NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 26

Design Today - 1

Non-Format: The Plain Fun

Emily Verba Fischer

Meet Non-Format, the refreshing and enthusiastic designer duo based in both Norway and the US. The principles Jon Forss and Kjell Ekhorn have been in business for over ten years. Not surprisingly, they both come from artistic upbringings, as Jon’s father was a sculptor and furniture-maker and Kjell’s an architect. Since 2001, Jon and Kjell have managed to consistently create fresh work, always searching for new inspirations and different methods of design output.
The title Non-Format has its roots in an article from Emigre, the celebrated yet retired American design journal. The particular issue spoke about the pending obsolescence of the DVD format – that one day a new “mythical non-format” would take hold. Jon and Kjell truly believe in the importance of staying away from any practice which might place them into any kind of style category. Thus, the name “Non-Format” suits them just perfectly. Styles are fickle, and they remain determined to reinvent themselves as many times as possible in order to avoid being typecast into any kind of trend movement or concrete definition of style. In fact, from the very fist inkling that their work for The Wire magazine may have been the least bit repetitive, they promptly passed on the project to another party entirely. Non-Format desires to stay on the edge, and they do.
Straightforwardly speaking, the work of Non-Format is just plain fun. It is apparent that the image makers are enjoying their craft in all areas, and that enjoyment is most definitely transferred to the viewer. The work is at once extremely clean but also possesses a certain controlled visual anarchy. It is ordered, but perfectly chaotic in choice areas. The eye is guided fervently all around each work with wonder and delight, scanning geometric shapes, splashes, bursts, expressive typography and bright colors. The idea of taking playfulness seriously should be thoroughly appreciated. The use of die cuts, for example, in the Computer Arts issue, harkens back to children’s books—the inherent joy in discovering what hides under the first layer of paper and the satisfaction of completing a story through the unfolding of the flaps. The animated wallpapers for the Japanese phone company Iida are also geometric and playful, giving rise to a nostalgic connection to childhood games, both digital and analog.
Non-Format finds a unique kind of challenge in designing music packaging and album artwork. In contrast to an advertisement which conveys one specific message or set of messages, Jon and Kjell believe that designing for music must offer the music itself a visual companion. It must express the music as well as represent the emotional response felt by the audience of the particular musician or band. That said, it would appear that working for musicians has presented Non-Format with the opportunity to experiment with many types of beautiful, distinct imagery and typography through the creation of album artwork and packaging. Often, a calculated and intricate combination of word and image takes hold to intrigue the viewer. Whimsical imagery appears peppered throughout the portfolio and is particularly lovely in the CD packaging for Hatchback’s Zeus and Apollo album. Spheres hover over mystical, fantastical landscapes and create the aura of an alternate reality, existing somewhere between space and earth. In the case of the David Bowie poster, type actually becomes image as the jagged geometric letterforms morph back and forth from legible text to abstracted shards of light and back again, while smaller textual information becomes falling, sprinkling light.

A strong and effective use of contradiction and contrast runs through the portfolio of Non-Format. We might say that life is made up of contraries and contradictions, and that visual communication is successful when it brings to life these contradictions we feel in our every day life experience. We can see these strong visual oppositions working together as a whole in typographic matters as well as in their overall use of design elements. The letterforms in both the Strange New World and Moog Acid music packaging contain delightfully chunky stems and curves which counter extremely thin, linear elements and horizontal strokes. In a more general sense, imagery is often bespoke and/or minimal when the type is more prominent, and vice versa. This careful balance of quiet and loud is an admirable, distinct hierarchy which allows for visual comfort and ease of communication to the viewer.
Provocative photography is yet another theme which runs throughout the striking portfolio of Non-Format. In the Peroxide project, visually striking, bursting spheres are juxtaposed against delicate, hair lines with slight curvature. The abstraction of simple geometric forms allows for an innate intrigue to take hold within the viewer. Basic geometry is also used very predominately within the typefaces and imagery created by Non-Format. Often, hard and blocky letterforms counter smooth, organic imagery, such as in the Greg Lynn “Form” book project. In the Milky Disco Three album artwork, we can see a more literal geometry. As geometry is a mathematical truth and programmed within us to be rational, people resonate with it. Non-Format’s decisive usage of design elements contributes to the broad appeal and charm of their work.
Another layer of interest may be noted when photographic and geometric vector forms come together. Fluid, almost smoke-like imagery flows out of letterforms, around formats, and sometimes even human forms. Dynamic movement and a heightened aesthetic feeling is achieved using these twisting organic shapes. The Delphic album packaging is a good example of this. Abstracted liquid forms swirl around bodies and pass back and forth over and under letterforms. We also see this element in combination with the idea of hiding and revealing, just as with the aforementioned die cuts in the Communication Arts issue. This is again a loose connection to the joys of childhood, of hiding and seeking. Their work manages to incorporate the most simple geometric shape with the most complex or organic imagery in perfect visual harmony.
Overall, the design of Non-Format enlightens as well as communicates effectively. Isn’t that what graphic design should be all about?

Emily Verba Fischer

(b. 1982) is an Ohio native who returned to the Midwest after receiving her master's degree from the Basel School of Design. Prior to her studies in Switzerland, she lived and practiced design for a variety of corporate and cultural clients in New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and the French Alps. Through these international experiences, she developed a teaching approach that emphasizes the concept of global citizenry in addition to design acuity. She believes that maximizing understanding of other cultures through interpersonal connection and the shared language of design can create a more empathic world for all. Emily is currently an Assistant Professor at the Myron E. Ullman, Jr. School of Design in the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). She frequently travels abroad to share her research and pedagogical activities. Her work has been featured in exhibitions and publications nationally and internationally.

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