An exclusive PSFK Free Radicals interview
Jonathan Ford, Founding Partner & Chief Creative Officer
Free Radicals celebrates daring, creative leaders whose fresh thinking has defied convention and emboldened the next generation of innovators to be anything but commonplace. Jonathan Ford believes that the creative force should be focused on changing human lives.
“I think real creativity makes an impact for the better. We improve a way of living, a way to see things or the way something functions.”
As one of the three founding partners and Chief Creative Officer of design agency Pearlfisher, Ford has applied this philosophy to all of the work that his company produces. “It’s all in the name, really. Fishing for pearls. It says that we take pride in single, great ideas that can have a massive impact. Pearlfisher means that we will put effort, skill, energy, pride, and passion into finding the best idea that we can. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the commitment to getting something small of value that could have a big result.”
The company, founded in 1992, has built its reputation on creating forward-looking design identities, packaging, product innovation among other endeavors, and they have worked with major brands like Cadbury, Starbucks, Innocent Drinks and Help health products. “I think the act of creating has to be about making something really desirable with an essence of truth clearly represented. That sits at the heart of everything we do, this idea of truth and desire. The role of design is to bring that out and make it original, fresh, exciting. I can apply that design philosophy to any client in any country.”
However, truth and desire in design cannot exist without the goal of also making something better. Ford believes people respond to creative ideas that are “creating a positive impact and change with a purpose.” That is why, these days Ford looks outside of the design world for his creative inspiration. “I’m currently a trustee on the board of a charity called the Haller Foundation, which is a sustainable charity. It helps people in outlying parts of Mombasa in Kenya to live sustainably off the very little land that they have. Of all the creative things that I’ve seen, this is the most powerfully innovative system of thinking I’ve ever seen put together.”
“Looking at what’s going on in places like Kenya, where you see huge political disruption, but also resourcefulness, is where I feel I see the most creativity now, in societies where there is a lack of abundance, a lack of resource. If you have a that lack, it forces you to be more creative.”
The same is true for ideas. By reducing scope, Ford believes you can better focus your energies and decrease any doubts you may have about the final product. Fear of making mistakes is the number one obstacle to creative thinking Ford maintains. “It is the biggest killer of creativity because it keeps everything safe and it keeps everything in the known, whereas it’s the unknown which is the most creative sphere to be in.”
To encourage this exploration, Ford devotes a significant amount of the company’s resources to future-focused research and innovation reports, exploring the cutting edge trends that are dominating not only design, but areas like taste, the body, and human connection. “It’s very easy, these days, to get a handle on the way the world is changing if you know who to ask, and how to ask, and what the questions are. Once you have that knowledge and you know what to do with it, it can frame your thinking and it can be the basis for breakthrough creativity.”
“We’ve been looking at the future of four areas of human need. Our food and drink needs—the things that we eat and what they say about us. Our luxury needs. Our body needs— the things we put on, in and around our bodies, and our need to have connections and relationships. Every year I do a study on two of those four areas, which means every two years I’m updating the knowledge so it becomes a rolling program. We have huge company workshops in London and New York twice a year where we share the information. We brainstorm ideas. I’m very interested in understanding where change is coming from.”
This information-gathering approach is one that Ford applies to the client work at Pearlfisher as well. When working with a brand to create a new visual identity or packaging design Ford maintains that “the first, the most important step is to immerse yourself in that world.”
“The first thing we’d want to do is to come and visit the company, see the space, understand what the innovation is, see how the people that this product will be aimed at live their lives. You’ve got to be a detective. You’ve got to ask the right questions, such as ‘What purpose does this product have in people’s lives and why is it different than anything else in sight?’ Then you start to reframe the objectives.”
Ford returns to the idea of simplicity and resourcefulness by reducing the focus to key goals. “Our designers only ever have a one page brief. There may be a ton of stuff behind that but once we start designing it’s like, ‘Do we all agree with what’s on this piece of paper?’ I always think that designers should focus on quality, not quantity. If you can have one really brilliant idea, why have three or four others? Why not make that idea really, really fantastic?” “It doesn’t matter if you’re the youngest member of the team or the most experienced member of the team. If you have the best idea, everyone respects that idea and goes, ‘Right, that’s the one we get behind. It’s a very democratic company.”
Having the right team is extremely important to Ford: “It may seem a bit cliche but I do think that people are the future for us so we’ve got to invest in young talent and bring it into the company in a positive way. It’s an investment in the future. I used to say always recruit someone that could be better than yourself. And we do that.” Finding and keeping fresh, creative talent is important to Ford as a businessman but also on a larger level as a humanitarian. “I think that designers and creative thinkers can solve many, many problems. They just need a starting point. If there was something that needs to be resolved, maybe getting a creative person in to understand what the problem is could be as equally as important as having a scientist, a technician, an engineer involved. I think a designer will think completely differently about the whole thing and may reframe the whole problem and then the engineer, the architect, the scientist can innovate from there.”
Ford feels design can be incredibly powerful, yet with power comes responsibility and he is adamant that designers understand the force and gravity of their ideas. “Don’t let somebody else ever speak your ideas for you. If you have an idea, speak up for them and explain them yourself.”
Originally published on PSFK
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