Meet Kjell Ekhorn and Jon Forss, the creative visionaries behind Non-Format

Bold, imaginative typography. Contemporary design and a flair for innovation. Striking photography and illustration. Infinite ambition and remarkable versatility. All these factors have contributed to Non-Format’s position among the most pioneering and revered names in their field. And this without expanding beyond a core duo, based 4,000 miles apart.

When Norwegian Kjell Ekhorn and Brit Jon Forss formed a ‘creative direction and design team’ in 2000, it was initially a vehicle for their passion for music-related projects. Among these was a timely facelift for long-running and highly-regarded music monthly, The Wire, allowing this British institution a new and refreshing lease of life. Alongside this came numerous commissions for another key aspect of Non-Format, music packaging. The team have produced designs for esteemed clients including Magnetic Man and Delphic, as well as maintaining a strong relationship with the Lo Recordings label, which has seen the duo work on projects for Jean-Jacques Perrey and Luke Vibert, Black Devil Disco Club and The Chap. For an insight into Non-Format’s knack for creating unique and appealing forms of presenting a CD or LP, look no further than the aforementioned Delphic’s Acolyte limited edition packaging, or Red Snapper’s A Pale Blue Dot, presented in a simple white sleeve with a kimble tag through the centre, the information held on a series of tags including stylish embossed rubber sporting the band’s name at the forefront. We’ve all seen thousands of CDs, but you haven’t seen one which looks like this.

As Non-Format has progressed, so has the music industry, and these music packaging projects are now treated as works for pleasure. As Kjell states, “we don’t rely on that work to sustain the business at all. If we did, we would have gone broke long ago. We only take on a music packaging project if it seems like a creative opportunity.”

Rather, Non-Format’s list of commissions has extended to hugely impressive heights. One look at names such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Orange and Gap and it’s clear these two chaps are doing something very exciting indeed, working for some of the biggest commercial clients in the world while retaining their integrity and creative freedom. Thanks to the wonders of the modern world which allow the team to function, we spoke to Kjell in Oslo and Jon in Minneapolis about the rise and rise of Non-Format.

Non-Format first formed in order to design music packaging, is that still your main passion?

Kjell: That’s not strictly true. We didn’t create Non-Format in order to pursue a career designing music packaging, rather it just so happened that the bulk of our clients at the time were record labels. Our main reason for forming Non-Format was to take on the art direction of the independent music magazine, The Wire. Designing music packaging and a music magazine were two of the many areas of design we hoped to be able to tackle over the coming years. Having said that, we do still enjoy working on music packaging projects now and then, particularly for Lo Recordings, who offer us almost all of their releases and a great deal of creative freedom.

Do you have a favourite album sleeve you’ve designed?

Jon: The most diplomatic answer would be that our favourite is always the one we’ve worked on most recently, so in that case our favourite should be the new album for The Chap, We Are Nobody. We’re looking forward to seeing that one produced. Looking back, my favourites would be Barry Seven’s Connectors, because it led to a lot of new and exciting projects (though it did tend to define us for a while), andMoog Acid (Jean-Jacques Perrey & Luke Vibert), because I think the typeface we created for that is really strong. The fact that it won us a trip to Japan to collect a Tokyo TDC Prize is also a bonus.

K: I have a soft spot for the Back To Black packaging as it was one of the first purely custom type driven designs we’d done and in many ways it kick started our habit of creating unique typefaces for individual projects. It was also so lavishly produced that the label sold every copy of the 12” at a loss.

How much do you take into account the music itself before working on the packaging? Are you big music fans?

J: To answer the second part of your question first, yes, we’re big music fans. We’re always scoping out new things to listen to. Now, on to the first part. This is trickier to answer. I think we have to carefully balance between two extremes. On the one hand we want to avoid musical genre clichés as much as possible, but on the other, it used to be the case that the packaging was often the only clue a potential listener would have to the music it was representing. Things have changed a lot since we first started, so now it’s more likely a release will be viewed as a tiny JPEG version of the physical packaging. It’s easier for consumers to listen to music before they buy now, so there’s less need for the packaging to give so many clues.

