Ken Cato has brought a new level of sophistication to Australian graphic design in a career spanning over forty years, which makes him an Indesign Luminary.
January 30th, 2018
It is the nature of the design field that, outside its own environs, practitioners are not known by name but by their works, and over the last four decades Ken Cato’s works, through the brands they stand for, have become as familiar to our eyes as the sky or the kitchen sink.
Take the Commonwealth Bank, Channel Seven TV network, Arnott’s Biscuits, Coles supermarkets, BHP Steel, Macquarie Bank, Victoria Bitter.
Through corporate imagery and communication, iconic brands such as these can become so embedded in our psyches that its status as commercial entities gives way to a natural place in life as we know it. It is there that Ken Cato’s work is most effective.
But this, says Cato, is for someone else to decide. “I don’t know that it’s even an important question. It’s more about how you use your life – if you’re doing something that’s meaningful. I feel like I was born a designer,” he says.
“You work when you don’t think you’re working because your mind won’t stop. It’s like breathing.” He also says: “It’s terrible if you don’t enjoy everything. I wouldn’t have missed a day of my life.” Cato’s work, then, is his life’s meaning embodied, and in acknowledgement of this, he had a statement (he’d read in the newspaper) by controversial photographer Bill Henson writ large into frosted plate glass at the entrance to his Melbourne office.
It reads: ‘Work defines us: we use it to measure our success. It’s about meaning as well as money. We may not be mad about the boss, but some of us are crazy about the work.’
Cato’s success is more than apparent in many other ways. Today, Cato Purnell Partners [ed note: now Cato Brand Partners] can readily be described as the leading design and identity management group in Australia.
The company has offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Darwin. But the international spread of Cato’s work is also remarkable. The first graphic designer to export and promote Australian design capability, Cato produced his first job in Asia in 1972.
The company maintains affiliate offices in Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Mexico City, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. “For me, the cross-cultural thing has always been an interest,” he says. “It gives us a different perspective on things.” In fact, “many of the international partnerships were set up just because it was an exciting thing to do.”
Acknowledgement of Cato’s work from his peers has always been abundant. With projects spanning brand and identity development, packaging, corporate and promotional literature and environmental and multimedia design, Cato has won over 150 awards over the years, before refraining from entering any further competitions in 1999. From his earliest days in business, examples of his work have been included in the world’s most prestigious design publications and exhibitions.
For his part, he has contributed enormously to the industry. He has participated in many judging panels and selection reviews, and over the last 30 years has been a guest or keynote speaker at over 100 local and international industry events.
He is a foundation member of the Australian Writers and Art Directors Association, a member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA), the Design Institute of Australia, the Australian Marketing Institute, the Industrial Design Council of Australia and is patron of the Australian Academy of Design.
He has written and edited five books on design and designers and produced another five featuring his own company’s work, publications including The View from Australia (1986), Design for Business (1987), Design by Thinking (2000) and First Choice (2003).
He also instigated and staged AGIdeas in Melbourne, an event that is now the world’s largest annual student design conference. Starting in 1991 with seven speakers, a student committee of 12, and 550 delegates, the 2009 conference offered 44 speakers over three days and attracted 11,000 attendees.
These countless accomplishments have been duly recognised. He is proud to have been the youngest member inducted into Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) in 1978. “AGI is a bunch of self-professed best designers in the world,” he says.
“You’ve got to be invited then pass a whole series of hurdles. Basically, it’s a social club and the first time I went it was like a history lesson in design. Then years later, I couldn’t believe it, I became president of that organisation,” (from 1997-2000). Cato has also been awarded the first Australian Honorary Doctorate of Design (from Swinburne University of Technology), an Honorary Bachelor of Design from The Sydney Graphics College and inducted into the Hall of Fame of the inaugural Victorian Design Awards. In 2009 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from ICOGRADA.
The indefatigable drive required to sustain such continuous high-level achievement over four decades surely can’t be endless. But Cato simply says, “I’ve never been as enthusiastic as I am now. It only gets better.”
Confident, positive, ever-efficient, and an ardent proselytiser who promotes the value of design, Ken Cato is as close as we’ve got to an Australian design tsar – and he carries himself for the role, presenting in a seamless image the effective blend of character traits and ideals that fulfil the vision.
Through technical schooling, and a couple of years (1963/64) at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) doing a Diploma of Art, Cato discovered design, international design publications, a number of design heroes, and his calling. He remembers, early on, becoming Melbourne graphic designer Brian Sadgrove’s first assistant, and realising how much he had to learn. In the late 1960s, he began working at SPASM advertising where he encountered a “bunch of incredibly passionate and driven people.”
