Vocabulary(002)

Modernism Brexit

A Practice for Everyday Life

Founded in 2003 by Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas, A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL) is a graphic design studio based in the UK. Today, APFEL consists of a team of seven members, located in Bethnal Green, London.

apracticeforeverydaylife.com

The Interview took place in June 2018 between the IGV team IGV and APFEL AP over emails, in London and Hamburg.

On Culture

IGV What places in London do you find inspiring? What, for you, makes this place special? Why do you like living here? Is it a good place for graphic design?

APOur studio has been based in Bethnal Green, East London, since its inception in 2003, and many APFEL team members also live in this area. This particular part of East London is an interesting one in which to work and live – it has a rich history of making and craft, and it has been home to a longstanding population of workshops and furniture-makers both during and after the industrial revolution. The area has been popular with designers and studios for several years and is becoming more so as property prices in London rise and make areas previously popular within the industry such as Clerkenwell unaffordable. Present-day Bethnal Green now shows some signs of gentrification, but it still retains much of its traditional East End character, which is something we enjoy. There are many unexpected discoveries to be made in the neighbourhood – a ghost sign on the side of an old terrace that has been given an unexpected, sensitive restoration by local architects, or a shuttered and battered shop front, long assumed to be abandoned, that opens on odd evenings to reveal a small gallery. It’s easy to romanticise places like this, but the reality is that, like all its other occupants, we move through in the course of the everyday tasks demanded by work and life – journeys to visit clients or sites we’re working on, local errands, or daily travel to and from the studio. It’s these journeys and everyday experiences that find their way into our work.

IGV London is known for its traditions, royal family, foreign policies (colonies) and “splendid isolation.” Today, especially in the light of Brexit, there is always a sense of individuality and “not wanting to get entangled”. Is this cliché or truth? Does this apply to the design industry too?

APActually, we feel that the opposite is true – London is a multicultural city, and the design industry celebrates that. We see London as quite welcoming, with an international mind-set, and we certainly see that reflected in the design industry here. It’s very common for London-based design studios and agencies to employ people from around the world, and a healthy exchange of ideas exists with other countries and cities internationally.

IGV Would you say that London is typical of Britain?

AP In some ways, London represents many key aspects and attributes of Britain and Britishness, yet in other ways it is quite distinct from the rest of our country. As with any community, the city is shaped by its inhabitants, and the different demographics, industries and activities that go on within it. Even for a relatively small country, there is a remarkable degree of local variation within the UK. None of us in the studio are from London originally, so we all bring something of our own locality to the studio in one way or the other.

IGV What are the problems that British society is struggling with?

AP Brexit! In many ways, Britain is still struggling to define its post-colonial identity. The difficulties brought about by the recent recession have fuelled an anti-international mentality within certain facets of British society that we vehemently disagree with.  

IGV Which of your culture’s values could we learn something from?

AP It’s hard to generalize, but there is a stoicism and sense of humour inherent in the British psyche that we both enjoy and consider valuable. Britain also has an amazing creative heritage, spanning an enormously broad range of individual disciplines, which continues to endure and thrive to this day.

IGV How about British pride?

AP The notion of British pride has been tainted in the past few years by its association with far right groups and xenophobic attitudes, and the idea of being proud of your nationality is still a slightly odd one for us – being born in one place rather than another is not an achievement! We would rather be proud of the work we do, of how we conduct ourselves, of our treatment of others and of what we can achieve.  

IGV Does beauty play an important role in your work?

AP As designers, beauty is certainly something we aspire to within our work, but not necessarily in terms of prettiness or a particular kind of elegance. We find beauty in all manner of different and sometimes unexpected places and things. It can also be interesting to use our work as designers to challenge ideas and perceptions of what is beautiful.

IGV How do you stay alert to the little miracles of everyday life?

AP Our studio takes its name from the title of a book called The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau, in which the author describes his way of making sense of his city with eyes open, collecting materials and drawing together stories. This book has been an enormous influence on the way we think and work, and de Certeau’s approach to everyday life is one that keeps us alert to the small vernacular details of life that we enjoy so much, and which we try to reflect within our work.

IGV As a child, what was (were) your dream career(s)? Or: What was the most significant experience of your youth, and did it influence your choice of profession?

AP We are very lucky – this is our dream career and we can’t imagine doing anything else.

IGV Are there other artistic or scientific disciplines that are important for you?

AP We firmly believe that, as designers, our frame of reference should be broad, and that a diverse range of interests and reference points can only enrich our practice. Working as closely with the arts and cultural sectors as we do, we are of course interested in art, particularly conceptual work, but literature, history, science, philosophy and critical theory all feed into our work, and these interests help to shape the way we approach our design practice. Our team also brings a range of different specialisms to the table, both professionally and in terms of specialist interests.

Work

IGV Could you describe your typical working day routine?

AP There isn’t really a ‘typical’ day for us in the studio; that’s part of the reason we enjoy our work so much. Within a day we could be working on all manner of things: meeting clients or suppliers; visiting the site of a forthcoming project; reading and researching; sketching the letterforms of a typeface design; typesetting a book; testing exhibition text sizes; proofing images for printing; hand-drawing typography; or making detailed dummy books or packaging using intricate or specialist production methods.  

IGV What do you do during holidays / free time?

AP We all enjoy travel, and we try to take the opportunity to discover and explore new places, both within the UK and overseas, in our free time. Most of the APFEL team are based in London, and we like to take in exhibitions and attend events in the city and beyond, both relating to art and design and focusing on subjects outside of this field. We try to engage with activities away from our computer screens, too. Sailing, pottery, sewing, jewellery-making, reading, even just enjoying food and conversation with friends – all these things help us relax but also feed back into our design practice.

