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The creative director and owner of mousegraphics, Gregory Tsaknakis, decided upon the design firm’s name when digital graphics were replacing analog—the mouse instead of the pen. mousegraphics’ stark, stylish and, on the surface, simple packaging design complements its products—from local olive oil to Chinese matcha tea—but beneath the surface, there is often a positive tension at play. The studio is very much interested in the “conversation” between the product and the consumer—how the contents react to the packaging and where decoration and communication meet. Tsaknakis sums up the studio design philosophy by saying, “For every product, we must find the hidden element and produce the image; the Greek word for ‘image’ is icon.”

It’s befitting, then, that the studio itself has become somewhat of an icon in the realms of identity and packaging design. Each passing year brings more recognition; in 2014, the studio won seventeen awards, including three Red Dot Awards for communication design and four separate European Design Awards (two bronze and two as finalists). The awards circuit has brought international attention and acclaim to the studio and its designs, which are not bound by the aesthetic conventions of commercial industry sectors. In the hands of mousegraphics’ multidisciplinary creatives, nostalgic images of glamorous pinups befit packages of spatula putty, and intricate pen-and-ink studies of antique spoons decorate sugar packets (and thus the dining tables where they are served). The studio excels at these unlikely pairings and the distinctive allure they hold for a brand’s audience.

The designs, and the creative team behind them, draw from a range of creative influences and disciplines. In his role as the avuncular overseer, Tsaknakis says, “Everybody here has different skills, different characteristics. I want people who can bring their design personality into the process.” Tsaknakis started out as a designer 30 years ago, working on his own. Since expanding the firm with additional staff in 2000, the creative team has grown from three people to eleven. The 2004 Olympic Games were a major catalyst in bringing new business to creatives in Athens, something to which those at mousegraphics attribute the wider wave of design progress in the region.

The present team is formed of nine designers and two administrators, with more women than men in the group. Two on the design team are also illustrators, Ioanna Papaioannou and Kostas Kaparos. Kaparos, in particular, appears to have an in-house style of freeform pen-and-ink graphics that cements a particular contemporary Mediterranean aesthetic at points in mousegraphics’ portfolio, including its work for the Ron Finley Project, Food Wealth, Sun Wines, and the Chinese ideogram–inspired Gaea oil and vinegar for the Chinese market.

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Tsaknakis is keen to explain that he brought together a team whose members complement each other. Kaparos, Kostas Vlachakis and Joshua Olsthoorn collaborate on each project that passes through the studio doors, as does the entire team. The studio works as one on every project, with staffers switching gears three or four times in a day to work on different parts of the design. Each member has a different interest: Vlachakis leans toward strategy, and Olsthoorn, who is originally from Eindhoven, Holland, has an interest in typography, particularly in how text informs the physical structure of packaging.

The only non-Greek on the team, Olsthoorn compares working in Greece with the more widely known Dutch design culture by saying, “There is a cultural gap. But in the three years I’ve spent here, I’ve found that it is possible to communicate from a design-only mindset. I think design can detach itself from a cultural heritage and translate to an international community.”

Although design may well be an international language, there are cultural references—not to mention economic and market interests—that influence design firms to favor national products and style. In the case of mousegraphics, the firm’s development has been strongly shaped by the Greek market’s demand for package designs that promote and distinguish the Mediterranean country’s unique gourmet foods, such as fish, honey and olive oil.

One key project in mousegraphics’ portfolio is the firm’s work for Kalamata, Greece–based Agrovim Premium Olive Oil in 2009. “Olive oil packaging design was done exactly the same for many years,” explains Kostas Vlachakis, “and then we came along with a fashionable container—made of tin—that used big type and looked modern. It was a multi-awarded design that drew lots of attention and really changed what was possible for this market.” The Agrovim work opened up new opportunities, not just for the studio, but also for food packaging throughout Greece. Producers who had relied on a more traditional design aesthetic now sought a more contemporary look and feel for their products. One such brand was Harmonian, a new line of high-end pasta and oils. Georgios Stournaras of Harmonian says he approached the studio because he considers packaging a part of the “experience and magic that a product can offer.” He adds, “In a way, it quickly shows the values of Harmonian to an audience with a short attention span—something we all have to face today.”

