An interview with Louise Fili

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On this weeks episode Ian Paget interviews Louise Fili, an Italian-American graphic designer who’s specialised in brand development for food packaging and restaurants for the past 30 years. We discuss how she discovered her niche, her logo design process, typography design, her incredible books and so much more.

Louise Fili is a member of the Art Directors Hall of Fame, and has received the medal for Lifetime Achievement from the AIGA and the Type Directors Club.

 

The Logo Geek Podcast is Sponsored by Freshbooks

Books & Resources Mentioned

 

 

Interview Transcription

 

Ian Paget: Following an art director role at Pantheon Books, I understand that you started your own business to work on brand development for food packaging in restaurants. What was the reason why you chose to start out on your own?

 

Louise Fili: Well, when I started out as Art Director at Pantheon, it was kind of a grim time in publishing. No risks were being taken. Everyone seemed to think that type on jackets had to be big and vulgar. But I was on a mission to prove that you didn’t have to shout to capture someone’s attention. The cover that I did for The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, was probably the best example of that. Because this author was relatively unknown in the U.S., although she was a celebrity in France. And in spite of that, and in spite of the very understated cover that I did, the book became a runaway best seller. So, I think I proved my point.

And also, Pantheon had a very impressive roster of European authors, which gave me an opportunity to experiment with a different period of type history on a daily basis. Which allowed me to find my design voice, which was very important. And then at the same time, all the art directors in the industry were so poorly paid, that we all had to freelance for one another. So, after 11 years at Pantheon, I had enough clients to allow me to start my own design studio, where my goal was … crazy as it sounded at the time, to focus on the only three things that I’m interested in: Food, type, and all things Italian.

 

Ian Paget: So how did you go about choosing food packaging and restaurants as an area to focus on?

 

Louise Fili: Well, I grew up in an Italian-American household. Need I say more? The main topic of conversation every morning was what to make for dinner. Which, to this day, is still the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning. So it should have come as no surprise to me that I would end up designing for the food industry. So, I started out … I didn’t really know how to go about this. But I started out designing for restaurants, and I quickly learned that, in New York City, this is the number one business most likely to fail.

But on the other hand, I always try to be an optimist. So I always had a table until the restaurant closed, which would happen very often. So after a year or two in the restaurant business, I decided to branch out, and get into food packaging. Which, at the time, looked a lot like the way book publishing had looked when I first started in that industry. So I thought, “Well, why can’t a package be beautiful and seductive, so people want to buy it and bring it home? Just like a book.” And that opened up a whole new arena for me. Packaging also offered me a whole new dimension, because I was so used to just the limitations of two-dimensional book jackets. And to be able to get into that third dimension was really luxurious.

 

Ian Paget: I can relate with that. Because I’ve done a small amount of packaging work recently. And it’s so great to see the final thing, and it’s definitely something I’d like to do more of. So I’m really curious to know from you, since at that time you didn’t have any packaging experience … When you decided to pursue that direction, how did you actually go about getting your first client?

 

Louise Fili: Well, what happened … Because the restaurant started first, and that was just a fluke. Like, there just happened to be a restaurant down the street that I had referred a friend to. And she was there one night, and they were agonising over a logo design that they didn’t like, and they needed to hire a new designer. And she said, “Oh, you have to call Louise.” But my first foray into food packaging was actually while I was still at Pantheon.

Because somehow I got connected doing some wine labels, and I did an olive oil label. They were all kind of flukes, I don’t even remember how these people found me. But it was a good way to start out. At least I had something to show when I first started looking. And then what I did was, I started my studio, and I was looking more seriously for food packaging work. I did two things. It’s the only time in my career, I think, that I actually hired someone to make phone calls for me. Because who wants to do that?

So I gave her the catalog from … She would come in once a week. And I gave her the catalog from the Fancy Food Show, which is a big trade show for food producers in New York, every summer. So I gave her that catalog, and it had all of these contacts listed. And she would just pick up the phone and call these people. And I thought, “Better you than me.” And she actually found a couple that way. That’s how I got connected to Bella Cucina, which was one of my first clients in food packaging. And I’m still working with them now.

 

Ian Paget: That sounds really impressive. And I think it’s a really good idea to simply find suitable contacts and then reach out to them. I can imagine now that’s a lot easier than it would have been back then, thanks to the internet. Since you can easily direct those customers to examples online.

 

Louise Fili: Yeah. And now people can Google “designer of Bella Cucina packaging,” but when I started out, there was no internet. So it was particularly challenging.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, I bet. But I think the concept of it still applies today. Because if you did want to work on food packaging, as you did, the basic principle is to find contact details for the different food companies, and then reach out to them as your assistant did. So I think it seems like a really savvy move, that would still work today.

