Our "Design Around the World" series explores design communities from all over, with a goal to learn more, meet new people and broaden our horizons. With this long-anticipated addition to the series, we talk to Plus63 Design Co. from the Philippines.
Plus63 is a branding studio located in Quezon City. Everything this small team creates seems to be made with love and care. It’s as if they finish a project and then ask themselves, “But what if we did more?” And they do a whole lot more. One step at a time, the members of Plus63 are helping change the way design is viewed and valued in their country.
Meet Dan, Bernice, Jo, Raxenne and Craig.
Tell us a bit about yourselves and your studio. Why did you decide to open a branding studio and how did you all come together?
BERNICE:Plus63 is a continuation of our journey in finding ways we can contribute to and lift up Filipino design. A decade ago, a group of friends, including Dan and Rhea, created a socially-oriented design studio focused on nonprofit organizations and development communications. After several years, we transformed into Plus63 as we realized that we wanted to create good design — design that makes a difference.
DAN: Me, Bernice and Rhea started Plus63 to continue developing our design identity and scope, and redefine how we want to run our company. Bernice was my classmate back in school at the University of the Philippines, and Rhea was one of our partners in the previous design studio. Joanna, spotted by Bernice when she was a panelist at her senior thesis defense, became our first full-time designer. At a Behance portfolio review in Manila, Raxenne’s work stood out, and later on we hired her to complement the studio’s varied design and illustration styles. Craig was a former Plus63 summer intern and now he’s our most recent hire.
We never really set out to focus on branding, we just wanted to continue working on graphic design projects. But when we started getting exciting brand identity projects, we realized how much we enjoyed it since we became part of the brand’s journey from start to finish.
The Plus63 team
“We realized that we wanted to create good design — design that makes a difference.”
I noticed that Plus63 is part of Hydra Design Group — how does that fit in?
DAN: Hydra Design Group is a creative collective that we started a year ago. Plus63 recently moved into a new office space together with Inksurge (graphic & web), The Acid House (motion & animation) and KM Design (interior & space). Our studios’ diverse and complementary skill sets allow us to work together on large-scale projects and learn from each other. We still keep our independence as Plus63, but when we need to work on projects with a much larger scope, we volt-in as Hydra.
+63 is the country code of the Philippines. Does your heritage and love for the Philippines play into your work beyond that?
JO: A lot of Filipinos are very friendly and warm in general, and we at Plus63 are also like that (or at least that’s what I’d like to think, haha). I guess those traits get carried over to the way we interact with clients. We like to get to know them better and understand where they’re coming from before we start brainstorming. Looking “Filipino” isn’t something that we aim for or choose to avoid. For us, it’s more about catering to what the client needs or suggesting something better-suited for their brand.
Plus 63's branding work for Theo & Philo, a Filipino chocolate maker.
“Filipinos have a way of taking everything that passes our way and processing it in terms of our already established culture.”
A Filipino friend of mine told me that the Filipino design community as a whole is heavily influenced by Western design and culture, partly because it’s an English-speaking country that absorbs a lot from the internet. I imagine the country’s complex history and colonization creates an identity issue as well. Is that an accurate perception? Is there a distinct Filipino design style?
BERNICE: Filipino design is a visual mishmash reflecting our culture and history. Our jeepney is a sample of typical Filipino design: a modified jeep (American) decorated with anime stickers (Japanese), spray-painted Catholic images (Spanish), zodiac signs (Chinese), decals of landscape scenery (Southeast Asian), and portraits of family. Western design is more prominent since America was the last colonizer. We speak English, our fashion and even food preference is very Western. Filipinos adapt quickly and integrate those influences the Filipino way.
CRAIG: I guess if you were to describe design nowadays, most of the time you would consider the more well known ones as “Western” in origin. I also agree with you that a lot of our sensibilities here have been influenced by Western culture through different eras of colonization. In terms of influences though, I’d say Filipinos have a way of taking everything that passes our way and processing it in terms of our already established culture. So I do agree that Western design and culture has had a large impact on how we see design, but the translation of this most often will be a balance of both Western and our own.
Brand identity for Kushikatsu Daruma, a Japanese restaurant.
The Philippines seems to have a fairly active design community, especially in Manila. Is the creative field a common career path in the Philippines? How easy or difficult is it to become a designer?
DAN: It’s an exciting time to be a designer in Manila. There’s a lot of energy in the local scene and in the community, with a growing number of design events and initiatives all over the country, as well as government recognition that design plays a significant role in helping develop the economy. That said, it’s still not a common career path in the Philippines. People still think that a creative career is not a financially-viable path to take. Parents still prefer to see their children take conventional courses like nursing, medicine, law and accountancy.
RAXENNE: When I graduated six years ago, being a designer wasn’t really the goal of most of my peers. We wanted to be art directors and work for advertising agencies. I didn’t think graphic design was a career path I could take. I think it’s because of the lack of graphic design courses here, so there’s not much exposure. All the things I know so far, I’ve learned while working. It’s different now though. You see a lot of young creatives pursuing design and illustration more.
As for getting into design studios, it’s kind of harder. We don’t really have huge design studios here. Most are small-scale so it’s difficult to get a spot unless one of their designers leave. What happens is designers freelance, or start their own studios or groups.
“Design can’t really solve issues in our country by itself, but it can help in how others perceive these issues and influence them to change it."
Brand identity for The University of the Philippines athletic program.
What does good design mean to Plus63, and how do you see it impacting Filipino society as a whole? Do you think it can solve larger issues the country faces?
