Vol. 6
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 6

Spelling It Out with Tania Debono

February 2015

Influencer, typographer, artist and social-media rock star.

Tania Debono is the founder of PR service CAKE as well as the type-artist behind social-media hit, TheWriting. Garnering a massive following on various social-media channels, she has now collaborated with the likes of Marie Claire UK, P.Diddy and Lululemon Athletica. In Volume 6 of Caffeine & Concrete she discusses her move away from home town Adelaide, her decision to leave law behind for a career in the media and spells out what it takes to do what you love.

Tania Debono--- 4 November 2014

By Lorenzo Princi

You certainly don’t have a nine to five, but a twenty-four seven. What do you do?

I don’t know what I do! I eat liquorice [Laughs]. No, I-- yeah I don’t have a nine to five. It is-- my life is work but in the best way possible and I wouldn’t change it for anything. So I juggle things like, running social-media accounts for clients and pitching for clients and doing PR for clients as-- at the same time where I’m on a call with them I’ll be writing something for The Writing or I’ll be speaking to someone in the US-- most of my-- most of my interest is from overseas at the moment with The Writing so it kind of works really well with my schedule. So, I have Australian clients that I work on, on the ground and at night, when everybody’s asleep, I can start doing my secret business, which is The Writing. So that’s why I work twenty-four seven and that’s why I’m in this place until four or five o’clock in the morning and that’s why my coffee man thinks I’m a prostitute... yep [laughs].

"My life is work but in the best way possible."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 6

You’re originally from Adelaide’s western suburbs. It can be hard to break out of the generational monotony, especially in an Italian family. How and why did you move to Sydney and start your career in media?

I’ve always tried to fight against the norm, especially going to Catholic schools and as you said, we grew up in that Italian, very strict, very Catholic, very, “buy a house and have a boyfriend and stay with him for the rest of your life” and I’ve always fought against the grain, so. And I never could see myself there, ever. As soon as the internet happened, as soon as we got a computer I was interacting with people all around the world, I’ve always, I loved-- I have loved social-media since the ICQ days, so, you know that [makes ICQ alert noise, laughs] did you have that?

Lorenzo: [Laughs] yeah, yeah.

And MSN (Messenger) and Myspace and trying to work out what drove people and, like, how we could connect and I always wanted to be a thought leader in that aspect so I packed up, much to my Dad’s hate, and came to Sydney and knew that I was going to do something really cool, not sure what I was going to do but yeah, I could never see myself in the western suburbs of Adelaide for any longer than I could and as soon as my dad started to trust me a little bit and let me go out past midnight [laughs] I was on that plane!

"As soon as the internet happened, as soon as we got a computer I was interacting with people all around the world."
Tania Debono

Before coming to Sydney, you completed a double degree in Law in 2010, which is impressive enough without adding your media and communications degree to the mix. That’s a lot of studying to not then pursue law. Do you regret the studies or have you found them beneficial nonetheless?

I didn’t actually find the studies beneficial, yeah sometimes the law will come into it-- I also studied media, so that’s what I did. And I find uni very interesting, that-- look, when I was studying law I was in a different-- I was-- I felt like I was a different person so I was a part of-- I don’t know. I feel like sometimes the groups that you surround yourself in-- the people that you surround yourself in really influence what you are, but I’m that type of personality that-- I can’t just pretend to be that kind of person to fit in that groove, it’s soon going to come out, like-- I’m soon going to-- like it’s going to wear off soon, the colour is going to wear off and I’ll be like, “hang on! What the hell am I doing?”

So, I did my law degree and decided absolutely not what I was going to study, it happened that I got into that instead of journalism but I’ve always loved to be creative, always loved to write and yeah, that’s, yeah-- I don’t find it that I regret, I found myself the opportunity to stay in Adelaide for as long as I did and it led me into other things. I don’t think that anything you do in your life is ever a regret, something will come from it, even if it’s just someone you met at a coffee shop while waiting for one of your law classes. I think-- or something in life, I think everything that you do is a pathway to what you are going to be and you have to look at it like that. Nothing is ever a waste of time if you are putting yourself into it, I guess-- does that makes sense?

Lorenzo: Yeah!

Tania: Oh, can I say one more thing?

Lorenzo: Go for it!

Tania: I think the most powerful thing in your life is to know what you don’t want more so than what you do want and I always live by that. Like, I think it’s something that you should know about yourself, it’s more beneficial anyway...

"Know what you don’t want more so than what you do want."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 6

Caffeine & Concrete is all about vocation, that is a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation. You seem to epitomise this, while following your social-media channels, it’s difficult to distinguish what you are doing on the clock versus off the clock. Has this been intentional or has it just come up circumstantially?

