BE­HIND THE SCENES

Computer Arts Collection - - Contents -

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

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