An interview with Julian Roberts, the founder of creative design agency Irving and Co.
The Foodie Bugle: Julian, where do you think that your design talent comes from? Were your parents and family artistic?
Julian: Without a doubt my parents and their friends were influential in nurturing the eye and imagination I developed as a child. My dad is an antique dealer, my step-mother a painter and my mum an interior designer, many of their friends are artists and designers who also influenced me to study art and design. I was fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful and crafted objects, and whilst I still love ‘old things’ it also compelled me to appreciate modern design even more - an antidote to the beautiful antiques I was surrounded by. I think the juxtaposition of the old and new is very exciting and that notion inspires my work now.
TFB: When you first started your independent design company in 2001, how did you manage to get a client list established? Did brands and businesses already know you well from your previous work or did you have to start at the very bottom again?
Julian: I started pretty much from the bottom again. At the time I was working for a large retail design company called 20/20 on projects such as the re-branding of Sainsbury's, Finnish convenience stores to name but two. The knowledge I acquired and experiences I had there were invaluable, but ultimately I didn't find it hugely rewarding and I knew I wanted to go it alone and seek more creative and personal projects, particularly in the food sector.
When I left 20/20, I sent hand-written postcards to five retailers I admired. I had only one reply from Priscilla Carluccio, who founded Carluccio's the Italian food shop and was by then orchestrating its growth into a series of Cafes. Priscilla called me and asked if I could come and see her as "God has taken my designer", she told me. “Oh dear I'm sorry to hear that”, I replied thinking he had passed away. "No! No! He's become a Roman Catholic priest!" replied Priscilla. I went to meet her and to show my portfolio and we were on the same wavelength straightaway. I still work with both Carluccio's and Priscilla on their projects to this day.
I was also fortunate to have already worked with Ann-Marie Dyas of The Fine Cheese Co. in Bath (since college days). I already had created a small body of work which was well received in the food world and by consumers. Once I became independent I was able to work properly with Ann-Marie and build up a serious portfolio of work which we happily add to every year.
TFB: How many designers are there in your team and how do you allocate the work between you?
Julian: There are four ‘core’ designers: myself, Ana, Caroline and Lindsay, plus we have a network of talented freelancers who we work with when we have lots of projects and deadlines. We don’t generally have any pre-determined way of allocating work as it’s often simply a case of who has a spare slot in their schedule. We're housed in a very small and cosy studio so there is an inherent collaborative approach, often looking over each other’s shoulders and passing on thoughts, ideas and learning a lot from each other.
TFB: When you are approached by, say food and drink company directors, and you are sitting round the table listening to their requirements and brief, how do you go from a white, blank page to the initial drawings? How do ideas and talks become reality: are there many different stages?
Julian: Well you can’t beat a face to face dialogue with a client to discuss the brief, I much prefer talking over a coffee, glass of wine or lunch to receiving a brief via email or as a word document (or god forbid a PowerPoint or excel document!). By conversing one gets straight to the heart of the matter, so much can be learned from clients facial expressions and mannerisms when discussing ideas.
We work intuitively at Irving and it’s amazing how often the first hunch for an idea manifests into the final design. I’m not a big believer in ’strategy’ - it can knock the wind out of your sails creatively speaking. Personally I believe concepts and ideas are best when simply nurtured through instinct, common sense, experience and knowledge.
All concepts begin with a blank page and pencil. Sometimes ideas are scribbled down straight away and presented to clients immediately (if the client is visually perceptive), then we’ll go away and hone the idea in the studio and present back. The designs then go through iterative stages and crafted until they are ready to go to print or prototyping. The amount of stages varies and is determined by how thorough the brief is to begin with or how complex it is.
TFB: Did the projects you undertook for Carluccio's span many years? When you are working with their directors do they give you guidelines on exactly what design-packaging-fonts-typography-colours are to be used, or do they just give you parameters?
Julian: I began my working relationship with Carluccio's in October 2001 after the call from Priscilla Carluccio. She had previously worked with a very talented designer called Jonathon Stewart (he was the man who became a priest), I was a big fan of the packaging and print design they produced.
With Jonathon, Priscilla was very hands on and they liked to work side by side - I was more than happy to continue this direct and intuitive approach (which was rarely the case when working with bigger corporate clients). From the very beginning I understood Priscilla’s vision and loved the freedom of not being constrained by brand guidelines which Priscilla didn't believe in either. She believed that a brand should be able to develop gradually and intelligently.