I don’t know, I think it’s weird, when you love what you do you can’t help but fully immerse yourself in it and I would never be a part of anything unless I was fully immersed. Yeah, so, when I’m at parties, it’s-- I’m there to socialise and enjoy myself but I’m there for a purpose and that’s-- my purpose is to be a part, like-- you can’t be immersed in social, you can’t be a thought leader, you can’t be in PR, you can’t be in publicity, you can’t be a connector, if you aren’t embodying every single one of those, like, The Writing, I dress in black and white, all the time because, I am what I am. Like I believe in my work so much that, you know? That’s-- that’s why I have a strong identity and not because I sit there and think, “okay, what, like, what’s going to-- what are people going to have?” It’s just come about and I don’t know, maybe that’s why the-- maybe that’s why what I do is so well received I guess, I don’t know, sometimes. I just, yeah, it’s intentional in the most unintentional way.

"When you love what you do you can’t help but fully immerse yourself in it."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 6

As a public relations consultant, you could be working with a fashion brand one week and a pet sitting service the next. How do you determine what these different brands represent and how you say, “define its position within the market.” What’s your process?

I only ever work with clients, or do, or a part of projects that I believe in, right. So, if I-- I love animals, so when this company came to me and asked about, you know, this pet sitting, I thought, “what are your ethics behind it?” I need to meet the person, I need to know what’s going on, if they believe in it as much as I want to be a part of it, it’s going to be a great fit. And it will fit in the marketplace because of the thought process behind it and that’s like with my nail polishes, like that’s-- it sounds like so-- a fluffy thing but they’re all about (being against) animal cruelty and things like that and I’m against animal cruelty.

So it’s something that I believe in and that’s the same with The Writing. Look, when someone offers me an opportunity I have to look at how it works and how it’s going to fit. And that’s the thing-- I never want to say I’m a fashion PR or I’m beauty or I’m you know? Culture or art. I want to be a part of everything because I feel like you as a person have different factors that-- and different interests and things like that and that’s-- and that’s like with everyone.

I really love studying what humans and like what human nature is and having a very strong hand in social-media has given me a bit of an insight into people’s thought processes. So I’m not just up there putting pretty pictures, I’m actually seeing how people interact, what they like, what they don’t like, what drives them, what motivates them, what inspires them, what if-- like putting up something that’s subjective, you know? Is it, I don’t know, is it remarkable, like remarkable enough to comment on. So, I apply that to every single one of my projects, I guess.

"Sometimes people don't have the capacity to verbalise what they feel in a way and I feel like I am the mechanic behind that ... I didn't realise it at the time but my popularity lies in the context not the form."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 6

Aside from your successful commercial media work, you are also the “The_Cakeface” behind The Writing and your typographic motivationals are all over social-media. What inspired them?

I was going through a very hard time personally and I knew I wasn’t the only one out there that was also going through a hard time in any way, shape or form and I put-- I think words, obviously, are the most powerful form of communication. Sometimes people don’t have the capacity to verbalise what they feel in a way and I feel like I am the mechanic behind that. That I was-- I didn’t realise it at the time but like my popularity lies in the context rather than the form.

So yeah I-- through a hard time I created something that helped me and in turn it started to help others so now it’s gone from something that was maybe a bit of a selfish act on my part to being a selfless act that now I feel like I’m responsible to put out something that provides a bit of light into people’s eyes or a different way of looking at things or a bit of perspective or you know? Don’t hate on Monday, don’t love Friday, fuckin’ just do cool shit! And surround yourself with awesome people. You know? It’s-- you know people love a quote, they really do and I’m not putting it out there because it’s a quote, I’m trying to put something out there that causes a reaction I guess, so, that’s how The Writing came about.

Around April 2012 The Writing went from a very handwriting style to what could now be defined as your brand, with a thick, clean, precise technique. It consists of stark contrasts and an almost Japanese calligraphy approach. You’ve very much honed the technique over the past year; thicker stems and thinner bars, less words. Was this a natural progression?

Absolutely! I love being creative I guess, but once-- I sit and I practice and I learn and I haven’t really been inspired by anyone except for myself so I was just sticking with something that came naturally and it’s-- I think-- like you know how they say you can learn?-- Like ten thousand hours, you can learn a whole new skill, clearly you can’t be a doctor but-- I think-- looking at the back catalogue sometimes I want to delete it but I think it’s very funny, it just progressed. It’s just a natural progression and people-- you’re not the first person to tell me, “I’ve looked through and seen that it’s so dark and there’s shadow and it looks like you’ve written at your desk,” because I did. To what it is now and it-- it just progressed and I started to learn a style and as people started following and more people-- it just, I don’t know, I-- I grew and learnt and understood what I was doing a little bit more so yeah I-- I guess it’s just growing as a person and people have come on that journey like, people have said to me, “Oh my god, I was one of your first followers back like a few years ago and look what you’ve done now, like, it’s changed but it’s still the same and...”

