A little dash of paprika. That’s the recipe for good design. Except it’s not as easy as shaking a jar. These designers just make it look easy.
Headquartered in a stylish building in Montréal, Paprika has been serving Québec-based clients for sixteen years. Now the multiple-award-winning, bilingual firm is being discovered by design-forward companies throughout Canada and the U.S.Paprika was founded in 1991 by graphic designer Louis Gagnon, the creative director, and Joanne Lefebvre, the client liaison and business person. He has a degree in design from Université Laval and she studied management at the University of Québec at Montréal. Together, they run a firm with 10 employees, about 30 clients—a mix including retail, hospitality, the arts, fashion and home furnishings—and 50 projects in various stages of production.
Why the name Paprika? “We didn’t want Gagnon-Lefebvre Design Partners” begins Joanne. Adds Louis, “It’s a touch of spicy. Everything is better with paprika on it.” These two, partners in marriage as well as business, finish each other’s sentences.
The spiciness in their work goes from coolly understated to dramatically edgy. Fine printing and uncommon production techniques are a given. “For a client who is looking for avant-garde, groundbreaking work, Paprika is a perfect match,” affirms Thien Ta Trung, president of Periphere, a high-style furniture and home accessories company. “Finding the right graphic design firm is like finding a business partner. Both parties must understand each other and speak the same language. Over the years Paprika has been able to successfully interpret our evolving vision. They simply do great work,” he says.
About half the work is print and half a mix of packaging, Web, exhibits and environmental projects. They are also getting into products, such as Le grand livre des napperons, currently for sale on www.paprika.com. It is a set of place mats, developed in collaboration with Commissaires, a Montréal gallery specializing in contemporary design objects, decorated with what are billed as Napoleonic, British, Baroque and 1950’s dinnerware designs. “Just set your table with clear glass plates and it will look like that of European royalty,” advises Gagnon. Even the small jobs, the invitations, the business cards, the place mats—have a certain “aha” quality, as in, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“The littlest project has the potential to be good,” says Lefebvre.
“There are no bad projects,” adds Gagnon. “We can do something with anything if the client lets us.”
That doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of money, but it does require having an open mind. Clients don’t come to Paprika for plain vanilla. As a case in point, the “Madame Chose” poster, for an exhibition of women-designed products at Commissaires, is printed in two colors on what looks like pink photocopy paper. But it’s anything but ordinary; the imagery that represents “everywoman” is typography made from bobby pins. A poster announcing a new swimwear collection for Lyla, a chic lingerie boutique, is a model one-color job: light blue on white, and the typography fills the area on a female silhouette that would usually be covered by a swimsuit. Fashionable touches adorn projects for non-fashion clients. A stationery program for Tella office furniture is die-cut as if trimmed with pinking shears. “Tella specializes in tailor-made furniture,” explains Lefebvre.
Upscale boutique hotels, including Groupe Germain and Hôtel Nelligan, have proven to be a fruitful client sector: shampoo bottles, writing paper and monograms on bathrobes are the right places for this firm to make its mark. “Hotels are an area where we can integrate identity, signage, fabrics and maximize the visibility of the brand,” says Gagnon.
The National Film Board, Canada’s producer of social documentaries and animated shorts, is perhaps Paprika’s highest-profile client. “Paprika was the magic ingredient in our much-overdue repositioning,” says Laurie Jones, NFB director general, communications and outreach. “After transforming our logo, they brought creativity and elegance to our annual report, raising the bar to a level no other design firm had even hinted at. They saw the potential in the powerful images of the NFB’s films and to them, budget and other constraints are challenges rather than limitations.” NFB annual reports have won more than twenty major design awards.
Paprika does no marketing except entering design competitions, which they’ve turned into an art form and science. Some designers wonder whether the investment in competitions will ever pay off in new business. Don’t only designers read design annuals? “Oh no. Our clients keep the annuals. They refer to them a lot,” is Lefebvre’s answer. Every year Paprika enters all the big U.S., British and Canadian shows. “It’s very important to participate to measure what you do,” Gagnon advises. “We have over a 50 percent rate of wins.”
