Felix Pfäffli, Feixen Studio

Studio Feixen is an independent Design Studio based in Lucerne, Switzerland. They work globally with clients like Nike, Google, Hermès, and The New York Times, as well as locally with institutions like the Wanderlust, the Nuits Sonores Festival, the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Südpol, and the Luzerner Theatre. Martin Lorenz spoke with Felix Pfäffli, who founded Studio Feixen in 2009. Felix teaches at the Fachklasse Grafik Luzern and is the youngest member in the history of AGI. Besides winning prizes worldwide, he has also given lectures and organized exhibitions and workshops. In his own words, he is responsible for the “necessary chaos” in Studio Feixen’s designs.

We see a trend in design that is moving from static solutions toward flexible systems. The term “variable typography”, as it is used in this book, tries to embrace all aspects of design which have made typography more flexible in recent years, whether they are in the form of flexible visual identities, moving posters, or variable fonts. Amid all this, Studio Feixen has become one of the spearheads in the “moving posters” movement. Could you tell us a little bit about your studio?

Studio Feixen is just Raphael Leutenegger and me, Felix Pfäffli, but we usually work in a group of four. We are a graphic design studio at our core, but we like to believe that we have no clear boundaries as to which fields we work in. We are much more interested in creating our lives, rather than creating work. We work on commercial projects four days a week, but reserve one day a week to work for ourselves. On this day, which is usually Friday, we experiment with stuff that we want to do in the future.

What are you experimenting with at the moment?

We do all kinds of stuff. We experiment with fonts, of course. We created a font that allows us to design faster; one that is made to stretch, because we needed a digital tool that could sort of match the speed of sketching on paper. We are also working on our own line of clothing, and opening a restaurant very soon. It is going to be a pizzeria. (Laughs) On top of that, we are working on an exhibition made of cakes, which is soon to be seen in China. Maybe we will even start an object series with plexiglass in the near future. So you see, it is a colorful mix of stuff. The ideas often appear during the week, and we then work on them on Fridays.

Interesting! Did you have any specific motive for taking Fridays off to work on self-commissioned projects, or have you always been working like this?

We have always worked like this. Every half a year, we question our way of working. When you create your own company, you are also responsible for everyone working within the company. What we try to do is create a space that makes us happy every day. Since the beginning, it was clear to us that we needed a space to work without any boundaries. Of course, we are very lucky with our clients. We can do almost whatever we want, but still, there are boundaries in every project. During our free time, we really can do anything. We believe that if you do not take time for yourself, you will be always stuck with what your clients want from you – which is why we want to be in control over our future. Our future clients do not know what we have in our heads and what we want to do later on, so we have to show them.

The very first time I became aware of Studio Feixen was in 2014 through your posters for Südpol. There was already a strong focus on variable typography, even though they were not animated. It was not until 2017 that I came to know about your “moving posters”. It almost seemed like a reinvention of your studio’s focus. What happened between 2014 and 2017?

(Laughs) For Südpol, there was simply no time to animate the posters even though I had been doing “moving posters” from before, as seen in my final graduation project in 2010 about randomness. When Raphael joined the studio, we decided to become the kind of studio that always looked for new solutions, and it became logical for us to move in the direction of “moving posters”. Since then, almost every project we have done is flexible, animated, and responsive. Time itself is an important variable in our work, and I guess it all started with the Wanderlust1 posters. This project was really flexible in nature. Every element was designed to adjust responsively without ever becoming boring. The application of the corporate design was actually fun because you could play with the individual elements like Lego and be surprised by every new outcome. 

Does time as a variable convert a visual identity into an evolving one?

It is a pity that this is not apparent from our website, but if you could have taken a closer look at Wanderlust’s smiley face poster in real life, you would have been able to see that the dots started off very large in size. Our idea was for them to shrink with every passing year to transform the pattern and subsequently, the visual identity as a whole; making the latter less strict and more open. To use time as a variable, it really depends if you can design an evolutive visual identity for a project or not. If you are hired to design a visual identity for only one event, then you cannot really develop a story.

Agreed. Through the application, it is easy to see the flexibility of a visual identity, but even if you do not see it, it does not mean that the visual identity you designed is not flexible or even evolutive. 

Absolutely! Take our word for “20 Minuten”, the biggest newspaper in Switzerland, for example. When designing a newspaper, you design for all possible variations and, to me, this is why I think a newspaper is already animated in nature. Nothing is static. Some days, the headline could be very long, resulting in smaller images, and vice versa. All the elements are reacting to each other. In line with this, everything we do nowadays is flexible, and the systems we create are always made to react to every new situation.

Although motion design has become more accessible for graphic designers over the last decade, do you think it is still not common for graphic designers to know how to animate, especially those among the older generation?

Yes, that is absolutely true. However, through the newspaper project, I found that even though the older generation does not usually think by way of animation, they do understand flexible systems. The main difference between them and the generation today lies in the way that we make flexibility visible through our websites. In our Shorties project, the animations showed all the possibilities each system had, and every single frame could have become a poster by itself. They showed our audiences what we did, and could have done. 

How has your work evolved over the years?

We want to learn something new with every project, and each one should be a step forward. The longer I work in this profession, the more connected everything feels. When I started my career, designing a poster felt like a challenge. After designing my first book, the first visual identity, and so forth, I then began to gain a broader understanding of the possibilities offered by each of these applications. The more knowledge you gain, the more flexible you become; allowing you to combine the applications in the weirdest ways and bring out each of their strengths best. At Studio Feixen, we are continuously searching for surprising ways to design applications it never becomes repetitive, and things just keep getting more and more interesting with each project. Take our Oto Nové Swiss4 project for example. Although the creative outcome looked like a poster, it was actually not one per se because it was never printed. The only place where it was displayed was on their website. 

