March 2014
Issue No. 2

Past issues

Platform Design

TODD MACFIE & NINA PALMER make up Platform Design, a creative studio in Calgary that specializes in Branding, Typography and Illustration.

“...at the end of the day to just look at what you’ve created, and feel like it’s beautiful, or it’s exciting, that’s what drives you all day long to keep working that piece through.”

Who are you, and what do you do?

Nina: We are Platform Design. We started this company 7 years ago in Vancouver, and we moved it to Calgary … it’s 3 years ago now.

Todd: Wait, is that all you have to say?

Nina: Haha well I think it’s interesting that we began in Vancouver, because where you begin, it influences you a lot, and it was scary to pick it up and move it. To think “Will these clients come with us? Who will our new clients be?”

So the focus of Platform Design has really been design, illustration and typography. And since we’ve been in Calgary we’ve noticed — and this is a good thing — that we’ve been doing more food based clients. Clients like Sidewalk Citizen, Village Ice Cream, Rosso. And we love food & cooking, so that’s been a really natural fit for us.

Sidewalk Citizen - By Platform Design
Sidewalk Citizen by Platform Design

How long have you been working as a designer. How did you get your start in the industry?

Todd: We had both gone to school at University of Lethbridge, Nina did fine arts and I did English Literature. After graduation we moved to Vancouver because Nina was going into the communication design program at Emily Carr. While Nina was in school I was working and I kind of stumbled into the typography program at Langara, which was just purely focused on typography. It doesn’t quite exist anymore, but it was a great program.

So after school Nina started working a studio that focused on Real Estate. It was kind of like a Swiss model studio in that the principle didn’t really touch a computer, and was very autocratic.

Nina: Yeah I feel like I really learned what I was doing in his studio, putting together real estate identities, ads for condos and doing the look books for the floor plans. It was all really high end which was cool. But there was no creative freedom, which in a sense was OK, because he was very good at what he did, really good art director, so my typography skills really improved there. It was a good way of getting schooled in the finer details: arranging type, or arranging showrooms, whatever.

Todd: So I just randomly I got a job making a TV show, Nina and I had been talking about starting a studio, initially I was going to do mostly writing, but in the meantime I had been doing these classes on typography.

Nina: While you always had an interest in graphic design, you gave me my first graphic design book!

Todd: Oh that’s right! The Tibor Kalman book.

Nina: So I would say you really put together your own education through classes at Langara. You’re a very self motivated learner.

Todd: Anyway while Nina was working at Zacharko I ended up doing this travel show for CTV, which seems arbitrary but it happened. When I finished doing that, Nina left her job and we launched Platform Design.

Walk us through your ‘9-5’ What does a ‘typical’ work day look like for you?

Todd: After dropping our daughter off at her day home, which is near by, we start each work morning at around 9:00am with 1,000 cups of coffee.

Nina: Well I would say you start your day with Twitter...

Todd: Yes, and it’s an enormous waste of time when you get on twitter in the morning and discover distractions that eat up your whole morning.

Nina: So we’ll go 9-4:30 and then our daughter comes home, we spend a few hours with her. Once she’s in bed we do the 7:30-11:00 shift. Well, that’s how it’s been working lately.

What is your studio/workspace like?

Nina: Our studio is in our house, it’s a separate suite in our home in the basement. It’s got a letterpress and a bunch of printmaking stuff. I would say its a work in progress.

Todd: It’s basically a white room, with a bookshelf, and in another room we’ve got a 1930’s printing press that we do little personal projects on, and there’s an extra room with a bed you can take naps on.

"We both love doing hand work, so it’s important to have the space to do that, and it’s nice to have the press right there so that it’s easy to hop on that if you need to."

Nina: As anyone who works from home, you try to keep as much structure as possible, keeping the work space separate. And being disciplined about starting work on time, but also not working 24 hours a day.

What motivates you day to day?

Nina: The desire to remain independent is really strong. That keeps you going.

Todd: This might seem like the easy answer, but there is client motivation, especially for some of the clients that are developing new things in Calgary, and offering new products that we believe it.

Nina: Yeah, to see them succeed really helps motivate us. The independent business culture in Calgary is really growing, and a lot of our clients are these independent businesses, and they make the climate here a lot more interesting. I just want to see them succeed because I feel it makes the city a more interesting place to live in.

