Hello, Pierre. Could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about yourself, and about your career so far?
Hello, I turned 51 on the 2nd of April 2015; I have lived in Paris for the last 35 years and have been a graphic designer since 1988. After a very theory-based but nonetheless absorbing university course (a first degree in plastic arts at the Sorbonne) and a few stints at more academic workshops, from which I learned a great deal, I naturally began looking for jobs in visual communication, where I could combine my fascination for the image with my growing interest in typography.
I took my first steps in the trade before the digital era, working as a freelance assistant for creative director Richard Dupuy, a former disciple of [French advertising guru] Jacques Séguéla (Euro RSCG). This gave me my first experience of the deadline and budget constraints that come with job-order contracts and the particular requirements of the “advertising world”.
At the beginning of the 1990s, I was able to broaden my knowledge of the “traditional” side of the trade (i.e. the manual stuff: mock-ups, roughs, illustrations, story boards, and the like) when I did a stint at an agency that had just been kitted out with Macintosh computers. For me, that was a revolution!
It was around that time that I met Thierry Badin, also a graphic designer and illustrator, with whom I founded the graphic design studio “La Maison” in 1994. For 18 years, we provided solutions for visual identity issues ranging from literary publishing to the music industry, from the world of culture to advertising, from corporate communication to museum exhibitions…
In 2006, I decided to follow up personal projects in parallel to my work at La Maison, under the name Voyou design graphique.
At the beginning of 2013, Thierry Badin and I decided to put an end to our collaboration at La Maison. The time had come for the voyou [the “yob”] to smash the place up!
How do you explain your work to those around you and, more generally, to people outside the graphic design business?
Good question… in other words, what do we mean by graphic design?
The best answer I can give is to ask people to imagine a metro station plastered with blank posters, a road covered in empty road signs, supermarket shelves stacked with unlabelled boxes, a Rolex without its markings, a smartphone screen with no visual interface, Nike shoes without the swoosh, lift buttons without numbers or icons, a hipster’s forearm without a tattoo… the list is endless.
Isn’t it strange how design in general, and graphic design in particular—even though they have been a constant feature in our lives for centuries—are still so difficult for our fellow beings to conceptualise?
My work, then, is to create, transform or utilise reproducible, harmonious and clear signs and to arrange them in such a way as to produce visual pointers that most people can understand, conveying messages of every kind: commercial, informative, cultural, or—why not?—political.
In very practical terms, I spend a lot of time in front of my computer screen working on specialist page-setting, drawing and image editing software. And probably just as much time visually scanning (consciously or otherwise) the surrounding urban landscape: shop signs, packaging on shelves, books and magazines, signage at airports and stations…
What are your influences?
My influences naturally come from the visual universes of the 60s, 70s and 80s, which shaped my world when I was young. The books, magazines and graphic novels I used to read; the cartoons, series and credit sequences I saw on TV or in the cinema; pop art, Free figuration (French art movement of the 1980s), or the Russian and Chinese posters of socialist realism… they may not be so much in evidence in my recent work, but they have all clearly helped to create a graphic vocabulary of my own.
In more concrete terms, if I had to name famous graphic designers that I have directly taken inspiration from at some time or other, I would cite names such as Saul Bass (the brilliant poster designer and typographer who worked with Hitchcock on some sublime posters and credits), Vaughan Oliver (V23; a revolutionary graphic designer from the 80s and 90s who left his mark on the recording industry), Neville Brody (The Face Magazine, Arena, Font Shop; a highly creative and ultra-prolific graphic designer, art director and typographer), Rudy Vanderlans and Suzanna Lycko (Emigre; a duo of Dutch-Polish graphic designers and typographers who emigrated to San Francisco in the early 1980s and who created the first digital fonts that had real “character”, designed for use on Macs, among other things), and France’s very own Philippe Apeloig.
Now, it would be hard to say exactly where you can see the traces of these styles which, despite being pretty much contemporary with each other, each have their own distinctive features; but they have inevitably marked my work at different periods.
Where does your inspiration come from?
My inspiration is very much a reflection of the times. When you do a job that centres mainly around the visual—especially now that the visual is literally invading public space—it’s hard not to become a sponge. The unconscious mind plays a large part here: sometimes I unwittingly reproduce signs or codes that got imprinted on my retina at some earlier point. Frankly, it’s not the best part of the creative process when you realise that has happened… and you have to start over from scratch with the guilty feeling of having been caught pilfering.
I know now that my best ideas come to me when I’m not at my work table and when I don’t have my sketch pad on me: when I’m swimming, or riding my motorbike, or just out for a walk, which helps my concentration and enables me to step back and take a fresh look at a subject I might be stuck on for hours if I stay in the studio. Afterwards, you have to accept that the ideas that were spawned in those wandering moments will probably be radically transformed, or somewhat twisted, or betrayed in the execution phase. That may, of course, be down to the client, but it is very often of my own doing, too, caught up as I am in an effort to reach perfection. But that is also what I find so exciting about the creative process.
When and how did you come to work with be.ez?
I met Nicolas Cottard by chance at a dinner in China (how cool is that?) with a mutual friend 10 years ago. He had just launched his be.ez (pronounced “be easy”) brand with a single product, the Travel Bag, a very smart carrying case for the iPod.
Nicolas told me he was looking for people who might be able to work on v1 of his website. My activity back then was still mainly print-oriented, but I sometimes worked with my sister Sandrine (we occupied the same studio at the time) on the artistic direction of the sites she was developing. We swapped our contact details and Nicolas came to visit us a fortnight later in Paris, to brief us on what he was looking for and explain the mindset he intended to instil into the be.ez brand.
