The iPhones snapped away at the pair presenting onstage. Every few seconds, another hand shot up from the hundreds of people packing the audience and captured the blocks of text that danced, shimmied, and shaked across the screen. At times the squiggles, waves, and strands of type popped out of the screen in 3D animation, causing the person sitting next to me to nod to himself and say, “These guys are insane. So good it hurts.” It was a rock star reception for designers Kjell Ekhorn and Jon Forss, better known as Non-Format. The duo have developed a passionate, “hurts so good” following thanks to their ability to use all elements of graphic design to construct images that both challenge conventions and look harmonious.
Kjell Ekhorn and Jon Forss met in London in the 1990s and formed their studio in 2000. But then a girl from Minnesota came along and, as happens, Forss reconsidered his living arrangements. Smitten, Forss followed her to Minnesota in 2007 and Ekhorn ultimately moved back to his native Norway. However, they have continued to collaborate from separate offices seven time zones apart. Their work across a range of medias and subjects has led to jobs for the likes of Uniqlo, ESPN The Magazine, Warner Music, and Wieden and Kennedy. We caught up with Ekhorn and Forss to discuss how Non-Format operates despite the distance, why it’s important for creatives to needle the status quo, and how they design their typefaces.
You met in London in the 1990s. What led you two to start a design firm together?
Jon Forss: It was a bit of a perfect storm really. We had started working together on a few freelance projects, which we both enjoyed. These were mostly music packaging projects for The Leaf Label and Lo Recordings. We knew the working chemistry was good and we were pleased with the way our work seemed to be going, but we weren’t too sure about how to take the next step.
Kjell Ekhorn: And then Tony Herrington paid us a visit.
JF: Yes, Tony was the Editor-in-Chief of The Wire, which is a monthly music magazine. It’s been going since the very early 1980s. In 2000, or thereabouts, the editors of the magazine bought the title from its owner. It was a bit of a bold move on their part, but it meant they would have complete control over the magazine. It could remain independent and they really wanted to make a go of it.
KE: So, the reason Tony paid us a visit was to offer us the job of art directing the magazine. Another bold move because, well, we hadn’t designed a magazine before. According to Tony, this was one of the reasons he wanted us to work on it. To breathe some new life into it. This was right at the beginning of a new century so I guess they were all feeling quite optimistic.
JF: Of course we could see that this was likely to be a big challenge for us, but we jumped at the chance. I think we said we’d do it if we could completely redesign the magazine. I don’t think there was much hesitation. They agreed, so we jumped at it. It seemed like just the nudge we needed to start up a new business together and make a clean break of it. The next thing we knew, we were officially Non-Format.
And what led each of you to move to your respective home towns in Minnesota and Norway?
JF: I’d met a girl who lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota and, after a few years of traveling back and forth between the UK and the U.S., I ended up emigrating to Minnesota. Big move, obviously, and potentially disastrous to the business. But by this time Kjell and I had been working together for seven years and there was some interesting new technology that seemed to offer the chance of keeping the working relationship going despite the six time zones between London and Minnesota. Skype had been going for a few years. We were used to working with clients from all over the world, so email was our main method of corresponding. It was business as usual, except for the actual sitting next to each other part.
KE: This was in 2007. The same year Die Gestalten Verlag published our monograph, Love Song, which certainly helped to boost business during the first few years. In 2009, I decided that I probably didn’t really need to be based in London, so my family and I packed up everything and we moved to my native Norway, bringing the total number of time zones between Jon and me up to seven. Between 2009 and 2015 we continued to work together as a two-man team and then we found ourselves in negotiations with the Norwegian design firm ANTI. They’re a much bigger agency than Non-Format, with something like 70 or more employees. In October of 2015 we merged with ANTI, so now I work from the ANTI office in central Oslo, but Jon still works from his studio in the U.S.
JF: Before the merger, Kjell and I were being offered projects that we simply couldn’t handle as a two-man team. We had to turn down some incredible opportunities, but now that we’re partnered with ANTI we know we have the kind of creative and professional support and expertise needed to handle any kind of project that comes our way. It’s exciting.
How do you collaborate while working in two different locations, seven time zones apart?
KE: Generally speaking, both of us try to work a normal eight-hour day, starting in the morning. Sometimes we have to work longer days though, when it gets really busy. There’s usually an overlap of a few hours towards the end of my day and the beginning of Jon’s day when we can catch up on projects and hand things over.
JF: When I start at 8 a.m. in Minnesota, it’s 3 p.m. in Oslo. This works out pretty well for the most part but sometimes Kjell will work really late so that we can both work on something face-to-face, with Skype on in the background. On other occasions I’ll work really late so that I’m still up when Kjell starts his day. I can’t say I enjoy pulling an all-nighter but sometimes it’s simply the only way. We often joke that we need someone based in Tokyo or Melbourne to cover the other third of the globe while we’re trying to have a life. Maybe there are some amazing designers on the other side of the world that want to pitch for ANTI Oceana. Only kidding. Mostly.
