The Hero’s Journey of Phil Dunstan-Brown

What is the best thing that I love about my work? 

I have been doing what I’m doing now for thirty years, and the excitement of starting a new project never wanes. The type of work I do has changed immeasurably, but at the core of it is creativity and all that entails. I’m a designer at heart and can’t ever see stepping away from bringing new stuff into the world.

What is my idea of perfect happiness? 

Interesting. I find happiness to be quite fleeting. These days I’m more about contentedness, which is far more sustainable. It slows you down, and lets you be at peace with where you’re at, with what you currently have and who you are with. In saying that, hand in hand with my wife, our dog trotting along at our side, the waves roaring and the sun dipping below them horizon is hard to beat.

What is my greatest fear? 

Being caught out as imposter. Which is silly. I’ve had a huge amount of experience across multiple disciplines and worked at a high level across many different sectors, both public and private, but there is always new things to learn and difficulties to navigate. You’ve got to get a swagger on, pick yourself up and say to yourself “I’ve got this”, even though the way ahead is murky and uncertain.

What is the trait that I most deplore in myself? 

I can’t stand confrontation. I don’t know whether I have enough mongrel in me or not, but I hate the idea of hurting someone else, or failing them in some way. I’ve learned, however, to deal with things as early as possible and that in itself can minimise any fallout.

Which living persons in my profession do i most admire? 

There are so many luminaries. Some have actually passed, but their legacy remains. Alan Fletcher being one of those. The Art of Looking Sideways has been like a concordance to my practice. Paula Scher and Michael Bierut for their proliferation of strategically brilliant and creatively outstanding work. There are many others but a few worth mention; Louise Fili for her sublime craft skills, the talented letterers; Bianca Dumitrascu and Martina Flor, illustrators Aaron Horkey, Bill Mayer and Charlie Davis, the Wellington type designer Kris Sowersby, and my current crush, the young Aussie hyper realist, CJ Hendry.

What is my greatest extravagance? 

I own 55 pairs of shoes. There is a wonderful rationale for having such a collection; the more you have, the less they wear out. Besides, Dr Seuss once said: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

On what occasion would I lie? 

I’ve told little white lies to my kids when they were younger, mainly to protect them in some way, or to coerce them into eating peas. Beyond that, integrity is important to me. I consider truthfulness a virtue.  It’s how you keep the relationships you have with people real.

What is the thing that I dislike the most in my work? 

I’m a perfectionist, and this at times hinders getting somewhere completely new. It can be a rabbit hole, making things ‘just so’ before evaluating whether it is worth taking them somewhere. When I’m in a creative process I need to step back earlier and not get caught up in making everything completely workable.

When and where was I the happiest, in my work? 

I live for what is right in front of me, so now is good! I delight in seeing the bigger picture, but I love detail, the stuff people never see till the third or fourth glance. The biggest kick I get is when people react to your work in the way it was intended. Starting Provenance has been an absolute boon. I’ve always said I would work for myself, it is just a shame I didn’t do it ten years ago.

If I could, what would I change about myself? 

Mark myself a little higher. I’m my own harshest critic. I need to be a lot fairer to myself and give myself a break, I’ve given enough people around me one.

What is my greatest achievement in work? 

As a creative leader it has always been seeing other people reach new heights, produce something gob-smackingly beautiful or totally unexpected.  I love dropping in on a project and having the ability to ‘plus’ it. I love how collective genius in a creative team takes things that much further. As a sole practitioner now, this is one of the hardest things to keep on top of, and make sure I keep plugged in.

Where would I most like to live? 

If I could step out of the cold grip of reality, it would be living as a fine artist in a Tuscan villa (no pool in summer would be a deal breaker). But Wellington is more than a close second. It is cosmopolitan, walkable, vibrant and cultured. It’s a place where anyone has half an hour to chat about an idea, and a place where we cheer others on. We see out climate as invigorating, our hills challenging and our harbour a jewel.

What is my most treasured possession?

My grandfather left to fight alongside the allies in WWII a few weeks after my father was born. My grandmother kept a visual diary of the four years they were apart. The incredible strain of the separation and the trials of that time are apparent in her writing. It was seminal in the way our family works, and the way we use love to triumph the hard stuff. I have the medals my grandfather and his brothers won in a combined frame, and that is pretty special too.

What is my most marked characteristic?

Kindness. Clifton Strengths finder says my key strength is empathy, which is one and the same thing. It’s simple really… being kind gets you more places than being a dick to people. When I walk into a room I feel what everyone is feeling. Where I’m going, I need to take people with me. To do that, practising kindness is an imperative. I happen to think kindness would solve pretty much every major problem in the world today.

What is my most inspirational location, in my city? 

We live near a great regional park. A couple of years ago a riser track was put into the hillside to get mountain bikers to the summit, but it also gets used by walkers. On a blistering southerly, there is nothing more bracing than making the summit and getting a 360 view of the Wellington region. You’re literally touching clouds.