 

Louise Fili: Yes, it could. Well, the other thing I do now is I go to that same show, the Fancy Food Show, every summer. And I usually always pick up at least one new client every time. And very often, it was something as simple as … In fact, I was standing, this was several years ago … I was standing right in front of the Bella Cucina booth, talking to one of the owners. And someone came up to him, and said, “Who does your packaging? I’ve got to find a new package designer.” And I always wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been standing there. Would he have given her the information, or not? But I was very lucky. And with Sarabeth’s, who is still one of my clients, she happened to have her booth right across from one of my clients. And she said, “Who does your packaging?” I mean, because people don’t have the know-how or the time or energy, to look for a designer. Especially pre-internet. So that’s how they did it. They would just go and knock on a door.

 

Ian Paget: So those shows that you go to now, how do you approach businesses to sell them your services?

 

Louise Fili: Well, you have to be really careful, going to those shows. Because the last person that these people want to see is a designer looking for work. Beause they’re there just to sell their product. So I’m usually very, very discreet about it. And usually what I just try to do, is follow up on people who may have already contacted me in the past, and then I never heard from again. Sometimes I’ll just go up to somebody if no one else is around, and it looks like they have no one else to talk to. I’ll say, “Tell me, do you really love your package design?” And a lot of times they’ll say yes, and it’s like, “Okay. Well, great. See you later.” But it’s always worth asking. I just try to do it in the least offensive way possible.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. It sounds like a really nice way to go about doing it, that doesn’t sound like you’re trying to sell to them. But instead, just expressing an interest in what they’re doing.

 

Louise Fili: Yes.

 

Ian Paget: And I love it that if they do say no, you can tell them about your services without being of any annoyance to them. And you’ll know that they’re likely be interested in what you’re doing, as well.

 

Louise Fili: Right. And I think what’s worked really well for me … On my site I have a section called Before and After, because a lot of the food packaging that we do are makeovers. Because usually when a food producer starts out, they don’t have the know-how and they don’t have the budget to hire a real professional designer. So they’ll just go to a family friend who has a kid in art school, or something. And that’s what they get for it, you know.

And then what will happen is five years or twenty years go by, and suddenly they realise that the quality of their package design doesn’t measure up to the quality of the product. And that’s when they usually call me. Which is great, because I love doing makeovers. It gives me enormous satisfaction to clean up after someone else’s mess. But for these clients to see the examples on my site, of the before and after, it’s very reassuring for them.

Because whenever I talk to any of these people, they’ll come in and they’ll tell me, “I hate my package design. It’s terrible. It doesn’t represent the product.” But then they’re still afraid to make a change. So what I’ve learned, in doing these makeovers, is that you can actually change a lot, as long as you keep one or two key elements. So like with Sarabeth, I kept the oval on her jar. We also kept the same jar, which people were used to recognising.

And then I just refined all the type, so I just kind of upgraded everything else. I kept her name in upper and lower case. So in her case, the way it worked out, is a lot of people would still keep going to the grocery store, and reaching out to grab the same jar of jam, and may have not even noticed that there had been a design change. But they suddenly had a higher regard for the product. And that’s what we aim for, when we do makeovers. We don’t want to make a huge change, unless the original was so bad that it has to be radically changed. And that has happened.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. I really like that part of your website. It puts into perspective what you did. I know sometimes you look at a logo, and you don’t understand what the goals were. And I think what you’ve done is a nice way to show that visually.

 

Louise Fili: Thank you.

 

Ian Paget: It’s really nice to see, for me as someone who finds your work inspiring, but more importantly, for potential clients to get a feel for what you can actually do for them. Now, you clearly found your niche, and it’s been a real success for you. What advice can you give to designers that are searching for an area to focus on, as you did?

 

Louise Fili: Well, I always tell people, just follow your heart. You have to find something that you’re passionate about. And then combine that with design. Because otherwise, you can get very bored, very quickly in this profession. And I think this is what’s kept me from going out of my mind. But you really have to make it your business to become an expert on whatever your area of focus may be. And then you find ways to connect with those people who’ll help you with your goals.

So in my case, when I first started my studio, because I wanted to do restaurants, I contacted architects who specialised in designing restaurants. And again, this was pre-Google. So I had to find them in other ways. I had to look them up in books or in magazines, or whatever, and then make a cold call, or send them a promotion. I used to do that, as well, before I had a website. I would just do these limited edition letter-pressed promo books that I would only give out to people who I know wouldn’t throw them away.

 

Ian Paget: That sounds like a nice thing to do, even today, to impress people.

 

Louise Fili: Yes.

 

Ian Paget: Now, I know that you’ve been working on food packaging for a long time. And earlier, you mentioned that people can get bored of what they’re working on. What is it that’s kept you so fascinated with food packaging for as long as you have done? I mean, you’ve been working on it for over 30 years, which is a long time to focus on one specific area.

