DISRUPT YOUR DESIGN ETHOS
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.
SHAKE THINGS UP
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
“DON’T ASK WHAT THE CLIENT WANTS. ASK THEM WHAT THEY’RE TRYING TO ACHIEVE” JON FORSS
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’.”
NEW WAYS TO TELL THE STORY
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.