Alice Rawsthorn: A graphic design firm for visuals – big time

From International Herald Tribune

Graphic Design

By Alice Rawsthorn
Published: July 15, 2007

LONDON: With dreamy gauze shrouding luscious floral images on the cover, and silhouettes of birds punched into its pages like the ornate margins of Medieval manuscripts, the new book on the work of the Dutch designer Tord Boontje looks as beautiful as his objects.

The book seems as intricate and handmade as Boontje’s work, but that’s an illusion. By marshalling state-of-the-art Chinese printing technology to replicate traditional printing techniques and wrapping the cover in the mull gauze usually used in bookbinding, its designers, Graphic Thought Facility, have gently tricked us into thinking that it is equally delicate and quirky.

There is a lot more of Graphic Thought Facility’s work around this summer. Drivers hurtling along London’s Euston Road can spot its giant neon protein structures in the Wellcome Trust’s windows. Visitors to Tate Britain can see its graphics in the “How We Are” photography show. And shoppers in Marks & Spencer’s stores are surrounded by its packaging, signage and branding.

Even eagle-eyed graphics geeks would be hard pressed to guess that the Boontje book and an M&S carrier bag came from the same London studio of eight designers. GTF (as it’s called for short) doesn’t have a stylistic signature, its work is about identifying a visual idea to sum up each project, and experimenting with unusual production processes and materials to express it. The result is often unexpected, but always purposefully so.

“They are the best in the business,” said Matthew Slotover, director of London’s Frieze Art Fair, which has worked with GTF since the fair began five years ago. “They come up with new ideas all the time, and they are almost 3-D designers in their appreciation and incredible knowledge of materials.” Rodney Mylius, head of brand creative at Marks & Spencer, agreed: “They’re brilliant. And they are all happy, bright characters whose company you enjoy. We like that.”

Creatively GTF is regarded, with M|M (Paris) and Experimental Jetset in Amsterdam, as one of the most influential graphic teams of our time. Yet it is unusual in showing the same zest for rolling out signage into thousands of M&S stores, as for the art and fashion projects typical of experimental graphics. In the last decade, graphic design has polarized between “creatives” in independent studios and “suits” in corporate consultancies. The debacle of Wolff Olins’s logo for the London 2012 Olympics illustrates the perils of “suits” aspiring to being “creative.” Yet GTF has successfully applied its “creative” values to big branding projects for M&S and, before that, Habitat.

In that sense, it is a contemporary version of the creatively ambitious graphic teams that dominated 1960s Britain, like Design Research Unit; Kinneir + Calvert, and Fletcher/Forbes/Gill. Much of their work was in the public sector – DRU designed British Rail’s identity, and Kinneir + Calvert the nation’s road signs – whereas GTF works within the new economy of the creative industries and service sector. “We go back to the attitude of 1960s graphics and to its directness, but not to its detachment from real life,” said Andy Stevens, who founded GTF in 1990 with Paul Neale and Nigel Robinson when they graduated from the Royal College of Art in London. “And we were never anti-brand. We’d grown up as young soccer casuals in the 1980s, thinking that brands like Sony and Adidas were fantastic.”

By integrating vernacular imagery, like branding, into graphics, GTF became part of a new British design movement whose work reflected grungy reality, rather than the glossy fantasies of 1980s styling. Its early projects were for friends, mostly from the RCA. Robinson left in 1993, and GTF now has a third director in Huw Morgan, who joined the studio in 1996. It won its first corporate commission that year for Habitat, and started an eight-year relationship that culminated in the company’s identity. By the early 2000s, GTF had also begun long-term collaborations with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Frieze.

The essence of each GTF project is the visual idea. For Habitat, it was people’s love of their homes depicted as a hand-drawn heart inside a house. For Shakespeare’s Globe, it was the fusion of the historic and contemporary in backstage photography of the company working in a replica 16th-century theater. For Frieze, it is the location in photographs of Regent’s Park, and the “circus comes to town” spirit of the four-day fair conveyed by corrugated cardboard signage. (“A stroke of genius,” Slotover observed.) For the Wellcome Trust, it is the scientific research it funds, expressed in the neon protein structures relating to diseases like HIV, cancer and malaria.

“Hopefully there is something very straightforward about our work,” said Neale. “You shouldn’t have to know anything about us, or our philosophy. Everything should stand on its own and make perfect sense.” Another characteristic of GTF’s work – and the reason it looks so refined – is the effort put into production. “They have a very thorough understanding of the craft of graphics and an in-depth knowledge of materials, papers, inks and processes,” said Boontje, who remembers GTF making samples of elements of his book, to dispel the skepticism of the publisher and printer.

Obsessive micromanagement is impossible for a megaproject like M&S, where GTF’s work is rolled out into thousands of stores by local managers and visual merchandisers. “You have to take a very pragmatic approach to design and develop very robust ideas,” Neale said. “But, because M&S are very, very confident about their strategy and know exactly what they want to achieve, we’ve never felt that we’ve had to compromise creatively.”

Enjoyable though the M&S project is, GTF is wary of taking on too many more corporate commissions, or of expanding the studio beyond its current size. Nor does it have any intention of reinventing itself as a “suit-style” strategic consultancy. “We say ‘no’ quite a lot,” said Stevens. “If we took three or four jobs of M&S’s scale on at a time it would fundamentally change things, and we wouldn’t want that.”