 

Louise Fili: Yeah. I’ve had my studio for 29 years, now. And before that, I was at Pantheon for 11 years. I’ve put in the time, yes. But fortunately, I really love food, and I never get bored with it. I mean, and as crazy as restaurant people can be, because that was a big shock for me, when I first started my studio. Because here I came, from the very conservative world of publishing, where the client is right there in the same building with you. It’s not really another company. So they knew how to work with designers, and they knew what designers were supposed to be doing.

But I still remember the first time I met with a restaurant client. I had to explain to him why he had to pay both me and the printer. They didn’t understand the difference. And I also found myself dealing with a class of client that was just shy of gangsterdom. But then once I started working more closely with architects on projects, I was finding myself doing restaurants that were a higher class. So it was a lot better.

 

Ian Paget: I’m glad that you was able to make a success of that. Now, I know that you worked on a lot of logo designs throughout your career. So I’d love to learn a little bit more about your process. Because I’ve found, by doing this podcast, that most people work in a slightly different way. So could you talk through the process that you take, when working on a logo design project?

 

Louise Fili: Oh, sure. Well, whenever I get a call about a new job … before I set up a meeting, I have to ask a few very critical questions. And I think these questions have come up before, with some of your other interviewees. The first one is, who are the decision-makers. I think that’s very, very important question. Because if they tell me that one of the decision-makers is too busy to come to a kick-off meeting, then I’ll tell them that I’m too busy, too. No decision-makers, no meeting. Because the last thing that you want to deal with is someone who’s trying to second guess their boss.

And that’s also why I prefer working with smaller companies. I really can’t stand working for big companies. I’m rarely satisfied with the end product. The money, of course, is better. But for me, it’s just not worth it. Although, that said, I have had some positive experiences with a few places, like Tiffany and Good Housekeeping. Those both went well. Interestingly enough, on both of those jobs, I only dealt with women. How ’bout that?

Okay. So that was the first question. I don’t want to get off-track here. The next question would be, have you done a trademark search of your name. A lot of times we forget to ask that. Because everybody seems so secure about what they’re doing. But this is extremely important, because you don’t want to design the best logo ever, and then find out that the name is not available.

The only time I think I didn’t ask this question was when I was working with a very highly respected and very successful restaurateur here in New York, who owns many, many restaurants. And I thought I would be insulting him to ask him a question like that. But after we designed the logo, which they loved and approved, then we found out that the name wasn’t available. And for that, and a number of other reasons, it was shelved. The whole project, which was too bad.

So, let’s see. I’m still on the phone with them. We still haven’t set a meeting. One more question if it’s a restaurant. Have you owned a restaurant before? And if the answer is no, I hang up the phone. I mean, this has happened too many times. And I’ve designed restaurants for seasoned professionals, and they have still gone under. So why do I want to try out a newbie? No, thanks. So then we’ll arrange to have a meeting. And since I mostly work with small companies, I’m rarely given a brief. And there are no focus groups, it’s just me asking a lot of questions. And trying to just get the people to talk as much as they can, and so I can really understand who they are.

So at the first meeting, I’ll listen to what they have to say, and then I’ll start asking all my questions, if I need to. I usually have about, at least about 20. Especially if it’s a restaurant client, then there are a lot of specific questions. But this is sort of a warm-up exercise, as far as I’m concerned. So obvious things, like how will the logo be used. Let’s make a list.

Because if you’re designing a logo, let’s say, for a publishing company, you need to know that 90% of the usage of that logo is going to be stamped in foil, like about a quarter of an inch tall, on the spine of a hardcover book. So it can’t have any fine detail, or you’re never going to be able to read it. So a lot of this is about knowing what you don’t know. And then, questions like, who’s your competition, let’s look at their logos. Let’s make sure that yours is going to be

Who’s your competition? Let’s look at their logos. Let’s make sure that yours is going to be different. What sets you apart from your competition? Who’s your market. And on like that. That always helps get the conversation going. Then, if it’s a restaurant-specific situation, I’ll ask things like, “You know, what do you want the dining experience to feel like?” Because they’re always very particular about that. I always want to know right away if they have an architect or interior designer and if there’s anything that I can look at. Because I found, especially with restaurants, even just one small cue from the architect can really offer invaluable design inspiration. So, that’s really important to me.

Then, things like that you wouldn’t think about. Like, what does the façade look like? Because, the façade can drive the design of the logo because, especially in New York City, the available space for a sign is extremely limited. There might only be space, let’s say, for a hanging sign, which means that the logo can’t be too tall or too wide. Sometimes there’s a very specific place to put the logo, which will dictate the size and shape of it immediately. So, it’s kind of important to be aware of that.

