Tanya Sim and Mark Braddock about the importance of being uncompromising creative Blockheads.
Tanya Sim and Mark Braddock, Co-founders of Block Branding
Consumption: Water and Tea
It’s been a while since we spoke. Years. As a young startup in Perth, I went agency doorknocking until I found my springboard in the creative industries. Block has always been my favourite Perth studio because they share my excitement about great design. Over the years, we danced around each other, and as I was drawn towards in-house roles, I managed to be their client a few times.
Tanya: “This is our 21st year as Block. Before, we worked and lived abroad, including in Scotland and the USA. We had travelling-the-world type careers, but of course, that came with drawbacks like you can’t buy nice things because it always felt like we were perching while working and then moving on. We settled in Perth because our families were here, and it always felt like home.”
Mark: “We didn’t think about business when we settled here. It wasn’t a smart decision to set up a branding agency here.” He laughs, and Tanya agrees. “We just figured out the rest.”
“Not that it was a major decision point, but shortly after we had made the decision to leave America for Perth, 9/11 happened. And that somewhat confirmed it was good timing.”
Tanya had built a career as an Interior Architect but knew Perth would not be a place where she would find the sought-after work she had been doing. Nor was it an inspirational agency landscape that Mark could see himself in.
“And out of that complete naivety, we said we’d do our own thing”, Tanya shrugged. Mark: “We had at least reached a point where we could keep working with people in the States and our first client, a Swedish animation studio, who didn’t mind us being remote.”
Not yet burdened with the great Aussie lifestyle accessories of kids and mortgages, they felt encouraged to stay in Perth. And with the great Western Australian confidence that there is “always Sydney, Melbourne or somewhere else to move to”, they set up shop and shingle in the City of Light.
“The worst-case scenario was always go and get a real job,” Tanya quips.
”Unfortunately, it didn’t fail well enough, and we got stuck with this job.”
Tanya and Mark rapidly finished each other’s sentences to describe the problematic startup.
“We nearly went down in flames a few times (Tanya), but we failed in failing (Mark).”
Now, I got a glimpse of the dynamic duo with a dose of confident stubbornness and humour. I probed into why they were making a stand in Perth.
“Um, I think, I don't know. I don’t feel like we have arrived. I think it's because we switched from overseas work when we had kids. Less late nights and travel to more local West Australian work.
Then, Tanya and Mark were confronted with their limited belief of what the Perth client and market could accept as ‘great work’.
‘Good enough for Perth’ wasn’t good enough for Block.
“We always endeavoured to do great work. We kept pushing ourselves to start having an impact.
“We wanted to influence the creative industries here, and in the early days, there was a lot of work with culture and the arts.”
The choice seems logical to me. Clients who are already receptive to the expression of good design and who understand the connection between the commercial side of design and its impact on the audience.
“We started growing our reputation here as a branding agency. The WA creative commercial landscape tended to be limited to advertising agencies and graphic design businesses.
“What sets us apart from the others is our community involvement. To make an impact, we want to keep building the place and space of our community. If a local institution is going to rebrand, we want to contribute.
“It took us a while to get from branding the State Theatre Centre to tender for Government and Sports projects. But we are always selective and local."
Block continues to deliver major rebranding projects. From the Black Swan Theatre to the Dockers, Greater Curtin to the Perth Airport, Block infuses its trademark branding language into the WA communities’ most cherished institutions and places.
“Over the last decade or so, we got more into place destination branding. It’s not a new concept, but it's relatively new to Perth. We are not urban planning specialists or place makers per se. The idea of place visioning and place branding has come a long way.
“Sometimes, we begin when the master plan is already done and express what is set in motion. Ideally, we’re defining and building a vision for a place rather than just developing an identity for the place. We are starting even before the master plan, like in the case of the Greater Curtin project.
“We ask ourselves what is the vision the master plan can build on? How do we begin visualising and verbalising a tone for a place and making it more about the community than just about the built environment planners and project managers have in mind?
“I enjoy how different disciplines like planners, architects, builders and us come together on these projects,” adds Tanya. “It works when we successfully share the meaning of all our different ways to express the place.
“We’re not involved in the whole duration of a typical master plan for 20 to 30 years. It’s not about the longevity of logos and visuals; it's about the underlying vision. The translation of that underpins the living place.”
Tanya reflects on why she and, subsequently, Block value their work's enduring impact.
