Interview: Creative Director, Dave Clark

Words OLIVER MOL
Images and film supplied by Dave

Dave Clark is the creative director and co-founder of the multidisciplinary design studio Space Between, and At The Above, their iconic gallery located beneath their Fitzroy studio. A huge believer in self-starters, saying yes and creative freedom, Dave embodies the wildly likeable and all too uncommon attitude of a person unaccustomed to following tradition. Born in Donald, Victoria with little exposure to the artistic world, Dave relishes in creative discomfort, encouraging his studio to find solutions to problems by pushing the limits of their ideas, and landing predictably impressive results. Self-taught, and counting Nike as a longstanding client, what becomes immediately obvious, beyond Dave’s deep intelligence and willingness to dance with failure, is his enthusiasm for life, and the love he has for his work. This interview crucially reminds us of that seemingly obvious, yet often ignored advice we should have learned as children: that mistakes happen, but that our task is to acknowledge and move forward. Dave Clark consistently and impressively embodies this philosophy, and the results speak for themselves.

There is an argument to be made that sport is the greatest art form because it marries the mind and body, resulting, occasionally, beautifully in what might be called an ecstatic and pure unison. As an ex-footballer, how has sport influenced your approach to creativity, and the way you run your business?

Oh—that’s cool, and quite poetic. My business partner was also a professional sportsperson for twelve years, so your first question is pretty on point. I’ve never thought about it like that, but I am sure sport influences the way we run our business. We have that team environment, and the lessons I have learned in sport have really helped with our business along the way. Whenever we have messed up or had disappointments, which inevitably happens when you try to do your own thing, the biggest thing is learning how to respond to those setbacks in the moment. In sport, you turn up to training on Monday and look at where things might have gone wrong, then park it, try to learn from it, and move forward. And I guess that’s the learning we have taken into our studio. Our approach is: it’s not always perfect. You don’t always win by ten goals. Sometimes things go wrong. That’s okay. We talk about it. Address it. Discuss how we might have gone better. Then move forward. We try to apply that learning everyday here.

 

Was there a moment in your life—either on the sporting field or creatively—that you ever struggled with perfectionism?

I definitely get stuck in that. I honestly think there is always room for improvement. I never have a mindset that something is actually finished. I waste a lot of time trying to do the best that I can, and I sweat on that. At some point, I tend to bounce my work and ideas around friends and colleagues in the studio or fellow collaborators, and if I get enough people telling me that it’s in the pocket, if I get enough people saying yes that I respect, then that’s enough for me to move on. Afterwards I always think I could have done so many things better, but then I assess what I could have done better and I tend to never look back or revisit that body of work again. I guess it goes back to that sporting analogy: if you lose by ten goals, sure, you watch the tape. But you don’t need to watch it ten times.

 

You were born in Donald, Victoria. What was your childhood like? Do you remember having any formative teachers that shaped you, or were you always a self-starter?

Donald is a really small town. 1500 people in the middle of Victoria, three hours from Melbourne. It’s wheat and sheep and dirt and footy and cricket and a little basketball. We had a local high school, which was cool. I think there were sixteen of us who finished year twelve, but our subject choices were really limited. Art wasn’t even on offer, but I did do a graphic design semester at a TAFE, which was a forty-five minute bus ride from Donald every Wednesday afternoon in year ten. Besides that, we had art from year seven to year ten, which was an hour or two per week, and that was basically all I was exposed to. I guess I grew up thinking that you were a tradie, or you had a job in a shop on the main street, or you were a farmer. That was in terms of career, but in terms of a lifestyle we had ultimate freedom. We had our bikes and you could leave home whenever you wanted. As long as you were home before sundown that was fine. There were never any questions asked. You could get up to a bit of mischief, and growing up like that was a blessing. I decided I was either going to get a job as a teacher, or become a tradie or a farmer, but I chose teaching because I liked sports. So I moved to Melbourne as a seventeen year old to become a P.E. teacher. I had to take an elective at university and I chose marketing. I thought: this makes sense, and before the end of the first semester I quit human movement and moved on from there.

You are the creative director of Space Between, a multidisciplinary design studio based in Melbourne. What did your life look like prior to this success? Were there any challenges, or intense failures? How did you bounce back, and find the courage to go all in on your dream?

