Top dog, although you’d never assume it of him with his calm and easy-going nature, Nigel is the freethinking, socially-good director of Transformer. With a passion for art and music (almost equally, we’d say), he spends his time traipsing around after musicians with his sons and visiting art galleries that make us envious. Based in the UK for now, he tells us a little about what makes him tick…

I’m dreading asking this because you’ll show us all up… but please draw a caricature of yourself.

^^ Clearly Nigel was always going to be the one to show us up.

Craft beer enthusiast? What’s your current favourite?

I think NZ has some great craft beers but now I’m back in the UK – land of the warm, flat pint – I’m loving the real ale. I could list a whole lot of daft names along the lines of Great Thumper, Old Warbler and Bishop’s Revenge but basically any real ale hits the spot for me. There’s a place near us called The Real Ale Classroom which is a tiny bar where all the tables are old wooden school desks, and the beer comes directly out of whatever guest barrel is behind the bar that day.

If you could design for anyone – anything – who and what would you design?

I’d love to have designed a cover for David Bowie. Darn, too late!

You can call me a bleeding-heart liberal but these days I’m most interested in using design for social good. So if I could design for anyone it would be the causes closest to my heart: human rights, Free Tibet, inequality, helping the world’s poorest nations, a right to free education and health etc.

Three people you’d invite for dinner?

The Dalai Lama, John Peel and Billy Connolly.

Currently on your ‘most played’ list?

  • Ryley Walker – Cannots and Primrose Green
  • Radiohead – A moon shaped pool
  • Anat Fort Trio with Gianluigi Trovesi – Birdwatching
  • Brian Eno – Reflection
  • Bob Dylan – all the early acoustic albums
  • Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate
  • James Yorkston / Yorkston Thorne Khan
  • …and everything by David Bowie.

Can you share a piece of creative advice you were given that has stuck with you throughout your creative career?

Every new project is your opportunity to do the best work you’ve ever done. It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, urgent or relaxed, has a large budget or is pro-bono – every project can be awesome!

Who are three – okay five – creatives you look up to and why?

Only three? That’s tough. At art school (way back in the 1980’s) the big trio were Neville Brody, Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville. They seemed to turn UK design upside down with amazing work in the music and fashion industries and as they ‘grew up’ they applied these great new ideas to magazines, newspapers, brochures etc., giving a crafted but slightly skewed design edge to even the most mundane commercial projects. In that spirit I love Alt Group’s work – in my opinion they’re way ahead in the New Zealand design community. And I really like Jonathan Barnbrook’s design work (sorry that’s five now, unless you count the 80’s trio as one!)

Plus I really like Jonathan Barnbrook’s design work.

What do you do when creative block hits?

Well, I’m not being big-headed here, but I’ve never had a creative block as such. If anything I’ve usually got too many ideas and my difficulty is trying to pare them back to make one great, simple design solution. I love minimalism when I see it done by others but I’m a maximalist by nature.

What do you love most about our field of work?

Collaboration in the studio – when it works and everyone is buzzing with positive energy it can be magical. I love working with a brave, trusting client who wants us to push the envelope. And I love that feeling I get every time a new project comes in – I always feel “this is going to be the greatest thing I’ve done!”

Got any favourite websites or blogs that never fail to inspire you?

Creative Review’s newsletters are invariably welcome. They remind me to go to their blog which is always good.

Favourite Transformer project to date?

Fond memories remain of the Hilton Hotel Residences in Surfers Paradise project. I didn’t really like the design we came up with but it was bang-on for the brief. It resonated with the target market, was a great success in terms of sales for the client and it led to a huge amount of new work and referrals from Australia. The studio doubled in size over a few months and we went on a roller-coaster ride for several years to keep up, as they just kept giving us more work. The Hilton project taught me that, even though I’d never in a million years want to own a show-off apartment in Surfer’s Paradise, we could design an integrated campaign of ads, digital, website and print collateral that fulfilled and exceeded the client’s expectations. It was a good example of a project where we had to leave our egos, prejudices and previous experience behind so we could get a true understanding of the market, rather than designing to our own tastes.

I’ve always loved working with Wayne Laird at Atoll (an independent record label dedicated to classical, historical and contemporary music). Everything he does oozes quality so it’s always nice to work with him. We’ve been part of most of his projects since 1998 so I really feel Transformer have helped shape Atoll’s visual identity through their CDs.

Chow:Hill’s strategic plan project was a wonderful time for Transformer. Anthony Flannery is one of the most inspiring clients I’ve ever worked with and not surprisingly it led to some of the most creative thinking we’ve produced.

22 Pollen is my favourite in the current portfolio. When I first arrived in New Zealand in ’99 I sort of ‘fell’ into doing real estate work and really enjoyed it. Transformer have always had an affinity with the sector, particularly commercial, which often misses out on the ‘glamour’ of residential work. Contravening this 22 Pollen is an example we’re proud of as a great creative solution across multiple channels, that’s on-brief.

22 Pollen – see more in our case study

Recently I’ve loved seeing Jay and Adrian design the Buckley’s book, Caitlin and Fleur pushing the real estate marketing collateral and information memoranda way beyond where they were a couple of years ago and seeing Adrian and Megan do great things for Southern Discoveries.

But most of all it’s the work we do for Amnesty International. I’ve been an Amnesty supporter since a ‘charity mugger’ got me at an REM concert in the late ‘80’s. So now it makes me very proud to see our work for them out there in the world. Strike, the Sri Lanka brochure and Secret Policeman’s Ball are my favourite pieces we’ve done for Amnesty.

Learnings, insights gained from almost 15 years of running Transformer?

Well, that’s an interesting one.

To be honest, I haven’t loved every minute of it. It can be a pain in the rear dealing with deadlines, budgets, banks, suppliers, bad debtors – sometimes clients and staff – when all I really want to do is sit in a corner and come up with amazing design!

Learning to say ‘no’ sometimes instead of doing 14-hour shifts might have helped my health.

Starting Transformer with some capital and a business plan would have been smarter than jumping into it with nothing but a Mac in a spare room.

However, the pluses far outweigh the negatives. It’s been a huge pleasure to watch it grow and to now be able to see that we’ve built something pretty cool.

I love watching the team members grow in confidence and ability. It’s been wonderful to help nurture talent. Some stay a long time… I like to think we’ve built some great relationships (though they might disagree!).

The biggest buzz for me has always been to hit that sweet spot where a project comes together, we’re proud of what we’ve done, the client loves it and it gets the results they’d hoped for. If it makes a profit that’s a nice extra.

A learning? If you’re a neurotic, workaholic like me then probably don’t start a design company!

By Megan Stephens

Graphic Designer



Bold, bright and almost definitely famous, Megan loves typography, grids and the odd bit – okay, a lot – of socialising. If you want to be social, flick an email her way.