Neo Neo’s approach—like its name and team-size–is a two-pronged entity: the traditional, measured Swiss grid is ever present, but poked and prodded to give everything a bold, modern twist. The Geneva-based studio was founded in 2010 by Thuy-An Hoang and Xavier Erni, who met while studying on the visual communication course at Geneva University of Art and Design, where they now lecture at HEAD Genève.
Still a two man band after the best part of a decade (occasionally bringing in freelancers to help with projects), the pair says there’s no “specific solution” to keeping what must be a fairly intense working relationship going over the years. “It’s not always easy, but now we know how to share our time and split the work,” says Erni, who explains that they work together on the brief and to brainstorm ideas, before dividing the work between them when it comes to the execution.
The studio works mainly on cultural projects, working with a range of institutions and artists, as well as a few commercial clients across editorial design, visual identities, typography, posters and printed matter, web design, signage systems, and scenography. It describes its practice as “transdisciplinary:” alongside commissioned design work, Neo Neo has a publishing arm (it founded poster-based magazine Poster Tribune in 2011) and a gallery adjoined to the studio called Print Program, which opened in 2015. Whether across any of these facets, the studio’s work is united by a striking sense of physicality and a considered way with materiality. That physical, print-heavy approach is in part down to the fact the studio is Swiss, according to Erni. “We still have a cultural heritage of posters in the streets, with public displays funded by the city; maybe higher budgets than elsewhere; and printers dedicated to working with graphic designers and who are open minded to doing more complicated stuff. It’s the culture in Switzerland to have this attachment to materiality.”
A recent example of this bold use of paper and printing processes is the art direction, posters, programs, and printed matter for Geneva-based international independent film festival Black Movie, which uses reflective silver against a bold neon orange.
The studio also has a knack with making work that’s simple, but with delicious little playful, subtle twists. Its visual identity NOF (Nouvel Opera Fribourg) across posters, flyers, yearly programs, signage systems, and its website combines simple typography with unusual graphic motifs. A single weight of Commercial Type’s Neue Haas Grotesk (“a better version of Helvetica,” as Erni puts it) is placed against a “very Swiss,” strict grid system; with a single color chosen for each opera season. “We used funny images we found on the internet in the contexts of classical operas,” Erni explains. For the poster for The Magic Flute, for instance, the birdcatcher character Papageno is illustrated by the humble pigeon; while the season’s opening posters use an image of a spaceship. “We try to use images with an offbeat tone,” Erni adds.
That element of subversion comes to the fore in Neo Neo’s posters for the Live in Your Head gallery at Geneva University of Art and Design, which each have a typographic side and an image-led side. The studio creates a different logo for each exhibition, and uses a different typeface with every new show, many of which are from the occasionally mocked free font site DaFont. “They’re difficult to work with, but we try to make funny uses of them,” says Erni. “In Switzerland, we have this culture of grids, but here the position is more about just having fun.
“Of course, we’re aware of the Swiss tradition here and the famous designers from the ’60s, but for us it’s become more of a tool, bringing more playfulness and fun into the grid.”