What is my favourite place to eat and drink, in my city?

Seashore Cabaret is an old rowing club on our harbour foreshore that has been turned into a cafe. It’s modelled on a retro sideshow joint. It’s eclectic, loud and serves great comfort food and coffee. The view is forever changing too, whether it’s getting lashed by a storm, or watching a summer sunset melt into the hills.

What books influenced my life and how?

As a child my parents read me AA Milne to me over and over. These shaped and fired my imagination more than any other. They led me into a world with richly formed characters that taught me seminal life lessons; friends matter, patience is a virtue, politeness is always remembered, and to have courage when you’re afraid. He himself said: “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”.

Who are my favorite writers?

These days I read to escape. I’m a secret science fiction buff, so whether it is Peter Hamilton, Ian Banks, Ian Irvine or Stephen Donaldson… I’m away. I love the way the epic storylines reflect the human condition; struggle, disaster,  survival, love, witness, relentlessness, journeying and the ability to overcome, all while doing this on a tiny spinning ball of rock.

You Only Die Once. What music would I listen on my last day?

Depending on my state of mind at the time, and because I have quite varied tastes in music, Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No.7’, Muse’s ‘Reapers’, Dire Strait’s ‘Telegraph Road’, Death from Above’s “Freeze Me’, Thelonius Monk’s ‘Bye-Ya’, U2’s ‘I will follow’, Donavon Frankenreiter’s ‘Beautiful Day’ or just to be super corny, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ‘What a wonderful World’…

Who is my hero or heroine in fiction? 

Tintin. He has no superpower, he doesn’t belong to a merry band. He uses wily cunning, intelligence and creativity to get out of terrible scrapes. His life lesson is that courage is an everyday choice, not learned or earned. If you choose to be brave, courage follows and fear disappears.

Who are my heroes and heroines in real life?

I have to admit, I don’t have heroes as such. Even great women and men have an Achilles heel. While they have all passed, my parents and grandparents were my heroes. They had values like servant leadership, fierce protectiveness, steadfast love, empathy and a work ethic that was second to none. I sincerely hope they have all rubbed off on me in some way. 

Which movie would i recommend to see once in a lifetime? 

The movie that most transported me was the very first Star Wars – A New Hope. It was 1977 and I was 11. It totally changed the way I saw the future and what was possible.

What role plays art in my life and work?

Everything started with art. I got my first chalk board at 18 months. When I was nine an MC Escher show came to town and I was transfixed. Since then art has had an influence on how I work. I see parallels in the process of creating art and what I do. It all starts with an idea; something to communicate, then everything follows. If it doesn’t start with that, it is only ever execution.

Who is my greatest fan, sponsor, partner in crime? 

I have been married to my childhood sweetheart for 28 years. Vicki is the most generous and supportive partner you can have. She’s a human human and such a wonderful mother… She has engrained amazing qualities into our kids. The way I see it is WE do what I do. Without her I would be seriously lost.

Whom would I like to work with in 2019/2020? 

As a freelance gun-for-hire, I’m really enjoying working with my own group of select clients. I love that I now get to chose who I work with and make sure our values align. I want to work alongside people who recognise the power of design, and want to see real change. I’m also looking to produce more digital projects with other specialists; motion media, video and websites. 

Which people in my profession would i love to meet in 2019/2020?

I’ve established the genesis of a wee freelance meetup in Wellington. As much as anything it’s getting a bigger network of support going, mutual admiration and all that! I’m keen on working with a wider variety of people; motion media artists, front and back-end developers, photographers, illustrators and writers.

What project, in 2019/2020, am I looking forward to work on? 

I’ve got some large projects on over the next few months, of which I have some pretty complete authorship of. I’m honoured to have been given the degree of trust these clients have given me, but that is the benefit of establishing good working relationships.

Where can you see me or my work in 2019/2020?

I’m going to continue working from my home studio until such a time as the walls have closed in completely and I’m talking to myself in ways I shouldn’t. I love getting out and having a yarn over a coffee, pint, risotto, or nice glass of earthy red. So always open for a hook up. As for my work, some will appear in high end department stores in China, some in national grocery chains, some in B2B channels, and some again some drawings and musings and jottings from a new fangled toy…

What do the words “Passion Never Retires” mean to me?

I’m never satisfied. I never step back, looking at my work, and am completely happy with it. It’s part of the disability of perfectionism, but it also drives me to go one better next time. 

Which creative heroes should Peter invite to tell their story?

Kris Sowersby from the Klim Type foundry, just because he tell a rollicking yarn (and loves death metal), and I’d love to know more of what drives CJ Hendry to produce the work she does.

How can you contact me?

You can contact me through my website: or by email on instagram @dunstannbrown

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