The Carluccio’s design language was already very strong was an integral part of what made Carluccio's the success it is - I can't think of any other restaurants at the time that also had a retail food shop as part of the offer. Priscilla's vision for Carluccio's was inspired by Milan and the way in which tradition and modern design are combined to create visual excitement. The feel of Carluccio's was of contemporary clean white spaces with accents of primary colour (e.g. blue or postbox red banquette seats, blue formica table tops) and metallic bar counters, this was then intelligently layered with the traditional and crafted packaging found in the food shop.
Over the last ten years we've acquired an inherent sense of what ingredients work for Carluccio's: the fonts we use are generally Italian (Bodoni and Futura); colours are zestful and vibrant; illustrations which have a sense of craft, charm and wit (we’re fortunate to work with some of the best illustrators in the country: Marion Deuchars, Chris Brown, Adrian Johnson and Jeff Fisher to name a few); wonderful photography from Alastair Hendy that capture the style, essence and provenance of Italy with a contemporary zeal. Ultimately the work is a team collaboration and much credit must go to the directors of Carluccio’s who fully appreciate and understand the value of good design and how integral it has been to the success of the business.
TFB: When you are working with smaller artisan names, such as The Fine Cheese Company, Fiona Cairns or The Bay Tree, how do you decide what works best to represent the owner's personality and personal ethos?
Julian: There has been a massive and tangible increase in competition within the independent food sector over the last 10 years, to the extent that multinational food companies have created product ranges that look to mimic the independent vibe (e.g. Tetley's Tea and TeaPigs brand).
It’s vital that independent food producers articulate their ethos and create a visual identity that identifies them from others. The most successful food and drink brands are created by people who love what they do and work all hours in the pursuit of making the best product they can. These people invariably have a strong personality and set of beliefs which can be extracted and honed into a true and memorable visual identity. This ethos, married with capturing provenance and a sense of place gives us most of the cues for creating successful and memorable visual identities and packaging.
Ann-Marie of The Fine Cheese Co. is a passionate advocate of artisanal cheese producers which she champions and sells in her beautiful Bath shop. That alone doesn’t differentiate her from others but what does differentiate her is the fact that she is a great product innovator creating a globally successful range of products which are worthy enough to accompany and designed to partner the artisanal cheeses she sells. This simple partnership concept has been much imitated (especially by the multiples) but this simply spurs her on to create better, new ideas. Mix this passion with the design cues offered by Georgian Bath, the beautiful sculptural cheeses she sells and you have all the ingredients for a strong design concept offered to you on a plate.
TFB: In your website you mention that you are influenced by the works of Irving Penn and Alan Fletcher. What is it about their work in particular that inspires you? What other inspirations do you draw upon?
Julian: Irving Penn for his craft and attention to detail, he was famous for spending days perfecting one photograph and at the same time keeping clients and art directors away from the task in hand. If I had to pick one of his images to hang on my wall - it would be his still life of ingredients for preparing a salad - the arrangement is a perfect, balanced composition but at the same time appears natural and uncontrived - this is unbelievably hard to do well.
I love Alan Fletcher’s work for his economical use of elements, simplicity and the way it provokes you into smile. Like Irving Penn, his style is instantly recognisable and has a broad appeal, but one that is impossible to copy or mimic (many have tried and the results are simply a pale imitation). I admire their confidence, the fact that they both knew when to stop and when the creation of that idea was ’al dente’.
There are plenty of other inspirations I draw from (too many to mention here) and many new inspirations manifest themselves every day. Things that inspire often go hand in hand like: art (Hockney, Matisse and Ben Nicolson in particular); and food - I love markets and seasonal produce, the natural, vivid colour and texture of food (think cheese, beetroots, pumpkins and squashes) nearly always informs the design palette. If you think about it, the tactile qualities of a Ben Nicolson painting can be compared the textures and tones of an artisanal cheese. This kind of juxtaposition inspires me a great deal. I also love walking (and running) around cities and discovering things such as old signs, cafes, small independent shops that specialise in one thing like a hat shop or a button shop.
TFB: To create such beautiful drawings, logos and designs you must obviously love food and have a deep knowledge of it. Do you grow your own food and cook a great deal? Where do you like to go out to eat, drink, and shop for food in your area.
