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How did you discover that you wanted to be a designer? When I was a young art school student living in Durham, a small group of us were invited to visit designer Vaughan Oliver’s studio in London. Oliver, who died at the end of 2019, was behind the visual identities and album covers for bands including the Pixies, Lush, The Breeders and Cocteau Twins. It was a life-changing experience for me. I was taking a graphic design course at the time, and after that London trip, I knew I wanted to take my skills into design and visual identity. The sense of excitement I felt when I was visiting Oliver’s studio has never left me. I still love getting to the heart of a brand and expressing its truth through design in a captivating and honest way that connects to people.

What do you wish you had known when you founded Straight Forward Design? By the time I set up Straight Forward Design, I had only worked in the industry for ten years. However, I had a fantastic education, with incredible project and client exposure. Sometimes, not knowing is the greatest gift. Had I understood just how hard it is to run a small business, I may have chosen a different path. I often liken running a business to having children. You could never recommend it because it is so hard and life changing. But when it’s good, it’s so rewarding, and the sleepless nights and worry are worth it.

What makes a strong brand story? It’s no longer about a good campaign or a new logo, website or product. It’s external and internal. At Straight Forward Design, we believe successful brands must be found, understood and loved while being lived from the inside out by their people. We call this “connect in FULL,” an effective way of thinking about your brand. A brand is a cultural and visual articulation of who you are, what you do and why you do it. The brand defines how you think about yourself, why you make business decisions and how people experience you. Meaningful human connections are everything. The stronger the connection between your brand and people, the more powerful it becomes.

How do you think the connection between brands and people have changed in recent years? Today, people take a greater interest in everything they do, seeking out products, services and other people with aligned values. People want to connect with brands on a deeper level than ever before. If your brand values shine through everything you do, people who align with those values will connect deeply and keep coming back for more. There’s a lot of talk in the media about Generation Z being especially concerned about products and services aligning fully with their beliefs. I think it extends well beyond Generation Z—people of all ages care. Brands must understand that paying lip service to the concerns of the day won’t cut it. In such a fast-moving global digital landscape, anyone playing fast and loose with people’s concerns will be called out in a flash.

Read, read, read!”

What was the inspiration behind the Skittles packaging for 2019 Pride? Skittles has paid tribute to Pride for the past few years, adopting monotone packaging and “giving up” its rainbow to the LGBTQ+ cause, as only one rainbow matters during Pride. In 2019, we were looking for ways to connect more deeply with the LGBTQ+ community. We had seen an artist embellish the original packaging, and this sparked the idea to collaborate with artists from the LGBTQ+ community. The collaboration would give the artists a potent platform on which to communicate their thoughts and feelings about Pride.

Fine artist Thomas Wolski; artist, filmmaker, activist and author Fox Fisher; art director, illustrator and graphic designer Kate Moross; and artist and illustrator Maia Boakye were approached to take part in the brief: “What does Pride mean to you?” They were free to interpret the question as they wished, their only restrictions being the dimensions and number of colors. These four LGBTQ+ artists were approached because they were an excellent fit for the spirit and values of the Skittles brand. As a result, Skittles was one of the few brands connecting with Pride to be spoken of positively rather than chastised for pinkwashing.

Straight Forward Design created the packaging and communications strategy for period product range betty. How can design help break through the stigma around taboo topics like menstruation and mental health? The dialogue surrounding “no-go” subjects like sex, periods, mental health and cancer is shifting. Embarrassment and shame are slowly being replaced with straight-talking openness and honesty. And design is playing a big role in this. Feminine care brands like Kotex and Tampax have been using empowerment, sass and humor to shake things up, ushering in refreshing honesty. The message is clear: This is a natural, benign bodily function, and nothing to be ashamed about.

Our work with betty had to resonate with girls aged eight- to sixteen-years-old, so the aim was to create a positive packaging and communications strategy that reassures girls about the practicalities of periods, the social and personal implications, and the physical and emotional developments. The tone of voice was both educational and fun—it was about making the transition into womanhood less intimidating, dispelling outdated thinking and changing the relationship that girls have with their bodies. We wanted betty to be the best big sister you wish you had. For the design approach, we created a simple, open, and democratic size-navigation strategy that dispensed with the myriad flow and size symbols usually found in the category. Distinct geometric patterns made the pad wraps less obvious and more attractive. All the incremental design decisions add up, making finding, understanding and purchasing the product more efficient and less of a “big deal.”

Where do you see brands missing the mark today? Often, it happens when brands focus on a single aspect rather than an ecosystem approach. Maybe the focus is shelf standout to the decrement of understanding, or perhaps targeting age ranges rather than values. In the continually shifting consumer landscape, brands must embrace the whole ecosystem, keep evolving and stay relevant, changing goals but never changing values.

Do you have any advice for designers who are just starting out? Read, read, read! Never stop learning, live in the real world, get out and experience things, and talk to people. New ideas and fresh thinking don’t appear in the confines of a design studio. The more you add to your idea kaleidoscope and the more you try to understand people, the clearer and more meaningful your work will become.

Mike Foster is the creative director of London-based brand design agency Straight Forward Design, which he founded in 2008 after working at some of the capital’s biggest agencies for more than ten years. Foster found his calling to the world of brand design at the age of seventeen, when, in the first year of a design foundation course, he created the vehicle livery for Northumbrian Water. From there, he continued his art studies before securing a job at design consultancy Wickens Tutt Southgate. Over his career, Foster has worked on many projects, from a global brand harmonization for Unilever to the global redesign of the Galaxy chocolate brand (Dove in the United States), which won a Design Business Association Design Effectiveness Award.

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