So how have you been affected by this ever-increasing tendency towards music being reduced to a double-click rather than a physical entity?

K: There’s less emphasis on the packaging being the main gateway to a sale. A lot of people will listen to samples of an album before buying it, so if they then decide to forego the download and seek out the physical packaging, at least they know what it sounds like. Other than that, we do have to consider, to some extent, the fact that the artwork is more likely going to be seen as a 225 pixel square than a CD or LP sleeve. This does have some bearing on scale but we tend not to stress too much about that. We’re more interested in making sure the physical packaging is the best it can be when seen in the flesh.

For something like A Pale Blue Dot by Red Snapper, you played around with the format of the CD packaging, is this something you enjoy doing? Do you find yourselves drawn to using alternative formats and design techniques to make the product stand out?

J: We do love to look beyond the usual formats when considering options for a piece of packaging, but it can simply come down to budget or deadline. The Red Snapper packaging, with the kimble tags etc, took a lot longer to go through production and to assemble, but it wasn’t all that expensive. Making the product stand out or, rather, adding value to the physical manifestation of the packaging seems to have taken on fresh importance since the advent of digital downloads. Creating a piece of packaging that will encourage consumers to buy the CD or LP version of a release tends to mean creating something with lasting appeal. Creating a tactile voyage of discovery can be an enticing reason for a consumer to buy the physical release rather than copying the MP3s from a friend. But these lavish box sets are a gamble in themselves. With continuing concern about diminishing resources, how long before people object so strongly to music being wrapped in cardboard and plastic that it eventually disappears altogether? When Pink Floyd’s fan base finally pops its clogs?

Give a very brief description of what Non-Format aim to accomplish with each project?

J: With music packaging we’re always looking for new avenues for creativity. One minute we’ll want to create something very photographic, sometimes very typographic, other times very illustrative. Or, indeed, a combination of them all, but hopefully, never quite the same thing twice.

K: Actually, this pretty much applies to all our work.

Are you still running the company as a two man operation on either side of the Atlantic?

K: Yes, we’ve never taken on any other designers to work with – neither permanent nor freelance. We’ve worked with many image makers and photographers on individual projects over the years, but never anyone to handle the assembly of those elements into finished designs. It can be frustrating sometimes to have to turn away good (and especially lucrative) work simply because we have too much work on, but we’ve gambled on keeping the work as strong and as focused as possible by retaining the core of just two art directors/designers.

J: Running the business from both sides of the Atlantic has turned out to be a lot easier than we anticipated. We spent seven or eight years sitting next to each other and being able to chat about ideas, so the prospect of being over 4,000 miles apart was daunting. We certainly owe a lot to the guys that created Skype, as we can chat to each other for free and, of course, show each other things by holding them up to the camera. We thought we might have to allocate certain projects to either one of the studios, but so far we’ve managed to keep each project collaborative by continuing to swap files between us. The timezone difference (seven hours) can actually work to our advantage. When Kjell has finished working for the day I can take over so there’s something for him to see the following morning. And, of course, this works both ways.

What is Non-Format’s common design process for projects? 

K: Our instinct is always to try to get to the heart of the brief; to try to establish exactly what it is the client is trying to communicate. This can sometimes be a little different to what the client is actually asking for, so sometimes our solutions aren’t exactly what the client is expecting, but this really depends on the kind of project we’re tackling. Some projects have a very clear goal, others are open to interpretation, but getting to the core of the brief is far more essential than getting caught up in aesthetics. Once we know what we’re trying to communicate, it’s a matter of establishing a voice for that message. That’s when the fun starts.

How important is using the right typefaces when designing? What’s your current favourite?

