Design Events

Toko say no to the design copy culture – Insight #08

I love a good critique so I left the October Insight talk [web archive] featuring Dutch design duo Toko well sated. They reflected on their career; taking risks, both professional and personal (they moved their lives to Australia almost on a whim) and the state of the design industry.

Toko at the Apple Store presenting for the Infront Insight series

Reference is not concept

Theirs was a rally cry against derivative design. They talked about “empty aesthetics”, and the problem of relying on design blogs and the “reference folder”. Uh oh! The reference folder! I still maintain reference collections from my graphic design days, and a visual bookmark collection – and I love them! But I also understand the critique. Who needs a concept when you can just see what’s “now” by scanning design blogs? Who needs a solution when you can just copy a pattern? Interestingly Toko did not encounter the use of the reference folder in their native Holland, but found its use widespread elsewhere, particularly in Australia. Is this a result of the Antipodean condition – being so far and feeling so far behind?


Toko also commented on the obsession with business growth. It’s interesting – they left an established career and client base to come here. So clearly they are not focussed on money. But they find that Australians are. They are asked regularly if they want to grow their business, which is apparently a question never broached in Holland. This leads me to their reflections on their company and workplace.

Experience principles of the design workplace

Their business philosophy is to grow better, not bigger. Their belief is that quality and innovation comes in small packages, for the plain fact that talent is a too scarce a resource to build a large team around. Furthermore their experience is that personality, collaboration, flexibility (in design approach and solution), and passion is only sustainable in a manageable environment. They acknowledged their gratitude for their time at Studio Dumbar. A prolific agency where they learnt that “quality transcends quantity”. There they found an environment that supported individual talent instead of turning people into employees – taking an active interest in their progression and growth. The atmosphere was described as informal, friendly, flat not hierarchical (“you’re a designer, that’s it”) with a shared ambition for quality. Imagine if clients shortlisted studios based on these principles and not company size?

Copy culture demeans the value of design

But back to reference culture. The critique of derivative design was that it was inflexible, making for predictable design and halting progression of skills and practice. At stake is the integrity of the profession, if the value of design is cannibalised by designers themselves and so easily diluted. This has been cruelly felt by Toko whose work was plagiarised by a design student who ended up winning a coveted Red Dot design award. But the message I got was that it’s not only about awards. If there is no originality in concept or execution we allow our service to be too easily commoditised and its value too easily bargained.

The alternative? What we all learnt at art school. Concept is king. Or as one of the Toko duo put it (sorry didn’t note which) “when the ideas are there the aesthetic happens”.


Their talk ended on an aesthetic note – “perfection is not a good look” as demonstrated in the poster for the event itself (does something look amiss to you?). Perhaps this was a nod to design tools doing the work of designers. They introduced the Japanese principle wabi-sabi – about the imperfect, the incomplete, modesty, roughness, simplicity. They talked about finding inspiration in opposites and using those areas of tension.

So stay fresh, be novel, concept then design, don’t pursue perfection, ignore design blogs and trash your reference folder. Hmmm, I still don’t think I am capable of doing that last one. Also, if reference is bad should I or should I not include a link to the Toko site? You know you want it.

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