SGTH Designs: Positive by Design

by Kate Andrews | March 18, 2011

Shanghai-based SGTH Designs is a new breed of design consultancy focusing on identity and brand design for services whose value is measured by the positive contributing change they create, support or defend. SGTH strongly believe in the power of design to “not just make things look pretty,” but to practice a more sustainable approach to communication design. We sat down with the founder of the first studio in China to be listed on the Design Can Change website, Mario Van der Meulen, to discuss his experiences so far.

Notes on Design: Where are you originally from and what brought you to China?

Mario: I’m from Belgium – that small, complicated country in the middle of Europe where the beer is plenty and the chocolate is good. In 2000, however, I was given the opportunity to work for an international advertising agency in Shanghai and to fulfill a life-long ambition to work abroad. That path lead to different things and I have not looked back since.

Notes on Design: Who exactly makes up the SGTH team?

Mario: We’re a small setup; the biggest we were at one point was 6, but on average we have about 4 people in our team. Our blessing (client exposure and the demand for expertise) is our curse: there is no shortage of designers seeking to work with us, but I have not seen anyone stay on for longer than two years. The challenges we have and the value we seek to add in what we do is just not for every designer, it seems.

Notes on Design: What is the idea behind SGTH?

Mario: There are a few angles. For clients, we offer senior design talent with international experience and vision, as well as a one-on-one working process. Our clients meet with us (the designers) in person and there are no layers of representatives involved, although not every company appreciates this approach. We are also working for the greater good – big words, but we prioritize delivering positive design solutions by focusing on projects that contribute to positive change. We always work as sustainably as possible too.

Notes on Design: How do clients respond to the idea of “doing good design”?

Mario: This really takes care of itself, as we do not entertain projects where the focus or outcome is not what we define as “doing good.” When establishing SGTH, my objective was to be able to choose who to work for and what to represent. Working with or in agencies, I had difficulties delivering the same passion for products I did not like, or brands I did not associate with. If a brand or product doesn’t fit our philosophy, we make sure to explain this to the prospective client. Diplomatically, we try to play that hand in a nice way, not in an overly arrogant manner!

Notes on Design: Are there any other China-based design companies that also follow this philosophy?

Mario: Apply the term “design” to its broader meaning, and there are a quite a few who knowingly do this, and a whole bunch of others who (perhaps) unknowingly push for positive design in China. Our brother in arms is A00 Architecture; although we work in different disciplines, we often overlap. Together we have delivered award-winning projects such as URBN Hotels and Just Grapes. In both projects, we pushed for eco solutions throughout the entire process.

Notes on Design: What are you working on at the moment?

Mario: We are actually working on a few projects at the moment, all of which are keeping us very busy. For example, we’re wrapping up an identity redesign for an American sports apparel company who make dry-fit shirts from recycled plastic bottles. Another project we are close to finishing is identity design for a Taiwanese manufacturer of climate control components who invest heavily in alternative and more eco-friendly methods of temperature and air control. They are now exploring how their packaging can fit the product’s eco-message.

We also have an ongoing packaging redesign project for a household/lifestyle brand that manufactures products from certified organic, natural materials. The aim is to reduce the impact of their packaging whilst finding a new way to increase profit margins and reduce logistical costs.

Notes on Design: Where do you find your inspiration?

Mario: There is no fixed process or solution; inspiration is everywhere, but the mind needs to be receptive to it. Whenever I feel “stuck,” I will drop everything that I’m doing (no matter how important), and go to a park, take a train, spend hours staring at a window, or even hop on a plane and go somewhere to gain new insights. The key is to look for a breakthrough, not just an idea. Breakthroughs can happen on the subway, in museums, on my way home, or even whilst laying in bed, but it’s necessary to practice being present for them to occur.

Notes on Design: What does the future hold for SGTH?

Mario: I’ll quote Stefan Sagmeister here for you as this is an interview on graphic design and no interview is complete without a referral to “the man”. He said it best: “I do not know where I am going, but I know I want to be there.”

It’s difficult to answer this question with any degree of certainty: we have the opportunity to expand, but the fear is in becoming enslaved by overheads, resulting in limited choices in who to work for. Being responsible for an employee’s income and career is quite a weight to carry. We often spread the “green gospel” via lectures and workshops, and are involved in part-time teaching in design institutions. There are a number of possibilities, but the priority will remain to push for solutions that go beyond trends e.g. designing green, and to work for brands who are also in it to make a difference. Or, as I would say, those who may not have the capability to make a dent, but who have the desire to, at least, leave a mark. And designing marks is our speciality.

Find out more and see more work from SGTH Design on their website www.sgth.com. Follow Mario on Twitter @SGTHdesigns.

Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.

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