Symon Oliver and Antonio Lennert of ALSO Collective

Understanding the true root of an issue is a fundamental step in the process of developing appropriate design solutions.  A general obstacle in the progress is an inability for an individual, or an individual practice, to fully realize the complexity of these roots to create a whole resolution due to the limitations of specific disciplines.

Antonio Lennert and Symon Oliver confront this difficultly by acting as catalysts to gather minds of differing specializations to engage a new dynamic of solution making.  Together, they lead the Toronto-based design practice ALSO Collective, a multi-disciplinary studio exploring traditional design approaches and topics through design research and experimentation.

Mason Studio had the pleasure to speak with the pair and hear their striking responses on how Canadian design differs from the international field, how a ‘collective’ model is essential to the design process, and how the local design industry may shift in the near future.

(In a spirit of humility, Antonio and Symon express that: We are two young creative professionals who don’t know everything. We feel that this is an inquiry into ourselves as well as our own practice, in relation to a larger community. We are flexible people and are always open to discussion. We invite you to e-mail us your feedback to: collaborate@alsocollective.com )



Fashion editorial designed for Brazilian website ffw.com.br

Fashion editorial designed for Brazilian website ffw.com.br

Mason Studio: How do you describe your discipline/practice/profession?

Antonio Lennert: I describe myself as a visual communicator and a maker. My practice is an ongoing mediation between art and design, which includes screen-printing, editorial design, branding, photography, video production, and web design. My areas of interest have been fuelled by Symon’s design practice which include design research, data visualization, physical computing, programming and interactive installations. Our combined practices create a playful and ever-changing platform at ALSO Collective, in which we tackle a wide array of client and personal projects ranging from analogue media, traditional graphic design, and new media.

Mason Studio: Briefly describe the life and professional stages that led you to your current position.

Simon Oliver & Antonio Lennert: Although we grew up on opposite sides of the world, we had a very similar non-conformist adolescence inserted in our local punk/hardcore scenes. It’s probably just as well we didn’t meet until later in life as we likely would have gotten into a lot of trouble together. We have always seen the world from a different perspective than others and have never been afraid to stir the pot.

We both started our design pursuits in the industrial realm, and eventually found ourselves in graphic design. In essence, we share curiosity, a passion for dialogue, and a desire to communicate. Given the fact we both have solid points of views, art and graphic design were natural tendencies for us. The discipline is so amorphous that it allows us to explore a variety of topics, and to manipulate our ideas into different media.

Professionally, we again have a pretty eclectic past. Antonio was once a dishwasher and surf bum in California. He eventually found his way into a Fortune 500 company in Texas working as a web designer. Symon grew up skipping rocks on the lake in St. Catharines, where he spent his summers picking flowers at a farm. After a series of amusing job experiences, he eventually found himself working as a Research Assistant at OCAD University.

At OCAD U, we were introduced by a mutual instructor. He thought we should run the OCAD U Student Press together, and basically handed us a publishing platform. Had he known a bit more about our pasts, he would have thought twice about it! We took the Press as a challenge and shaped it into a full on community platform for dialogue, collaboration, education, and independent publishing. In parallel to the Press, we

started freelancing together and once we had both graduated and left the Press behind, things naturally progressed into ALSO Collective.



Visual identity developed for the Sustainable Design Awards

MS: Is there a principle, perspective or process you consistently maintain across all your work?

SO: The principles we often find ourselves coming back to are those of transparency and a sense of social commitment. Transparency was something we forced ourselves to commit to from day one. We wanted to show clients our thought process, rather than just show them an outcome. We apply this idea to everything we do, whether it be through snapshots of what we are currently developing, the informal—and often unrestrained—exchange of ideas, or introducing a client to concepts early in the creative process.

In many ways we are guided by our sense of social commitment. Design is fundamentally an outcome that relates to one or many communities, and it therefore has many social impacts. We think of this when we are pursuing projects, and this is why we are striving to carve out our niche in healthcare, education, and non-profit initiatives. These are places where design can have a real impact, where measures of success are found in positive cultural, or social capital. Our goal is to enhance our community and the lives of people.

In terms of perspectives and process; we feel these are fairly interrelated with one another. Our perspectives on uncertainty and systems thinking gives way to the process of how we deal with uncertainty and systems. By embracing uncertainty, we accept the challenge that every project is not concrete and it needs to be put through a process. Uncertainty gives way to experimentation—often involving playful and unusual photography, video, and material explorations. Thinking in systems forces us to think of each aspect of a project as an individual point in a vast network of things, ideas, and people. I think these two perspectives are fundamental to how we approach projects and it keeps us fairly open to innovative design that may go against the norm.

