When Jon Forss switches on his Mac Pro in his Saint Paul, Minnesota, home studio in the morning, he can be sure of one thing: Half a world and seven time zones away, his design partner Kjell Ekhorn is already deep into his workday in Oslo, Norway. Together Forss and Ekhorn make up the creative direction and design team Non-Format, which is, Forss says, nearly a 24–7 operation. “We say that if we just had a third person in Japan or Australia, we would cover the globe quite nicely,” he jokes.
Ekhorn and Forss met in 1999 in London, where Gloucestershire native Forss had landed at a design agency and Norwegian transplant Ekhorn was working as a freelance graphic designer and art director. The duo hit the ground running with a multitude of music packaging projects for small indie record labels, especially London-based Lo Recordings. They soon decided to make the partnership permanent, and Non-Format was formed. Even after Forss moved to Saint Paul in 2007 and Ekhorn decided to return to Norway in 2009, the two kept their partnership strong, with an assist from airlines, FaceTime, and cell phones.
The two find their unconventional work process enormously productive: As one of them is nearing the end of his workday, he can hand off a project to the other, who has just begun or will soon begin his morning. “It’s become apparent, now that we work apart, how important it is that we work together,” Forss says. “It’s good to know that when you get up in the morning, there will be comments waiting for you.”
“It is very nice when things are progressing really well overnight,” Ekhorn agrees. “You can continue with the project, and it has moved on. And it’s good when working with a lot of international clients, because it’s possible to do [immediate] corrections. For that deadline pressure, it’s good.”
Forss and Ekhorn are so prolific, at times it seems there must be more than two of them. On some projects, they’re art directors, as on their 2001–2005 redesign of United Kingdom independent music magazine The Wire or their 2006–2009 design of British illustration journal Varoom. On countless other projects, they’re designers or custom typographers. Occasionally, they collaborate with photographers, illustrators and other image-makers. Either working directly with clients or through ad agencies, they create stunningly original images for magazines, record labels, brands, publishers and organizations. And they do it all on the screen, using their Macs and a range of graphics software, with Adobe Creative Suite in heavy rotation.
Work this good doesn’t go unnoticed. Non-Format chalked up a 2008 New York Art Directors Club Gold Award for art direction of an ad for The Economist and two Tokyo Type Directors Club prizes (2006 and 2008) for the record sleeves of two Lo Recordings releases. In 2007, it won a coveted D&AD Yellow Pencil for the music packaging design of a series of LOAF (a sub-label of Lo Recordings) albums, which (along with other Non-Format works) are part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. And Ekhorn and Forss have been known to take it on the road: they’ve exhibited their work in group shows both stateside (New York, Los Angeles) and abroad (Tokyo, Sydney, Venice, London and Barcelona).
With so much work, how do they keep from getting burned out? Two words: constant reinvention. “We’re very, very conscious of things moving along,” Forss says. “We do not like to stand still.” The duo first became known, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, for what he describes as “typographic illustration or illustrative type.” For clients such as Nike, Orange and The Wire, they crafted type with elaborate curlicues cascading down the sides of the letters, type made of stars or flowers that exploded into negative space, type that merged with images of tree branches or birds.
The response to their experiments with type was, at first, welcome, and then a bit confining. “That’s something that we explored quite a lot, and we became known for it,” Ekhorn explains. “It got to the point that we had a need to pursue other things. We didn’t want to be known as ‘illustrations on top of typography.’”
The duo set out in search of a new visual language. “Because we’d been so incredibly decorative,” Forss says, “we figured the best thing to do was go in the opposite direction.” The pair began experimenting with images that were “hard, brutal, dark.” They designed type that was so fat, the letters were almost illegible, little black balloons with slight indentations and serifs.
With the new style came a realization that they were continuing a visual pattern that runs through the entirety of the twentieth century. “There was a correlation between [what we were doing] with what happened at the end of the 1960s, when swirling type [gave way] to new wave in the 1970s,” Forss says. “It was, in fact, a revival of the transition from art nouveau to art deco. Decorative to brutal.”
These swings between visual extremes led to Non-Format’s conception of the “wheel of style,” an idea the duo uses to describe the process through which every new style and product passes—and the process that drives their work. “At first,” Ekhorn says, “[a style or product] is absolutely amazing, cutting-edge, the most wonderful thing [anyone’s] ever seen. It wins awards. If we just continued doing that same thing, we would find that it would go from avant-garde to established. Then it would become stereotypical and cliché.… Eventually, someone else would do it in a new and interesting way.” He pauses and laughs. “The wheel is really there to keep you on your toes. You constantly have to run, to evolve.”