It was a crucial time for him, he says, recalling conversations with agency principal, John Singleton “about me trying to make things look better and him trying to make things work harder.”
Cato quotes a defining exchange in which Singleton said “Mate, don’t ever forget: First right. Wonderful second. It was the spirit of those words that I took into establishing the business,” he says. “If you actually understood the project and what had to be done, you’d be better equipped to make aesthetic choices. So that idea has always been there, and if I put that together with my old State school motto, which was: ‘What’s worth doing is worth doing well’, it probably defines where I come from.”
After a series of lunches with publishing colleagues complaining “there were no decent designers in this country,” in 1970, Cato set up Cato Hibberd Design with Terry Hibberd, “an English typographer of enormous worth. Terry for me was a phenomenal partner, there couldn’t have been a better balance,” says Cato, as Hibberd handled administration and production and Cato dealt with the design.
Their commitment to making each job progressively better meant the company grew steadily. When Hibberd retired in 1982, Cato continued as a sole operator.
Subsequently, digital technology changed the industry radically, although Cato maintains the fundamentals of design remained constant. “In 2000 I did a book called Design by Thinking, which was my push back against the computer world, basically because clients would say, ‘It must be a lot easier now you’ve got a computer’.” Cato’s response was: “No, I still have to use my brain.”
Until around 1990, Cato recalls, Cato Partners was always busy, and clients found their own way to them. Then “international design groups started fossicking around in Australia purchasing local design companies.
That brought with it a more aggressive marketing approach, and getting the business became a lot more critical,” he says. Along with these developments, design strategy became chargeable, higher fees were introduced and a new standard of professionalism was established within the industry.
Cato has a couple of definitions for design. One is: Design makes business strategy visible. Another is: To make a plan to achieve an end result – which he likes because it makes no mention of aesthetics. Essentially, Cato simply likes solving problems: “For us, it’s about solutions to issues that businesses and corporations have.”
One of Cato’s great strengths is his ability to focus sharply on the problem at hand. “My agenda will have God knows how many things happening at once, but I have the ability to get in the zone, to focus totally on one thing. I delegate bits to other people, but ultimately I’m still across it, still heavily involved,” he says.
Architect, Mark Healey, who recently worked with Cato on his new house, testifies to this. “Working with design professionals is an interesting situation for architects. The stories you hear are of ego battles and friction. This was not what I experienced. I have never met a client with such an incredible ability to analyse, and zoom in on the most unresolved element in a scheme.”
Cato also makes the most of his time. “I tend to be an early starter. I like to get in sometime between six and eight because I’m fresh in the morning. And working slowly is not something I enjoy. There are times when you need time to actually craft an idea. But to actually resolve the issue, I think those things happen very quickly. If you’ve got to sit there and pull fluff out of your navel for too long, it’s not going to be any better,” he says.
“For me, it’s always been about doing as well as I can do. Usually people come to the business because they want the principals involved, so it’s always been about the orchestra – there are a lot of people in this business who make me look very good,” says Cato.
“Pride makes you be involved in everything. You pride yourself on getting the thing right, so you do your homework, then you do your thinking, and then you do the job. I’m proud of the 40-year track record in business. But the thing that 40 years gives you is phenomenal experience and insights – 40 years and 40 plus countries we’ve done projects in – you take that experience to the table on every job.”
Cato is also proud of the breadth of work the business handles, “I did film titles for the Elizabeth movies, for instance. We did the neon ceiling at World Expo – 7.5 kilometres of neon tubing which is still, I think, the biggest neon tubing project anywhere ever done.” He is excited about being “involved in the biggest thing that’s ever happened in transportation in Abu Dhabi. They’re about to put seven or eight new modes of transport into this place. There’s so much extraordinary stuff going on,” he adds.
Around five years ago Cato “began to reflect on the next generation of the company.” Having employed classically trained English designer Graham Purnell 10 years earlier, Cato concluded he “was probably the best designer I’d ever engaged – so I said to him, basically, How would you like to change the name on the front door?”
Changes in his personal life were another consideration. Cato has completed a new house on a farm an hour north of Melbourne. “I’d like to be able to work from there a few days a week,” he says.
“If you’re on the phone to Dubai or China, they don’t care where you are, and with electronic communications, I can be attached to the studio, I can see the work immediately. You care about your time a lot more as it passes. You think about that pretty carefully.” Nevertheless, he says, design is “not a profession you can turn on in the morning and turn off at night. I could never think of not working, not doing the things I love. You can tell me I can’t come to work, but it’s not going to stop me being a designer.”
Ken Cato was featured as a Luminary in issue #40 of Indesign magazine. Ed’s note: Cato received an Officer of the Order of Australia award in 2013, after original publication, which has been added to his name in the title but not throughout.
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