A Practice for Everyday Life
Tell us your backgrounds and how you got into graphic design.
We (founders Emma Thomas and Kirsty Carter) both always had an interest in art and in graphic design—when it came to choosing a career path, for both of us this was something we had wanted to do for some time, so it was a natural decision. We both studied for a BA in Graphic Design and then progressed to an MA at the Royal College of Art, before founding APFEL. Neither of us worked anywhere else before here, we went straight from our studies into founding APFEL.
How and when was APFEL founded?
We met at the Royal College of Art in 2001. We shared a studio space there and gradually began to work projects together—we were very different in our visual approach, but were looking at the same material/ideas to form the basis of a project. By the time the course was coming to an end, we were sure that we wanted to carry on this working relationship and start a studio together. We had a clear idea of what we wanted to do and the type of projects we wanted to work on, and we wanted to go on a journey that would excite and challenge us. Now, there are six of us at APFEL plus any collaborators we bring in specifically for the project.
Can you walk us through your design process?
We try to work in a way that is thoughtful, collaborative, focussed, and informed by research and discussion. In terms of our working process, when we start on a project, much of our creative thinking comes out of dialogues with our clients and with each other in the studio. The beginnings of the design are borne out of those conversations, when all our ideas are very fresh, and we make sure to continue this process of discussion and evaluation as a team as the project develops. Often, we shift projects around in the studio so that each of us has input from the other, and the right balance in the final outcome.
What drives you to create, and how do you stay motivated over time?
Our projects are quite diverse, and the changing challenges this brings are always good motivation, as you can never get bored!
Do you have a design philosophy at APFEL?
When we were first working together at the Royal College of Art, a book called The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau made a big impression on both of us. In it, de Certeau describes his way of making sense of the city with eyes open, collecting materials, drawing together stories—we liked his reference to the notion of “practice” as a habit, exercise and pursuit rather than something perfectly finished. These practices were the basis of how we wanted to work. We don’t like to draw on any particular aesthetics, and our work is characterised more by a thought process or approach than by a distinctive aesthetic style. It develops out of the content and context of the project.
How do you keep a good life/work balance?
This is something that you do have to work at; for us, as it’s our business it’s very easy never to switch off from it, but it’s so important to try to. For the rest of the team, we have always been keen to make sure that nobody’s staying late in the studio every night or taking work home at the weekend—that’s not a healthy studio culture to operate in. It is very important for everyone to get out and about, walking the city, going to new places, seeing new things – to get excited about other ideas outside what is going on in the studio, it brings fresh air into projects we are working on. That said, every now and then when a project really demands it, we will all knuckle down and do a late night in the studio together, all keep working and get pizza to keep us going and just get it done!
What are your influences and how do they they affect your work?
We are surrounded by material and historical references throughout our everyday lives, so our reference points are things that we have come into contact with—ideas, textures, surfaces, materials or products—and they all influence how you design. We’re also all collectors, in one way or another, and that tends to feed into our work in interesting ways. We keep a lot of the materials, books and ephemera we’ve found with us in the studio.
As designers – what are your main subjects of interest?
Historically, we’ve worked with a lot of cultural sector clients, which came about through our interest in contemporary art–one of the things we first found we had in common back when we met. Our work and client base has become a lot more diverse in recent years, though, and that’s something we’ve enjoyed, as different projects, clients and fields bring their own challenges. One of the first things that drew us to being graphic designers was the opportunity it offered to work with people from all kinds of professions, so we’re probably most interested in that diversity and the personal relationship we have we our client, rather than the type of client or project.
Do you have a dream project or client?
We’re very lucky in that we have had quite a few! The Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition and catalogue was certainly a dream project, and the identity for Kettle’s Yard was another. We really enjoyed working on the brand identity for The Hepworth Wakefield too, as it was an opportunity to implement the identity on all manner of materials, and we worked through from creating a bespoke typeface and using that to design the logo, to sandblasting it as signage on the building itself and creating all the materials they use to run and promote the gallery.
We have a list of dream projects that we wrote twelve years ago when we first started APFEL, and which is still relevant to us today—we’re still working through the list but realised we have worked with a lot of them so we are constantly writing new ones! We would love to work on a book about Marcel Broodthaers or Marcel Duchamp, and a commission or collaboration on textile or surface design would be great too. The main thing for us is the people we work with, and that we share interests and outlook with them. The relationships we form with our clients real joys of our work, when they become more like collaborators and it feels like a creative partnership.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
All of us at APFEL are interested in art, and music, so we spend a lot of time going to exhibitions and gigs as well as socialising and enjoying exploring London—the city offers so much to take in, you can never tire of it.
Future plans for the studio?
We have just launched our new website, and are starting a host of new projects now that’s complete, so we’re looking forward to getting stuck in to those—watch this space.