His work – for some of the world’s biggest corporations – is renowned.

Cato was awarded an Order of Australia in June this year in recognition of his 
achievements and service to the Australian community. His generous support of the design community and young design talent has manifested itself in the creation and evolution of the Design Foundation and agIdeas Design Week, held in Melbourne, Australia every year and, more recently, Design Matters, an organisation tasked with developing the state of Victoria as an international design hub.

Curve editor, Belinda Stening, spoke to Cato a week after the news broke about his award to get some insight into how such a successful designer ticks.

How does it feel to be an Officer of the Order of Australia?

Surreal! It’s an enormous honour. I’m only just realising how significant it is. When something like this happens, when it’s not industry confined, it’s a much bigger stage; it’s quite significant and overwhelming.

As a very successful designer, what is the secret to your success?

Any success I have been fortunate enough to enjoy has literally come from hard work – and the most important ingredient is that I love what I do. I’ve been fortunate to live my life without ever having to go to work. I get up in the morning and do what I want to do. I work with extraordinary clients. I’ve had the opportunity to work in 103 different countries and work on almost every conceivable business, product, service, event, in every imaginable area of business with different nationalities and cultural experiences.

How can life not be good? I am still like a kid in a toyshop when I get new clients and projects. You put yourself into a project very quickly, tend to marry the client; it gets very personal and meaningful. Engagement with the client, the project and the adventure that comes from all of that is what, I think, contributes to the result. And obviously this leads to what people would view as success.

How would you describe your work ethic? Are you a hard worker?

Yes, that’s the baseline! I probably work shorter hours at the moment than I have ever worked in my life, and I’m still working a good 12 hours a day, maybe more. But, as I said, I never view it as work. I never sit down and say, “Now I have to stand up and drag myself off to work”. I tend to bounce out of bed and think, “That project I’m working on, that’s pretty exciting” or “Wow, there is something really cool happening in the office” – either here or overseas.

I also find you don’t always discover the solutions to projects you are working on during work hours. It can be in the shower, sitting in traffic, waiting at the airport – and you think, “Hang on a second, I know how to go about this!”

So, do I work hard? … I work intensely. I’m impatient to get to a result. I want to see the result, but that’s just carrying the job with you. It never goes away really.

What drives you to devote time and effort to establish and manage not-for-profit events like agIdeas and the Design Foundation?

I guess I’ve always had interest in the social responsibility we all have. If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a decent life, there are plenty of people that don’t have that. But directly on agIdeas – the opportunity came up to start it and I thought we could do a little bit of good there. The event has grown, the influence is pretty scary, it has a strong and real voice now, with government and education and designers and people who love design and a growing voice with the business community.

I’ve always been enthusiastic about it. And by the second day of every conference I realise why I do it – the good it brings. We get some extraordinary communication from people who have benefited from it or have had their lives changed. Creative and talented kids that have gone into the profession, despite their parents pushing them to ‘get a real job’.

We’ve seen people’s lives turn around because of the conference. There are multiple aspects to it. A few years ago we started Next workshops for kids as young as four to 12 where we encourage them to innovate, create and work with high-profile practising designers.

Next’s purpose is to tap into the freedom we have when we are young, before the barriers of adulthood and preconceptions start, and the ‘we can never do that’ attitude. The kids take what they learn back to their schools, their homes and parents.

In this way, just maybe we might get to influence a segment of the next generation in terms of having an understanding of where design plays a role in their life, for the choices they are provided with – clothes, car, furniture for their home – the choices that design brings, and maybe raise that consciousness so one or two of them may go on to do great things.

How have you managed to build a strong international profile?

When I started my business there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about what designers did – how they worked, how they related to business – because basically we were all servants of ad agencies. We were among the earliest who questioned why we were freelancing to agencies, and questioned why we were not talking to clients directly.

Because what designers do is often much longer term than the short-term tactical work that ad agencies were normally responding to, we started talking to corporations directly. I have seen the profession mature over time where this isn’t seen to be that different – back in 1970 this was quite different!
We only ever set out with one goal when we set the business up, and that was to do good work.

We had no idea what that good work would involve. My company started by accident. We were having a lunch with a group of guys from different businesses each month and on this day we were talking about why someone wasn’t doing something about better design in this country – the old ‘somebody should be doing something’ conversation. And they all looked at us and said, “Come on, you guys, why don’t you do something about it?” An hour later I was in my boss’s office saying, “I’m going to start my own business”.

It was crazy, we had no money, no contacts, nothing really – it was that foolish. We always imagined there were companies out there that needed better design. We started to get enquiries from overseas from people seeing our work and we have been working offshore since 1973.