“I have this thing now; maybe it's because I'm getting older, or perhaps it's because the children are growing up, maybe because of my strong belief in what we do here. I want Block to be a part of those projects because I want it to be good for the place.
“I don’t say this from an ego-driven angle. I want the city of Perth to be the best it can be, and at least if we are somehow involved, we can help articulate the outcome.
“There are so many identities and campaigns we've done, and we continually create new stuff, but some projects remain important not just in a design-lasting sense but in endurance and meaning to us.”
The Dockers Football Club redesign is also one of those lasting works.
“12 years ago, when our son Fraser was three, we did the rebrand, and he got the first purple junior footy jumper sold. He still goes to the games, and it’s a point of reference for him. And now, funny enough, he bought himself a knockoff retro jumper with the green and red before Block’s rebrand.”
Has Fraser aspirations to join the business in time? It does not sound like Mark is hopeful that his creative genes have been passed to his kids.
“He doesn’t identify as a Creative. It’s funny because he grew up around it, but until he finds some kind of passion for it, I don't think it's necessarily there.
“Our kids may not realise how interesting our work is compared to other parents’ workplaces.”
Mark says they just come in, lie on the sofa, find a screen, and pet the dog at Block.
“My dad was a pharmacist. So going into Creative Studios, he was always like, ‘Oh, wow, this is really interesting’ and probably equally boring."
The older daughter, Leila, is in Sweden and remotely enrolled in a Psychology honours program.
Tanya points to Mark.
“Leila's just got an incredible head to hold ideas and concepts. She can take an idea and follow it through like Mark.”
Their kid’s personalities are clearly a chip off the old block.
“Leila once called out her teacher for giving the class an illogical challenge; she quickly worked out the entire premise of the study in question was bullshit.”
We laughed as it was an example of what Tanya would call it.
“Blockheads don’t take s**t!”
I want to know about the next generation of creatives working at Block.
“It's more of a generational attitude to say classic stuff that everybody has picked up on. No doubt, there is a change in expectation about the idea that businesses should be serving them rather than the other way around."
Tanya agrees,” When I started, I was working my butt off because I wanted to be the best person I could be. I had to put in long hours. Opportunities for working at a good place didn’t always come easy, so I made the most of it.
“I think there's now more focus on balance, which is not bad, but it's different. The values are in a different place. As kids of the 70s and 80s, we were left alone to figure it out for ourselves.
“There wasn't even the idea of resilience or burnout- you could either hack it or you couldn’t, which is unhealthy in many ways.
“As an employer, I feel somewhat deflated by people who expect to be out the door at 5:30 p.m. every day. I completely recognise it shouldn’t be about clock-watching. They are a few of my hang-ups, and I talked about well-being because I think it's super important.
“It’s hard to sometimes manage feedback beyond performance reviews. When something is not working, simply getting praise for doing the job might be polite, but it doesn’t achieve anything further," Mark adds,
“The creatives who leave Block take a great skillset with them and a love of what it takes to do good creative work.”
Mark's work ethos shines through: “You must keep working at your craft. If you get lucky, it happens a couple of times during your life that you can do really great work.
“There may be a view that ‘great work’ means Instagram aesthetics, but often, there is no substance. Substance and aesthetics are not mutually exclusive but are not the same thing.”
I’m curious about the role of clients in the quality of work Block produces.
Tanya nods. “We got better at identifying clients who value input and advice. And we value producing good work for a fair price and paying our suppliers on time."
The true spirit of Block comes through when Tanya describes it as “being uncompromisingly aware of the reason why Block want to be involved in a project.”
“Of course, you always weigh up the strategic importance of the project for the studio. We add more decision points if the project is complex, like the Identity of a capital city.”
And how can I leave without asking about the impact of AI on the industry?
Mark sighs. “It will be the biggest shift since the Mac came in. Like then, it will be changing creative processes and job titles. It will be changing the expectations of clients somewhat.
“However, the foundations of what we do won’t change; tools always do. For example, CANVA didn’t destroy graphic design. The quality you get from the tools comes with the art direction. You could have given Ansell Adam’s camera to anybody, but that wouldn’t have made them better photographers.”
The Common Ground:
Enduring design can capture the character of a place beyond visuals.
The definition of ‘good’ and ‘great’ design work is tightly linked to the investment in quality, time, and client collaboration.
Clarity about why you take on work creates an uncompromising true north and can have several reasons.
Substance and aesthetics are not mutually exclusive but are not the same thing.