Continuing our series of interviews with some of the best and brightest in the creative world, I’ve been lucky enough to talk to a very talented twosome, Kjell Ekhorn and Jon Forss, otherwise known as Non-Format.
How did you each get into the world of design, and particularly, what sparked your interests in typography?
Jon: We were both brought up in creative households: Kjell’s father used to be an architect and my father is a furniture designer and sculptor, so we were surrounded by creative influences from a very early age. Kjell studied Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins in London and I did the same at what is now De Montfort University in Leicester. Then we went out into the world and worked as either freelance or full time designers for the publishing industry before setting up Non-Format. Typography has always been a passion for me. My father used to bring home sheets and sheets of Letraset, including the catalogues, from which I used to copy the letter shapes onto my school exercise books. During the 90s I was buying every interesting new font I could get my hands on and, later, the idea of creating our own typefaces really took hold. Typography is a central part of the work we create. It’s part of Non-Format’s design voice.
What’s it like, being half based in the USA and half in Norway? Does it make working together more difficult? How have you overcome the time difference and the distance gap?
Jon: It actually works surprisingly well. There are times when we really wish we could be sitting the same room together, but generally speaking the time difference works to our advantage in that our working day spans almost 16 hours. When I get up in the morning I always look forward to seeing what progress has been made while I was asleep. We just need a third member of the team in Asia or Australasia and we’d have the full 24-hour day covered.
The work undertaken by Jon and Kjell ranges far and wide, from crafting bespoke typography sets for a project to creating the brand, voice, and image for a business. Straddling the gap between design and art, whatever they produce is a combination of sublime design and stop-in-your-tracks expressionism which gives their projects a depth so often missed by others.
You’ve worked on a really wide variety of design mediums, from typefaces to music packaging to branding. What are your favourite kind of design challenges to work on?
Kjell: We love anything that poses a challenge and asks us to think in a new direction. Almost every project offers us an opportunity to create something new and surprising, so for us the best projects are the ones that offer us an opportunity to explore new ideas, regardless of the medium.
You’ve worked with some really well known brands who have all seen huge success with design in the past. Was it intimidating to have that kind of pedigree to face up to? How did you approach it?
Kjell: Most of the big brands come to us based on our reputation. There’s a certain expectation that we’ll be able to create something new and exciting for them, and we certainly do our best to honour that expectation but this is how we approach every project, regardless of the stature of the client so, you know, business as usual.
If you could go back and start Non Format again with everything you know now, what would you do differently, and what would you do the same?
Kjell: We’re not ones to dwell of could-haves and should-haves. We prefer to look forward and see every challenge as an opportunity, but sometimes it would be nice to have someone on the team whose talents are more biased towards business than creativity. Someone to write proposals, handle contracts and deal with non-creative aspects of running a business would be nice. It’s important stuff but it’s not what we enjoy.
How does typography influence your overall design ethos? How much of an impact does it have on an outcome?
Jon: Any project that requires written words deserves interesting and expressive typography and this is something we enjoy exploring. Creating our own typefaces, which we do whenever possible, allows us to express words in a way that is unique to us. If we create a typeface for a specific project and we know that no one else in the world has that typeface we feel a heightened sense of ownership over the design of that project. That’s why, to date, Otto is the only one of our typefaces that we’ve released as a font.
Otto, available exclusively at HypeForType, is a font with multiple personalities. Professional and presentable by day, this typeface takes its hair down and parties hard at night. One font but with two versions and a heaping pile of OpenType features, Otto is a masterpiece.
What was the inspiration behind Otto?
Otto came out of a project we did for T Magazine: the style supplement of The New York Times. We created a custom version of their house font Giorgio for use on fashion feature headlines. When HypeForType invited us to create an exclusive font for them we decided to redraw that typeface, with a slightly different geometry. The original typeface for T Magazine had a Light and a Dark version of most characters where the Dark version had filled in counters rather than simply being a bolder version of the typeface. We kept this same feature for Otto so that, in effect, you get two fonts for the price of one. By mixing up the Light and Dark versions, words set in Otto can express quite different moods.
Have you used it in any projects?
We used the original version in T Magazine, obviously, but we haven’t used Otto on any commercial projects. We released Otto out into the world so that others could have fun with it and so that it could have a life of its own.
What do you think it’s best suited for, how would it work best out in the world?
If only the Light version is used it’s a very clean and elegant slab serif font. Given that there’s no lowercase, it’s suited more for expressive headlines than for blocks of text but when it is used for headlines, and when the Dark version is thrown into the mix, it’s really quite versatile and expressive.
Have you ever seen it live and in use (unexpectedly)? What was that like?
We’ve seen it in use several times and each time it was used in quite unexpected ways. We’ve seen it used as the primary typeface on posters, and we’ve seen it used quite small on catalogues. We’ve also seen it used to sell some fairly avant-garde shoes. It’s nice to know that it’s out there, having its own adventures.
How important is it to choose the right typeface when designing a logo?
The logo is a key part of the voice of a company or organisation, so if the logo contains words the choice of typeface is of paramount importance.
What is your biggest design disagreement?
Between us? Disagreement? Never!
And of course, the one we can never resist…
What are your most loved and hated fonts?
We tend to believe it’s not the font that’s good or bad, it’s how it’s used that makes all the difference. As time passes, fonts come in and out of fashion, but the ones we use the most are Futura (and fonts derived from the simple geometry of Futura) and fonts we’ve created for ourselves. It’s mostly just a matter of taste. We never say never.
Massive thanks from the HypeForType team to Jon and Kjell for taking the time to answer our questions. Certainly a piece of strong advice for budding designers out there; never say never – sometimes the only way you’ll know if something works is by just going for it!
You can find out more about Non Format at their website, and you can buy the incredible Otto exclusively at HypeForType. If you liked this, take a look at our last interview with Mark Bloom of Mash Creative.