Earlier this year I was interviewed by Can’t.. co creator and art director Steve Price about Form®, the changes we made back in August 2013 in the way we ran our company, and how the new way of working allowed me to nurture my love of painting and charcoal landscape art.
Here’s the interview
Paul West co-founded the London branding and design agency Form® with Paula Benson in 1991. Form® have designed and art directed bands as diverse as Depeche Mode, Scritti Politti, Elbow, Pendulum, Everything But The Girl to All Saints, Girls Aloud, Busted and Natalie Imbruglia, while offering strategic thinking, design and branding expertise for corporate organisations including Virgin Galactic, adidas Originals, Discovery MAX and 100% Design. The company remain committed to the difference good design can make to business.
Form® has evolved over the years embracing digital, running urbanware fashion label UniForm® and representing British design to Japan and Mexico – however in 2013 the partners decided to streamline the company to better suit a more hollistic life – work balance. As a result Paul has found himself accompanying his day-to-day work with a return to a more artistic, expressive side – swapping trackpad and screen for paint and charcoal whenever time allows. As a landscape painter and charcoal artist, low horizons and huge skies are key features in his work, creating graphic landscapes with a brooding volume, scarred with his signature ‘frenetic’ mark making. I caught-up with Paul recently to find out more about this artistic expressionistic side, and why it’s come about.
What’s helped you rediscover your more expressive side in producing art work?
My path to becoming a graphic designer started with a year-long Foundation education where you get to try every aspect of the visual arts; photography, typography, graphics, screenprinting, drawing and painting. I opted for design, but life drawing was extremely important from the start. On my BA at LCP (now LCC) life drawing was also a big part of the design module. Those early skills followed me through my design education and have never really left me, so it feels like I’ve travelled full circle, as at one stage in my career it felt like a case of “art” vs “design”. I’ve now managed to combine both in my life. Back in the mid eighties, this form of analogue expressive creativity was very much an extension of the sixties way of thinking – formulating ‘bigger pictures’ through mark making and I’ve spent my professional career drawing ideas in sketch books and problem solving that way, in favour of sitting infront of a screen, hoping for inspiration to strike. As I’m older and it has to be said, getting slightly more disenfranchised with the design industry, I’ve found myself naturally returning to the joy in mark making (on paper or canvas) and getting my hands dirty which sounds a little trite I know – but it’s become a metaphor that I can be creative in other more rewarding ways. When I draw in charcoal or graphite, my main form of expression is very much mono and the way I work is inspired by my graphic aesthetic of working positive and negative spaces.
Do you allow yourself the pleasure of taking work days off now to do that? Have you managed to evolve your mindset?
Over the past 6 months I have had periods of working on the art side – at the moment I’m working on a series of design projects that are too energising to say no to. I am working with a specialist art printer friend on a series of works for an exhibition I’m aiming to put on later this year – involving etchings and charcoals. We were friends way back in foundation and lost contact; we tracked each other down thanks to mutual interests via Artfinder (www.artfinder.com/paul-west) and this reconnection has helped spur me on no end with goals and opportunities to push my work into other mediums. I am a firm believer that when you change your mindset, new opportunities present themselves – if you allow that process to happen. I cannot tell you how many people say to me “My job is going nowhere, I wish I was doing something else” – and I can now say “do it then!” The year building up to admitting we needed to change our life was one of the hardest 12 months in our career. It’s an immense wrench changing the pattern of your professional life, because we all define who we are through our work, and this weird ego driven thing about quantifying how successful we are by how busy we are, or how big the projects are, how many people we employ… and I’m not knocking that mentality because we were there (and may be there again who knows – I’m not thinking that far ahead for once) but when people say to me “I wish I could do that” then hit me with a string of reasons why they think they can’t – it just makes me realise that so many of us live in a ‘better the devil you know’ mindset, and it CAN change if you want it enough.
Is it a personal battle to make the time to allow yourself to indulge in your art work? Does the commercial, fee-paying design work win that battle?
