciplined first thing in the morning for all of the bad things I would do that day – punished in advanced, it’s no wonder we were all such little devils,” she touts.
In her formative years exploring the discipline of design, Kin-Yee first applied herself to studies at Randwick tafe followed by a stint at Sydney College of the Arts, before setting up a freelance design business of her own. Then in 1985 she decided on a change of pace, packed her bags and headed half way across the world to attend the prestigious New York School of Visual Arts to further hone her skills in illustration and design.
It wasn’t until she returned to Australia and was looking for her place in Sydney’s creative hub that she met up with what was to be her long-term partner in design, the widely talented Anya Eymont. Renting a desk space out of Eymont’s studio, the pair began to work together on branding and publishing design projects in an ad hoc manner and within the space of a year, became great professional alliances and lifelong accomplices.
In 1987 the duo decided to join together formally and Alison Hulett, an early employee of Eymont’s, was invited in a few years later as a third partner. Soon afterwards, Eymont Kin-Yee Hulett Design was born and shortened to EKH Design.
“What I do best, above all other things, is choose the right kind of people to work and to play with,” reflects Kin-Yee, on her initial studio partnership. “Anya, Alison and I were what I would describe as the ‘dream team’,” she adds. “We each had our own strengths in different areas of design and so we totally complemented one another.”
Whilst Hulett was well versed in the art of connecting, including forming and maintaining client relationships, along with producing the actual design work, Kin-Yee describes Eymont as a great operator in the game of trust, winning the confidence of large corporate clients and managing the day to day juggle of business affairs. She humbly describes herself as providing a positive and nurturing work environment for the studio staff.
“Dare I say it,” she muses, “there was never much of an ego problem at play when it came to the actual running of the studio because the team leaders were all women.”
Kin-Yee explains that back in the late 80’s the internal business structure of a design studio was not as formal an operation as it is today and that it wasn’t until the late 90’s that the EKH Design partners began to look at their roles in a more serious light, taking their time to put more considered processes in place in order to accommodate the needs of a fully-fledged, bustling design studio. “Nowadays it would be impossible to run a studio like we ran EKH Design.
The cultural pace of modern practice just doesn’t allow for it, not with the pressure of rushed deadlines in this age of speed-driven technology.”
She believes the practice of branding itself is now big business. “The number-crunchers are all now heavily injecting their interest (and dollars) into the ‘branding process’ and design has subsequently grown into a much more complex beast.” Today’s constant turnover of staff and the highly competitive nature of brand communication along with an emphasis on specialisation, she says, was all foreign practice during her time as a designer.
“Because timing is of such important necessity, nowadays everyone has become a specialist in their chosen field and rivalry is rife. When I look back on it, I truly believe that some of our success came from being big fish in a small pond and I imagine that today’s designers have to fight a lot harder for that kind of recognition.”
She also pins EKH Design’s evolution down to the help of business advisor and dear friend Ralph Rogers. In the late 90’s Rogers entered the scene to offer his advice on how the operational structure of EKH Design could improve. He encouraged the three partners to take acute notice of the opportunities presented to them and helped to forge a clear vision of how they could each become more commercially accountable and sustain a long-term future in design.
Seeing the potential in all three designers, he helped to put strict guidelines in place, including no more five-month trips to teach in Switzerland for Kin-Yee. He also advised that they take out a rather sizeable business development loan with the aim of employing more key staff and build on the overall creation of their already reputable brand.
One of the powerful things that set EKH Design apart from other designers of the time was that the owners were all designers, not account managers. This gave the studio a massive creative advantage. However Kin-Yee admits that she took umbrage with the notion that she could be perceived as “flaky” and so made a real effort to create an agency renowned for its level of high quality client service.
Within the space of 18 months, a multinational communications group targeted EKH Design and although a buy-out did not occur, it did change Kin-Yee’s perception of herself and the ‘dream team’ began to dream big. “At that particular stage in our careers, we were all about business common sense and practicable steps forward. And, as I’ve always said: ‘Common sense, not so common’.”
Throughout her career, Kin-Yee has had the opportunity to design for some of the country’s most reputable brands, including Optus, RM Williams, the New South Wales RTA, Darling Harbour Port Authority, the 2003 Rugby World Cup, The Bicentennial, InSearch UTS and Orange.
She believes that once designers find themselves on a good client-relationship wicket, it’s best to be deemed indispensable. “Become an external part of your client’s internal team so that they cannot do without you,” she says. “Always keep in touch, show that you go the extra mile for their business and above all, create value proven relationships. It’s six times harder to get a new client than it is to keep an existing one and we were never that great at cold calling.”
In past magazine interviews, Kin-Yee’s business partner Hulett has expressed pride in the number of clients who have felt that EKH Design was almost an extension of their own company, thus making it so much easier for target communication objectives to be achieved.
“We never just presented a range of visual decoration and we always looked towards the core of our client’s needs, with the same focus we would give to our own business,” Kin-Yee adds. “In saying that, I’ve also fired clients before and this is because it’s more important to lose a job than it is your integrity and in life, you have to take a risk on losing sometimes.”
It’s a life philosophy that Kin-Yee stands firmly behind and one that has seen her through more wins than losses. “You have to take your attitude for life into your work because clients will feel that passion and they will trust you.”
Since retiring from design, she has witnessed the steady evolution of her company firstly when EKH Branding House was formed in 2003, after the acquisition of The Branding House. The company continued to operate as part of the Issues & Images Group, following on from EKH Design’s four-year involvement with the marketing communications group. One year later the agency came under the STW Group umbrella as a result of STW’s acquisition of Issues & Images. It was later renamed to Yello, a branding agency that at its height employed some 70 people with offices based out of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, before Yello went on to merge with New Zealand design agency Designworks.
Quietly chipping away at the minds of students as a design tutor and lecturer at Wollongong University, Kin-Yee is said to have immensely enjoyed giving back to an industry that she benefited so much from. Indeed her commitment to building stronger design awareness in Australia stems back to 1987, when alongside her contemporaries, she helped to establish the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA).
Now working as a full time painter, she says her hope for today is that modern design practitioners will continue to foster and support the Association she and others strived so hard to see flourish and that they will avoid falling into the trap of taking what AGDA does for granted.
Larissa Meikle (co-writer: Kate McDonald)