Jon Forss founded Non-Format with design partner Kjell Ekhorn in London in 2000. Since then, the creative duo has worked as a long-distance relationship, with Forss relocating to Minneapolis and Ekhorn to his hometown of Oslo, Norway. The studio has built a reputation for its expressive, graphic sensibility across work for the likes of Wieden+Kennedy, Nike, and The Economist; and for creating custom typography for a number of music and publishing industry clients. Here, Forss shares the story of one of Non-Format’s most important first commissions, a redesign of British music mag The Wire.
“It was only when I met Kjell Ekhorn that I started to make design work that felt truly personal. We first dabbled with music packaging projects and then were offered the chance to design The Wire, an independent music magazine that was in urgent need of a refresh. I could show you any of the work from the first dozen years of my design career, which must amount to 100 or more fairly mediocre projects, but I wouldn’t count any of them as being truly mine or, since Non-Format, truly ours. Kjell and I often talk about how it’s not really a sin to copy other people’s work. Well, okay, copying wholesale is pretty wicked, but through emulation and appropriation we think it’s possible to develop something of an apprenticeship and, eventually, maybe, you might stumble onto something you can genuinely call your own. Your first real piece of design.
“So, here’s our first real piece of design. It’s an issue of The Wire magazine. Number 233 to be exact: the July 2003 issue with Michael Gira on the cover, who was beautifully photographed by Jo Ann Toy.
“Kjell and I have always been drawn to magazines with design that evolves alongside the content. I’ve given up on so many magazines simply because the design remains the same from issue to issue. I’m sure this says more about me than I’d like to admit, but there it is.
“We established a simple modernist grid for The Wire, which became the blank canvas for expression. From issue to issue we would create a headline treatment intended to dress up each feature and then we would abandon it and create a new one for the following issue. It was as exhausting as it was stressful, but the worst thing was that we never really felt a personal connection to any of those headline styles. We were plundering the vernacular rather too much, borrowing from FedEx labels one month, or copying the design of adhesive bandages, or credit cards for other issues. Then we started experimenting with headlines that had silhouettes of leaves, twigs, insects, and butterflies sprinkled all over the place. More interesting, for sure, but still not truly our own voice. After all, Deanne Cheuk was already blazing this trail in Tokion magazine with great success. And then, one day, something clicked.
“We scanned in some bits and pieces of black velvet that we had laying around in the studio and applied them to a typeface so that it appeared to be fraying with long strands of thread. We used that typeface for each of the headlines in the June 2003 issue and assumed we would abandon it and move on for the following month. But there was something bugging us about the way the headlines integrated into that issue. We wanted a second chance.
“Luckily magazines have that Groundhog Day factor that offers a chance for redemption. It occurred to us that this fraying cloth treatment would be so much better if, instead of creating a fraying typeface, we established the size and position of the headlines on each page first, and then added the fraying cloth elements afterwards. This way we could apply the expressive elements right where we wanted them and we could keep the scale of the threads consistent throughout the entire issue, regardless of the size of the headline type.
“The results appeared in the July 2003 issue. On some pages we added just a few delicate strands of threads, with those little flecks of velvet attached, and on others we took it as far as we dared. Our favorite use of this is on the Michael Gira feature itself. Both the large headline and much smaller quote text a few pages in appear to be coming apart at the seams, with an expression and consistency of scale that we find rather satisfying. Also satisfying is that the hanging threads on both spreads form shapes that have been likened to a flaccid penis (thanks Jo Ann Toy for this most Freudian of observations). This is purely coincidental but, given the nature of the text, fortuitously befitting the subject matter.
“Finally we had something that truly seemed to belong to us. Rather than abandon this headline treatment and go through the agony of trying to come up with something new in less than a month, we ran it in every issue for the rest of that year. Time enough to create our next thinly veiled depiction of genitalia.”