Julian: How did you guess! Yes I love food, drink and cooking - it’s very therapeutic. I cook a lot at weekends, I’m usually too pressed for time during the week. I’m more spontaneous now, less of a pedant to recipes than I used to be. My only rule is that what I cook should be always seasonal and simple. I can't make puddings to save my life - I leave that to my wife Alison who is amazing at making puddings.
My favorite nearby place to shop for food is Marylebone Farmers’ Market on a Sunday which is just the right size and is also very reasonable in price. At the moment it's still just a food market, I get turned off from a market when it allows vendors to start selling smelly candles - sadly this happened to a degree in Borough Market which now feels like an expensive tourist trap. But I’m hearing great things about the fight back from the producers in Maltby Street and plan to visit very soon.
To eat, I love places with short, seasonal menus or I consider it a real treat when you have no choices and the waiters just bring the food out to you, that way you are forced to try something new. A few regular haunts include Rochelle Canteen, Towpath Cafe (on Regent’s Canal) and now the brilliantly revived Quo Vadis (with Jeremy Lee at the helm). To drink, it’s mainly proper pubs that do it for me - my favourite is our local Irish pub called The Haringey Arms. I also love an old fashioned cocktail in a grand hotel bar, and usually order a cocktail that befits the city I’m in – a Negroni in Milan, a Manhattan in New York or if in doubt a Martini.
Aside from growing herbs and tomatoes we would love the time to grow our own food, but with two children, a dog and a busy design studio to run something has to give!
TFB: As the recession deepens, how do you think consumers perceptions of brand design changes: do you think we are instinctively more drawn to homely, simple, clutter free imagery or do you think there is increasing escapism to a brighter, sparklier narrative?
Julian: I’m not sure there is any particular new pattern emerging, I think it has always been the case (recession or not) that consumers’ perceptions are subjective and wholly dependent on what type of product they are looking for or what mindset they are in.
Yes in recessionary times as a rule we are drawn to good, traditional and honest foods therefore the designs tend more towards trustworthy, familiar and simple aesthetics. For example sausages wrapped in waxed paper, tied with brown string has the tactile, hand- made qualities that respond to that ideal. As does the classic cardboard egg box, but these are time-honored packaging methods for everyday products.
You could also argue that clutter free, minimalist design in a contemporary manner (especially French chocolatiers!) is often adopted as a premium approach.
Designs with brighter, sparklier narratives are often a reflection of the brand personality, the Jme Collection by Jamie Oliver for example. Or they are simply appropriate for the type of product the brand is selling - smoothies, biscuits and so on. I think both approaches you have described have co-existed for a long time.
TFB: What advice would you give small, artisanal food and drink business owners who have only a small budget for creating a logo, stationery, packaging and branding but would like to communicate a professional, attractive and effective message to their potential customers?
Julian: I would advise the following five points:
1. Let the food do the talking. I believe the old design cliche ’less is more’ is an important philosophy to adapt when packaging food or drink products. Food is sensuous and needs to be allowed to be seen. One of my favorite packaging designs is the simple, mouldy tag for Montgomery's Cheddar - the food is very much the hero.
2. Be confident and brave. I think design with plenty of character, distinctiveness and warmth is imperative. Eating and drinking is a joyful and pleasurable experience and should be celebrated wholeheartedly. Timeless brands such as Colman’s Mustard work because they are not afraid to be bold with colour and typography. Banal design immediately makes me think the product tastes banal too.
3. Keep it simple. I would avoid trying to be too clever, complex or gimmicky. It’s important to remember that branding at its basic level is about helping the customer identify who makes the product and what the product is. You should be able to get the idea and easily identify the product without having to pick it off the shelf.
4. God is in the detail. Another design cliché, but pay as much care to the design of your brand as you do with the creation of your food product. From choosing the right paper stock, choice of type and colour through to the appropriate printing technique. It still costs the same to make and distribute a product irrespective of the design so one might as well do it properly. Customers will invariably be turned off a product with a design that looks unconsidered and hastily executed.
5. Create a design classic of the future. A design that is timeless and less ’fashion’ driven will last longer and negates repeated investment in endless rebranding - ideally strive to get the design right first time round if possible, but by all means evolve the design by honing it and keeping it relevant.
Julian Roberts at Irving and Co: www.irvingandco.com
Follow Julian on Twitter : @irvingandco