Under the studio name of Trampoline, Melbourne-based art director Sean Hogan creates graphic design work for clients across the globe. From experimental album packaging for British pop giants Duran Duran to a compelling visual card game for graphic designers, Hogan’s client work spans from branding to large-scale graphic installations. He also busies himself on numerous thought-provoking self-initiated projects, which he says are imperative to the evolution of his practice. Collective chats with Hogan about Trampoline’s extensive portfolio, and asks him how his work and his process have progressed over the years.

What was the idea behind establishing your studio? What motivates your work? 

I first started Trampoline the day after I left university with two of my classmates. Like a lot of graduates, we thought we could change the world of design and we were very experimental. However, it wasn’t long before we realised we lacked the business knowledge needed to run a successful studio. So we all got work in other studios so we could build up the experience needed and continued our Trampoline work after hours.

My two friends ended up leaving Trampoline to pursue other avenues of design, but I decided to keep the studio going and was then approached by UK design collective Tomato to work with them on the Federation Square project. I worked on that project for nearly five years and once it was finished went back to Trampoline with a much more solid idea of the business of design, work ethic and design knowledge.

In those early years I was very interested in the idea of chaos and the overlapping of forms to communicate an idea. ‘Don’t confuse legibility with communication’ was one of my mantras. This idea was fine for my design theories but was hard to translate into a foundation for the business and client work.

As time has gone on I’ve become much more interested in how you can visually communicate an idea with as little as possible. So in a sense I’ve transitioned from chaos to minimalism.

Has it been a conscious decision to focus on print in your work?

I think you naturally gravitate to what you like. I have always loved print and I like to design for print. I love the smell of the ink and playing with the endless possibilities of the printing process. For me print isn’t just the output of your design, it’s an integral process of forming and informing your design. I have done a lot of work that ends up on the web and it’s just not as satisfying for me as physically holding a beautifully printed poster or book.

In a world that is more and more dominated by screen culture, print is becoming a much more interesting and considered process. Letterpress, foils, varnishes and specialist finishes are adding a tactile experience that the screen can’t. This is why print will never die.

Colour seems to be something you have strong understanding of in your design, can you share with us how this element, in your work, has evolved?

Colour is such an interesting topic. It’s quite intangible like listening to music. Colour is hard to pin down; it can affect you on an emotional and psychological level.

I mentioned earlier about moving towards a minimalist aesthetic and philosophy and part of this process has been the interrogation of colour. I use colour as a tool as a way of communicating an idea or emotion. I think artists like Mark Rothko or James Turrell use colour in the same way.

I had some artwork on exhibition many years ago and the main response from people was how much they loved the colour. They weren’t too concerned about the imagery in the works or the meaning, they only connected with the colour. I found this really interesting. Of course, colour is quite an abstract notion. Everyone will view and respond to colours in their own unique way and this brings about a sense of ambiguity. This interests me immensely especially when applied to visual communication. What happens when graphic design is ambiguous?

When I first went overseas and came back to Australia I realised just how bright, harsh and vivid our light is here. I have wondered if this has had an impact on the way I view and use colour. I often take a Pantone swatch book out on walks to play with colour combinations. Have you ever tried to map all the colour combinations on a gum tree? It’s quite a task.

How important are self-initiated projects to your practice how do they impact upon your client work? 

Self-initiated projects are integral to my development as a designer and artist. I have always generated my own projects outside of my client work and it is essential – it allows me a space to develop my own thoughts and ideas, helps me grow, and exercise my design and thought muscles. Hopefully the more I do this the more I improve. I think time for research and development is also really important. I’m of the opinion that you can never learn too much and I’m constantly visiting Melbourne art galleries and museums, watching films, listening to music, reading and trying to learn as much as possible across a broad range of subjects.

Self-initiated projects should always be fun. The idea of ‘play’ is underrated and I consider it an absolute must. Being unburdened from all the restrictions and considerations that often come with running a studio or designing for a client, allows me to experiment with ideas and discover new techniques. I often use the outcome of these experiments in client work.

I must say it goes the other way as well, and I may have an idea triggered by client work that I will use in my own projects. Both of these ways of working are constantly connecting and informing each other.

My latest project Untitled Geometries is a good example of this. This series seeks to subvert our instinctive understanding of visual codification by disrupting meaning and challenging presumption. What appears as studies in formalism: colour, space, line, volume, mass, balance, composition and scale are actually typographic in nature. Using a well-known and established visual code that represents letters of the alphabet, these works can be read as words if you have the key to decipher the code.

