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Kirsty Carter & Emma Thomas

(MA Communication Art & Design, 2003)

Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas (both MA Communication Art & Design, 2003) co-founded their London-based design studio A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL) in 2003, to explore the potential of graphic design as a meaningful process of cultural production, and to find new ways of communicating content. They met at the Royal College of Art and forged a working relationship during their studies, which has continued to the present day through APFEL. 

APFEL works with like-minded curators, architects, institutions, companies and galleries, with a research-led approach and conceptual rigour that results in meaningful and original work. Their work includes art direction, identities, publications, exhibitions, type design, signage, packaging and digital. They have collaborated with a number of world renowned institutions including the Whitechapel Gallery, Barbican and the V&A and their work is held in reputable collections worldwide, including The Art Institute of Chicago, the Bibliothèque National des Livres Rares, Paris and the Tate Library.

What was your vision when you decided to set up A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL)?

When we were first working together at the RCA, a book called The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau made a big impression on both of us. In it, de Certeau describes his way of making sense of the city with eyes open, collecting materials, drawing together stories – we liked his reference to the notion of ‘practice’ as a habit, exercise and pursuit rather than something perfectly finished. These practices were the basis of how we wanted to work. We don’t like to draw on any particular aesthetic, and our work is characterised more by a thought process or approach than by a distinctive style. It develops out of the content and context of the project.

As a graphic design studio, APFEL encompasses lots of areas of visual communication. How has it worked with both of you as directors? Are there particular areas which you each focus on?

We have worked hard to maintain a methodology in the studio where both of us are still able to engage directly with the design process and lead projects. As directors, it would be very easy to find all our time taken up by the running of the business itself rather than working on design projects, and that's something we've really pushed back against. We have an Associate Director working with us who has been invaluable in taking the lead on many aspects of the management of the business and who supports us in that work, which makes it possible for us to still design; that will always be our first love. In terms of which projects we each work on, this often depends on how they arose. 

You say that you work with a conceptual rigour that ensures each design is meaningful and original. How do you ensure this with each creative project or collaboration?

We try to work in a way that is thoughtful, collaborative, focused, and informed by research and discussion. We don't aim to have a recognisable style or aesthetic, and much prefer to try to respond to each project on its own terms. When we start on a project, much of our creative thinking comes out of dialogues with our clients and with each other in the studio. The beginnings of the design are born out of those conversations, when all our ideas are very fresh, and we make sure to continue this process of discussion and evaluation as a team as the project develops.  Often, we shift projects around in the studio so that each of us has input from the other, and the right balance in the final outcome.

Kirsty Carter & Emma Thomas
Kirsty Carter & Emma Thomas

Looking at some of the books I really wish I could touch them. There is such attention to detail with the paper, embossing and use of different materials. Is this sensory aspect something that you also think about in design?

The object quality and materiality of all our work is extremely important to us, and this is something we very carefully consider for each project. We’ve always been really excited by the relationship between process, material and concept within a design. We take a meaningful and inventive approach to production within our work, as the material details of a project can often be as conceptually important as the visual aspect of its design.

What is your favourite type of project to work on?

 We don't really have favourites – all sorts of projects have the scope to be interesting to us. When we founded APFEL at the end of our studies at the RCA, we did make a list of 'dream' projects which we would love to work on, and people we'd love to work with, which was a really useful way of focusing on our goals and refining what we wanted to achieve with the studio. Happily, we can say that we've ticked an awful lot of these off the list so far, with more to come. One of the first things that drew us to being graphic designers was the opportunity it offered to work with people from all kinds of professions, so we're probably most interested in that diversity and the personal relationship we have with our client, rather than the type of client or project.

The world right now seems very virtual. Is there more demand for digital ideas? Or do you think people still want and need something physical and real?

 The events of 2020 have definitely prompted institutions and publishers to think differently about the role that digital media play in their output and their activities; we've worked on some really interesting digital projects since the onset of the pandemic, focusing on a reevaluation of the digital 'space' in relation to the arts, and the way people experience content. However, we firmly believe that physical, real objects remain relevant and vital as a communicative medium. In a way, the ephemeral and virtual nature of interactions during the pandemic has emphasised the significance of physical experiences, whether that be the tactile experience of interacting with a piece of print or the creation of site- or space-based exhibitions and installations. 

Tell us about the Type Foundry?

It had been an ambition of ours for a long time to launch our own foundry, so in some ways we've been working towards it for many years – we can trace it back to 2009 when we started work on The Hepworth Wakefield identity, and developed the typeface for that institution as an integral part of the identity we designed for them. We have an extensive and growing library of typefaces within the studio that we have developed ourselves, and we reached a point of critical mass in the studio when we felt the time was right to create a new, fully resolved and considered venue for this type design work as an integral part of our activities as a studio. The Foundry also represents an exciting new chapter for us, as we think about the ways in which we continue to grow and develop our practice after more than seventeen years of APFEL. 

Remnants typeface, designed by the APFEL Type Foundry
Remnants typeface, designed by the APFEL Type Foundry - Kirsty Carter & Emma Thomas

How do you go about creating a new typeface? Is there as much of the artistic element as there is of the design?

Our typeface design process begins with visual, textual and experiential research. Our approach is underpinned by an understanding of how bespoke type design can contribute uniquely communicative layers of meaning within a project – a typeface can fulfil complex, multi-lingual requirements, speak clearly to specific audiences, and strengthen projects of diverse scope and scale. These considerations are all taken into account as a design begins to take shape, and our type design work often emerges from the requirement to fulfil a specific communicative need, or to express a typographic idea we have developed through our work.

Do you ever discover any old typefaces that may have fallen out of usage? Do you feel there is a place for these in the digital world?

Our ongoing typographic research is a process we undertake both in the context of specific projects and as an independent endeavour that reflects our shared visual curiosity; through this, we often stumble upon typefaces that have fallen out of use, as many typefaces did not survive the transition from hot metal typesetting to newer digital type technologies that happened in the mid twentieth century. Often, there was no good reason for this beyond the fact that foundries lacked the resources to translate their full library of fonts to digital, so these typefaces remain interesting, relevant and useful today – it's just a matter of creating digital type files from the existing analog references, which is an involved process but one we have often undertaken in our work. 

Would you say that technological advances with social media and other online mediums have enabled brands to get more exposure online? How have you adapted your work to move with constant technological evolution?

 Social media and new digital venues provide really valuable communication channels, and they have become an essential aspect of a brand's expression; it's very difficult to avoid engaging with these channels now if you want to reach an audience effectively. In relation to our work, this has definitely increased the number of contexts in which a visual identity has to work, so it also expands the range of outcomes we need to create. Brands now have to articulate themselves in a much more visual way through things like Instagram, and how this is achieved is often now a consideration at the very earliest stages of a visual identity's development. In terms of our own engagement with new technologies, this is something we actively work on, and our knowledge here is strengthened by the cross-pollination of ideas and insight that happens through close collaboration with clients and developers when we work on digital projects.

What trends or changes do you think we will see in visual communication?

It seems inevitable that the world that will emerge post-pandemic will be indelibly changed in certain respects from that which came before. We're hoping that this manifests in the potential for even further collaboration on a worldwide scale, now that remote working has been normalised, and a continuation of the experimentation with digital spaces that we've seen clients engage with over the past year. 

Interview by: Lisa Pierre

Date: February 2021

Tags: alumni_storiesgenerationrca

"The object quality and materiality of all our work is extremely important to us, and this is something we very carefully consider for each project. We’ve always been really excited by the relationship between process, material and concept within a design." Kirsty Carter & Emma Thomas