Profiles – Jonathan Ford {Pearlfisher}


Once upon a time packaging design was the poor cousin of print design. It was at the centre of the consumer world, it certainly wasn’t as ‘cool’ and you rarely got to recommend foil deboss! Fast forward to 2012 and the discipline is right up there with the best of them thanks to some incredible work throughout the industry over the last few of decades. One such company that has been instrumental in this change is Pearlfisher. With the packaging design gurus reaching the ripe old age of 20 late last year we thought it might be time to initiate our first packaging designer into our self made hall of fame — enter the man himself, Jonathan Ford.

DJ: Twenty years of Pearlfisher, congratulations! How did you celebrate?
Thank you very much. We held a (rather huge) anniversary party at our London Studio on the 2nd November with food, drink, live music and a spectacular firework and laser show. It was a great opportunity to get the whole team, family, friends and clients all together – a chance to celebrate, say thank you and dedicate the night to everyone who has played such a key role in the Pearlfisher story. We also have a design driven initiative to mark our 20th year which we will be launching early in the New Year. Watch this space…

DJ: Thinking back, what was it about packaging design that lit your fire?
Packaging design has such a rich and diverse history and, as a consumer touchpoint, it really does have the power to make the difference in terms of recognition, attraction and success for the brand. It is so multi-dimensional from the form and structure to the verbal and visual language – it’s never boring and has the potential to challenge in the best way possible…

DJ: Eight years out of design school you founded Pearlfisher, what gave you the confidence?
Innovation is created quite often out of adversity. The company I had worked for in the 80’s and had grown with to become Creative Director of its NY studio, then went bankrupt in the recession of 1990. I was stranded in NYC being paid on a daily basis, working for a temporay company which was then formed into a new design agency. I found myself in business by default with people with no shared aims and ambitions and who did not prioritse creative standards. After a year or so of transistioning and completeing the start up of this company I decided to put everything I had learned to date and face a fear of failure and start my own design firm. The other fear I had was that I didnt want to get older and say I wish I had started my own company. So ultimatley it was a drive for self sufficiency and a desire to do great work that gave me the confidence to do it – if I had failed at least I could say to myself – “well at least you tried”. That was important to me and frankly still is.

DJ: Did you ever dream about this moment when you first started out?
Not really, I learned my craft in an era dominated by the likes of Pentagram, Michael Peters, Lewis Moberly, Fitch, Landor and so on. They were all so accomplished and the first five years was about establishing ourselves, the second five differentiating, then about excelling for the last 10. Its all gone a bit too fast and I can still remember painting the walls of our first studio and moving in the furniture. Everyday should be the same for me – coming in to play, not to work, so in a sense I am always optimistic about tomorrow rather than landmark dates.


DJ: Packaging design is a specific discipline, what skills do Pearlfisher try and instill in young designers?
To be aware of all creative and design disciplines and their impact on the bigger picture but to fully realise that packaging and brand design has a huge role to play in shaping our culture and society. Essentially, that design turns brands into more than just products so that they become a celebration of the visual and the aesthetic and revolutionise the look and feel of our personal and collective worlds. And although the digital world encompasses everything we do, nothing beats design centred on tradition and craftsmanship, on the physical and the tactile. And as experts – as designers – we must continue to revisit our roots and our love of the physical craft.

DJ: What makes the Pearlfisher approach to creative briefs different?
At Pearlfisher our Future Insight, Strategy and design teams are fully integrated. When we write creative briefs we are ultimately solving problems so that design can connect, seduce and transform with maximum impact. Our creative briefs are always informed by future insight and shaped by strategy. We also involve our Realisation teams right from the start so that the final design, materials and finishes used are considered as part of the design process.


DJ: Is there anything Pearlfisher does as a company to provide a creative and stimulating environment for designers or do you believe its up the the individual to fuel their creative fire?
I think it needs to be both. A good designer will always be looking for inspiration and fresh thinking, whenever and wherever but I believe that we also need to foster this creativity and stimulation both in their work and in a wider sense. We have an incredibly creative culture at Pealfisher which we nurture in different ways. We have a fluid gallery space in which the team can work and in which we house both our own and external exhibitions to continually challenge and inspire thinking and creativity

Also, I mentioned above about the importance of both the digital and the craft – and with this in mind, we recently made two new additions to the team at Pearlfisher: a 3D printer and a beautiful old letterpress. From opposite ends of a similar trade, these two machines led us to think about a new movement in design that is uniting previously detached points of the same spectrum – but, essentially, about how we view and use our craft.