The colours and compositions are deliberately harmonious and pleasing to the eye, which is the antithesis of the words: obscenities intended to offend, to create discord. This paradox creates an interesting friction between what the eye sees and decodes as meaning and the true meaning of the works, hidden in full view, communicating from behind the façade.

We’d be thrilled to hear about your work on the cover art for Duran Duran’s Astronaut, and the collaborations involved in this project? Also, how collaborative is your practice?

Surprisingly, I don’t collaborate with that many other creatives. I find that true collaboration works when all parties bring something unique to the table. There is no point in me working with other graphic designers, as we both do the same things. I do work with photographers on occasion (and where needed) but I am much more interested in trying to generate alternative processes to create imagery or designs.

With Duran Duran’s album Astronaut, John Warwicker from Tomato secured the design of all artwork relating to the album.

He selected a series of creatives from around the world and our brief was to supply him with any kind of artistic bits and pieces we had produced: illustrations, photos, patterns and mark makings were all supplied to him, which he combined and used to create the artwork for the album, singles, booklets etc.

This was a wonderful, unusual, remote collaboration with people from all over the world who had never met. A few months after I had sent John my contributions I was in the city and walked past a music store and the whole place was decked out in the album artwork. It was quite a trip to see my mark making experiments (some scanned from my small moleskinenotebooks) on the cover of a Duran Duran album.

These interactions all lead to knowledge and experience. Collaborations are also about connecting with people and building your own network. You learn who you can trust, rely on and work with well.

Your recent project for Desktop was the Mindset card series, it’s a fantastic concept, can you share with us the process behind the cards, and what the future plans for the project are – will you be commercialising the project? How how they been received?

I was set the challenge by Desktop to create something that could change human behaviour or thinking. I was only given only two weeks to find a solution, produce an outcome, record case studies and document the entire process as an essay. It was a very tight time frame considering printing of the cards alone took a whole week.

In terms of the concept, I knew I had to create something I was interested in and understood – there was no time for research. I am a fan of Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and this was the catalyst for developing a set of cards that you could play with to instigate a change in your own thought patterns.

As I developed the cards I realised that by playing with only colour and form (non-representational imagery) it allowed for an openness within the set of guidelines that I wanted. The choice to make them physical cards was also a consideration, as I wanted it to be a tactile experience – to get off the screen and use your hands.

Instructing users to randomly select only 12 cards out of the deck of 40 and arranging (or designing) them in a pleasing manner, achieved a balance between direction and freedom, allowing the user to consider a problem and have fun at the same time.  Instead of looking for the ‘right answer’, the focus became about balance, harmony and relationships between the cards, and from what I observed in the case studies, everybody dealt with these elements in their own unique manner.

When you become engaged in this kind of problem it frees the mind to perhaps solve other problems or think about things in a different way. It’s a technique I often use when designing – to give myself restrictions to push my thought processes into alternate areas.

The response from everyone who has played the cards has been incredibly positive and I have had a lot of requests as to when they will be available, which made me consider turning the prototype into a product. I have had some external interest and am in the middle of preparing a proposal for this, but I’m also developing a strategy to produce a small run myself if this doesn’t come through.

We are interested in the Noise in My Head award winning book you designed, how did that project come together?

I have worked with Melbourne Books for a number of years, designing publications for RMIT that they published, and have built a great working relationship with them

They called to say they had a manuscript for a book they thought I might be interested in designing. Once I read it, I was in. Author Jimi Kritzler compiled a series of interviews with fifty of Australia’s most innovative and significant bands and artists currently at the creative peak of their careers.

I loved that Jimi, a musician himself, was part of the scene, so the interviews and stories felt real, raw, honest and often brutal.  The fact that this wasn’t a retrospective book but a reflection of what was current also interested me greatly.

The difficulty in designing this book was how to represent a variety of bands, appeal to their visually literate fans and also be enticing for newcomers.  I convinced the publisher to strip the book back to two colours and put the print savings into a hard cover.  I felt that the music and the stories carried a gravitas and weight that I wanted to be physically felt when you held the book.

I purposely avoided all visual cues that certain music genres communicate. I kept the layouts and typography clean. I pushed the title Noise in My Head to the corners of the book: a marginalised heading for marginalised music. The contents page was designed so you had to turn the book vertically to read the list. When viewed horizontally the list appears like a queue of punters lining up to enter the gig (or enter the book in this case).

Each interview was treated in exactly the same way so there was no hierarchy between bands – everyone was equal. This was one of those jobs that was a delight to do and I am incredibly proud to have been involved.

Finally, can you share with our student readers one piece of advice that you feel is imperative to their future as designers?

I know this is more than one thing but I would say: be true to yourself, your abilities and work hard. Be kind, open and truthful when dealing with people. Be humble with your achievements.