From there it all went very quickly. Despite the distance between us, with him in China and traveling around everywhere to promote the brand, and us in Paris, the site went live pretty quickly, and without a hitch. Nicolas immediately validated one of the graphic proposals I had sent him, and Sandrine handled the integration and development of the site, adhering to the defined visual identity.
Then there was a fairly long period during which I stayed in contact with be.ez only through Sandrine, who would sometimes ask me to validate the graphic decisions she had to make when updating the website or integrating new pages, for example. Nicolas would drop by the studio to say hello every time he came through Paris, so much so that we began to develop closer ties.
To tell the truth, having had a few bad experiences with enthusiastic clients who asked me about the creation of their logos/visual identities etc. for projects that often never went anywhere, I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly the new references cropped up on the be.ez website… showing that our collaboration was serving a useful purpose.
I recall, among other things, the appearance of the first “robes”, and I began to measure their popularity among “mac addicts” when I saw the number of variants that Sandrine kept adding to the site!
Then the time came to overhaul the website, which was no longer suited to the new possibilities of the web. Nicolas once again consulted me about its artistic direction, and followed up by asking me to work on the creation of designs for limited-edition “robes” (LA robe Moorea, LA robe Crossroad, LA robe Moorea Vintage, LA robe Dots… and other models that stayed on the drawing board). For the launch of LA robe Moorea I accompanied Nicolas to Tahiti (sorry about that) to do some “lifestyle” shootings on the island of Moorea with a local model, a young lady by the name of Téhina (sorry again…)! A 48-hour return flight and 3 days on location, which we occupied as best we could…
To be totally honest, we were “forced” to go back 2 years later for the launch of LA robe Moorea Vintage (OK, I won’t mention it again…).
I don’t know whether those 2 trips with Nicolas (and a few others, notably to Berlin and Las Vegas for the IFA and CES trade shows, or to Bali) played a part in consolidating our collaboration, but I can say that it was at that time—while I was still an external service provider—that he began to think about bringing me inside the be.ez family in a more radical way.
Anyway, it’s now been just over two years since I became half “be.ez-nationalised” with the rather grand status—but I’m comfortable with it—of Creative Director.
What is your role at be.ez and what does your job involve?
The Creative Director is the “custodian of the image” of a brand or company.
My role is to have a global vision of all the visual creations intended to be used as communication materials for be.ez, so as to ensure that the brand’s DNA is respected.
In concrete terms, I share my time between supervising, advising and sometimes making corrections to the creative work coming from the young graphic designers at the design studio, and original creations of logos, flyers, illustrations, packaging, websites, etc. with the specific constraint of homogeneity and the consistency of be.ez’s visual identity.
The challenge of this mission lies in the fact that we have to keep the brand image moving forward by adapting to incessant changes in a perpetually evolving market.
What do you like in the be.ez universe? How do you identify with it?
Seeing as I began working with the brand at the outset, or as near as (the ink was still wet on the logo) and have never stopped looking at it with a professional eye, it’s hard for me to separate my perceptions of the be.ez universe from my human feelings towards the team behind it. Besides, I think there’s a real consistency between the mindset Nicolas Cottard has managed to preserve within the organisation and the one reflected in the be.ez products. The keyword, the common denominator of these 2 dimensions is, in my view, pleasure. The energy that Nicolas puts into his projects at all times is very contagious and perfectly in tune with the original be.ez tagline “bags for mobile life”, which evokes movement while at the same time tying it up with relaxation and the joy of mobility. And it’s no coincidence if he frequently lets slip the rather outmoded expression “yum yum” when talking about the design of a new product: it nicely reflects the mindset that continues to appeal to me at be.ez.
With your agency, you don’t just work on be.ez projects. What kinds of client or project do you tend to work with?
I already partly answered that question when I referred to my years at “La Maison”, where I had the opportunity to practice my activity as a graphic designer on an extremely wide range of projects.
Even today, I still draw on that capacity for adaptation by rejecting no opportunity to discover new people and new ideas, even in sectors of which I know nothing and which bring me face to face with very different universes and communication issues, such as culture (creating visuals for recurrent national events or working with architects on the staging of exhibitions), entertainment (still a few CD covers, despite the inexorable decline in the market, and some all-too-rare orders for cinema posters…), the pharmaceutical industry (business reports, press releases, posters… oh yes, some of it is deadly serious), publishing (book covers, mainly for young people) or, more recently, the world of luxury cosmetics (creating press kits for perfume launches, designing invitations, event signage, and so on).
Talking of which, what are your projects for the coming months? Can you tell us about them?
Of course. We’re currently in August, traditionally a slow month in the graphic design industry. Most of the dossiers for the new post-holiday season were wrapped up in July, and everyone is making the most of these few weeks to take a breather before getting back to work in September. Being self-employed, I am no exception to the rule: when orders start coming in, they flood in, leaving very little time for the graphic designer who dreams of taking long holidays (in Tahiti…), and when things go quiet, along comes the stress and the fear that you won’t be able to kick the machine back into action again. Although I can handle that stress a lot better now than I could a few years ago—thanks to a fairly solid network of loyal clients—I can’t help harbouring dark thoughts sometimes about my future in an industry that has not been spared by the crisis…
Happily, I have plenty of work on my plate for be.ez, with lots of new things lined up for September, partnerships and associations between the brand and a number of really interesting cultural events, the total redesign of the be.ez website and, of course, some new “yum yum” products coming out to mark the brand’s 10th anniversary. So I shall need to be readily available, keeping a close eye on it all.