Heaps of failures. A lot of unknown. A lot of false starts. After I quit university I worked lots of jobs in fashion retail and at coffee shops. I was young, seventeen, and for the next ten years I played a bit of footy. I worked and traveled a little. I tried to go back to university three different times. Everyone kept telling me I needed a university degree, so I went back to study sports science again. Lasted another three or four months, then quit. Then I went back and did a communication and arts degree, and again: didn’t last the semester. It just wasn’t for me. So in terms of false starts, that was three straight off the bat. But I did get a taste for design in that communication and arts degree. I really enjoyed the photography and Photoshop element of the course, and that was enough. So even though I quit my degree, I started teaching myself online through Youtube. At a certain point, my mate needed a logo so I made that. Then a friend needed a website so I made that. I was self taught, which was disastrous early on. There were some horrific designs, but they were for friends, and at the time we thought they were cool. They did what they needed to do. And from there I just slowly built up the courage to take on more work. And as it presented itself, I always said yes. I was fascinated by the work, and I wanted to understand it and learn it, but learn it my way. I guess it goes back to that sporting analogy: the more you train, the more you get back, and I just kept working at it. So I kept building the portfolio of my friend’s work. Then some friends started a fashion label so we shot the look book, and we made the website, and from there it grew. Then Tyson—my business partner—finished his football career, and we had this idea and gave it a crack. We called ourselves an agency or a studio, as we now like to refer to ourselves, and then, again, just started knocking on doors and saying yes and biting off more than we could chew. We failed along the way, but we always recovered and continued to try, and I suppose today we are still in the same mindset. We are still moving forward and not trying to look back too much.

 

You believed in yourselves, and were constantly leaning into that unknown.

Exactly, and we worked our arses off. Doing the best we could in the moment. Staying resilient and humble.

How did you begin to work with Nike?

We had some friends in PR, and we reached out wondering if we could get some introductions to some of their clients. They found us a lead to competitively pitch on some Manchester United kit packaging. And so we worked on that and were successful, which was cool. We really over-promised on what we could actually do there, but we still delivered to what we promised and held up our end of the bargain, which was a real blessing because it cost us a lot more money than what we were actually paid to do the job. So that was a huge lesson. But we delivered the job and they were happy, and they asked whether we wanted to design the A-League All Stars kit, and so we took that on. I guess our biggest break at Nike after that was the running campaign. They asked how we felt about turning a resort in Hamilton Island into a Nike world for twenty of Australia’s most influential women in running at that time. And we said sure. We had never designed a space, never done any of that, but we took it on and luckily enough we were put onto a friend who is now one of our best friends, and works with us on everything we do with Nike. He’s a printer, fabricator and builder. The timing was perfect. We were the same age. He was hungry. We were hungry. And we managed to deliver that experience on Hamilton Island. So then Nike asked us to do their window campaigns, and from there everything just flowed. That was ten years ago now.

 

It seems that the more you say yes, and the more you open yourself to opportunity, the more these coincidences happen: where you do meet the person who can build the exact thing you need, or solve the problem you have at the time.

I truly believe that luck comes when you’re willing to do the work. Put the energy in. And that energy comes back to help you deliver on something you didn’t know how to deliver. And we’re still doing that today: pitching ideas that we don’t know how to execute. But we will figure it out, and that’s the fun. That’s the sweet spot. I love when the studio is in that space, when the pressure is on and no one really understands where it’s at or what we need to do to pull it off. I guess that, for me, is the equivalent to that flow you might experience in sport. It’s scary. But necessary.

 

Many people say their relationship to life changes irrevocably when they have children, as if they suddenly realise they are a secondary character, or that their job is to play the supporting role in the life of another. How did your life transform when you had kids, and how do you balance your work and life commitments? Basically, how do we be good fathers to our children?

I’m always trying to think about that one, how to be a good father. We have two children now. A young girl and a young boy. Our first was born on the eve of Covid, which was a blessing because I was home. I got to spend time. For a while, everything kind of relaxed for a bit: the need to respond in the moment, the need to reply to every email, the need to hit every single deadline every single time went away, which was fortunate for myself and for my family because I was around.

The biggest thing for me is time, because it is so precious. I need to think about how I spend it, which then flows onto how I am in the studio—which has changed a lot. Now my time in the studio is finite. Once upon a time, I could work until whenever. All night, all day. I could go weekends. And now there are more important things in my life. You know, chasing that perfection that we were talking about with the designs or a concept: now I need to get home to my family. So my kids have taught me how to be sharper in the office, how to focus. My work practice has improved significantly because I want to get home to them. But how do I become a better father? I just have to remain disciplined, so I can be home as much as I can be.

You are also the co-owner of At The Above, a gallery in Melbourne. How did this come about, and what do you look for in the artists that you showcase?

We started At The Above in 2019, just before Covid. We look for artists that feel like an extension of the studio, whatever their practice is, or whatever they do: if it feels right, then we go with that gut instinct. We don’t over analyse things too much. We just look for the right fit and right feel. We touched on luck, and that if you put in enough energy then the people you need are often presented in front of you. It is the same with the gallery. All of a sudden, we might not have anyone to fill a space. Then the following day, what do you know, we find the perfect person. It is not overly curated. It really is based on feeling.

