BEHIND THE SCENES
Seven time zones separate Jon Forss and Kjell Ekhorn, the creative visionaries behind world-leading design studio Non-Format. But conforming never was high on the agenda for the pair, as their stunning designs running thoughout these pages prove
Expressive typography, stunning illustration and a bold, versatile graphic style that knows no boundaries – sound familiar? Non-Format is one of the world’s most exciting design studios, known for its innovative creative direction and striking body of work. Ever since British designer Jon Forss and Norwegian Kjell Ekhorn joined forces in 2000, the pair have been producing pioneering design and branding for all manner of clients, from commercial giants like CocaCola and Nike to independent record labels, publishing houses, advertising agencies and more.
Six years ago, Non-Format designed a beautiful, bespoke diecut cover for issue 163 of Computer Arts – and we’ve been looking for an excuse to work with the pair again ever since. Throughout these pages, you’ll find the studio’s stunning handiwork tying the Annual together from beginning to end. Here, they tell us what inspired their in-yourface patterns and fluid custom type.
Non-Format’s custom typeface for the Branding Annual has a lot of personality – what kind of feel were you going for?
Kjell: We knew right away that we wanted to explore the idea of taking the type into a 3D space and play around with extreme light and dark, so we had to make sure that the custom typeface wasn’t too quirky or illegible, otherwise we might not have been so free to experiment with the composition and textural treatments.
We started with quite a simple structure for the letter shapes, but it wasn’t until we settled on the pattern distortion idea that we realised the characters would benefit from having rounded ends to the strokes. After a few experiments, we decided that a kind of hybrid of rounded
“We decided that a hybrid of rounded and flat terminals was the most visually pleasing solution. It’s slightly schizophrenic. Like us.”
and flat terminals was the most visually pleasing solution. It’s slightly schizophrenic. Rather like Non-Format.
How did you approach the creation of the typeface?
Jon: We started with a geometric core structure, as we tend to do, and added personality to several of the characters. Our initial intention was to create a typeface that would entertain in its own right: a proper display font. But it was destined for an annual that would showcase the best of branding, so we started thinking of it as a different kind of animal – as the kind of typeface that would more subtly establish the unique characteristics of a brand.
Once we hit on the idea of bringing the headlines into a 3D space and playing with extremes of light and dark, we knew we had to keep the quirkiness to a minimal. The rounded ends on the strokes started as a purely practical necessity and became one of the typeface’s defining characteristics.
The section-openers have an almost retro feel. What inspired you?
Jon: We’re interested – and fairly amused – to see the revival of the sort of textures and grid patterns that were used a lot in the late 70s and early 80s. They found their way into a lot of graphic design of the period, and the same can be said of today. We thought that it might be possible to use some of these grids and patterns as a way of both disguising and defining our typeface and, subsequently, this magazine’s section openers.
Once this was tested out and it seemed promising, we decided it would work best if we chose the operative word from each headline as the focus for this treatment. So, for example, we chose to use only the word ‘systems’ from ‘Identity Systems’. Of course, we needed to include all of the heading somewhere, so we introduced the coloured blocks that cut through the images and add a strong hit of colour to the otherwise uniformly black-and-white spreads. There’s clearly a retro feel to these pages, but the technology used to achieve these images is firmly rooted in this century.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
Kjell: Working with new software [Cinema 4D] is always a daunting prospect. We’re well aware that it can take upwards of 10,000 hours before you can really declare yourself proficient at something, but we’re firm believers in the power of
“It’s not a Non-Format project until we’ve both ripped it apart and reassembled it. At least once.”
ignorance. Our understanding of most software would probably be regarded as rudimentary by those who devote themselves to mastering every nook and cranny of an application, but we’ve always worked on the assumption that quite a lot can be achieved with even a little knowledge. We explore. We test things out. We discard the things that don’t work and learn as we go along. Our only goal is to surprise each other and hope we’re creating something that looks a little different from everything else.
Jon – you live in the States, while Kjell, you’re based in Norway. How collaborative is your creative process?
Kjell: We share as much of the workload on each project as humanly possible. It comes down to whichever of us is more able or willing to tackle a particular aspect. What you see here is the result of two minds bashing together. It’s not a Non-Format project until we’ve both ripped it apart and reassembled it. At least once.
The setup clearly works well for NonFormat: you’ve managed to make it work across 4,000 miles and seven different time zones. What are the advantages of this way of working? Jon: The main benefit is that one of us can continue working on a project long after the other has finished for the day. When we worked together back in London we’d start each new day knowing that absolutely nothing had been achieved during the night.
Now we wake up and there’s always some progress; something new to see. It makes an enormous difference to us psychologically – but it’s also extremely advantageous to our clients, who often see their projects develop at a much faster pace, especially when there’s a deadline looming. Of course, there are disadvantages too. FaceTime works well enough, but there are situations when it might be easier if we were sitting in the same room together.
What has been your most rewarding project in the last 12 months?
Jon: I think our design of the promotional material for Machine Dreams, this year’s Only Connect Festival of Sound, was pretty satisfying in terms of creativity and, perhaps more importantly, the festival organisers at nyMusikk seemed pretty happy with the result too.
We had to keep to a fairly tight budget but still find an expressive way to convey the spirit of the festival. The multitude of robot faces, especially the animated ones, really did the trick. We’re looking forward to working on this year’s festival – the theme of which is J.G. Ballard.
