‘Design can change minds and make you fall in love’
As the founder of London’s Studio Frith, British graphic designer Frith Kerr conjures bold, offbeat and brilliantly irreverent visual identities for cultural titans and creatives – from Frieze Art Fair to fashion designer Alexa Chung.
“I believe design has the ability to connect to people emotionally. It can change minds and make you fall in love. Graphic design is a very concise visual language and a potent strategic tool. There are great poetics in design; the Nike swoosh, for instance, is an incredibly poetic visual mark, which is perhaps why so many people are happy to wear it on their shoes.
“I don’t see design as gendered, although all cultural influences have an impact on our aesthetic choices. And it’s possible that my experiences as a woman have taught me to be more daring. I don’t mean louder or bigger, but more daring in purposeful ways.
“I have worked with lots of female-owned businesses – from fashion designers Roksanda Ilincic and Anya Hindmarch to chef Skye Gyngell. They are all extraordinary women doing exceptional things in business. I think the point is that these women have to be extraordinary to get ahead, and we’re very lucky to have them as clients. We attract people who want something distinctive, who want serious work but with a playful quality. In general, I work with creative clients across art, fashion, retail, film and restaurants to evolve brand identities. Our job is to create the visual world of a business. It’s a very specific task, and a very particular problem to solve. We condense their entire creative endeavours into a word, a mark, an expression. That’s what I mean by concise poetics.
“I grew up in a creative family in a pleasant but boring London suburb during the 1980s. My escape was books. I was an avid reader of Ballard, Bukowski and very dark crime novels. But although my parents were both creative – my mother a fashion illustrator and my father a graphic designer – when I was growing up I rebelled against the idea of becoming a designer. It was only when I went to art school that I realised I could find my own way in it.
“I always had a sense that a traditional graphic design company wasn’t going to be the right fit for me. While I was studying at the Royal College of Art my tutor, Margaret Calvert [co-designer of many of the UK’s road signs], encouraged me to set up alone. I established Kerr/Noble with my friend Amelia Noble. We had a tiny office with a phone, no computers – and no work. We made a list of the clients we’d like to work for; one of them, the Victoria and Albert Museum, ended up being our first. Then 12 years ago, I independently started Studio Frith. It was a very natural evolution.
“At Studio Frith, what sets us apart, I think, is our level of research and reflection – whether that’s sitting in the British Library scrolling through books or on the ground walking around a space, that’s how we develop ideas. When we worked on a campaign for Frieze Art Fair, we were looking for synergies between the New York and London fairs. The final campaign featured birds from Randall’s Island in New York and Regent’s Park in London. We realised that the birds and the art fairs used these huge spaces set apart from the rest of the urban space for the same reasons. We had a sense of the art world also migrating and landing upon these green spaces. Without rigorous research you don’t get to those ideas, or reveal those hidden truths. Everything we do is research-led. My philosophy is that the truth is more engaging and compelling than anything we can invent, which always brings me back to one of my all-time favourite books from my teenage years: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
“Our specialism is our forensic approach; it’s absolutely key to how we think about things. We become experts for our clients, working collaboratively much like a team of anthropologists, and that’s how we evolve an original language for a brand. I feel as though we’re only getting started. I’ve never lost that sense that this is just the beginning.”