Dotting the i,k,n

Designing the identity for a John Lewis range of clothing for all the family involves debates around colour, type and whether dots can be too ‘umlaut-y’

Here at CR we often only get to see design projects in their final form. But along the way from brief to launch, there will have been many a twist and turn. A colour, a curve or kerning – handling debates about details, and how you resolve them, are core to the practice. Talking to designer Mark Farrow and John Lewis head of brand creative Paul Porral about their collaboration on Kin, it’s refreshing to hear of an identity for a major client that seemingly went so smoothly. But even here, a certain amount of give and take was necessary to see the project to fruition.

Kin is a new range of fashion basics for men, women and children from John Lewis – the kind of everyday, reasonably-priced clothing that brands such as Uniqlo have made their own. It is being launched across John Lewis stores this spring, with its own identity, created by Farrow.

The mark is a lowercase sans serif, based originally on Century but considerably redrawn, with three grey dots sitting above the letters, one for men, one for women and one for children. It’s simple and elegant with a nice visual gag that some may find reminiscent of Herb Lubalin’s Families logo from 1980. However, before the ‘rip-off’ mob gets their pitchforks out, Farrow says “hand on heart” he wasn’t aware of Lubalin’s logo. “I don’t think we are claiming to be the first studio to anthropomorphise a letter, and nor would the amazing Mr Lubalin I would wager,” he says. “However, ours is less illustrative and cutesy, less explicit [than Lubalin’s idea]. Our dots are suggestive of three heads, or perhaps some kind of obscure umlaut that nods to the Scandic influence in the design of the clothes, which certainly appealed to the client. But ultimately they symbolise the three lines within the brand: men, women, children. Kin is the first clothing range that John Lewis have produced that covers these three markets, so an expression of the idea of ‘three’ was important.”

After an early contender for the mark in a stencil typeface was rejected for being too ‘industrial’, the next debate was over what to do with the John Lewis parent brand. Porral says that “all the equity” is in the John Lewis name so it had to form part of the mark. The challenge was to integrate its Gill Sans lettering with the Kin branding. “It was always part of the brief so there was no point in grumbling about it – not that we were!” Farrow laughs. “We did show an example of it not being on there but were firmly put back in our box!”

Next came colour. Farrow originally proposed an all-black mark. “That’s what we really wanted it to be,” he admits. But Porral had to sell the idea internally at John Lewis and here the colour, as well as the three dots, proved to be a bone of contention. Kin has brought different departments within John Lewis together, all of whom have a stake in its success. “People have to sell the product, others are designing the product, I have to convince them,” Porral says. “We had huge discussions about whether we should have dots and whether they were too ‘umlaut-y’,” he remembers.

Taking the dots down from black to grey proved to be the move that softened the design enough to make everyone happy. “That was what got it through,” Farrow says. “I was stroppily thinking they should be black, but I’m not in any way unhappy with it now because it works.” In some cases, the mark will be used in one tone – reversed out of photography, for example, or stamped into leather.

The rest of the scheme, with Farrow proposing a photography style and the usage of the mark on labelling, packaging and advertising, went through “exactly as proposed,” Porral says. One additional element suggested by Farrow is yet to be implemented – extending the three dots into a series of graphic patterns which could be used on packaging and more.

Porral remains guarded as to whether this will see the light of day, with the sales performance of the range being key to future extensions. No doubt more discussions will ensue because design is a collaborative process where, as in this case, if things go well, designer and client reach the right solution together.

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