Graphic designers always seem like busy people; so much ideating to do, so many Slack channels to check, endless decisions to be made about which eyeglasses to wear. I jest of course; graphic designers are known for working their butts off. But apparently not if you’re based in New Zealand, according to Matt Arnold, founder of digital design agency Sons & Co. “You can call up the best designers in the country here and they’ll answer the phone themselves and when you say, ‘Have I caught you at a bad time?’ they’ll reply, ‘Nah, not really, I wasn’t doing anything.’ Then it’s 20 minutes of good critical debate, questionable jokes, and idle gossip.”
Arnold is the affable and easy man behind an agency that’s made a name for itself with experimental design for a plethora of clients from architecture to fashion to culture, each approached with a sensitive yet bold standpoint. Take the Tennent Brown Architects site design, for instance: the typography tumbles over itself like a set of carefully constructed steps, while the balance of beautifully shot photography and text is as considered and breathtaking as if the designs were for a coffee table book rather than a digital platform.
Sons & Co’s rather traditional moniker was born from a hilariously ironic take on that tricky task of actually turning yourself into a business. According to Arnold, he and co-founder Tim Kelleher were “drawn to traditional business names, the ones you typically find on the letterheads of law firms: Bendini, Lambert & Locke; Wolff & Byrd; Oppenheim, Taff & Associates. So, we started with Kelleher & Arnold, but it seemed dry,” he says. “We added & Sons for kicks and then experimented with & Co. for a bit of false grandeur. In the end we dropped our surnames and settled on something which sounds vaguely traditional, but isn’t: Sons & Co.”
We’re not sure they needed to add any sort of “false grandeur” to make themselves seem credible, but Arnold knows that already. “People will tell you names are important, but they aren’t. Look at Apple—it’s a fruit. We only had one criterion: when speaking on the phone we didn’t want to repeat or spell the name. But all day it’s ‘s-o-n-s…’ It’s a little bit regrettable we couldn’t get that right.”
The small and playful outfit is based in Lyttelton, “the main shipping port of Christchurch” in New Zealand’s South Island. “We share an old warehouse with some boatbuilders and every day we watch the trucks and cranes and boats on the docks move cargo containers around,” Arnold says. “It’s quite fascinating. What’s in all these metal boxes? Where are they all going? Actually, a guy called Marc Levinson answered these questions, and many more, in a book called The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. It’s surprisingly good.”
Doesn’t it all sound rather idyllic, working on the mathematical minutiae of web design while also pondering the bigger questions: where does it all come from? Thinking about what’s in the boxes out the window can’t be such a bad way to spend your time, perhaps because the design world is somewhat idyllic down under. “It’s great,” Arnold confirms. “There’s a small-town feel, studios are typically one room, and everyone knows each other.
“Perhaps living and working in a faraway place like New Zealand means we’re very outward-looking and open to ideas. The artist Colin McCahon [a New Zealand painter] said something like ‘New Zealand is a country with big front windows’—we’re always looking out to the horizon.”
Arnold got into design in “the usual way—unspectacular school and university grades led naturally to jobs in advertising and graphic design.” He explains that prior to this reluctant education, “as teenagers, it was a love of album covers, logos, posters, and books—more so than art—that led the way to careers in commercial design.”
The studio is now eight years old, and has found its feet during a time when the landscape of digital design has undergone numerous changes. “Designing ‘websites for telephones’ sounds like a very strange idea, yet mobile and responsive design has been the most notable change for us,” says Arnold. “Oh, and perhaps the availability and support for webfonts. Aside from that, in the last eight or so years we haven’t changed the way in which we work at all—it’s still very much a case of moving things around on a page until they look good.”
Sons & Co now includes seven staffers, including its co-founders, who all abide by the unwritten ethos to “say ‘yes’ to everything that doesn’t matter” when dealing with client requests. Surely it must be hard with some clients though, to convince them to go with what are often pretty experimental and innovative approaches to site design? “Good manners and a sense of humor are indispensable,” says Arnold. “But the truth of the matter is the clients are typically ambitious and innovative themselves, they don’t need convincing. Good people make good clients.”