Kjell: I’m pretty happy with the work we did for the Sølve Sundsbø exhibition at Shoot Gallery in Oslo. It was their inaugural exhibition so the pressure was on to come out with a bang. I’ve always admired Sølve’s work so it was a real pleasure putting together the catalogue, creating a custom typeface for the show and making sure all the little details were just right. Neither of these projects was hugely financially rewarding, but in terms of creating something we can be proud of – and pleasing the gallery owner, the curator and Sølve himself – it’s always a measure of success.
Do you ever disagree on where to take a new project? What’s the biggest fallout you’ve ever had?
Kjell: Disagreements are good. It’s the persistent tug of war that yields the best results. We question every decision and challenge each other from moment to moment, but after more than a decade of working together, we’ve learned to trust each other’s instincts. If something connects with us on an emotional level, we know we’re on to something.
Non-Format’s portfolio straddles everything from branding and editorial to music, moving image, type and beyond. Which is your favourite field, and why?
Jon: Simple answer: all of them. We might prefer some more than others but there can be no clear favourite because we feed off variety. As soon as we’ve finished an editorial project we can’t wait to move onto the next thing, preferably something that has nothing to do with editorial design. But it’s never that long before we crave another editorial design fix.
“The human brain enjoys games. What you need is a dirty great boulder of a typeface that creates a wave when it hits your noggin.”
One of the areas the studio is best known for is its custom type. What is it about typography that interests you both the most?
Jon: This is almost impossible to answer. It must just be in our DNA. A typeface can make or break a word. It can encourage a meaningful relationship with language, or it can disappear altogether – I’m looking at you Helvetica. There are just an infinite number of ways of expressing the written word and it’s a constant fascination for us. Kjell: One of the things we most enjoy about creating our own typefaces, which is sort of a separate issue, is that they instantly transform a piece of design and make it unique. There’s a real sense of ownership that comes from designing with your own typefaces. That particular way of expressing those particular words, whatever they are, is unique to you.
Otto was Non-Format’s first commercially available font – do you plan to release any more?
Kjell: One of the reasons why we haven’t released many of our custom typefaces as fonts is because once they’re out there in the world for anyone to use, they cease to be unique to our own designs.
That being said, we do have plans to release a few more of our typefaces as fonts very soon, starting with Gridiron, which we originally created for ESPN magazine. There are a few more in the pipeline.
In terms of the balance between effective communication and achieving an emotional connection with your audience, how important is legibility in type design?
Jon: It depends on what the type is for. If it’s for a warning sign, then legibility is paramount, obviously. Anyone who looks at our body of work will be able to see that we have a fairly broad definition of legibility. We reckon that the human brain enjoys playing games. If it has to engage a little to figure out the words, the meaning of those words will stick around a lot longer. So if you make something super legible – whatever that means – we believe it has a tendency to skim across the brain and hardly cause a ripple. What you need is a dirty great boulder of a typeface that creates a wave when it hits your noggin. It’s a cliché but that’s because it’s true: don’t mistake legibility for communication.
As a studio, what would be your dream commission – and who would it be for?
Jon: We’d love to get our hands on a good quality fashion magazine. Print, or digital.
What have you got coming up for the rest of 2014?
Kjell: We already have several projects on the go. We’re currently working on the promotional material for this year’s Tokyo Type Directors Club awards shows in Japan. We have a couple of book projects planned, as well as the promo material for this year’s Only Connect Festival of Sound. We’re always looking for new creative challenges though.
Are there any new skills you’d like to learn, clients to work with or directions in which you’d like to take Non-Format?
Jon: Well, we wish we had slightly better business brains. We tend to favour the work that rewards us more creatively than financially, but one usually feeds the other. We’d like to do more moving image projects, and get to grips with digital publishing. Kjell: We’d love to do some more design for the fashion industry. We’ve always been interested in fashion photography and a couple of years ago we got to design several lookbooks for Rick Owens. We enjoyed that and would love to work on more style and fashion work.
What’s the best piece of advice (creative, industry-related or otherwise) you’ve ever received?
Jon: ‘To suggest is to create; to describe is to destroy’ – Robert Doisneau Kjell: ‘Nothing is so bad it’s not good for something’ – my mother.
Finally: tell us something about Non-Format we don’t know…
Kjell: We eat more on Tuesdays than on Mondays.
Graphic designer Jon Forss working out of his studio in Saint Paul, Minnesota
Non-Format’s cryptic 2013 gatefold LP packaging for Luke Vibert’s third collection of production music, with track titles and credit information positioned over a multi-directional grid
As well as art-directing and designing fashion newspaper The Sanahunt Times in 2010, the studio created display face Lara for feature headlines
Kjell Ekhorn is based in Oslo, Norway, where he has “the pleasure of experiencing the Norwegian design scene first-hand”
Blocks of gloss black foil contrast rough, uncoated paper in Preco F/W 12, the studio’s loosebound black-and-white lookbook for fashion designer Rick Owens
The pair designed a custom typeface and all the supporting material for Shoot Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Rosie & 21 Men
Non-Format’s robot-inspired identity for 2013’s Only Connect Festival of Sound was a hit with the client and revellers alike
Forss worked with Ekhorn in London for seven years, helping build the studio’s reputation before relocating to the States