Do you think variable typography is a natural evolution from static typography as digital devices have become widespread?

Yes, absolutely. I think it is a natural evolution. Every time a new technology appears, everybody starts experimenting with it. When you see everything becoming responsive and you happen to be into typography, you would probably start experimenting with responsive typography. If you are into images, you will experiment with images. I saw this new technology the other day that makes images responsive, where they do not just simply stretch, but re-invent themselves at the same time. Everybody is experimenting with flexibility on all levels right now. 

What do you think is the major advantage of variable typography?

There is a simple reason why typography is becoming more and more important nowadays. Everybody has a smartphone and we are consuming more videos on it, but without sound. This means that we need subtitles to understand what the videos are about. You can already see that subtitles are becoming really important, and designers have started playing around with them. I think there will be a huge step forward in this whole field within the next couple of years because everybody needs subtitles. The typography will be influenced by the image, and the image will be influenced by the typography. 

Besides animating typography, your studio creates interactive pieces too. How often do you code?

Once a year, we get involved in a coded project. We do not code a lot because it is not our favorite thing to do. It makes me angry and I think it makes Raphael angry too! (Laughs) Unfortunately, sometimes, it is necessary to code – not because we have to, but out of interest. We just wait for the right project to come along. Coding is nothing we can delegate. We need to do it ourselves. While coding, you get to learn so many things that you might be able to use in another project. We would lose a lot of knowledge if we hired a coder, as we would be stuck and unable to develop an original idea any further.

Working with code makes you rethink your original ideas. Does that mean that code is not just the realization of an idea, but a language to question the idea and further develop it?

Coding is like thinking to us. For projects like “20 Minuten”, the process of development is like coding for us. If the headline grows longer, the image becomes smaller. The entire length of the text might even increase, causing the text at the bottom to be lost. It is all connected. When we talk about our work in the studio, we mostly talk about the capabilities of each element. What can this element do? Can it run around the format? Can it appear here and then there? Design is about the behavior of elements. A coder thinks in the exact same way.

Even if you do not write code, do you design as if you were coding?

Absolutely. When you are hired for a corporate design project, you are hired to make rules. Even though we do not like making rules, it is our task to make them.

Can you describe your design process?

That really depends on the project. Every project leads to a different process. When we have to be really professional, we spend a lot of time sketching out the system, until it is flawless. The system is the most important part of the project, as it needs to be able to process all the information. If we work on a project that needs to be animated later, we work first on a storyboard, sketch every possible moment of the animation, and then produce the animation. We do this so that nothing can go wrong. I enjoy the process most when the design transforms constantly. Having the whole studio working on a project can take it in any direction at any time, but we have one simple rule: we never go back. We love to make decisions. If we have said “no” to a direction, we never revisit it, but it is always possible to spin it into a new direction. If we have a new idea that changes the original idea a lot and is better than the original direction, we explore the new direction. We have projects that I absolutely love which are changing all the time. They are often the most time-consuming to work on, but turn out the nicest because you are not committed to one idea, but the best possible outcome. As a designer, this means that you also need to be super flexible, and cannot fall in love with an idea. You need to go with what is best. 

How do you decide what is best? What are your criteria?

The gut. (Laughs) No, we discuss the ideas. We have another rule. We actually have a lot of rules! When you talk about abandoning an idea and you see that someone in the group is sad about losing it, then most of the time, this person is right. When you are sad about losing an idea, it means that you see something in this idea that the rest of the group has not seen. We decided then to work on it for a couple more hours to make it visible.

How do you think the way we learn, teach and design will change with design becoming more flexible?

I think it will change a lot. The way I teach today is really different to the way I was taught. Today, you educate individuals even though you have absolutely no clue what their future will be like. The professions are changing in an incredibly rapid way, and you cannot be sure that what you are teaching your students will end up being exercised later on. That is why, what you need to teach is flexibility. I find that a big problem is the sense of individuality. Students have to learn how to work together, but a lot are working against each other. 

So, you are teaching teamwork?

Yes. I do a lot of different subjects. One of my favorite subjects is called “Generative Design”. It is based on the idea of Conditional Design by Studio Moniker. The members of Studio Moniker meet every Tuesday to work together as if they are a program. I began doing the same with Tobias Hauser, the dean of the school I am teaching at. The students have to design programs, but they are also part of the program. They can do whatever they want, but they have to present their results at the end. They learn a lot through this project because they have to organize their materials, discuss how to work together, and more. While they are being trained in all the skills they need to be a graphic designer this way, they do not really realize it because they are so busy all the time. The next step is then to make a real visual identity. The students love this. It is a mixture of fun and super hard work.

Why do you think this differs from the way you were taught before? 

I think this is more pedagogic. We are talking much more about education and how to educate today than before. The generations before us were often famous designers, who were mostly interested in their own careers and taught a certain way. Today, I think the fame of a single designer is less important. For me, it is much more interesting to see a student finding his own language than copying mine. It makes more sense. I get the feeling that we are closer to the students today than before. Before, there was a bigger distance between students and teachers. 

Does it mean that you do not believe in the future of the individual star designer, but in the designer as a part of a collaborative effort, changing according to context?

Yes. Absolutely. At our school, we are very active at the moment to change that. It is amazing to see how much change is possible. The mixture is very interesting. You have old and young teachers, and they are all interested in new ways of teaching. 

Felix, thank you so much!

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