For me, this is a great (if not that recent) Q&A with Non-Format. Not just because I like a lot of the work they produce, but they discuss the changing nature of album artwork from packaging to something else. Embracing the future.
With their new book, Love Song, about to be published, we asked our CRBlog readers to send in their questions for design studio Non-Format. From the benefits inherent in doing work for free; to designing together side-by-side; via questions on their music (and pizza) tastes, we probed Jon and Kjell on behalf of some of their biggest fans...
From James White:
Labels like Lo have shown that they’re in full support of beautiful and effective design. Are these sorts of labels in a decline and does the digital revolution bring with it a fear that one day record sleeves might no longer exist?
Jon Forss: The second part of the question is the easiest to answer – yes, obviously the digital revolution will completely eradicate the need for record sleeves eventually; for printed carboard sleeves or jewel cases.
Kjell Ekhorn: Hopefully anyway!
JF: Yes, let’s hope so!
KE: Maybe the download will become much more expressive than they are now? You would get video with it or some visual material I’m sure. It would be a platform for designers again.
JF: It would mean a lot less work if you’re just doing print-based music packaging but I’d hope we’re broad-minded enough to see the potential in other formats.
KE: Yes, it’s like anything that moves on. There was that whole thing about LPs dying and CDs being too small…
JF: The “we can’t express ourselves on a small scale” idea. And then people come along like Mark Farrow to show that CD packaging can be an amazing piece of expression. Music doesn’t need packaging, as such, but I think it’s good that it has some kind of visual element.
KE: It needs some kind of visual culture to back it up. Music packaging is never repackaged; books are repackaged over and over again but with music – even if the cover is bad – it’s still an integral part of a release.
From Jordan Viray:
Being that your portfolio is filled with music packaging, how much of a role does music play in your design process?
JF: Although we haven’t got any on right now but we do play music all the time. We like to listen to what we’re designing for, too, as much as we can. It’s a funny process – when we design music packaging we don’t listen to the music so that we’ll therefore know exactly what kind of packaging it will be. It just comes out of listening to it, getting a mood and a feel for it.
KE: It definitely informs the way it’s going to a certain extent. But sometimes it stops ideas too. You can have a preconceived idea and then put on the CD and you change your mind.
From Robert Klanten, publisher, Die Gestalten Verlag:
I’d like to know how you work together as a design duo on a daily basis. Is there a culture of discussion and debate or a miraculous, mutual, wordless understanding like an old married couple might have?
JF: I’d say there is a certain spoken understanding between us. But in practice, we start every project by discussing everything about it together. Whoever’s least busy starts on a project straight away.
KE: Because we sit like we do, with the monitors towards each other, it’s very open – you might sketch on something and the other one will say “that’s looks really good, can I have a copy of the file?” It’s a continuous dialogue really.
From Tony Herrington, editor in chief and publisher of The Wire:
Bowie or Roxy?
JF: That’s easy for me. Bowie. No, actually, Roxy. No it’s Bowie.
KE: Bowie for me.
JF: OK, I’ll say Roxy so we have an even spread.
Someone once said about you, “They are secretive, stubborn, arrogant [but also] dazzlingly creative, technically brilliant, cool and pragmatic and 100 per cent reliable.” Discuss.
JF: It’s all true.
KE: Apart from the latter part – that’s not for us to judge. But we can easily say we’re secretive, in not wanting to show off our “pre-work” work. As an assessment from a client, though, I agree with the statement. And the arrogance comes from that, I guess – just being passionate about something. When you have to fight for something. When clients say “I don’t like it” you have to say “well you don’t know, you should listen to us.”
From Adrian Shaughnessy, This is Real Art:
I’m intrigued by the way you sit side by side, but with your screens facing inwards so that each can see what the other is doing. Lots of designers hate showing there developmental work, do you recommend this as a good way to work?
KE: It is a matter of trust – when you work with another designer on that level it’s much more like how advertising teams work where you actually share everything. You can be working on something and be completely stuck but then the other person can see the possibilities. But if you do that with a designer who you’re not in tune with, it obviously doesn’t work at all. When we’re sharing work we know that it doesn’t go any further than between us – it’s our work moving towars something better. We wouldn’t like to show other people our development work but between us we know that it’s a stepping stone. It’s difficult to find a relationship like that, to find somebody who you are compatible with. So I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but if you find someone like that then it’s a great way of working.
JF: Being able to glance over a screen is part of the magic of it – so we’ll have to ensure that when we’re passing files over in future that they’re in a raw state, not too polished.
KE: It’s that kind of trust where you know you won’t be laughed at, if what you’ve done is crap.
Also, as a frequent visitor to your studio, I am never offered a cup of tea? Can you say why this is?
JF: Because the kettle lead doesn’t reach the socket. It’s actually wired in to part of the building and we can’t move it. That’s the truth!