Investment Illustration - By Platform Design
Custom Lettering for MEC by Platform Design

But on a smaller, more inner circle of what motivates you, at the end of the day to just look at what you’ve created, and feel like it’s beautiful, or it’s exciting, that’s what drives you all day long to keep working that piece through. I mean illustration, I love doing it and it’s like “wow, I’m getting paid for this”.

Todd: I have to say Nina motivates me in a way, I think I’ve learned from her not to be lazy…

Nina: Wait, what?

Todd: Seriously! Sometimes I’d be doing something and it’s like “I could try this, but it probably won’t work.” And Nina will say, “Well just do it right now so we can actually see it, you lazy ***.” And that motivates me to overcome … inertia, I guess.

I don’t know how anyone can do design completely by themselves, I don’t know how you could that.

Who do you admire in the industry?

Nina: We both admire Rita Sasges. She does great work, and she’s a woman in what seems to be a very male dominated industry, and she’s been successful in running her own firm.

Todd: She brought Typecamp and Laura Worthington to town a few months ago, to run a lettering workshop. Which was awesome.

Nina: OK, this isn’t actually in the design industry, but I think he’s very relevant. So Garath from Luke’s Drug Mart, he has done an amazing, brilliant job of taking a little independent drug store and turning it into this great neighbourhood hangout. Just so smart, so creative, and he brings in great product lines. The store is such an unusual little gem.

Todd: And Xerxes Irani! He’s a magical design wizard. He’s a wizard’s wizard.

What’s something you’d be interested in working on in the future?

Todd: Well I have dream project to make a magazine about Calgary. Kind of a fashionable magazine for local tourists and actual tourists. About the parts of Calgary I think are amazing, not just entirely about cowboys. There is so much crazy stuff around here. Did you know there’s a sock factory not far out of town that you can go and visit and watch socks being made?

There is so much crazy stuff around here. Did you know there’s a sock factory not far out of town that you can go and visit and watch socks being made?

JD: What? That sounds amazing!

Todd: It is! And no one knows about it!

Nina: Something that we always do when we have friends visiting is we take them on a little field trip, so we like to research to find interesting, unusual things. And when we find these them it’s like, “Who knows about these things?”

Todd: There’s other stories about this town and they are not really being told as of yet.

Nina: Back into the food realm, I think it would be awesome to do the branding & interior for a small independent restaurant. Just to start from ground zero with some one who has an idea, and take it from there. I just feel these great little food establishments, we need more of them, these small interesting places, where the design matters, it just adds to your experience.

Todd: And we would like to do design workshops for children. And media literacy. And …

Village Ice Cream - By Platform Design
Village Ice Cream Packaging by Platform Design

Why Calgary? What do you think makes it unique?

Nina: I feel like as a city — if I’m comparing to Vancouver — Vancouver it felt like it had many hierarchies. Calgary feels like it has fewer, it’s a little flatter. Like you could come here and work hard and do well, and it doesn’t matter who you are to begin with. There’s definitely a warmth and a friendliness to it. I really feel like when I meet people from the prairies, whether it be Calgary, or Alberta, or Saskatchewan, they are just really good people. I’ve always liked prairie people. They are really nice, good people!

Calgary has all of those nice, good people. It’s definitely an open arms city. So to move here and bring our business over with us, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.

Where would you like to see the local Industry go? What would make things better?

Todd: I can only really answer this personally by way of comparison … but Edmonton, they seem to have a lot of great design things going on in that town.

For example I met Chris Pecora for the first time last August because there was an week long type design class happening in Edmonton that Kyle Fox and friends managed to orchestrate, and thats fantastic. And they run little inexpensive short courses in like Typography & Wordpress. These are fantastic, and it is just individuals having the gumption to make shit happen. Which ultimately if I’m sitting here going “aww, none of this is happening here,” I mean it’s my own fault.

Nina: So we all need to make stuff happen.

Todd: Well I think so, because I mean as a group of designers it’s not like we’re fighting over one small pie. It’s not zero sum. We can make the pie get bigger, and better and better and better.

Nina: I wonder if we would be more successful at this if there was basically a “committee” whose role it was to make this happen.

Todd: Oh god, no, I disagree.

Nina: You think it’s better for individuals?

Todd: Yes! Just random awesome things!

Nina & Todd were interviewed by Jason Dorn on January 17th, 2014 at Broken City. The above article is heavily paraphrased from the hour and 1/2 of unmediated shop talk.