CRAIG: Good design is important to me because I believe it helps in how we mature as individuals. Design isn’t something we really need in order to survive as a species, but good design helps us somehow put form and sense into what we see around us. I’d say design can’t really solve issues in our country by itself, but it can help in how others perceive these issues and influence them to change it.
DAN: For me, good design is coming up with the best (clever and thoughtful) solution to a problem. It’s important to show that designers can contribute to the success of a small business, help a community recover from disasters and even assist in developing effective government programs. At Plus63, we ultimately want to lend our skills as designers and strategists to help the design community and the country.
Branding for Recession Coffee, a pay-what-you-want shop.
To support the industry on a larger-scale, I joined a team composed of designers (led by Jowee Alviar of Team Manila, AJ Dimarucot, Angel Guerrero, Brian Tenorio, Arriane Serafico and many others) from various industries such as graphic design, furniture, fashion and media that pushed for a national design policy and what we now have as the “Philippine Design Competitiveness Act of 2013.”
In a nutshell, it states that government will support and enhance the growth and sustainability of the design industry. The studio has also worked with the Design Center of the Philippines to help local furniture companies become more competitive in the international furniture market.
To help organize our particular design community, we established the Communications Design Association of the Philippines (CDAP) with Jowee Alviar, AJ Dimarucot, Angel Guerrero and Brian Tenorio. We’re hoping that the organization can provide the support that designers need and enable the overall success of the industry.
Design can make a difference. While design alone can’t solve all the problems in a society, it still plays a significant part.
Trophy design for the Adobo Design Awards.
The policy seems like a huge win. Would you say there’s a positive shift happening around design in your community? What factors have made the country take notice and invest in design?
DAN: It has come to a point that not putting design on the economic development agenda would put the country at a greater disadvantage in the global marketplace. Now more than ever, there is a need for government to recognize design as a driver for economic growth, as well as nurture the culture of creativity and innovation. There are people in government, through their work in diverse capacities from legislation to trade and export promotion, who understood the challenges our industry faced and supported us. Leaders from various design-driven industries got together, as well as educators, and supporters in media.
Cliché as it may sound, the passage of the Philippine Design Competitiveness Act showed what people can achieve when they take the initiative and find common ground. Because of this the implementing government agency for the policy, the Design Center of the Philippines, has shifted its mandate from commercial export promotion to include the support and promotion of Filipino designers, as well as the development of Philippine-made products through design. This is also great for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that need assistance in enhancing the quality and value of their products.
More work for The University of the Philippines.
“But of course, this is only the beginning. There is still so much to do... Fortunately, we now have something to build on.”
Since then, the Communication Designers Association of the Philippines have been meeting to understand the current landscape, who make up these communities (and the design disciplines involved), what their professional/enterprise challenges and needs are, and how we can to support one another.
This has been a long time coming, since we’ve been trying to organize representation for our own industry and at the same time tend to the realities of running our own design studios or practice. But of course, this is only the beginning. There is still so much to do in shifting the mindset of design's cultural value and its role in nation-building. Fortunately, we now have something to build on.
Branding for LIT, a bar that specializes in Japanese whisky.
What’s the quality of design education like in the Philippines? Do many designers seek a formal education or are they self-taught?
BERNICE: I think design education is improving since there are more schools, courses and better facilities created to cater to young, aspiring designers. Design education instills the fundamental foundation for specific design careers. For example, in the University of Philippines, fine arts has various academic majors such as visual communication, industrial design, painting and sculpture.
I’m not sure about the statistics of formal education vs. self taught, but I think designers do both. I took visual communication where I learned visual perception, design theories, editorial design, production methods, photography, etc. After graduation, I had to learn Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign on my own because it wasn’t really taught to us back then.
JO: I graduated from the University of the Philippines’ College of Fine Arts with a degree in visual communication. It was a broad course with only a few design subjects, but that way I got to experience a lot of things like figure drawing, marketing or electronic media. I only started to understand and actually design better when I got out of college and started working in a design studio. I think it’s the same for a lot of people. What’s great now, though, is that a lot of design studios offer practicum slots for students who are interested in graphic design.
Work for Move Philippines, a disaster preparedness program for kids.
What would you say are unique challenges for Filipino designers right now?
CRAIG: I think one of the biggest challenges Filipino designers face right now is proving to the world that we can be just as good as designers from other countries. From my experience and my friends’, somehow when you say you’re getting a Filipino designer, the first thought that comes into the client’s mind is that we work cheap. I know there are a lot of clients that don’t think this way, but there are still some who treat us like simple workers rather than partners in creating good design. It’s not so much the money that makes me worried about being a designer in this country, but more the idea that we aren’t seen on the level of designers from America or Europe.
RAXENNE: I’m not sure if this is unique here, but I agree that potential clients are still not ready to pay for good design. They are often surprised when we give our quote. It can be frustrating, but I understand. We’re a third world country and design is still a luxury, so this makes pricing difficult. There is no standard and you have to adjust your rates. I’m still getting the hang of it.
Branding for Your Local, a restaurant that serves Asian comfort food.
In your opinion, what are the top 10 designers or studios from the Philippines that everyone should know?
How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Filipino design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
BERNICE: Online, there’s Behance and a site we made called plus63.net (but we need to update this). In print, we have Adobo Magazine, Bluprint and Real Living, where they annually feature emerging artists. There are also events such as those organized by Ayala Museum and Graphika Manila that create a venue for people to engage with the Filipino design community.
Plus63 team! You're an inspiration. Thanks so much for your time and thoughts. I'm excited to see what you do next for your clients and the Filipino design community.
Be sure to follow Plus63 to keep up with their work — you won't be disappointed. And if you're just learning about this interview series, catch up here.