MS: Explain the term ‘collective’ and how it influences your design process. How can the principles of your defined ‘collective’ be extrapolated to a non-design specific discipline?

SO: The ‘collective’ model embodies a variety of ideas from collaboration, diversity, perspectives, and knowledge to shared experiences. A collective in our sense is non-hierarchical and distributed. There are established roles, however these roles are not concrete. We believe a collective model is and should be the foundation of any multidisciplinary activity or project.

Having access to an extensive network of professionals, we assemble teams based on fit, strengths, and working approach. Everyone has a say, and all ideas carry equal weight. It’s a matter of whether one particular direction strikes our group, or if it is the right solution for a given project. A good example of our collective approach to design can be found in a web application for patient rehabilitation, which we are helping to develop. From day one, our team has been composed of a surgeon, physiotherapist, developer, and designers working from the ground up. The multitude of perspectives and expertise has created an exciting, innovative, and fast-moving project that could not have been done in isolation by any single professional in the team.

This idea of collective knowledge and skill is nothing new. Studio’s such as IDEO—who have pioneered alternative design methods—builds design teams of engineers, anthropologists, sociologists, and strategists. They fully acknowledge the value of collective power being found, not in similarities, but in differences. However, IDEO is still recognized as a design studio. This model is perhaps a harder sell for other disciplines. The immediate value of interdisciplinary collaborations is not always evident, nor are they always successful. Different fields have been isolated for quite some time now, they have built their own methods, and vocabularies; this is both a strength and a weakness as it presents practical barriers. Navigating the barriers of language, concepts, and methods can be daunting. When it comes to extrapolating the ‘collective’ approach to other domains, we think it is a matter of building bridges and nurturing long-lasting relationships with professionals in different fields. It will be organic, and uncertain, but this needs to be embraced.

MS: Are there any shared sensibilities, beliefs or movements being cultivated within the local design community? If so, why are these occurring?

SO: I think the idea of community is the movement being cultivated. The importance of this does not lie within the local design community, but instead at its boundaries where one community meets another. This is where cross-disciplinary collaboration and dialogue is occurring, and where collective sensibilities and beliefs are being constructed. If community is the central movement, then the shared sensibilities are those of social and cultural responsibility, inclusivity, diversity, and collaboration.


Brochure, poster, and website designed for the department of Orthopaedics at SickKids to promote their medical fellowship programs

Brochure, poster, and website designed for the department of Orthopaedics at SickKids to promote their medical fellowship programs

MS: Coming from an international upbringing, do you feel there is disparity in the maturity of design in Canada as compared to an international platform?

AL: This is a complex question. I think the best way to address it is by separating it into three different perspectives of comparison. The first considers our relation to countries that were pioneers in design such as Switzerland, Germany, Italy and The Netherlands. Compared to these countries, Canada can be seen as a newborn next to its grandparents, as these countries have centuries of history and decades of design on Canada.

The second comparison relates to our neighbours South of the border. While the Canada/US comparisons are flawed due to population and socioeconomic disparities between countries, I feel that stylistically Canada is in a really good place. Both countries were heavily influenced by European design in the first half of the 20th century, and I feel like the States was able to establish a strong international design presence. At the same time, they were able to establish their visual identity through a succession of art and design movements. Canada, on the other hand, is still searching for its own identity. And that’s what makes us special. As a nation, we are open to immigrants from around the globe. Not only that, but we receive their ideas and approaches to life and design with arms wide open. This openness creates a very positive environment for people to take risks and innovate.

The last comparison is between Canada and other colonies such as Australia and Brazil. These countries had similar migratory movements that brought with them European design. They are still teaching and experiencing design in the same paradigm they were taught, but are slowly finding their own unique perspective.

MS: How would you compare the integration of art and design into an everyday context in Canada as compared to an international perspective?

AL: Unfortunately, we don’t really see it as much as we would like. Design, art and community for the most part seem to be largely segregated at the moment. We have seen some examples of initiatives, however, the boundaries between art, design and community have largely been blurred or dismantled when we observe overseas and even across state lines. Festivals such as DO West and the Toronto Design Offsite are having a great impact on integrating art and design into our communities. The Toronto Pecha Kucha is also a good initiative that creates community and exposes people to design. Bruce Mau did an interesting project a couple years ago called “The Bureau of Doing Something About It,” in which they set up a pop-up shop on Queen West that aimed to solve problems collected by the Toronto Complaints Choir. Also, Zarah Ebrahim and Ken Chung did a really engaging project last summer called “The Design Walk-In Clinic”. These are all great examples of making art and design more accessible to the general public. We hope we can contribute to this dialogue with a project of our own in the near future.