I change things all the time, before I just used to post quotes that belonged to other people and now heaps of my stuff that is on there is all my own words and it’s genuine content because I want to have something genuine out there especially like, if I’m not a traditional typ(ographer)-- like there’s so many amazing people that are typographers out there that do beautiful, beautiful work and I look and I’m, “fuck, I’m shit.” Like but-- I just-- so at least I have-- I-- I just want to communicate something so I make my own words and yeah, it-- The Writing is weird, like my-- that Instagram account is my life, it’s gone through break-ups, it’s gone through me falling in love, me falling out of love and holidays and family shit and friend stuff and great stuff and work and quitting and starting my own business and being broken into, like, everything is communicated in that. It’s a natural progression of my entire life.

The Writing features small life lessons with a rock star attitude. They’re perfect for social-media attention spans. Though I’m sure it’s great to get a million likes on a post. What type of engagement are you really looking for with the audience?

Tania: I’m trying-- I want it to be something that’s visual, I-- that’s why I started doing exhibitions and large scale works and really trying to hone my craft that way. I want someone to be able to stand there, not for the length of flicking through an Instagram feed, like, it started on Instagram because that was a way that I could actually connect with the world and just like I did with ICQ and just like I did with MSN Messenger and just like I did with Myspace this is-- that was my window to get out there and now I want to-- like I want it to be something tangible.

It-- It’s created here [indicating her studio] like, it’s a real thing that I create and I’ve taken a picture just to put it out there but that is not the vehicle that I want it to stay on, I want it to-- I want it to be around the world and things I’m doing now, like with-- like Lululemon (Athletica), I’m doing this worldwide campaign, that’s going to be in windows around the world and that’s all my own words and things like that. So I want people to be able to stand there and read my stuff and see it and touch it and feel it and look and walk past the Galeries (Tania’s work, Based On a True Story was displayed at the Galeries Victoria Lane 4 in September and October of 2014) and stand all over, like at an exhibition I had they stood all over it and walked all over it and then people were taking pictures laying next to my words and it completely buzzed me out but absolutely not (just Instagram), that’s-- it was just a vehicle to put it out there and I’d-- I’m not lying at all when I say there was no strategic move towards what I was doing, it was just-- I wanted to put something out there in the most organic way and most viable way possible and it worked. So, yeah...

The Writing’s popularity has seen you collaborate with the likes of Marie Claire UK, Harpers Bazaar, Vogue and P Diddy amongst others. Do you feel the purity can be lost when you start doing commercial projects or is it just natural for art to become commercial?

I’m really careful, like what I said about my clients as well. I always engage with companies and brands that I believe in or I believe their ethos. Lululemon, something that I’m working with, multinational, huge, worldwide brand and I said no to them from the start when they were approaching me in Australia. When I was in San Francisco recently, they asked me to catch up with them and we had a coffee and-- because all good things happen over coffee-- and she launched into telling me about what they do, not a part of the business and it completely won me over in that, how their business started was almost the same way as The Writing started and I felt like it was such a perfect fit in that they are there to inspire people and yes they sell frikkin’ yoga clothes and gym clothes but you know? I just have words on paper, like that isn’t-- I believe in what they did and look, Marie Claire, I read it, I love it and I loved the artists that they’d been involved with previously and I love the fact that they were sending me pictures of the girls that work for them with my Writing stuff all over their screen savers, like, I love that! Like, that kind of pulls at my heart strings.

But I say no to everything, the-- I have said no to huge things because it doesn’t fit what I’m about and I’m all about that I just want to keep it as pure as I can for as long as possible and probably forever. Like, I have had the opportunity to sell out so many times. Like, especially people asking me to put-- to promote stuff on my Instagram that could’ve have paid my rent for the next four months and have said no. So, not many people know that but I’m still here for someone and so many people, investors and people that wanted to buy me out have said, “you will only be around for six months.” And two years later I’m still here… so I don’t know if-- touch wood [taps on table] but I think it you keep doing something, not for the money, for the love-- you know? I’m here to four or five o’clock in the morning doing this stuff, this is from my heart, like that’s my blood, sweat and tears in everyone single one of those words, so I hope that that translates to people and sees me as a person, rather than just an Instagram account that P. Diddy likes.

"I want to fail and I want to succeed and I want to fail more."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 6

What’s next for Tania Debono?

I don’t know, you tell me [laughs]. I want to-- I have that thing that I always want to go bigger. I left Adelaide for Sydney, now Sydney is Adelaide so I need to find what is the equivalent for what Sydney was for me when I was back in Adelaide. Which I hope and I think is New York but you never know. I don’t know, I just want to keep going and doing that thing and creating cool stuff and hanging around cool people and being inspired and just-- just doing stuff that people are sometimes too scared to do. I want to fail and I want to succeed and I want to fail more. Like, that’s why I-- so-- I’m, that’s what’s next… I don’t know, I’m just going to ride the wave because I’m scared that I’m going to jinx it [laughs].

Follow Tania on Twitter (@The_Cakeface) and TheWriting on Instagram

Proofreading by Cinzia Forby & Luke Yates.