Focus explores the creative talent within the climbing community.
British designer Alex Frew had to take on one of the toughest asks of any creative: Rebranding his home country. The North Wales-based climber's work has ranged from product logos to typeface and he recently was tasked with creating a brand that represented a modern Wales. Fortunately for his countrymen, his modernist approach to design, featuring a clean aesthetic, was the perfect match for the rugged Welsh landscape.
How did you first get into design?
I first got into design through studying Art Foundation at college in North Wales. The point of the course was to try a bit of everything within the realm of art and see what takes your fancy. I was interested in most disciplines, especially printmaking and life drawing. Our regular life drawing (nude) model was my mate's mum—but that's another story! Anyway, one day I wandered into another building and found a room full of Apple Macs. It turned out these we there for our use but nobody had ever told me so. The clean minimal computer room was a stark contrast to our messy art studio. My photography tutor saw I was interested in using the Mac and asked if I could design some posters to promote the course. I said yes and came up with something within the hour. I hadn't realized this was called graphic design and it was an actual job. I found that in graphics I could be a lot more clinical in my execution without really compromising on the expression; it was the same as painting and drawing but I had a lot more control. I then turned up uninvited at a university in Cardiff, asked to see the graphics tutor, showed him my photography poster and that was the start of my graphic design education and career.
How did you develop your approach and style from there?
I left university with a clear idea of what I thought was ‘good design’—minimal and modernist. Post-modern graphic design was never really my thing; it’s far too ‘random’ and subjective for me. It's closer to art than design. Modernist design leaves you with nowhere to hide and can efficiently communicate a specific idea or message.
I walked into my first job ready to ripoff Dieter Rams at every possible opportunity! Starting out at a small design agency in Venice scuppered this plan as their clients didn’t really want Swiss (or German) modernist graphic design. Instead, they were looking for something that looked as if Da Vinci had worked on it back in 1501. This definitely wasn’t the place for me so I soon left and headed back to the UK.
I started working on some big commercial jobs with a few local agencies in South Wales. This was exciting for a while but the novelty soon wore off as there is always compromise in the commercial world! Following this I became freelance so I could work with clients who were willing to push the envelope and were open to more creative and interesting ideas. Realizing there was a gap in the market for a boutique agency working for bigger companies with bigger budgets and no compromise on creativity, I happened upon Smörgåsbord.
Since then you’ve taken on some interesting projects, such as the Wales rebrand. How do you approach a project like that from conception to the final product?
As you can imagine, there were always going to be a few challenges when working on a country brand. The first thing to get in order was the team. The way we are set up at Smörg allows us to ’tool up’ for specific projects and bring in freelance specialists to work alongside us. This was especially helpful on the Wales rebrand as there were so many layers to a project of that scale. Having a group of people of all ages, from different backgrounds, each with their own unique skill set was a good place to start. Oh and being Welsh came in handy a couple of times too!
The second hurdle was the logo. From early on in the process, the general consensus in meetings was ’no more dragons please’. This was understandable at the time, as the ‘go-to’ logo for a business in Wales is usually a poor man's badly drawn dragon. Despite this, and we did explore many other options, there wasn’t anything else that we felt could represent the whole of Wales as well as the iconic red dragon. During our research we found a facebook post asking the question: Why does Wales have the best flag in the world? Answer: Because there’s a massive fucking dragon on it! This seemed to be the tipping point and 300 sketches later we had something which we thought, and now know, could proudly represent our country for many years to come.
The third requirement, and most important of all, was patience.
When you are working on project like that, how do you balance a client's needs with creating work you truly believe in?
We usually deal with this before we start working with a client. We look at what they need, what they want (usually two very different things) and what kind of projects we want to work on as designers and as a wider team. Unfortunately, sometimes you do get led down a road full of creative promise with money to spend and half way down that road you realise you’re up shit creek and you’re creating work that you DON'T believe in. This is a very rare situation for us. Over time you do get better at reading clients early on in the process and assessing whether they have the potential to move the goalposts or even change the game (in a bad way). Generally we only work with likeminded people which means we create work that exceeds the client needs and is something we all believe in.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into design?
Work hard and be nice to people.
Make lots of tea.
Measure twice, cut once.
You can follow Alex on Instagram here