The gallery is beneath our studio, and we have had the studio for thirteen years. We are fortunate to have great clients, really great briefs, but at the end of the day they are corporate clients. There is a timeline and a budget and an expectation, and a lot of pressure that comes with that. We are getting older—we’re definitely not getting younger!—and so we think: how do we stay in touch? We primarily service youth culture so we need to keep our finger on the pulse. We wanted to create a space that would allow our young designers and young creatives to work with local talent to execute exhibitions or pop-ups or parties. It really is a nice extension of the studio, and keeps us in touch with what is happening culturally so that we can answer briefs faster and be more on point with our response.

It’s also a way of attracting the best talent (for Space Between), which is something we work hard on as well. I say the best, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the most skilled illustrator or the more creative art director, just the person who is the right fit. Often we get them working and managing an exhibition or a pop-up or a show end to end, so it becomes a bit of a playground. Really circular. Anyway, that’s my theory now, but honestly at the start there wasn’t too much theory. We just wanted to find a space that we could do cool shit in. That was about it. And it sounded good. It sounded like fun.

 

You are a creative director who facilitates space for other people’s creativity, which is to say that you have found a wonderful polarity between your two jobs. How do you give the best of yourself to others, while protecting your own time and your own needs?

I have a lot of trust. I guess because I am self-taught, and I don’t necessarily have all these rules around what is right and what is wrong, and because I was given incredible opportunities early on without a lot of restriction. I like to think that I can now do the same for others. If I find a project, and know the right person to lead that project, then I let them lead that project. I can be here to help guide it, and can foresee some issues, and I am happy to help there, but I want to step back and not overly influence the creative because the staff that we have are way more talented in their own areas than I am. So it is about harnessing that and letting them run with it. You delegate. And go with your gut. And that gives me my time back to focus on whatever I need to focus on. My family. The gallery. My own projects.

 

Do you have any routines or structures that help you create?

Oh, definitely. Routines for sure, but they also change. I develop these habits that tend to stick around for a couple of months at a time, then they morph into something different. Things like: what I am wearing, where I go for breakfast, where I have my coffee. Days that I let myself enjoy a longer lunch. A glass of wine. What I am supposed to do from a Monday to a Friday. There’s a kind of structure around it, but I guess I move to new venues or new places within that structure. And often I am searching for alone time. Melbourne is pretty small, and Fitzroy is a dense pocket within Melbourne that becomes very small, and so I tend to find my routine and then all of a sudden I start bumping into people and I feel like I need to break out of that. That is the pattern. So the answer is yes, very much so, but it is not fixed on repeat. Although two things that remain are my notepad and my pen. They don’t change. My pen needs to be 0.8 uni pen and I use the same pad. They are my anchors. I can’t be in a meeting without them. Even now, I am not taking any notes but they are here. They’re a comfort.

What does your typical day look like?

Nine o’clock stars. At nine we have a morning WIP. We understand what we need to try and achieve that day. The projects we work on are fast. No longer than three months end to end, but as short as three weeks. Store concepts to campaigns to spatial designs and build-ups and designs for launches. It all happens really quickly. The pace is fast, and it literally changes day to day. We can’t plan our studio much more than two to three days ahead. To do so would be counterproductive. So everyone starts at nine. We understand what we are trying to achieve and then we set out and go for it. It is a beautiful open-plan studio. We all sit beside one another. We try to limit the use of headphones because collaboration is key, and even though you might not be working on a project, you might be able to help the project develop. We try to create an open environment to expose everyone to other people’s ideas and conversations.

Everything in the studio is always moving and changing. We are really lucky that our production partner that I mentioned earlier is about five hundred metres up the road. So we are bouncing down there with their industrial design team, or their metal fabrication people, you know, the painters or the timber people or the printers.

A lot of the time I am on Zoom calls, which is something I am trying to change. I just think it is less productive to solve problems. I would much prefer to talk to someone in person.

We’re also fortunate with the gallery. As part of the program, we invite artists to live in the gallery. So they come in for two to four weeks at a time, and either create an entire body of work or finish a body of work. That changes our workplace dynamic as well because there could be an artist sleeping on a bed as you walk into the studio. They could be banging away on some sculptures or painting or they could be having a bit of a party. It creates a dynamic that has an energy to it, and then the artists start interacting and conversing with our staff and you never know where that can lead. It’s inspiring. We’re fortunate to have that under the same roof.

What are your thoughts about AI, and how it might disrupt or change or advantage your industry?

I’m excited, although I haven’t done anything with AI. Obviously the team has been playing with it, and we have tried some campaigns with it, or elements of those campaigns, and have had some success and failure. I think it can help us as a studio, and as creatives. I don’t think it is ever going to replace instinct, or that connection two humans can have in real time, when they understand a brief and follow their intuition to the idea. I think it will become another tool in our suite that we call on from time to time that adds value.

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring creatives?

Say yes to any opportunities that present themselves, that you feel are on the path you want to explore. And work your arse off to deliver the best quality of work that you can in response to that opportunity.