What is the most challenging thing about working on the same projects from different locations? And how have you overcome it?
KE: It’s really not as challenging as it might seem. Sure, it’s a pain not being in the same room sometimes but Skype pretty much solves that problem. The time zone difference is more of an issue, but even that has its advantages sometimes. There’s nothing quite like waking up in the morning and finding that there’s been some real progress on a project during the night. A lot can be achieved in two shifts.
What are the basic steps you take when you design a typeface?
JF: From a creative standpoint it all comes down to its purpose, but from a technical point of view everything starts in Adobe Illustrator. We’ve always regarded custom typography as a great way to inject our own personality into a project. There’s a real sense of ownership if a piece of design features a typeface that no one else has. It’s often the case that a new typeface is needed for a specific task, like an advertising headline, or a logotype, or some other application that requires certain words to be created. As a result, we have a lot of typefaces where we’ve only created the characters needed for a specific task. Like on music packaging, for example. We’ll create a new typeface for the band name, or the title and nothing else, which means we can concentrate on just the letters we need, which frees us up to be quite experimental knowing we don’t have to worry about creating, say, a ‘G’ or a ‘Q’ that works within the character of our new typeface.
KE The problems start when a client sees a particular typeface of ours out in the wild and requests something similar for a new project. We often go back to the original files and realize we don’t have the letters we need. That can be a challenge. But we like a challenge.
Why is it important for creatives to challenge the norms?
JF As a boy when I was thumbing through Letraset typeface catalogues, my father, a sculptor and furniture designer, was instilling in me the idea that part of the responsibility of designing, or creating anything, is to strive for something new. It’s always been second nature to me to think of design as an opportunity to be experimental and to challenge preconceptions. I don’t regard design as merely a problem solving exercise. I think of it as a problem seeking exercise.
You’ve submitted concepts to clients like ESPN: The Magazine that you felt the editors were going to think is too edgy — and they did. Do you always take such risks in similar scenarios or do you also evaluate which client is worth the risk and which isn’t?
KE: Well, we certainly don’t want any of our clients to feel we haven’t pushed far enough. We assume they all want to be surprised by something new and you can’t deliver that unless you’re constantly pushing beyond expectations. We’d rather a design solution was rejected for being too avant garde than too conservative.
JF: With the ESPN example, I think we sent over quite a few options. Sometimes a really unusual solution can make a slightly less unusual solution seem quite conservative by comparison. Including ideas we know will be rejected has a way of shifting the yardstick in our favor.
What city in the world has the strongest vibe and inspiration for you today?
JF: I do love Tokyo. It’s one of those places that seems so crazy to me that it sort of makes sense. I think there’s quite a bit of an overlap between the Japanese psyche and my version of a British psyche. We’re both quite reserved and introspective but at the same time we have a voracious appetite for the new and the slightly eccentric. The Japanese approach to graphic design and typography, in particular, is hugely influential, as I mentioned earlier. There’s a certain sensibility that rings true with me. I think it’s the way they balance expression, emotion, and minimalism.
KE: I’ll have to add Hong Kong too. Both Tokyo and Hong Kong are cities that are quite familiar to me by now, yet they always feel completely alien at the same time. In so many ways these two cities exemplify the difference between Japanese and Chinese culture, yet as a designer, it’s the way they’ve merged together with western culture that makes them so special. They both provide amazing visual feasts, but where Tokyo feels refined and sophisticated, Hong Kong imbues a raw brutality; from the skyscrapers that are clinging to the rugged hillside to the intoxicating street markets. Never a dull moment.
A lot of your projects have a strong connection with sports, music, entertainment, and artistic events. Has your design style naturally taken you to these pop culture happenings or have you made a conscious effort to work on projects like these?
KE: I think it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Actually, we did start off designing music packaging, so I suppose it was inevitable that our work would naturally attract similar arts and culture work. It was only after we became known for expressive typography that we started to get advertising work for industries outside of arts and culture. We started to open up into more of a fashion and lifestyle arena. Now we’re handling projects for a much more diverse set of clients. We have ANTI to thank for that.
There’s also a lot of photography involved in your projects as well. What is your role in it?
KE: We’ve worked quite closely with a few photographers over the years, but we’re quite fond of using stock library shots too when it feels appropriate.
JF: What’s nice about stock photos is that we don’t have to worry about being precious with them. They’re ripe for experimentation. Corruption. On their own they’re often a bit cheesy or clichéd so you’re sort of forced to use them as very basic raw material. A starting point for something more interesting.
KE: I guess you can say we approach image-making in much the same way as we approach typography in that we search for interesting expressions that might suit a particular project we’re working on. Sometimes that ends up as traditional commissions, sometimes full-on collaborations with photographers, and sometimes we simply use what we have at hand and work the problem until we arrive at something that excites us on some level or other.
JF: The more our job resembles play, the happier we are.