Q&A with David Constantine, Director of Arts and Design at Ellis Jones
Who is Ellis Jones?
Ellis Jones is a multidisciplinary consultancy that creates social impact through research, strategy, communications, design, and digital. The agency itself is about 10 years old, and I have been around growing the design practise there for about four years.
What drew you to working with Abbotsford Convent?
Abbotsford Convent is an icon in its own right, but it’s also emerging as one of the most exciting creative precincts in Victoria. Our principal Rhod Ellis-Jones and I have worked together and individually for many years with arts practitioners and organisations—everything from strategy and envisioning to brand communications and digital. So we jumped at the opportunity to get on board, and were really excited when we were forwarded the brief for this digital project.
Can you tell us about the ‘lo-bono’ support you provide for organisations?
We understand that budget and funding are challenges for all arts organisations. We’ve been around long enough to know that’s a continual question and driver for organisations— to make sure that they have the funding to produce the work that’s so meaningful. So, as a general rule, we look to support arts organisations with some in-kind or ‘lo-bono’ arrangement. Wherever we can realistically deliver work, we will look for the price point that can make it achievable for both sides.
What return is there from working in the not-for-profit sector with organisations like the Convent?
Well, I think that there is a personal and professional one. Personally, the fulfilment of being in a creative environment as a creative person, and someone lucky enough to work in a creative industry, the opportunity to be able to do what you do in a space where it is understood and appreciated is always enjoyable. And professionally, the energy and the understanding that ensues between a creative client and a creative consultant is always an energising one. There’s the opportunity for both sides to really visualise and understand the full potential of work and to be able to chase it.
Can you talk about what went into the website’s design?
Fundamentally, our intent was to bridge the gap between the physical and digital visitor experiences. From an architectural user experience standpoint, it was about understanding and addressing user need. This was highlighted by a research process that preceded the design component of the website. This included engaging with the tenant community, workshopping with the Convent team, and conducting surveys on the grounds with various visitor groups—looking at what they really valued about the physical experience of the site, and what they felt would be useful, or what they needed in a digital space.
From an aesthetic perspective, it was about interpreting the Convent’s idiosyncratic architecture. It’s sometimes a little awkward in terms of the spaces that are created, but it fundamentally defines the experience of the place—the introspective and inward looking nature, the secure and holding environment of the ecclesiastical architecture, the many colours of paint, and the milieu of styles and interventions over time that exist within the space. And of course the vibrancy and the diversity of the tenants, of the programming. That all determined the user experience that we wanted to create, and it also flowed into the user interface and design aesthetic decisions that followed.
What inspired the choice of colours on the website?
The colour of the background of the website changes throughout the day and the night. The colour palette range is drawn from lots of photographic references and observational references from the precinct—changing light, the colours in the architecture, the natural surrounds, the foliage and flowers, the way the sky changes colour throughout the day. So, we’re using colour as a background device within the website to drive the sense of change and time passing, and to create that synthesis between physical and digital space. There’s also a slight movement in an animation in the background. That’s deliberately there, and it’s all about creating or communicating the kind of continuous energy and movement at the precinct. The transition from one state to another was really important in bridging the gap, again, between the physical and the digital expression of place.
In your design you were really inspired by people leaving a mark. What inspired that?
One of the key features or interactive components of the website is something we call the tracer, which is an animated mouse cursor that traces interaction with the website for each user on the homepage.
One of the founding conceptual premises of our entire design response was the idea that everything leaves a trace. This was an interpretation or acknowledgement of how the Convent precinct, and the physical locality of it, has held a significance for thousands of years through many different stories: problematic, difficult, and traumatic stories; exciting and uplifting stories; and stories of community and people throughout. We were really keenly focused on offering something on the new website to carry that experiential layering of physical place through into the digital space, offering visitors to the website a chance to leave their mark, their trace. To become part of the collective story of the Convent.
How did you tie the many facets of the Convent together through the website?
We tried to bring simplicity to the complex set of requirements for communication. To create a vehicle for all of those events, tenants, spaces, experiences and products to shine. There’s a lot of wonderful content already there, it was just about simplifying and presenting this as the visitor might need it. And being deliberate about that, thinking first about the user, and their needs, and then putting content to them in the most direct way possible.
And creating connections between all those things that are richer than the sum of their parts was important. For instance, on the home page, we have the capacity for those people who want to be organised, to see what’s on today, what’s on tomorrow etc, and to be able to think about things in a very structured, linear way. Then, for those who want to be more experiential, who want to see the connections between things, there’s the section below which lifts up an independent and randomised selection of content from the site, and that allows people to take a more organic path through the content there.
What have you discovered about the Convent through this process?
I will share a small encounter that I had at the Convent’s donor event to launch Stuart Kells’s book The Convent at the end of 2019. We had moved through the design process, and we we’re just going to the ‘build stage’ with Bone digital, our digital partner and fellow supporter of the Convent on this project. At this event I got to hear first-hand from many of the original campaigners to save the Convent, and the legal battle that ensued, and to understand in a visceral way the emotional energy, the time, blood, sweat, and tears that went into making sure that the Convent had a chance. Had a chance to claim the future that it’s that it’s now realising; (and) the trajectory that it’s been on since that time. The emotional and life investment that has gone into this place is incredible.
Thanks for having me. All that remains is for me to invite you to experience the new website for yourself.
To learn more about how Ellis Jones is changing the world for good, please visit ellisjones.com.au