Whatever visual style they are using, Forss and Ekhorn hew to the maxim hierarchy is king. There’s nothing worse in a design, they say, than when there is no hierarchy. They decide what they want viewers to see first, second and third, and they try to keep their solutions simple yet emotionally expressive.
Anne Hilde Neset, a contributing editor of The Wire, has watched Forss and Ekhorn negotiate the wheel of style since their company’s inception. She was there during Non-Format’s redesign of the magazine, and she’s also the artistic director of another of Non-Format’s clients—nyMusikk, an Oslo-based organization that promotes contemporary music in Norway. She describes the duo’s aesthetic as being imbued with “a fantastic playfulness. Non-Format’s design is so energetic and dynamic. You’re never quite sure what they will come up with for a project, but it’s always so good, which makes it so much fun to work with them.”
Neset says that The Wire invited Non-Format to write a brief for the redesign and was impressed with the team’s ideas: “They nearly reinvented the magazine every month, save for the logo.… It was hugely inspiring to witness their working methods and thought processes behind each issue.” After Ekhorn and Forss took over the art direction, she says, The Wire gained readers that were design fans as well as music fans, and the magazine began winning design prizes.
She is equally delighted with the work Non-Format has done for nyMusikk. Ekhorn and Forss have created a new identity for the organization, with a new website and logo. “We went from a tired-looking blog-style website to a dynamic look with confidence and energy,” she says. The logo, a squiggle that suggests a sound wave as well as the letters NM, is “visually very strong and recognizable [and] also filled with meaning,” Neset adds. The duo also created an identity and promotional materials for nyMusikk’s Only Connect Festival of Sound. The whimsical robots Non-Format designed reflect the festival’s 2013 theme, “Machine Dreams.”
Non-Format worked with nyMusikk to shape the brief for its new identity, a process the firm undertakes with many of its clients. Ekhorn explains that when Non-Format works with an ad agency, the brief is often already formed. But other clients “use you as a sounding board, which is a very rewarding process,” he says. “It seems like the most interesting part of the business … to be able to work with a client on solving those kinds of problems.”
Non-Format’s ability to brainstorm successful design solutions is most evident in its work for its very first client, Lo Recordings. In the years since Lo Recordings’ founding in 1995, Forss and Ekhorn have designed nearly all the label’s music packaging. “It’s proper collaboration,” says Lo Recordings co-director Gavin O’Shea. “Music is its own brief. We give them the music, and they go off and come back with the whole thing.” O’Shea says this process is most useful for bands that have an idea for the music packaging design but cannot articulate the idea or get it down on paper. O’Shea calls Non-Format’s designs for Lo Recordings “very clean and very crisp. They have a quirkiness. It’s their signature. They do have a dark side to them … with a sense of humor. Their typefaces are always quite complex. They make you work a bit; it’s not an instant reveal.”
London commercial photographer Jake Walters, who has collaborated with Non-Format on projects for Lo Recordings, .Cent magazine and many other clients, agrees with O’Shea’s assessment of Forss and Ekhorn’s talent for crafting briefs and delivering fresh visuals: “I think ‘challenging’ is a great way of describing their work. Where we are today, people don’t want to be challenged. Especially on a computer, we want quick and easy information. But Kjell and Jon are relentless. They won’t buckle. They continue to deliver challenging messages.” He praises their ability to collaborate on a detailed brief and their willingness to change it, if circumstances dictate, in the course of a project.
These days Forss and Ekhorn are, as always, running to stay ahead of the wheel of style. They want to experiment more with fashion editorial design, and they’re stretching beyond their print roots into music videos, moving images and digital publications. They’d like to follow up Love Song, the 2007 book of their partnership’s first seven years, with another monograph, but they’re waiting until technological advances allow them to combine the rich, interactive, digital experience they want with a reasonable download time.
And, as always, they’re looking for projects that propel them forward. Forss wonders whether Non-Format’s growing profile in the design world makes potential clients think the duo is too busy for more work. But they’re never too busy, he says, for projects that challenge them and engage them creatively. “I can’t look at the world without pulling it apart and trying to put it back together in a different way,” he says. “It allows you to find a path to the new …. If [the project] makes us want to get up in the middle of the night and have another look, we know we’ve done something good.” ca