It was early in the morning in the remote Kimberley town of Kununurra, when graphic designer Kevin Finn arrived at the gym to find his class had been cancelled. Opting to use the gym facilities instead, he joined the two other muscled figures already working out. The two men turned out to be Hugh Jackman and David Wenham’s stunt double for the film, Australia. And as Kevin himself happened to be David Wenham’s stand-in for the film, he wasn’t so out of place. But as to how Kevin found himself in that situation in the first place, it was by adhering to a simple maxim: If you choose adventure, you never know where life will take you.
There are a few things that must be taken into account with this story. First, is the fact that Kevin is a fair-skinned, cold-weather-raised Irishman (hailing from the small town of Sligo) who had followed the love of his life into the sweltering Australian outback. Then there’s the fact that, a designer all his life, he had no experience whatsoever working in film, but, bearing a vague resemblance to David Wenham, he decided to audition to be his stand in.
The most important factor, however, is that Kevin’s never been one to rest on his laurels.During his childhood, Kevin’s imagination toyed with many different career paths: garbage collector, fire-engine driver, farmer, vet … But something in particular that caught his eye were the action-infused drawings of the 2000 AD comics. “Before I even knew what design or creativity was, I loved those comics for the artwork and the storytelling,” Kevin recalls. “I used to try drawing them and stick them on the wall.”
At the age of 14, Kevin bought his first album by the band Dead Can Dance and it was then that he discovered Vaughan Oliver’s designs for the album covers of independent label, 4AD Records. “When I looked at those album covers, it really was the whole package – the music, the lyrics, the look, the imagery and the evolution of a band across several albums. But it wasn’t until four years later that I realised that was someone’s job and understood the power that design could have on a recipient.”
It was fitting then, that Kevin ended up working as a young designer in a Dublin studio with Steve Averill, the renowned designer of U2’s album sleeves. “It wasn’t a big studio of something like 27 people where I was just a cog – there were four of us and I was sitting right next to Steve,” Kevin recalls, still seeming slightly in awe.
But even in his dream job, Kevin still had the nagging feeling that there was a whole other world out there waiting for him to explore. “I thought to myself: the world is bigger than design,” he says. While many of his friends were moving to Australia, Kevin preferred not to travel to the other side of the world only to hang out with Irish people, so he chose New Zealand instead. At least at first – after spending 18 months working in New Zealand, he found the lure of Sydney too tempting. Eventually he made the permanent move to the harbour city, where he worked his way up in the design world to the coveted role of joint creative director of the high-profile Saatchi Design.
Eight years later, just as Kevin was enjoying new heights and accolades in his design career, life presented him with another choice. His girlfriend (and now wife), Keren, had accepted a job working with the local indigenous community in Kununurra and the two had been commuting for eight months, often meeting for a rendezvous in Perth as a middle ground. When Keren decided she’d like to stay there long term, Kevin again chose adventure. In February 2007, he resigned from Saatchi and moved to Kununurra to set up his own studio – with very little money and not a client to speak of.
“It was really different from living in a big city where it’s really hard to create a network of business clients and hard to break into a social scene,” Kevin explains of the experience. “In Kununurra – a small community – everyone’s interested in who you are and they invite you to their house for dinner. I always say Kununurra is not a remote town, it’s a town in a remote place – there are people living there from all over the world, with all sorts of expertise. It’s the openness and friendliness of people in Kununurra that I loved.”
Kevin says that the experience also changed his design approach. “It removed me from the pressure of other designers looking at what I was doing, and my attitude changed from being away from the concentrated design scene I’d been in. It also made me really resourceful. We didn’t have a lot there to work off, except how we think – I had to rely on ideas and simplicity. And there’s definitely a difference between being simplistic and being simple.”
The change in Kevin’s approach certainly worked in his favour, and, amongst other things (including an un-design-related stint as a film double), he was awarded the contract for the rebrand of SBS, assisted by the fact that he was based in Kununurra.
In 2010, Kevin and Keren decided to move Brisbane, where he once again began the challenging task of starting from scratch. But in the years since his arrival, through his studio TheSumOf, Kevin has carefully carved his own place within the local design community. He has breathed new ideas and refreshing simplicity into projects such as the 2010 rebranding of Brisbane Festival, and also acted as the brand coach and mentor of the team creating the new brand identity for SLQ.
In addition to his adventures, both in design and otherwise, Kevin has also continued to work on Open Manifesto –his self-published journal of critical writing on graphic design culture – which he had launched in 2004. In the past ten years, as writer, interviewer and editor for the journal, Kevin has featured many of the world’s greatest minds (in the design field and beyond)including Stefan Sagmeister, Edward de Bono and Alain de Botton. The idea for the journal itself had long been milling around in Kevin’s imagination, and he finally decided to take the leap at age 29, at the peak of his career at Saatchi Design. “I wanted to do wider research into things because my belief was that design really sits in that cross-section of social, cultural and economic issues, but the jobs that we take on as designers don’t really let us explore that. Open Manifesto has not only made my design practice more interesting, but it’s also made me more knowledgeable. I think the reason I’ve managed to do it without any resources or backing is just due to having a curious mind.”
Despite Kevin’s constant willingness to make life choices that favour adventure over stability, he says that all of those choices have been accompanied by their fair share of doubt. The challenge, he says, is learning to find a balance between keeping that doubt at bay, while also keeping a very sharp ear on it. “It’s about ignoring it at your peril, but embracing it at your peril too,” he says. “One of the best ways to suppress doubt is to commit to your decision and make it work, however that might be. When you succumb to doubt, you’re paralysed.”
Stemming from that philosophy are the words of wisdom Kevin offers when asked to give advice to young students. Rather than present a long list of things that they need, he prefers to tell them the two things they don’t need: fear and arrogance. “You don’t need fear. You’ve got a head, you’ve got an opinion and fresh ideas, so don’t be afraid to voice them. But don’t be arrogant. Just because you know something, doesn’t mean you know everything. In other words, have confidence and humility.”