For every product, we must find the hidden element and produce the image; the Greek word for ‘image’ is icon."—Gregory Tsaknakis

While overcoming wandering eyes on the supermarket shelf, the brand identity must also have a long lifespan. Tsaknakis notes, “For us, the packaging design must provide a solution for all future materials—for print advertising, for everything. We create the identity with the packaging as a starting point.”

What happens when a client already has an identity? “If the logo is no good, we can’t work on the project unless the client agrees that we can redesign it,” says Tsaknakis. This uncompromising stance allows the studio not only to personalize projects but also to work “from the ground up” with clients on new product lines and in reconditioning preexisting brands. Rather than limiting the studio, it has created more demand and a pursuit of excellence from clients who require a full makeover.

It may, perhaps, seem odd that a studio can have such an impact on a client in realigning branding and company identity and strategy through package design. On a trip to receive an award for their work on Harmonian, the team was asked by the American audience, “How did your client accept your unflinching terms?” Olsthoorn explains, “Things are not as settled in Greece. In other parts of Europe and in the United States, you tend to get this kind of freedom as a designer only in the cultural sector. But here, things are more free flowing; businesses are more willing to experiment.”

Clients appreciate mousegraphics’ uncompromising vision—especially when it boosts sales. Marios Tsourdinis of Petrocoll, a chemical construction supplier, hired the studio to create spatula putty packaging. Tsourdinis explains, “We were looking to say something honest and memorable. In the Greek language these two things are described by a single word, which means ‘something true, which cannot be forgotten.’” The unforgettable bags were adorned with images of elegant 1920s women—not a common sight on construction grounds. The result was packaging that got customers buying the product, not only for its intended use, but also as an iconic design in itself.

I think design can detach itself from a cultural heritage and translate to an international community.”—Joshua Olsthoorn

The Petrocoll corporate identity and further packaging were given a similarly bold, graphic treatment. “The most significant influence of that project on our business was the creation of a sense of quality and differentiation,” says Tsourdinis. “The result was a striking contemporary look, one not normally associated with the building trade, with an almost 1980s Peter Saville, nightclub feel.”

Regarding mousegraphics’ unconventional teamwork, Tsourdinis says, “I enjoyed the intimacy. They all have different skills, but in the end result, you can’t tell who did what.” The way in which Tsaknakis operates his creative team on a day-to-day basis is like that of an orchestral conductor, playing the team members off one another in order to produce a fuller range of visual communication. Each team member was handpicked, not only for his or her skill set, but also for an ability to challenge conventions, yet work with others toward a unified creative goal.

The principle typographer of the team, Joshua Olsthoorn, throws down the gauntlet: “I’m principally against illustrations for packaging,” says Olsthoorn provocatively, much to the hilarity of illustrator Kaparos. “There is no decoration without communication,” explains Olsthoorn. “Everything has a role, so therefore ‘decoration’ doesn’t really exist.” Tsaknakis has an equally strong view on the subject of decoration and is eager to interject. “It’s a motto here: packaging design is not an object but a subject. A package must communicate like a real person would. As designers, we should create more understanding, make things more human and work with a range of voices.”

With their humanistic, approachable style, the team feels that they are not only contributing to their clients’ bottom lines, but also creating lasting beauty. “It’s part of our job to make packaging that adds to the product,” Kaparos says. “Why not make something so beautiful that people will want to keep it? If we are going to produce waste, let’s produce waste with a reason.”

Tsaknakis sums up his view on packaging design with the same elegant simplicity: “I think style cannot really be defined, but it can be recognized immediately—it succeeds and endures.” ca

Based in London, United Kingdom, Robert Urquhart (roberturquhart.com) regularly writes for Grafik and Computer Arts, and his work has also appeared in Etapes, Dazed and several books on design.

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