J: The choice of typefaces is critical to the way a piece of design works. Each typeface has its own personality, history, social baggage, etc. Some have lived a long life, others are just making a start in the world. Choosing the right one is not easy, but they each have such a profound impact on a piece of design that it’s important to choose carefully. Having said that, we’re not really the sort of designers that consider all the available typefaces out there. Over the years we’ve narrowed down our selection of typefaces to rein in the choices. This is mostly a consequence of creating our own typefaces, which are mostly display faces. Once we’ve created a typeface that’s going to convey most of the personality of the design, any other typefaces are of much lesser importance. They become relegated to ‘typefaces in a supporting role’ so we choose from a far more limited selection. One that crops up a lot at the moment is Planeta designed by Dani Klauser at DKGD in Switzerland. It’s simple and geometric, but has just enough personality to keep it interesting.

K: Hermes used to crop up a lot in our work and even though it’s getting more rest these days it’s still a mighty fine typeface.

What are your individual backgrounds and roles? Do you take care of different aspects of the company?

K: We both have backgrounds in advertising and were working in design for the publishing industry when we first met and floated the idea of working together. Since then all our projects have been a collaborative effort. We have an open policy of criticism, so either one of us can veto an idea or design direction if we can make a good argument for or against. This tends to make our work stronger as we push each other to try new avenues of creative enquiry.

J: Neither of us would have been capable of creating Non-Format’s output without the other’s guidance, criticism and support.

The range of media you have worked in is huge, from music packaging to huge advertising campaigns, typography, video, book covers and t-shirt design. Do you think you’ve pushed the boundaries of what a company like yourselves can expand into?

K: This probably has a lot to do with our advertising background or, at least, we tend to regard ourselves as art directors as much as designers. It seems to us the test of a good design idea is whether it’s capable of crossing over from one design discipline to another.

J: We like to think big and aim high.

How does a commission with a giant like Nike start life? Is it a drawn out process?

J: We’ve worked for different Nike departments quite a few times over the years and it’s very different each time. Creating a new typeface for Nike Football in 2006 was a very time consuming process, whereas designing the poster for Nike Basketball’s New Summer Hoops campaign the following year was a short and sweet affair.

Did you ever envisage yourselves taking on projects of such scale?

K: We’ve always had high hopes for our designs but we were aware right from the start that luring in big clients wouldn’t happen overnight. Large corporations like Nike have the muscle to work with whomever they want, so if they happen to knock on your door it’s not by accident, it’s because you’ve produced something they like the look of.

In terms of large-scale, long-term projects, your redesign of The Wire magazine stands out.

J: The Wire was the client that really set us up and allowed us to start Non-Format properly so it was a massive deal for us at the time. We designed every single issue for five years but it was only in 2003 it became our main calling card as we started to use it increasingly as a showcase for our typographic headline explorations. When we left the magazine in 2005 it felt right because we were being approached by such a wide range of clients it was hard to devote the required amount of time to the art direction of a monthly magazine. We also felt that the magazine’s core design was in need of a rethink and that a new art director could give it a fresh new start.

About your book, Non-Format Love Song – you must take a great degree of pride in that? Does it give you a sense of perspective of the sheer amount you’ve achieved to see so much of it in one place?

K: It was published at the time when Jon packed his bags and moved to the US, so it neatly summed up our years working together in London, and yes, it felt nice to collect all the work in one book. It’s obviously less relevant now a few years have passed and it’s not representing much of our current direction, but that doesn’t mean we’re any less proud of it.

What would be your dream commission, commercial or non-commercial?

J: To keep this one short and sweet. David Bowie.

K: A title sequence for a Hollywood blockbuster would do nicely, thanks. Do you have any advice for new designers?

K: Trends, techniques, hardware, software, etc, will always come and go – it’s what’s in your heart and your head that’ll set you apart from the crowd in the long run, so have faith in your own intuition.

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Words: Geraint Davies

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