Competitions aside, most new clients come to Paprika via word of mouth. “Le bouche a l’oreille,” they say. “From the mouth to the ear,” translates Lefebvre. “The right clients are predisposé; they find us and are predisposed to work with us, knowing we will do the right thing.”
Gagnon and Lefebvre shyly admit that they married thirteen years ago, three years after founding Paprika (it really isn’t essential to understanding the business) and are parents of three sons, ages five to ten. The boys attend art-oriented École Buissonnière, for which, of course, Paprika designs the viewbooks and other promotions, which may be among the most innovative, best-photographed materials ever published by an elementary school. “It used to be difficult to convince clients to do good work, but it’s getting easier and easier,” says Gagnon. Perhaps it’s easier for him because he’s perfected a presentation methodology designed to lead to favorable outcomes. How and what designers present in order to sell their concepts is always an intriguing topic. Should you show one idea, demonstrating you’ve done your research and know that this is the right solution? Or, of the mind that there’s more than one way to solve something, do you involve the client in a process of choosing between several options?
Paprika has another idea. “It is the philosophy of Paprika to show three things,” Gagnon explains. “First there is something safe. Of course it is good, not boring, but safe. It won’t challenge the client too much. Then there is the more creative solution. And then there is ‘Get ready for this one!’ We hope the client will fall somewhere in the middle, and usually they do.” This middle might be pushing the limits for the average client, but it is just to the taste of those who have found Paprika.
“As clients, we rarely set creative boundaries,” says Periphere’s Thien Ta Trung. “Nothing is too strong nor too bold. We feel it’s important to push the creative team’s limits. Our briefings are never about a look or style, but rather about a certain emotion or state of mind. This provides a better guideline for igniting exciting designs.”
Two of the key people responsible for those designs are art directors René Clément and François Leclerc, who have been with Paprika five and ten years respectively. Clément is currently working on packaging for Gallerie au Chocolat, one of the upscale retail and consumer brands he’s been responsible for. “I’m more of a print-publications designer than a packaging designer,” he maintains, “but I like the variety here. I don’t care about big budgets or travel. I just like to work on projects with a high creativity level.” His secret for National Film Board annual reports that wow all audiences: “Instead of using visuals as decoration, I make a film-like story and pacing,” he says in charming, French-accented English.
Leclerc has been completing the interiors for the Baronet showroom at High Point. Responsible for most of the work for Maison Corbeil and Periphere, also high-end furniture companies, he proves that it’s possible to have industry expertise without the slightest conflict of interest. “Each company has its own personality and niche, which directs the design in a certain manner from the start,” he stresses.
The firm employs several young staff designers as well as interns from the design fundamentals classes Gagnon teaches at Université du Québec à Montréal. “It’s important to mix freshness and new ideas with experience,” is his philosophy. Recent UQAM graduate and typography connoisseur David Guarnieri has been turning the Madame Chose bobby-pin headline into a typeface ready to use on other Commissaires projects. Richard Belanger has been working on the new paprika.com Web site, organizing 300 images and solving such technical issues as how to get the site to resize itself to any screen. On a recent afternoon he was adding to the site images of signage—designed by René Clément—for AIX Cuisine du Terroir, a restaurant that serves local products “from the earth,” la terre (not dishes cooked by terrorists, as someone with limited French might think).
One of the unique challenges for Canadian designers is language. More than 80 percent of the citizens of Québec—including everyone at this office—speaks French. In the surrounding provinces English is the main language, although by law the federal government of Canada must operate and provide services in both English and French, and all Canadian products must have bilingual labels. It’s not easy to include all information required on a package in one language. Here they must do it in two. On packages and some print projects, text in French and English is interwoven; most brochures are published in two editions. Web sites have two buttons to choose from upon entry. Some projects for U.S. clients are produced in English only, or English and Spanish.
Managing all this effortlessly and with high style is a key strength of Paprika. Theoretically, say Gagnon and Lefebvre, the business is enjoying enough success that they might open an office in Paris—or New York. But they are committed to staying small. Says Lefebvre, “It is not necessary to have a big business to keep doing good work, have good clients and maintain profitability and visibility.”
Bien sûr. These designers are certainly proving that to be true. As long as everything is seasoned with just the right amount of spice. ca