Formes Vives, Signage for La Verrerie, 2017.

“Twenty years ago, I read something about competition. The word comes from the Latin, cum petere, which means, to strive together,” writes Nicolas Filloque.

He’s talking to me with Geoffroy Pithon and Adrien Zammi, the other two thirds of “collective design practise” Formes Vives. This trio of illustrator-cum-designers-cum-activists met while studying graphic design together in Paris at the School of Decorative Arts, but now, 10 years down the line, they’re spread across the globe, collaborating via email while travelling independently. Occasionally, the three founders come together: to give a workshop during which Pithon might wear a rainbow mask; to present bright red posters in Wales that are a fiery homage to the miners’ struggle; or to paint giant hay stacks with local farmers and children for the wayfinding signage of a design biennale in Chaumont. Mostly though, they like to come together to draw face-to-face again.

“We try not to think of others as enemies or copiers or potential threats; we want try to see further that that. To do things together, cum petere. Sometimes you have to reinvent words to invent a new relationship to others and the world, and to yourself,” says Filloque.

This is just one reason why the group describes its process as one of “collective design”; they “co-create” and never take individual ownership of an image or project. A second defining reason emerges from Formes Vives’ causes and clients: Filloque, Pithon, and Zammit are devoted to developing a purely political and social way of practising visual communication: “How can we create and deploy quality forms for topics and organizations that foster the common good?”

By designing solely for non-profits, public institutions, activist collectives, or fellow artists (with no secret big-buck jobs hidden from the online portfolio) Formes Vives attempts to answer that question.

A central mission emerging from this dedicated approach is creating distinctive aesthetic languages that prevent confusion between non-profit ventures and corporate brands. In a time when it’s often difficult to tell the difference between a heartfelt message and an advertising ploy—just scroll down Instagram for a few seconds to witness the co-mingling of personal and commercial images—this strategy of differentiation seems increasingly vital.

“Our hypothesis is that if you create something so experimental, so expressive and ‘crazy,’ no corporation would ever admit it for its public image; corporations need control, order, and repetition.”

One method that the collective adopts in pursuit of a non-corporate visual identity is discovered in its name. As well as evoking “dynamic civil society”, Formes Vives means “lively forms”, which gestures to the vibrant colors, hand-scrawled letterforms, recycled doodles, and miss-match styles that make up most of the studio’s output. When these “lively forms” become the basis of an identity system, Formes Vives believes that a distinction from corporate branding and trademarks can become vibrantly apparent. “Our hypothesis is that if you create something so experimental, so expressive and ‘crazy,’ no corporation would ever admit it for its public image; corporations need control, order, and repetition.”

Formes Vives, “Signature” for Faro.

For an ecologically friendly architecture group, Faro Architecture Collective, Formes Vives designed not one logo but a set of 24 very different “signatures,” one example of how it’s put its method to the test. “We prefer to say ‘signature’ than ‘logo’, as it better defines the subjectivity of the structure,” they say. Formes Vives has created similar hand-painted “signatures” for a socio-educational think tank called l’Office and an art school, ENSA Limoges. The group’s concept is that the flexibility and sketchy quality of these identities is too confused for a large brand to embrace, while a repeating color palate, or typeface, is enough to create cohesion. These systems are reminiscent of Two Points’ experiments with “flexible visual identities”. Yet unlike Two Points’, Formes Vives’ identities retain a distinctively hand-made quality, lack digital finesse, and coalesce from a bundle of styles. While potentially similar in terms of how they function, the central difference between these identity systems stems from Formes Vives’ process.

Formes Vives, “Signature” for L’Office.

While an aesthetic or system can always be recuperated for corporate branding, collective and non-hierarchical modes of production present difficulties for profit-driven enterprises. And it’s Formes Vives’ collaborative process that distinguishes its work and lends it the lively, differentiating quality that it seeks. Its approach is rooted in co-creation and play, as well as cooperation with local entities and non-designers to produce something genuinely communal—whether that’s through working with a local agricultural institute when designing for a biennale, or using sketches created by children as the basis of a gallery catalog. The resulting designs are in no way sleek or organized—many would say they aren’t very trendy either; instead, they’re messy cornucopias of collective image making, visually pleasing like the pale chalk figures etched into the grey concrete of neighbourhood sidewalks.

“Our practise is about sharing a signature (like a band), sharing equally all the money we get with our graphic activities, being attentive to others, creating the environment to continually explore and renew what we do (it’s not a ‘job!’), spending great moments together but always encouraging each other’s personal desires (which is why we live in three different regions), and not spending all our time in front of the computer,” says Formes Vives.

“When we run workshops, we like to explain that Formes Vives is just a little part of our life, and there is no border to separate all of our daily activities. The link between all of our individual practices is the collective organization—‘alone we go faster, together we go further’.”