When Paula and I ventured into our ‘sabbatical’ of sorts, we were looking at 12 months to work on the projects that were creatively rewarding, and definitely not just financially. We also allowed ’developmental time’ – to pursue individual projects that we’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, outside of Form®. Ironically I’ve never been busier in Form® than I am at this moment, because I’m now doing most of the creative work whereas I had slipped into the pattern of art directing projects and I missed the front line approach. We have a good balance of well paid and low-paid-but-high-inspiration work on right now. In terms of a ‘personal battle’ – it’s more of an annoyance that I’m not producing the artworks that I have stored in my head at this moment in time but that’s cool, it will come. Paula and I have booked out most of May and I’m going to develop my art-based projects – can’t wait for that.
Did you feel guilty about that time?
Over the past 12 months I now understand the importance of following what you feel inside and letting go of the sense of identity through working round the clock six days a week, or worrying about saying “no” to demanding or unreasonable clients. By stopping the feeling of ‘guilt’, and realising that it’s MY time, and MY life, I felt free to spend as many days as I needed, working on the art side. And if I did ever feel guilty about time away from the computer I would think ‘I’m creating this work for me, and I have a platform to sell them anyway’ so when my works are finished I upload them on Artfinder. It’s a different, more hollistic approach to generating some cashflow for the business, and it’s intrinsically personal which is what I felt I was losing running a business where one is unrelentingly aware of margins and overheads and sometimes when people become too profit obsessed they can veer away from the very thing that gave them their value in the first place and feel that they “sold out”. With the changes we implemented there are less of these pressures which in turn allows each of us to focus on self initiated projects, which for me is my art.
Has your new approach to working been affected having moved out of what we love to satorise as the ‘Silicon Roundabout’?
I was actually in Shoredtich for a meeting the other day. I walked there the way I always used to walk to the studio and… I felt nothing. I got to grey, rainy Shoredtich surrounded by people looking pretty stressed looking down on their phones not taking in the world around them and I felt nothing at all. This is an area that was my lifeblood for 12 years, so it had had immense personal attachment. When I finished the meeting, it dawned on me that what most of us as creative professionals are going through is the fear of not being part of ‘it’. With the new approach to work at Form®, we don’t need to be tied to one particular place. I’m working on different projects and collaborating with interesting and fascinating people, and this approach is more inspiring because we’re doing it a different way to our norm.
What is the impact of technology on the graduates of tomorrow?
There’s a ‘naive’ – almost pastoral aesthetic in graphic design at the moment. I think there’s an interesting mix of hi-tech lifestyle gadget (Apple) meeting analogue aesthetic with a lot of the new breed of designers creating work using techniques that possibly were no longer available to them at college. I remember leaving the LCP as the Macs were coming in, and the beautiful Ludlow hot metal type setters were literally dumped in the skips. Vast woodblock type libraries junked to make way for the newest technologies. Vinyl replaced by CD, replaced by downloads, replaced by streams. And now it’s all coming back like an avalanche. It’s no surprise to me that the work of artists like Anthony (Burrill) is extremely relevant; that beautifully simple crafted art of the message, created with woodblock and vivid process / day-glo colour ways. Designers are painting, drawing, sculpting to create something more individual – less overtly ‘computer’ as we strive for the authentic and different to create a simpler aesthetic which is being inspired by the world around us; from hand roasted coffee shops to pop-ups and micro breweries; it is their vernacular that is also propping up this approach.
Is your approach, your work ethic and appreication for more ‘analogue’ process something that you encourage students and/or people you employ?
To a degree I guess… I wouldn’t really want to be militant about it as it’s an aesthetic mind set that should exist with any other. The Form® ethic was always about starting a branding or design project with discussions; we’d grab random books from our extensive library and discuss the project away from computers while getting turned on by about the things we happen upon in books. When you are looking through a random unrelated book, inspiration hits you when you least expect it as you form the solution in a different way. In my experience, if all you do is sit on the internet looking for inspiration via designer blogs (for example) you are expecting to see someone elses ‘taste’ on a similar subject and that perpetuates styles being copied ceaselessly. We did have an instances in the past where we’ve had to educate graduates on the fundamental ethics about copying and plagiarism from these sources. Just because it is out there on the internet, like a random blog site, doesn’t mean it can just be downloaded, adapted or straight copied.
What is your final advice for our readers to find their own expression?
Never stop being dissatisfied. Don’t be lead, lead. Draw, do sketch. Get a pocket Moleskine and keep it with you always. Don’t just sit in front of your screen. Find your own path and take courage in the bravery of your decisions.