MS: From a local perspective (Toronto), how do you see the art and design industry shifting over the next few years? How will this impact your work?

SO: Toronto is attracting more young creatives to the core of the city. Institutions such as OCAD University, York, and Ryerson will continue turning out hundreds of designers on an annual basis. With a limited number of positions available at established studios and in-house positions, new designers will either leave the city, bounce around from contract to contract, pursue freelance, find alternative employment, or start their own studio.

We joke here about OCAD U and how it is graduating students with skills for jobs that do not exist yet. That may initially sound negative, but it is actually quite exciting, as it is only a matter of time before individuals begin creating their own niches, and hybrid fields of design. I think this can already be seen in the number of flourishing boutique studios, and new startups, which are due in part to the introduction of incubators such as MaRS’s Jolt, OCAD University’s Imagination Catalyst, and Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, to name a few.

The impact of this shift is going to be positive. Startups, and new studios tend to remain small, and are therefore more adaptable. Design will hopefully become less centralized within large agencies, and more distributed. As a result, this will introduce more diversity into the creative community, strengthen the voice of art and design within Toronto, and foster collaborative initiatives between various disciplines.



Visual identity, poster, website, and collateral designed for the Urban Ecologies Conference 2013 at OCAD University

Visual identity, poster, website, and collateral designed for the Urban Ecologies Conference 2013 at OCAD University

MS: It is apparent that community events and organizations are important to your practice. Does your participation in these activities influence your design process? How does your involvement impact the community at large?

AL: Community engagement is the core of our practice. We can’t work in a vacuum, and without our community we are powerless. We are making an attempt to integrate community-building events into our practice, through workshops, publishing, and social events. We have been collaborating with non-profit organizations such as the Toronto Design Offsite Festival, the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario, and the OCADU Student Gallery to reach out to our community. We have also been working closely with local artist, Shannon Gerard. She created an awesome community art project called “The Carl Wagan Bookmobile” that serves as a platform for independent publishing, workshops, and the dissemination of ideas through community events. Collaborating with these institutions and organizations are very inspiring for us. It is a great way to exchange information, ideas or commentary, and everything feeds directly into our practice. The prospects of new collaborations are always a positive side of this involvement, but the biggest reward is to feel like you are part of something larger. The feeling that you are all working towards a common goal is overwhelmingly positive.

MS: What can we look forward to seeing from you next?

SO: We are hoping to have more workshops and other initiatives that focus on education and community building. We partnered up with George Brown College over the last year to mentor a few of their graphic design thesis students. We also had one of their students interning with us for the past few months, and in addition to teaching, we learned a lot from the experience.

We would like to collaborate more with other professionals and small studios from a variety of disciplines locally and globally. In terms of exciting projects, we are currently working on a novel visual identity for a local theatre company. We are also working on a very cool side project, producing a short film next winter with some of our favourite people. Last but not least, we are finally designing and launching our website, having designed four for clients during our first year, we though we should get ours up and running. We are hoping to launch it on June 1st when we celebrate our one-year anniversary. Our mid-term goal is to open up a second studio in São Paulo (Brazil) in a not too distant future, but for now let’s focus on getting that website up and running…

MS: What can we, as creative design professionals, do to contribute to create positive and sustainable growth of the Canadian design community?

AL/SO: It seems to us that many still hold large centres such as New York, London, and Paris on a high pedestal when looking for benchmarks of success. The result of this is a drain of creative talent, who leaves in order to establish themselves within these cities. Although, these cities are still prominent, the center has shifted. As a design community we need to nurture the talent that is present here. We had said before that Toronto is a blank slate, and now is a good time to test out new models of a creative community. Let’s establish connections between the various professions that intersect with design. Let’s strengthen the ties between academia, art, design, and community initiatives. And let’s support each other to build a solid community. We are the future of Canadian design, and it is up to us to shape it collectively.

Poster designed and screen-printed in house for the OCAD U Student Gallery to promote their summer programming in 2012

Poster designed and screen-printed in house for the OCAD U Student Gallery to promote their summer programming in 2012

Thank you to Antonio Lennert and Symon Oliver for their contribution to Mason Journal.  To learn more about ALSO Collective, visit their website at www.alsocollective.com or email them at collaborate@alsocollective.com

All images courtesy of ALSO Collective.