COURTESY OF BURO NORTH
Soren Luckins of Büro North is one of those rare creatures: the polymath. His training and interest in a range of areas that can loosely be filed under the heading “art and design” are the basis of Büro North’s business model – multidisciplinary design – and his “open” approach helped to establish the award-winning company.
Evidence of Büro North’s work can be found across Melbourne, the most high-profile and visible examples being the monolithic sign at the pedestrian entry to ACMI on Federation Square and the large illuminated letterforms on Flinders Street.
The company’s imprint can also be seen in the art deco-inspired signage for the refurbished Regent on Collins, and in the interior graphics and signage for the new Myer head office at Docklands.
Büro North (the first part of the name comes from the German word for studio, while, as Luckins explains, “north is the universal reference point”) is founded on the concept of evidence-based design: its ideas and design processes are improved and refined through research and real-world testing.
“It’s an expensive and laborious process for Büro North, and one that we can’t often pass on to the client, but it’s also one of the key things that sets us apart from our competitors,” says Luckins.
“The fact that we have evidence that supports our design decisions – whether it’s that 52 per cent of people prefer to read information this way or that way, or some other statistic developed to assist the design process – takes away that subjectivity that’s so prolific in the design community.”
Luckins is a graduate of the BA Design program at Swinburne University, where he studied industrial design. After completing his degree, he went to Germany, where he studied architecture, graphic design, silversmithing and sculpture. Luckins worked for a multidisciplinary company whose practitioners included photographers, architects, landscape architects, graphic and industrial designers and artists.
“There were about 30 people – a dynamic firm – I got to work on all sorts of different projects. I thought it was pretty exciting,” he says.
This valuable early experience didn’t have quite the impact Luckins hoped it would, however, when he returned to Melbourne in 2001.
“I couldn’t get a full-time gig. I was freelancing for three years, and eventually, through the freelancing, I ended up with enough work to sustain me full time. Then I’d pick up the odd job here and there. Eventually I had more odd jobs than freelance work, so (in 2004) I decided to quit freelance and start a studio. I made a website and put ‘we’ and ‘our staff’ all over the website, even though it was just me sitting in a room.”
Landing a reasonably lucrative, six-month job was the turning point for Luckins and Büro North.
It allowed him to hire one employee, and things grew exponentially from there; the company now employs 14 full-time and two part-time staff, among them architects, landscape architects, interior designers and industrial and graphic designers.
Büro North eschews a hierarchical set-up in favour of a more egalitarian one; part of that model is that staff should acquire shares.
“In 2009, Finn Butler became a co-director of Büro North, leading the firm’s wayfinding projects, and there are a couple of other younger guys on their way to becoming part of the business, and that’s exciting for me because I see Büro North as a collaborative studio rather than the traditional business model,” says Luckins.
One of Büro North’s key areas of expertise is the aforementioned wayfinding – as Luckins describes it, this is “the science of defining, planning and shaping the contents of a built environment for navigational?purposes”.
In other words, it’s about helping people navigate often-complex physical environments, the most basic example being through the use of appropriate signage.
Royal Children’s Hospital
COURTESY OF BURO NORTH
Büro North has applied its wayfinding aptitude to its most recent project, for the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre at South Wharf. This new building, the recipient of the Public Architecture Award at the National Architecture Awards in 2010, is considered by Luckins to be one of Melbourne’s best, but visitors to it have been confused about how to navigate it.
“The MCEC management team came to us to solve an extremely expensive and complex issue. They realised that many of the delegates coming to conferences at the centre are getting lost, and the MCEC have started losing conference contracts due to the poor wayfinding, signage and building branding,” explains Luckins. “The connection between how the MCEC communicates to its delegations and what those same people experience when they turn up was not aligned.”
Using sample groups, Büro North has carried out extensive on-site testing to determine why the site is not working, and through this process has devised the best communication methods for solving the problem.
“Now that we understand the science behind the problem, we have started designing the solution,” says Luckins.
A Büro North project for the Royal Children’s Hospital, which Luckins says “is possibly the most significant project the studio has ever worked on”, is nearing completion after four years.
The company has developed the wayfinding signage and internal theming graphics for the hospital, using a specifically child-friendly approach.
“A vast amount of research was undertaken to understand the navigational behaviour of children and how they cognitively navigate space – what their abilities for comprehension are and how to engage them, and keep them engaged within what is traditionally a stressful environment,” says Luckins.
“We engaged a local illustrator to help develop the theming graphics while developing a custom typeface, pictograms, signage system and language and terminology specific to the children’s hospital.”
This collaborative approach – employing professionals from outside the company when needed – is an extension of the approach taken from within.
“When you throw a problem at a group as diverse as that it’s astounding the results that can be developed; and the way those ideas bounce between people when they have different lenses,” says Luckins.
Luckins is so closely entwined with Melbourne that he is still able to find wonder in the city. He marvels at Melbourne’s diversity and its apparently endless capacity for renewal. “I’m spending from 7a ’til 6pm in the CBD most days. The rate of change, and the constant flux within the CBD I find exciting, and I think it has created almost its own perpetual motion.”
After five years of growth, during which it took on projects in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia, Büro North last month received a prestigious British D&AD (Design & Art Direction) award for a wayfinding and signage project at Falls Creek.
But, Luckins says, the time has come for Büro North to consolidate, which means “projects that challenge us, with enthusiastic clients that align with our cultural and environmental ideals”, he says.
Lofty aims, perhaps, but ones that this innovative practice is more than capable of making a reality.