Paula Benson, Co-founder of Form, takes time out to uncover the studio's ongoing attempt to explore every possible creative outlet. Oh, and explain a penchant for smutty packaging from overseas...
Form works because we're passionate about design." Paula Benson, Co-founder of the multi-disciplinary design firm appears to be intent on redefining what 'graphic design' means. "I hate that term," she says. "It seems such a narrow way of describing what we do".
For example: "Last week we were doing location hunting and clothes styling for a band." Now, asks Paula, "Is that graphic design?" Probably not, but what does that make Form? Paula moots the idea of a 'communications' company but then adds, "Well no, we're not BT!"
Some might see the diversity of Form's work as a dilution of effort, but there's a guiding principle which prevents this: "We're creative people," says Paula. "And we're driven by ideas." This approach has led Form to motion graphics, identity, web design, publishing and even a successful clothing range, UniForm. It's also won them a client list that takes in everything from Top Shop to the ICA, with TV and music giants in-between.
Paula and partner Paul West founded Form in 1991, brought together by a mutual love of music. "That's where our backgrounds are," says Paula... "art directing and designing identities and record sleeves." With much of the work coming from major labels such as Virgin, Polygram and EMI, Form's music-related work has frequently involved high profile acts such as Depeche Mode, All Saints and Girls Aloud.
"We still work in design for music," says Paula, because this is still an important part of Form's identity. "But the kind of work we do now is much more varied in terms of the formats, media and type of client we work with." The musical roots have proved important though, not least for the solid foundation they've given the firm's subsequent expansion.
The other important thing, Paula says, is: "We've developed good business sense." This is something Paula obviously feels is critical: "I respect any business that can make it work for as long as we have." And although it's clearly at the heart of what they do, Paula's convinced that creativity alone just isn't enough.
Perhaps a little controversially, she begins, "It's relatively simple to sit around being creative." Not everyone would agree with that opinion, but few would disagree with what she goes on to say: "Balancing that with an understanding of clients' needs and expectations, together with the management of money and all that malarkey takes a different kind of skill and tenacity." Clearly, Form has that malarkey fully squared away.
Dressed to impress
Not content with the work that happens to find them, Form occasionally likes to flex its creative muscles to a tune of its own. "We set up UniForm - our T-shirt and accessories company - a few years ago," says Paula, alluding to the primary example of this. Thanks to a strong fan base in the design and music communities, this has provided the firm with a lucrative sideline in creative expression.
Sporting bold, stylised illustrations of food and drink such as 'Pie' and 'Mash', the first range of UniForm clothing was codenamed 'Tuck 'n' Dibs'. Still going strong seven years later, these have been the most popular series to date, prompting Paula to add, "They've become something of a classic!"
Meanwhile, excitement is mounting ahead of the February launch of the latest line, christened OP. Described by Paula as 'rather graphic', the new range features instant winners such as 'Chromaphobe' - a person afraid of colour. This idea was 'spawned' by discussion at a night class on arts curation. Paula explains: "We thought we'd play on the word, with a sense of irony."
A Plopp in the ocean
"Paul and I have been collecting packaging with humorous names for over 13 years," says Paula. As hobbies go, this isn't as bad as it could have been. But wait: "We design music campaigns, CD sleeves and DVD packages so we're naturally interested in packaging design." Sounds reasonable enough, go on.
"Foreign supermarkets are a great source of reference for us, so we often slip into a few when abroad to check out the local wares." These things always seem so simple at first, but once they take hold... "Even a humble tin of sardines takes on a new aesthetic when it sports a foreign language and an unfamiliar typeface."
Eventually the shelf scanning began to yield a whole crop of bizarre new products and the packaging collection started to slide into obscenity: "Basterd sugar sat on a Dutch shop shelf with innocence; Plopp chocolate appeared bold as brass in every Swedish sweet shop." Cross-cultural double entendres like this have really taken Form by storm: "After a while, the hunt became a little obsessive," admits Paula. "A trip abroad wasn't complete without an outing to the supermarket, no matter how rushed the trip."
According to Paula, shelf life exposes itself in many places. It's this element of the whole sordid venture that makes it so compulsive: "There's a real sense of discovery about it."
As if things weren't already in an advanced state of weirdness, Paul and Paula then found out that friend and branding expert Rosie Walford was also an avid collector. "Her display was brilliantly laid out in themes such as 'drugs' and 'sex' in an antique display cabinet in her hall," explains Paula, sounding impressed. "Wine-fuelled dinner parties at Rosie's would often end with us loitering next to her infamous cabinet saying, "We must put our collections together and do a book about this one day." And so the concept was born, a strangely compelling one it is too. Form designed a book proposal and took the idea to a number of publishers, Bloomsbury eventually taking the bait. "They got very excited by it too," recalls Paula. There then ensued a prolonged period of research aimed at obtaining permissions from the owners of the relevant packaging.
This comment gives you some idea of the pain involved: "Imagine trying to find the maker of matches found in Tibet 18 years ago!" says Paula. Though it demanded a feat of endurance, eventually there were enough permissions to make a book, and Shelf Life emerged to occupy shelf space of its own.
Paula only laments the favourites which didn't make it: "The brand manager of Grated Fanny tuna was at pains to tell us the product was named in honour of his sister Fanny and he didn't want us to shame her." Other favourites which didn't make it included Superpiss, Mini Dickmanns, Super Dickmanns, Fetiche and Krapp toilet paper. Could any of this really be accidental?
Better by design
"I think the design scene is very healthy creatively," says Paula, who is encouraged by what she sees. "There's no shortage of ideas and talent." However, she adds a caveat to this: "Creativity can only flourish if the clients are there." And this, it seems, is the problem: "I sense a lull in the number of decent projects out there and this has affected a lot of the design companies I speak to."
Despite the dark clouds, Paula remains ebullient: "But that won't stop us!" New projects include another book, this time about 'a well-known furniture company' and a new range of T-shirts and tops. This range, which draws on Pagan and Wicca culture, will be called 'Dark Forces'.
"We're also working on identities for a printing company and a new fashion label, there are quite a few music projects and we're talking about some exciting collaborations with moving image and web specialists." All this leads Paula to speculate that, "2005 looks like it's going to pan out to be a good year."