Neil Turner makes no bones about the fact that he has always been more interested in the business of design than pondering any deep and meaningful philosophy behind it. Ask him if he could name some influences from the pantheon of classical, modernist or contemporary art and he shrugs his shoulders and gives an honest answer: “Not really”.

He always was and continues to be business-oriented, which in no way undermines his contribution to graphic design in Australia for over 30 years. In his native Western Australia, where he has long been the foremost graphic designer of his generation, he has left his legacy not only in the growth and professionalism of the industry but in the dozens of new graduates who have passed through his studio.

Like many of his contemporaries, the idea of becoming a graphic designer was not really an option when Turner left school, as the profession itself was yet to really exist. Instead, he studied to become a teacher, with the ultimate goal of teaching art. Having worked in a mining community and then deciding to try to qualify as an art teacher, he studied at Curtin University, where a contact encouraged him to enroll in its graphic design course.

As a mature-aged student and one who had only been through the secondary school art system before taking on the course, he was not sure what to expect, he says. “I had done a little of my own private work but it turned out to be a very fortuitous suggestion. After a year I conceded that it was what I really wanted to do.”

“In the first year we did life drawing and figure-field relationships and in the second and third year it was really project-based. You’d get a project and create a design for it. It certainly wasn’t esoteric – it was very much aimed at industry, which suited me because at that age I needed to get a job.”

And a job he got, even before graduating, a break that he puts down to pure good luck. “In those days there weren’t too many jobs around and in Perth it was almost unheard of. Prior to that, most of the people I came into contact with were people who had done an art course and then had done advertising. There was no real established graphic design fraternity at all.”

Turner instead hooked up with a public relations consultant who had the foresight to see that he could combine public relations with design to offer something more to his clients. Turner worked for him for 18 months and then decided to go out on his own. He has worked for himself ever since and has ridden both the highs and lows of this emerging industry in the west.
“There was a lot of things happening in Perth at that time and it was quite easy to get work, so I started hiring help, mostly graduates really because they were the only ones who could do it. It was mostly work for small businesses – accountants and real estate agents, people like that. In those days you could just about do what you wanted because no one had any preconceptions about it – you’d go into a real estate agent and they’d want this, this and this, you’d do some visuals and they’d say fantastic! It’s a far cry from what happens today.”

Another good turn of luck was the rise of the celebrity businessman in Perth, the most obvious being Alan Bond and Robert Holmes à Court. While Bond is still a divisive figure to many, Turner says he was one of the few who really understood the power of branding. “I got a contract to do an annual report and that was the first really good annual report that had been done. They were usually done by printers and advertising agencies who didn’t really understand what a real annual report was. But Alan Bond did understand it and he used it as a promotional piece. It was one of the first projects that we had with an unlimited budget.

“I did that for three or four years and then because of that I started doing a lot of annual reports – the Holmes à Courts and people of that nature. There was a fairly cowboy mentality and it is still a little the same now but it was pretty exciting at the time.”

Turner happily admits that most of what he was doing was driven by instinct. His studio was booming and became so big he had to bring in management assistance, later downsizing to ensure the studio kept its focus on quality and client relationships. He read widely and was aware of what was being done elsewhere, particularly in the us and the uk, but mostly he did what came naturally.

“We had built up a big client list but the next big thing that happened was the wa wine industry, where again I just happened to know a couple of guys who had a wine distribution business. I did some work for them that led to working for other wineries and we just rode that wave for years and years. You had that kind of freedom – it was fallow ground really.”

While his contemporary Barry Tucker was tilling the fertile ground of the wine industry in South Australia, Turner turned his attention to the Margaret River. At one stage in the 1980’s the wine industry made up close to 60% of his business, but what had started out as a cottage industry had now become the realm of the multinationals. While he continues to design for wineries, he smartly turned his attention to a new industry that was just starting to make itself felt – the flowering of Australia’s coffee culture. It was while doing signage and branding for a coffee and brewery entrepreneur called Phil Sexton that Turner and his colleagues began to embrace full brand realisation, something he admits they all had to learn how to do and which now forms the majority of his work.

While he does not have a philosophy of design, he has been influenced by some in the industry in Australia, particularly Richard Henderson, who shares with Turner an interest in the business of design and how it works.

“I’m not a design aficionado and I have never pretended to be,” he says. “It is really through my intuition and instincts, I think. If anything was to characterise my career it has been more about the desire and getting a kick out of helping people with a product or a service and working with them to get it recognised. I get a lot of satisfaction out of that. I am very interested in how design impacts on business and how that works – it’s more that than any kind of aesthetic I’ve developed.

“I think one of the different things about our studio is that we don’t have a house style because I don’t try to control that. What I try to do is choose people who have different views to me and I try to use different people for different projects to use their skills so that it always looks fresh. That’s the intention anyway!”

Larissa Meikle (co-writer: Kate McDonald)

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