Tell us about the newly published Die Gestalten Verlag monograph, Non-Format Love Song. Kjell: Non-Format Love Song is a pretty comprehensive catalogue of all the significant projects we’ve worked on since we started Non-Format over seven years ago, but it’s also a showcase of work from those seven years that we haven’t shown anyone before now.
How has your attention to diverse disciplines (music packaging, editorial, advertising, art direction…) evolved? Jon: We started out with just a couple of music label clients which were generous enough to grant us pretty much complete creative freedom on their music packaging projects. Once we were offered the opportunity to art direct and redesign The Wire magazine we were able to set up Non-Format properly and then, later on, we got in a number of projects from multi-national clients via advertising agencies. We still work for one of our original record label clients to this day and use it as a springboard for creative expression and experimentation.
Do you seek out interesting projects or do clients come to you? Kjell: We’ve been very lucky. I don’t think we’ve ever actively gone out to find work, it’s always found a way of coming to us. I suspect our website does a lot of the legwork when it comes to self-promo, especially as there seem to be links to it all over the place. Word of mouth is a very powerful tool.
Do you have any qualms about working in the very corporate realm (as opposed to maybe more enriching cultural projects)? Kjell: Most of the corporate clients we’ve worked for have approached us because they want us to be creative. Their projects are more often than not just as enriching as projects for smaller companies so there are very rarely any qualms about working for the bigger firms. However, we did once turn down a job for a cigarette company. I’m sure it would have been creative and probably fairly lucrative work, but we just didn’t want to work for the tobacco industry. Generally speaking, the bigger the budget the more pressure we feel to perform as a creative team and the smaller the budget the more creative freedom we expect and, therefore, the more pressure we feel to perform as a creative team. We very rarely feel we can ease off the pressure to perform.
What are your roles in the partnership? Jon: We’re both Creative Directors, both have an equal stake in the business and we work together on as many of the projects as we possibly can. We often swap files and develop a project after either one of us has taken it as far as they feel they can. We’re not afraid to hand over our rough work for the other to continue working on which, so we’ve been led to believe, is not that common amongst designers.
How is the long-distance communication working out? Jon: Pretty well actually. We were expecting far more disruption than we’ve had so far. Maybe it’s too early to tell but we communicate almost every day via Skype and, when we’re chatting and working together it can be just like old times. I’m six hours behind London so Kjell and I usually have about four hours of overlap in our working days and we can cover a lot of ground in that time. It’s nice to start work in the mornings and see that some progress has been made while I’ve been sleeping and, likewise, I try to make sure there are new things to look at when Kjell starts work in London. We have high speed broadband to thank for making all this possible.
What is your process? When do you take something on as a duo versus inviting other illustrators in, etc? Kjell: It can depend on the deadline we’re working to but mostly it depends on the project. For example, the ongoing Lo Editions and LoAF projects have been established as platforms for other image makers to work on so we’re constantly looking for new people to collaborate with. We both of us enjoy discovering and working with new creative people so we’re always on the look out for a new element to add to the mix. Deanne Cheuk, for example, was someone we wanted to work with after seeing her wonderfully expressive typography in Tokion magazine. We started looking at every project that came in as a possible chance to collaborate with her and, eventually, the right one came along: Milky Globe. More recently we’ve worked with Loveworn and Klaus Haapaniemi. But so far we’ve never felt the need to employ anyone full-time. The only constant is Jon and me.
Some aesthetic approaches you originated seem to get appropriated. Do you see Non-Format as trendsetting, or do you just try to keep it real, doing something fresh and conceptual for each undertaking? Kjell: We certainly don’t set out to be trend setters but we both get very restless, so if we start seeing a lot of work around that’s similar to an approach we’ve been working on we tend to want to abandon that line of creative enquiry and find another. Having said that, I think we’ve slowed our pace of change down quite a bit compared to when we first started working together. I think we’ve matured as designers to some extent and will follow one visual direction for a lot longer now.
What are you doing/excited about now, and what’s next? Jon: We’re working on a couple of very large projects for some pretty heavyweight clients – we’re sworn to secrecy. We’re continuing the packaging work for LoAF (we’re excited that the first four releases won us a D&AD award a few months ago), we’ve just put the finishing touches to a few other music packaging projects for Lo Recordings. The fourth issue of Varoom (the journal of illustration and made images) is about to go on press… And, of course, we’re excited about the publication of Love Song. And what’s next? Who knows for sure?
Non-Format is a creative team comprising Kjell Ekhorn (Norwegian) and Jon Forss (British). They work on a range of projects including art direction, design and illustration for music industry, arts & culture, fashion and advertising clients. They also art direct Varoom: the journal of illustration and made images. Non-Format is based in London, UK and Minneapolis, USA