Our teams have been having workshops to fully understand and learn the craft of the letterpress. And on the back of this we recently instigated an internal project, exploring the brief: ‘What is creativity?’ It has been fascinating to stand back and watch the team learn this craft and interpret creativity through this medium in the form of words, quotes, conundrums…and the work is currently adorning the walls of our gallery space and throughout the studio as an ambient source of inspiration for us and our visitors.


DJ:  Any project from the past you would love to refresh?
From our own portfolio yes – Cadbury Dairy Milk – we made it iconic then but at the expense of emotion. I’m pleased to say that we are about to release an award winning refresh on global scale that does the emotional job with some fantastic graphic design ideas that will be a gift to the advertising community. In many ways this demonstartes why design is central to all forms of communications and why the smart clients invest in design.

DJ: Big brand v challengers, Pearlfisher tackles both. Do you have a preference? Highs and lows of each?
No, because challengers and icons actually go hand in hand. Most icons were once challengers and most challengers want to be icons. The tipping point? Today’s challengers can become tomorrow’s icons by putting brand identity at the core of their communication.
We believe that what makes brands powerful is a big idea that can be constantly reinforced, explored, magnified and evolved . In our opinion a truly iconic brand never stops challenging because the reason people love it is because of what it stands for. It doesn’t attach itself to fashionable ‘issues’, it doesn’t challenge to look edgy – it challenges because it believes something very strongly and strongly represents this through its brand identity.

For challengers, the high point is having a clear purpose to bring about change and with design being the living embodiment of change this is where the opportunity lies for brands to move away from the norms and conventions that have defined the mood and climate for a long time and match visionary brand propositions with truly creative identities to show that we are living in a new age which truly has a new influence. The low point is often financial and the struggles to get that first break

For icons, the high point is the love, recognition and loyalty they command. But iconic brands need to use design to stay fresh on shelf and can evolve by taking bold creative steps but, the fact is, their future depends on where the connection is with its past. And this is the crux when it comes to icons. We need to always look back to define a brand’s core visual essence in order to preserve the value and heritage of the past but remain relevant and focused for the future. It’s about preserving and cherishing the right part of the visual brand equity. And unfortunately, this can be a low as occasionally even icons get this wrong.

DJ: How do you feel about the dominance of own brand in the UK?
Our heritage of UK brand greats – such as Cadbury – has inspired a new generation of brands including a phenomenal own brand sector and the challenging NPD and design from this sector is certainly keeping the brand and design industries on its toes. Design has been the prime catalyst for the dominance and success we’ve seen with a new breed of brands bravely changing and challenging existing paradigms to create new thoughts and visual expressions for brands. Own brand has redefined both categories and the look of the retail environment. It’s a good thing for the retail sector and the brand landscape overall.


DJ: How do you feel social media and sites such as The Dieline have contributed to the visibility of the packaging design industry?
Enormously. For us, sites such as The Dieline are great platforms to share and showcase our work and we know that our clients do look at sites such as The Dieline and that it works as a recommendation for us. Social media is also becoming hugely important to networking and sharing a discourse on industry matters and networking in an immediate way with all sectors of the industry and beyond that we could never previously have imagined. It has given us all a voice.

DJ: 1992 was a very different time for packaging design, whats been the biggest change?
Technology and the environment. Its changed everything and our relationships with everything. That said you still need to choose your brand of juice in a crowded supermarket so the consumer experience is still the same, just the how you got there, what its like when it happens and then the impact after use. A modern designer will have all these things in mind.


DJ: Do you feel the industry will change over the next 20 years, if so how?
If the last century was about speed and convenience taken to the max, this century surely has to be about clarity and authenticity of choice in a world where everything everywhere is connected, always on and available.  And whilst digital is the medium, at the heart of this is the brand identity and design – and this surely has to be the most important element of the communication in this century.

We should be championing the power of great brand and packaging design as a progressive force for change that, as a fundamental part of our society, can and does enrich our wider – and our future – consumer culture. And and we are aiming for brand and packaging design to – in the not very distant future – be viewed in the same context and with the same relevance and influence as fashion design, architecture, product design etc.

DJ: And what does the next 20 hold for yourself and for Pearlfisher?
Well it would be easy to say more of what makes us unexpected and more of the unexpected. The team is 60 in London and 25 in NYC, and will carry the flame for as long as we are independently minded and fearless. The 20th anniversary book we’ve just designed called ‘Have No Fear’ is a reminder to everyone of what we are capable of and should strive for. The book itself should be that reminder to approach the unknown with a passion and vigour and do the impossible.

As for me in 20 years, I hope I’m still being a pain in the ass to the team in one way or another and finding a bit more time to do the things I like outside of design with the people I like. / Tw: @pearlfisherlive / Tw: @Jforddesigns