Jef Wong is Head of Design at Designworks, New Zealand.

Tell us about your approach to Brand Auckland. How do you refresh a city’s brand without disregarding popular notions of the place?

We have a desire to avoid clichés and look at different ways of representing a place. We saw Auckland as an innovative, vibrant, modern city rather than the sum of its icons. In fact we had a list of what we didn’t want to incorporate – Skytowers, beaches and other standard Auckland imagery.

Also, as the brand was being designed to unite a region, we didn’t want anything too specific to one place. So we used a symbol that was universal, the A. It gave us the ability to use it as an empty vessel and fill it with meaning – for events, businesses, ideas etc.

Airports are both local institutions and international spaces. How do you make sure your designs work across languages and cultures, while still reflecting a particular place and brand?

The Auckland Airport strategy is driven by quite a simple idea: representing your country. That means flying your flag and being proud of New Zealand – and for travellers, getting a taste of local culture straight off the plane. We used functional iconography, but again done in a contemporary, pared-back way. Way finding has to be practical, but we’re always interested in creating a journey and building on a story.

How do you allow space for corporate brands to advertise along walkways, air bridges and other parts of the airport without sacrificing the airport’s unique aesthetic and navigability?

We actually try to avoid advertising as such. These touch-points are often another opportunity to build on brand and story, not launch a visual assault. For example, we incorporated an air bridge into Air New Zealand’s domestic journey. The air bridge features travel stories of New Zealand from every one of the airline’s domestic destinations.

Travellers need content. Brands need customers. How do you integrate brand experiences into airports in a way that serves the immediate needs of the consumer in transit?

I think it was done well with Air New Zealand’s domestic check in – it’s a functional space, but we used language that was really accessible and on brand. Instead of simple check-in signs we decided to have conversations that reinforce the brand personality as well as delivering function, and reinforcing credibility and security. The Air New Zealand journey begins with a sign that says “Start here” and touch screens that greet passengers with “Hello!”

Airlines aren’t just corporate brands, but cultural ambassadors for their nations of origin. In your work for Air New Zealand, how did you take this cultural aspect into account in everything from the aircraft’s design, to its inflight entertainment system?

When we started working with Air New Zealand we used traditional icons of New Zealand like nature, but we interpreted them in a new way. We never try to disrespect the meaning of cultural imagery, but we took a view on what New Zealand means, and how people see us.

With regards to recent Air New Zealand work, we’ve moved beyond the literal iconography of New Zealand and tried to capture the spirit of the place. Its inventive, world class, number-8-wire sort of attitude. That means nothing traditional; remember that New Zealand is not just one culture. This has influenced everything from seats and IFE, to the rituals of the meal service, the interior – the whole approach.

The client-agency relationship can be a challenging aspect of the design process. Any tips for how to deal with unrealistic client expectations or conflicts of vision?

It does make the process easier if you try and involve clients a lot more. Reiterating the client’s goals and what they want to get out of it is really important throughout the process. Clients also need to be educated – they’re not going to say “jump” if they understand the value of what you do.

Of course, good relationships matter, you need mutual respect right up front. If you have that then you can do some great work. (But sometimes it’s just a matter of chemistry.)