IGV What are – in your eyes – the qualities of a good graphic designer?

AP Inquisitiveness, attention to detail, critical thinking, an understanding of the visual vernacular, good taste, and an awareness of the world around and outside of graphic design are all vital qualities. It’s as important to nurture your interests outside of the discipline, and to pursue other forms of knowledge, as it is to build an understanding of graphic design practice, theory, and history.

IGV Are there any rituals associated with your design processes?

AP Not really – we’re not sure how useful it is to mythologize the design process, and ritual implies a sense of repetition or a fixed approach that we take each time, which is not how we work. We prefer to tailor our approach to each individual project, according to the demands of the brief and the content we will be working with, and based on discussions with the client and the rest of the creative team. There is no one size fits all approach.

IGV A compromise is always the result of a struggle. What are the typical conflicts that arise between you and the clients? And how do you handle such a conflict? Or: What is the biggest compromise that you have had to accept?

AP It is important to us that our clients trust us, and because of that, they are willing to take risks within a project in order to create something distinctive, unexpected and out of the ordinary. Working collaboratively, as we always aim to do, helps to mitigate any conflicts, and problem-solving is an integral part of the design process. We work together with our clients and other members of larger creative teams we are part of, in order to arrive at an outcome that satisfies everyone without diluting the key central concepts that make it work as a design. It’s not always easy, but being able to articulate your ideas confidently and convincingly is a very important skill as a designer. It’s not just about coming up with a brilliant idea for a piece of work; you need to be able to inspire trust in your clients and occasionally persuade them to take risks, in order to innovate and create something new.

IGV Who do you get your feedback from? Do the APFEL team sometimes disagree with each other?

AP We have always tried to foster a studio environment in which we work as a team to collaboratively critique our own work, and often will get the whole of APFEL together to review proposals for a project. Encouraging debate within the studio helps us to develop as designers, and though there are sometimes conflicts of opinion, it’s rare that we find ourselves in a disagreement that we can’t resolve when it comes to our work.  

IGV Design process or product: what is more important to you?

AP The two are mutually inclusive – you can’t have one or the other, so they are both equally important to us.

Attitude

IGV Who do you design for? For connoisseurs, or for everyone?

AP We want our work to be underpinned by a high standard of visual communication that should be accessible for everyone. Undoubtedly, people who are more familiar with graphic design or visual culture in general will likely interpret a piece of graphic design differently from a layman, but we believe that graphic design should not be exclusionary or intentionally obscure. We prefer to think in terms of layers of meaning, in relation to our own work – we like the idea that the closer you look and the more you investigate a piece of our work, the more details and ideas become apparent. We want our work to reward contemplation, as well as to have impact in a more instantaneous way.  

IGV What are – in your eyes – the most important contemporary andhistoric movements in graphic design?

AP Modernism continues to be extremely influential and important within graphic design, and it’s a period of design history that we find fascinating. However, it’s important not to isolate and idolize certain movements or eras within design without considering their context, and appreciating what came before and what came after.

IGV Do you follow any meta-themes in your work? How and where do these concepts leave traces in your work?

AP We try to work in a way that is thoughtful, collaborative, focused, and informed by research and discussion. A lot of our work is quite playful, but executed in a minimal way; refined and edited in order for only the essential elements of an idea to remain. We are interested in the communicative power of objects as well as images and type, and we like to explore this through careful consideration of production techniques, materials and details as well as visual forms within our work. We want our work to be experiential as well as visual.

IGV Do you think there is such a thing as “British Design”? What would be its underlying attitude and do you feel part of this movement/attitude? Why?

AP Britain is an increasingly diverse place, so it's difficult to sum up a typically British graphic designer, or to pinpoint what characterises British design today. That's one of the best things about the design community in the UK – there is such a broad range of approaches and styles amongst graphic designers in this country. Britain, and in particular London, continues to have a strong design community, and people come here to work from all around the world – we hope very much that this will continue to be the case in the years to come. There is a rich heritage of brilliant graphic design in the UK that designers here manage to take inspiration from, whilst still moving the discipline forward. That interplay between old and new, together with a certain, indefinable sense of visual wit, is what typifies the British graphic design scene for us.

IGV Does it bore you to see Western (European) graphic design dominating the mainstream? How do you see Eastern or non-European graphic design?

AP We are always interested in exploring approaches to graphic design that are new to us, and there is an enormous amount of exciting work being done in graphic design the world over – we’re not really concerned with where the work comes from, as long as it’s built from interesting ideas and executed well.

IGV Could you share any experiences of working / communicating with a foreign culture? How do you overcome the differences and arrive at a solution with graphic design?

AP We work with clients from all around the world, and this frequently involves us engaging with cultures different from our own – it’s an experience we enjoy, as we always learn something. We often find that there are not really any major differences to overcome, beyond the need to build an understanding of the different ways in which other cultures and audiences read images. It’s always important to consider your audience and whether their visual or conceptual associations will be the same as our own; that isn’t something you can take for granted as a designer.

IGV Big question: Is graphic design important? Why?

AP We believe it is – graphic design is a means of communication, a conduit for information and one of the many codes through which we convey knowledge. The transfer of information is incredibly important. Where would any of us be without it?

IGV Another big one: Can graphic design change society?

AP It can certainly have a role to play within social change, in both obvious and subtle ways. Graphic design has the power to draw attention, and to shape both our understanding and our interpretation of the things we read, see, and experience.



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