It was one-brick-at-a-time stuff. Building that reputation – the position for the business – was more difficult in some ways in those days but maybe also easier because there weren’t that many people doing what we did in those days.

Time and consistency of work, the quality of work, probably just brought us to prominence in Europe and in the States. Because of the isolation factor – there could have been a lot of reasons, I don’t know, I speculate on this occasionally.

But I think the key to it was pretty simple – it was whatever job came through the door, we’d treat it like life and death, we’d treat it like it was the only job we were ever going to do. And I can honestly say there haven’t been too many jobs come through our door when we’ve said, “Oh this is just another job, let’s get it out the door.” It’s always been, “Oh here’s another adventure, let’s jump into it and do it”.

Do you think, as an Australian, you have had to work harder than designers from other parts of the world to gain international recognition?

No, I don’t. The best designers in the world all work hard, they work as flat out as they can go. They go hell for leather at it, and it’s not about other people’s standards it’s about your own. People say to me, “You are too hard on yourself, you expect too much”. I think the answer to that is that most people expect too little. The best people in any business all work hard at what they do. It’s as simple as that.

How do you coordinate and manage a business with offices in 12 countries?

Everybody within our offices and network is driven by the same thing. We have enormous pride in the work that we do and the results we get for our clients. I think we pretty much always over-deliver. We love to see the joy on our clients’ faces when the work done exceeds their expectations. We take huge pride in that.

It then becomes a lot about protection of reputation, so you are terrified to do a job that is below the standard you can achieve, or want to be at – because you know how damaging it would be.
This desire is shared by all of our team. No matter what our culture is, we know what’s good and bad.

We have indoctrinated the place (seriously, I think it was a dictatorship and I pretend it’s not any more) but there is a strong ethic on standards. We are not going to let the standards drop.

I wake up every morning hoping I can do something better than I did yesterday. The moment you feel that you’ve arrived and reached your destination then I think you should quit. I hope that goes for all our people. We share the journey internally pretty heavily. It really is a what-we-do-together situation, never just one person.

What techniques do you use to get to the heart of a client’s requirements for a project?

Listen loudly. Just listen loudly. The key to every project and where projects go wrong is always in the first step. If you don’t get the first step right, you can be enthusiastically going down a road that’s going to run into a big dead end.

The thing is to understand the project in the beginning, not just understand the words that are coming at you, but understand the meaning of why the project is happening at all. It’s amazing how many briefings you will go into and people will talk about what they want and see and everything else. So you need to ask: Why are you doing this in the first place?

You have to wind it back to understanding the business situation; to understand what the problem is or what the opportunity is. And then define the best way to convey a solution that will bring about the desired result. For me it’s all about understanding. Once you understand what the communication is supposed to do, you know how to do it – whether it be a single piece of work or an identity program and a way to build a brand.

Nothing these days is local – everything is international, no matter how local people think it is. Competitors aren’t staying in the same backyard, they are doing what they want to do. They are running around the planet. All corporations need to be mindful that their market is not totally identified.

How do you think designers can best help one another as a profession?

That’s an interesting concept! There are a lot of dimensions to this. First, the market isn’t big enough for all of the designers out there; consequently, there is competitiveness among designers. It’s as simple as that.

The competitiveness sometimes gets a bit out of control. I’m talking worldwide. Design is a very competitive and judgemental profession. If you talk to designers, generally they will agree that we should be doing things together. If I observe the behaviour, in reality, we are not.

I think this is where agIdeas, at least in a small way, has encouraged some cooperation. Our ability to cooperate is getting more and more important because we need to send a consistent message to the world. This is exactly what agIdeas is about: that little word – design – and the huge number of meanings that can be attached to it.

The participation, exchange and energy that comes from the event is part of where the cooperation between designers really starts – being generous enough to acknowledge the good stuff and not be too afraid to bring other designers into the equation – it’s about cross-disciplinary collaboration.

As a profession we need to be doing this more – when we have projects that need a design specialist, outside of our expertise, we need to be collaborating and growing and delivering the right outcomes with the best people to collaborate with.

We have always been about cross-discipline. I hate the term graphic designer – I haven’t been a graphic designer for 40 years. I’m just a designer and I’ll use whatever mechanisms I can to get the right result but I’m not necessarily an expert at everything.

We used to work in three dimensions because we thought it was so exciting and sculptural; today we work in five dimensions. We work with sound, time – all sorts of areas that we weren’t always able to before, but today its mandatory. That’s pretty exciting! Can’t wait for tomorrow!

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