Original Interview: August 2017


Mathias Rabiot & Jérémie Fesson co-founded Graphéine in 2002, and it hasn’t been without its struggles. Here we get a behind the scenes glimpse into how the studio runs, hear about their glorious library which has a few missing (or should I say stolen?) books! Plus they chat about how every project always starts with doodles in a notebook, it’s as simple as that.

What are your three must-read design books/blogs/podcasts and why?
Picking only 3 references is impossible… we should ideally have 3 different readings per day 🙂 It’s in the crossroads of knowledge that culture is built.

The internet offers few memorable readings. Most of them are of the “comment” kind, where analysis is not very developed. On the other hand, this medium allows an easy access to a multitude of subjects. Quantity over quality.

At Graphéine, we have set up a thousand books library, that surrounds us in our daily work. It’s of course an incredible design tool, and we use them to share references within the team (you know, the little book with the red cover, which is usually stored on the top, at the left, has anyone seen it?)

It also reminds me of something Céline (our studio manager) said a few days after her job interview. On her first visit, she was impressed and seduced by the presence of such a library. It was a pledge of open-mindedness and culture. “Show me your library, I’ll tell you who you are!”

What have been some of your biggest disasters and how have you learnt from it?
In 2011, a well-established design agency decided to take us to court, accusing us to have copied our agency name « Graphéine » from theirs, “Graphèmes”. And they were asking for heavy damages.

At that time, we didn’t have a precise knowledge of what a brand was, in legal terms. In 2014, we finally won the case, and without having realized it, the long procedure and various exchanges with lawyers had offered us a unique training about brands. It had been like doing a 3-years internship in a firm specialized in trademark law!

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How do you solve conflicting ideas within a group of collaborators?
It’s a tricky balance. Collective creation needs a lot of listening and empathy. Individually, we all think we have the solution to a problem. But in reality it is always “our solution”. Collective intelligence makes it possible to create answers that speak to as many people as possible. We often use the image of a football team, sometimes a player does an amazing individual action, but without the back players, goalkeeper, coach and the public, this action would not have existed. Ideas are a bit like a ball, they go from brain to brain to achieve their course.

I have in mind a specific and recent example. We’ve been working on the communication of the Saint-Étienne Opera House for a little more than 2 years now. For this year’s season, we had to come up with a new idea, that would match with the initial concept we’d developed in the previous seasons. The previous campaigns had been very successful, and we had a lot of pressure to do as well.

After 15 days of work, nothing satisfying comes out. During a weekly meeting, we share our problem within the full team. Having small papercut smiles on our desks, Gaspard makes fun with Jonas, offering him the smile and inviting him to give it to his neighbor. Someone in the team then realizes that “the idea is right here!”. In the end, it took 7 people around a table to find the good concept!

Who would be the “dream client” that you would do anything to work for?
There’s no client for whom we would do anything to work with. Looking for this would be to live with an inaccessible dream, and disappointment would be assured!

We prefer to start each project, even the most modest, with a maximum ambition. What matters to us is progress rather than the final result. Working with a client who knows nothing about design, and succeeding in making him/her progress, even if the final result is far from the ideal of the designer, is to us a real success.

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What career advice would you give your 16yr old self?
We share a lot about our professional experience on our blog. A few years ago we had written (in French) a series of articles on the subject: being a designer – instructions for use.

Here’s the introduction of the first article: “I am 12 years old. I’m a graphic designer, or a designer, a company manager or a freelancer. What is sure is that I have 12 years of experience in the design field. Beginning as a freelancer, I quickly realized that a working day isn’t about 8 hours but rather 10 / 12 hours. I am 12, but like dogs, you can multiply my age by a coefficient.” So the advice would definitely be that you need to work a lot.

What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design?
I didn’t know anything about the profession of graphic designer until I was graduated from high school and tried to find a way to earn a living with my drawing skills, by entering an applied arts bridging course.

Until then I guess I was a regular teen boy from Paris’ suburbs. I was deeply into pop culture, very found of american, japan and european comics and also very passionate about the gaming industry. As far as I could remember I was always drawing a lot, but I was too lazy to become a great comic artist. Even if one of my main graphic influence was and will always be Jean Giraud aka Moebius.

As a kid, I was a big magazine consumer and always excited when entering a bookshop. I was very attracted by the diversity and colors of magazines covers (it was a pre Internet world). At school, I was known as the “drawing guy”.

And then one day, when I was around 16, a friend asked me to design a commercial poster for the caribbean restaurant of his parents. As far as I remember this was my first graphic design job. But I didn’t have a clue how to handle such a project! My graphic culture was so poor and I had no computer, only my pencils. All I knew was that the poster needed to be huge!

I fixed some paper sheets on a ping pong table and started the portrait of a charming typical caribbean couple. Of course it took me ages to achieve the full poster. If only I knew the power of typography at this time!

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Whats your take on internships? (do you take interns now?)
We are used to training interns. They usually stay for a minimum of 2 months. In Paris we usually have 2 interns per year, which is few compared to the amount of candidatures we receive. I think internships are a benefit for both sides. On our side, taking on the role of professors gets us very pedagogical about the way we convey our vision of design and communication.

Having interns makes us think about what we know and what we have experienced as a professional. It’s also about asking ourselves how to teach, how to give advice in the best approach. At Graphéine, several collaborators started as interns and have now become fully part of the team.

What role does digital design play in your studio in 2017, and how to you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age?
Well, I can’t say that the work we do at Graphéine is more focused on digital media than any other media. We are a brand design consulting agency, so of course we follow the trends to know what’s going on, but I don’t think digital drives the way we design visual identities.

Clients come to us because they have problems in the way they present their structure, company, services, whatever. We are focused on solving problems so we have to bring good ideas on the table.

It always starts with doodles in a notebook, it as simple as that. It has to be meaningful: it can lead to the creation of a new name, a beautiful crafted typography or even a new marketing vision. We don’t see design under a technical view. We love to find the right trick.

I guess the digital area changes the way we deal with clients, because everything has to be done faster. In Branding design specifically, digital pushes our creativity to get the purest, the most minimalist form of a concept. Beside the functionality aspects of a great logo, we have to handle the fact that people have less and less time to focus on a subject. Our everyday lives are fulfilled with endless notifications, it’s sad to say, but we see it as a great challenge to create striking and memorable brand identities.

Website: grapheine.com
Instagram: @grapheine_branding
Twitter: @grapheine

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