From Mark Blamire, Blanka/Neue:
You both have an incredible love of music and this comes across in the way that you handle the design of the music packaging projects. Which artist would Non-Format get a real kick out of working with, if you had the choice of repackaging anyone?
JF: Going back in time? It’s difficult – I wouldn’t want to meddle with history if it was redoing the Blue Monday sleeve, I wouldn’t want to mess with that and the space-time continuum…
KE: But someone like Tom Waits – I think his musical output has been far better than any of his sleeve artwork.
JF: People like Talking Heads always hooked up with great visual people whereas Waits didn’t seem to do that.
KE: There are some covers that are better than others, but the general feel of it is that they’re very traditional. So he would have been nice to package througout his career. Other than that, we’d like to work with someone like the next Bjork; people who indulge in great visuals.
From Simon Zirkunow:
A lot of your work is based on visually stunning and yet very expensive production techniques. How do you persuade your clients that it’s worth it?
JF: It’s about trust. Some of our record lable clients we’ve had for years and it’s taken time – with a new record company there’s no way they’re going to go with something with high production values. They have their own set up with printers they’re used to, working on digi-pack or jewel case. For example, we’ve spent years working with Lo Recordings and for the Red Snapper job, we just found out what the budget was for the job and that was the key to it. We could then allocate it in a different way. It wasn’t actually that expensive either.
KE: It was work-intensive for us in terms of finding the people. We put in a lot more effort – you have to take control.
How did you leave the typical design ground behind, ultimately leading to the unique work you are doing now?
KE: We’ve been willing to indulge ourselves in stuff that hasn’t paid. Over the seven years we’ve been working together there have been times where we’ve not taken a salary. Basically, we’ve tried to go for what we’ve wanted to produce – we haven’t really had a great business plan!
JF: Sometimes I wish we had rich uncles who could fund us. But we indulge ourselves with our passion to design things and then the money is secondary, which isn’t very good.
KE: It’s satisfactory as a way of working – but the two don’t go hand in hand. It’s proven truth that sometimes you do little projects that you get hardly anything for and that project leads to something that actually will pay. That’s more the way that we like to think about it.
How long does it take you to develop one of your custom typefaces?
JF: It depends on the typeface. Sometimes we work quite quickly and they’re exactly what we want for the job. Others need more work.
KE: Some won’t be the whole alphabet either, just the letters that you need. Then later you might go back to them.
JF: It might look great for the letters you need but might not for the rest of the alphabet. We had that with the Wire – we hoped and prayed that they wouldn’t write a headline with a Z in it! We didn’t have one.
Also, what is the most rewarding experience for you after you finished a piece?
JF: Having the work come in looking exactly right: it’s printed well – exactly as you wanted it. Then seeing it in the store, that next stage on.
KE: Seeing it function as what it was meant to be. And that goes the same for the disappointment side of things too. You can be very involved in something and then when the final product comes in and it’s not printed well… it’s as disappointing as something else can be rewarding.
JF: Another really important thing for us both is the Andy Warhol factor – producing hundreds or thousands of something and then seeing lots of them in the same space is enormously satisfying. That mass-production – I never get over that.
How do you guys deal with clients that want tons of stuff in a very short time? Do you raise the price? Or try to squeeze it in the schedule? Or just tell them you need more time?
JF: All three. It depends on the project. Some projects aren’t that attractive, there isn’t much money and there’s no time. There’s that thing that “you can have it done well, you can have it done quickly, you can have it done cheaply – pick two”. We don’t quite adhere to that – we end up doing it all quickly, well and for no money!
How do you rationalize and explain (to yourselves and to clients) the imagery that you create for works like Black Devil Disco Club or The Chap EPs?
KE: Seeing something and liking it. And seeing it and liking it while you’re listening to the music.
JF: Yes, in terms of rationalising it – we just like it. And we try and convey that to the client.
KE: We get a belief in something that we think is good. There was one time, however, when a recording artist started crying when he saw the designs we had done – because we had used a dog on the cover and he had a phobia of dogs. It was the most peculiar presentation ever. It was so strange to have a design that was really good and was rejected because of this – he broke down crying! He was keen on our work – but couldn’t stand the thought of having a dog on the sleeve.
JF: Those sleeves mentioned in the questions are also both on Lo Recordings so we’ve built up a relationship with them – it’s rare that they question our judgement now.
Nice work but why do you show yourselves with cut-off-heads?
KE: They were originally done for Creative Review as a portrait.
JF: I guess it comes from vanity – we don’t particularly like being photographed so we created silhouettes and overlapped them so there was a sense of us unified. Cutting them off resolved what to do with the neck but we liked the reference to when they used to put heads on spikes at the edge of the city as an example to others. I think there’s something in that connotation.
What’s your favourite pizza topping?
KE: I think I’d have to go for parmesan and rocket.
JF: Pepperoni for me every time – you can pretty much put anything you like with it. As long as it’s not pineapple.