Ken Cato scratches his pepper and salt hair and turns his intense gaze towards the interviewer.

“Do you know what the AGI is? It’s an elite group of international designers. I got to be invited in the 1970s — it’s by invitation only. It was set up by designers of exceptional quality to share time and thoughts with friends. There are stringent tests.”

Cato is Australia’s best-known graphic designer. His identity designs include some of the country’s best known logos, from the “Sao dipped in Vegemite” of the Commonwealth Bank to the neo-modernist, vaguely Martial eagle on the front of Wolf Blass wine bottles.

At the time when Cato was invited to join the AGI, he was the youngest member ever. “Once you’re a member, it’s the best thing in the world,” he says.

“Design is a profession I got into that when I got into it, I didn’t know that it existed. I’ve worked in 108 different countries and my business has enormous cultural interaction. We’ve been working internationally since 1973.”

We’re in the green room of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, where the design conference Cato founded, agIdeas, is being held. Upstairs, a talk is being given by prominent Australian visual artist Claire Healy, who is showing slides of some of her work to an audience of several hundred.

Down in the green room, it’s all buzz and energy, as T-shirted agIdeas staffers run around with clipboards and headsets organising speakers, while well-coiffed designers talk quietly to each other. In another room, there is a bank of MacBook Pros. The toilet has been turned into a makeshift photography studio, complete with lights and tripods.

agIdeas is Cato’s creation. Beginning in 1991, it has gown into Australia’s largest and most public design festival. “It’s got a turnover of $1.5 million-plus, 12,000 people go through the event, and we’ll have our 500th speaker through the conference this year,” he tells me. “This event started out for students. Now we’re a very grown-up event.”

Cato is particularly excited about the large schools and children’s program agIdeas will feature this year. AgIdeas Futures, it’s schools event, is essentially a kind of careers expo for secondary students looking at a career in design. Speakers included hot UK designers Made Thought and much-loved Australian illustrator Shaun Tan. Says Cato: “The question is, how do we get to people who might want to be designers, rather than becoming doctors or lawyers or merchant bankers?”

Cato is passionate — possibly even evangelical — about the value of design. “Design provides difference. It makes a difference, it provides you with all the choices, design provides you with the ability to create an identity by associating yourself with a range of things.”

When you get up in the morning and put on a particular set of clothes, Cato argues, you’re making choices about design. When you buy this car or not the other car, you’re making a choice about design. As the consumerist tint of Cato’s example suggests, agIdeas is a distinctly corporate kind of event.

To underline it, this year’s agIdeas staged a business breakfast that included a speech by rock star designer Mauro Porcini, the global head of design at much-admired US manufacturer 3M. Porcini, a charismatic Italian from Milan, wore the kind of perfectly tailored suit only an Italian graphic designer can get away with. He gave a polished presentation about his work with 3M, long considered one of the most innovative companies in the world. 3M spends $6.8 billion on research and development every year — a huge proportion of its worldwide revenue of $29.7 billion — a figure that dwarfs the R+D investment of any Australian corporation. The company that gave us the Post-It Note sells 75,000 different products, from the prosaic to next-generation high-tech.

“We live in a society of mass customisation,” Porcini explained in his talk, sketching a hierarchy of “consumer experience” that begins with functionality and usability at the the bottom and ascends to “pleasure”, “meaning” and “dreams”. He describes the “ah hah” moment at the company, when its design excellence was mentioned as a key revenue driver in The Wall Street Journal‘s CFO blog.

Also speaking that morning was innovation guru Goran Roos, a member of Julia Gillard’s manufacturing taskforce and an internationally recognised researcher in the field of intellectual capital. Roos argued that design is fundamental to innovation and therefore productivity: “Productivity is not about cost cutting, but doing smarter things in smarter ways.” As a example, he cited Apple, which he describes as “mediocre products, badly put together, but with brilliant design”.

If all this sounds very bottom-line focused, that’s because it is. “Design is often confused with art,” Roos intoned, just to make sure everyone understood that it wasn’t.

I asked Cato about this later in our interview. “It can be artistic,” he replied. “Some people here are artistic. My world is incredibly pragmatic.”

But does Australian business get it? As Roos pointed out in his speech, Australia is only a middling performer when it comes to innovation and design.

“See the flat side of my head here?” Cato asks, pointing to the fashionable buzz-cut he sports. “That’s me banging my head up against a brick wall. No, look, I think business is beginning to listen. This has grown because government has been telling industry that it has to get more internationally competitive.”

Cato explains that copies of the sumptuous 400-page printed program for agIdeas are sent to the top 500 companies in Australia and New Zealand. The reception, however, is “mixed”. “Some people love it, some get in touch and ask ‘do you want us to send it back?’,” he says.

But Cato seems to believe that agIdeas can itself make a difference to the perception and value of design in Australia. He wants to expand the event further, bringing in higher-profile speakers and reaching out to wider demographics. “There’s speakers we would love to bring, we wanted to bring Al Gore, Bill Gates said he had heard of the event and would like to come but he had a board meeting. We get extraordinary people, we deliver extraordinary value for money.

“This is a chance to give something back, and to make things better, to make design better. There’s nothing better than this conference in the world, huge numbers in the profession recognise the value of this,” Cato insists, his limpid eyes fixing on me, closing the deal.

Ken Cato really believes in design. “The only thing that holds us back is the money.”

Peter Fray

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