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Why break­ing free from con­ven­tional de­sign norms to take a new ap­proach to your work can ben­e­fit you as a cre­ative and win you new clients

re­mem­ber when you de­cided you wanted to be a de­signer? It sounded like a dream job. You’d be able to ex­press your­self. Orig­i­nate new and ex­cit­ing ideas. Craft bold, game-chang­ing vi­sions. How’s that work­ing out for you?

It’s all too easy to feel like your cre­ativ­ity is be­ing sti­fled by clients, bosses, col­leagues. But some­times, that’s just an ex­cuse. In fact, we of­ten end up re­strict­ing our­selves by our own de­sign con­ser­vatism.

You find your­self draw­ing on the same vis­ual el­e­ments that other de­sign­ers are us­ing ev­ery­where you look without ever think­ing about why you’re do­ing so. Some­times you re­alise you’re sub­con­sciously sec­ondguess­ing what oth­ers want to see, rather than try­ing to push things for­ward. And while the re­sults may be ad­e­quate and ful­fil the brief, you know in your heart that they’re never go­ing to win any awards.

If craft­ing safe and pre­dictable work is threat­en­ing to be­come your de­fault set­ting, maybe it’s time to change things up and ap­proach projects from a new an­gle. That can be a lit­tle scary, but you’ll prob­a­bly be pleas­antly sur­prised with the re­sults; or if not, at least with the process it­self. Most im­por­tantly, you will have reignited your orig­i­nal pas­sion for de­sign that’s been flick­er­ing on a low flame for far too long.

And the good news is, you won’t be alone. While by def­i­ni­tion they’re in the mi­nor­ity, there are many de­sign­ers and stu­dios who con­sis­tently and suc­cess­fully defy con­ven­tion, even oc­ca­sion­ally break­ing the rules of de­sign. And de­spite this (or per­haps be­cause of it), they still man­age to keep their clients happy.

Here we speak to six of them, to find out how break­ing away from the norm, ex­per­i­ment­ing and dar­ing to be dif­fer­ent doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean com­pro­mis­ing your busi­ness goals. You can, it seems, have your de­sign cake and eat it.


First, though, it’s im­por­tant to clar­ify what we’re talk­ing about. Many de­sign stu­dios take great pains to boast on their web­sites of be­ing ‘dis­rup­tive’, ‘un­con­ven­tional’, ‘blue-sky thinkers’ and so on. But of­ten if you then take a look at their work, you’ll find it’s ac­tu­ally dis­ap­point­ingly con­ven­tional and, for want of a bet­ter word, dull. Some, though, re­ally do man­age to match their rhetoric with ac­tion. Take the Lon­don-based graphic de­sign duo of Kjell Ekhorn and Jon Forss, aka Non-For­mat.

Back in 2005, they were start­ing to feel as though they had be­come stuck in a rut. “We con­sciously aban­doned the dec­o­ra­tive work we were start­ing to be pi­geon­holed for, and ac­tively sought a new ap­proach that was much sim­pler and de­lib­er­ately bru­tal­ist,” Forss re­calls. “We started cre­at­ing our own type­faces for the first time, which were su­per­bold and of­ten quite dif­fi­cult to read. We were just so sick of see­ing so much dec­o­ra­tive lay­er­ing go­ing on, which we’d been guilty of too. Graphic de­sign at the time seemed to


be at peak ‘max­i­mal­ism’. We wanted to throw ev­ery­thing out and start again with some­thing re­ally sim­ple; some­thing that we felt we had com­plete con­trol over.”

Nowa­days Non-For­mat’s client list in­cludes big names like Adobe, Chan­nel 4, Coca-Cola, Nokia and UNIQLO, but they haven’t com­pro­mised their stance. “We try to be as ex­per­i­men­tal as we can with ev­ery­thing we do,” says Forss. “Some­times that man­i­fests it­self in the vis­ual as­pects, some­times in the choice of how to com­mu­ni­cate. But ei­ther way, we ques­tion ev­ery­thing, es­pe­cially the brief it­self. We have a say­ing: ‘Don’t ask what the client wants. Ask them what they’re try­ing to achieve’.”


Josh New­man, prin­ci­pal cre­ative di­rec­tor of Nashville de­sign stu­dio ST8MNT, takes a sim­i­lar ap­proach. The stu­dio has done work for Tay­lor Swift, Bon­na­roo and the Na­tional Geo­graphic Chan­nel, amongst oth­ers. “Of­ten, clients want de­signs that look like every­one else’s,” he re­veals. “But that won’t cap­ture the unique­ness of who they are. When you’re build­ing brands, it comes down to pre­sent­ing a unique prod­uct.” And that of­ten means go­ing in a very dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion to the vis­ual con­ven­tions of that mar­ket.

For ex­am­ple, take ‘Rock your Run’, Toy­ota’s spon­sor­ship of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Se­ries, which ST8MNT branded in col­lab­o­ra­tion with REACH ex­pe­ri­en­tial mar­ket­ing agency. In do­ing so, they made a de­ci­sion to take quite a sur­real step, bring­ing a geo­met­ric look and feel to the graphic el­e­ments and ty­pog­ra­phy that’s a far cry from con­ven­tional sports brand­ing.

But it works, and not from be­ing dif­fer­ent for its own sake; it’s be­cause there’s a clear rea­son for the un­usual treat­ment. “This di­rec­tion em­anates light and move­ment through city streets,” ex­plains New­man. “Ad­di­tional de­sign el­e­ments in­clude im­ages of in­stru­ments and run­ners streaked with lights, glow and en­ergy frag­ments. The aim was to cap­ture the en­ergy of the marathon events, com­ple­ment the Toy­ota brand and pull at­ten­dees into Toy­ota’s ac­ti­va­tions.”

In a com­mis­sion for Bobby Ho­tel, a bou­tique es­tab­lish­ment in Nashville, ST8MNT pur­posely broke the rules of hi­er­ar­chy in the lay­out of a pocket guide and poster. Again, though, there was rea­son be­hind the re­bel­lion, says ST8MNT’s art di­rec­tor Ryon Nishi­mori. “They don’t have the typ­i­cal flow of some­thing fol­low­ing the rules of hi­er­ar­chy, and al­low your eyes to bounce around to dis­cover the lit­tle el­e­ments in the de­signs that make them so fun,” he ex­plains. “The com­mu­ni­ca­tion is still in­tact and in a way, even though the ba­sic rules of hi­er­ar­chy have been bro­ken, there is still enough of an el­e­ment in­tact just to draw your eyes into the de­sign.”

In or­der to break the rules, though, Nishi­mori be­lieves you have to know the rules and the the­o­ries be­hind them. “Hi­er­ar­chy, colour, form, func­tion… all th­ese things can be ex­trap­o­lated and changed, but there needs to be a rea­son why: for in­stance, be­cause it’s go­ing to

TOP AND ABOVE Non-For­mat’s Jon Forss and Kjell Ekhorn.

ABOVE ST8MNT’s ge­om­e­try-led brand­ing for Toy­ota’s spon­sor­ship of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Se­ries. ABOVE ST8MNT’s poster for Bobby Ho­tel breaks all the rules of hi­er­ar­chy. TOP AND ABOVE Josh New­man and Ryon Nishi­mori from ST8MNT.

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