Then, of course, is this a landmark building? Because that can dictate a lot. There are all kinds of constraints with landmarks. Then, I always ask, “When do you expect to open?” That’s when I try to keep a straight face when they give me the answer, because I’ve never worked on a restaurant that opened on time. It just doesn’t happen, not in New York City.

So after I’m done with the questions, what I like to do, if I can do it, is I like to talk about general directions, general design directions that I might want to take with the logo just so that no one will be unpleasantly surprised when I see them at the next meeting and I show them these logos and then they say, “Oh, that’s not at all what I expected.” So, let’s say the client is a wine importer. I might suggest that we try to make the logo look like a wine label, or a grape leaf, or a red wax seal, or something like that. Then, I’ll show them examples from my archive to illustrate that, which is another reason why I prefer to meet at my studio where I have all these materials on hand. Because, I always find that if clients come to my studio, there’s so much around for them to look at. There’s my own work and then a little of my collections, but there’s always something that will resonate with someone. That comes in very handy.

So then, and I always say we have to just stay here for as long as we have to. It could be a couple of hours. I don’t want the meeting to be over until I’m sure that I have enough to work with. We’ll agree to meet again in a month for the presentation. So then, the most important thing about that next meeting is this, it’s always … The meeting is always held in my studio in the afternoon. I serve gelato first, because I have a great gelato client. Then I show the logos, and it always works. The only time it doesn’t work is if the last minute they bring along a decision maker who was absent at the first meeting. But, it always helps make people more at ease, because they’re nervous when they come in to look at a logo. Who wouldn’t be?

That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years that I never really had thought about before, is that every now and then I realise I have to put myself in the client’s shoes because they’re nervous. And times, I’ve actually come out and asked them, “Tell me what you’re afraid of.” They’ll always give me an answer. No one has ever been insulted that I asked a question like that, or they’ll say, “No, I’m not. I’m not afraid of anything.” They’re always have something they’re afraid of, and it’s usually something incredibly irrational. But then we talk it through. I talk them off the ledge, and then we’re okay. So, it’s worth it.

After the gelato, I’ll show the logos. I will usually present two to three very finished-looking logos so they don’t have to use their imagination at all. I also like to show examples of the logo in use whenever I can because I think it’s a good way to generate enthusiasm about the logos themselves. So, I might show it. If it’s a restaurant, I might show it as a sign, or as a box of matches, or a tray, or something like that. Of course, what I usually do is I pick my favourite and I do the fanciest presentation for that one, and it usually works.

So, we’ll have a big discussion about the three options. The client will choose one direction for a round or two of refinement, at which time we’ll talk about colour if we haven’t already. Sometimes I like to show the logos in black and white. Sometimes I like to show them in colour. I’m always a little wary of showing it in colour if it turns out that the client doesn’t like that colour. We could lose a good logo as a result. But, sometimes we’ll talk about colour at the first meeting so I have a better sense of where they’re at with that. Sometimes it’s obvious what sort of range we should go in colours, but sometimes it’s not. So, you have to be careful about that.

Then, if the logo requires an illustration in the presentation, I’ll just use an illustration as a placeholder. Then, if that’s the one that they choose, then we’ll have to talk about who the illustrator’s going to be. Or sometimes we’ll do the illustration ourselves in house or I’ll use something from my archive. It all depends. Most of the time, it works pretty well. There was only one time that I had a group here that had a really hard time deciding, so I did something that I’ve only done once. Hopefully, I never have to do it again. I told them that no one could leave the room until they reached a decision.

 

Ian Paget: Lovely.

 

Louise Fili: And it worked. They used the logo for a couple of months. Then, the CEO mysteriously disappeared, and so did the logo. These things happen.

 

Ian Paget: Oh, nightmare. Yeah, thank you for going through that in such detail. I do have a couple of questions to expand on, a couple of areas that you spoke about. You mentioned that in the initial conversation you agreed upon or discussed some kind of general direction. Are you just making those choices on the spot based on the conversation or are you stepping away from that for a while and then coming back with those suggestions? How does that part of the process work?

 

Louise Fili: I think it really depends. I mean, I don’t always do that, but I like to do it as long as I feel secure that those directions will work, because sometimes they leave the room and I don’t know what I’m going to do. But, I think because … If it’s food related, especially because I’ve been doing that for such a long time, I kind of know what the options are. I also will do something like I’ll say, “Well, let’s try one direction that’s purely typographic. Then, we’ll try something with an image,” and we’ll talk about what sort of imagery we would want to do. Or, let’s try one that has a monogram because I love to do monograms, and a lot of clients like that. So, that’s sort of a given.

Somehow, it kind of works itself out within the conversation. As long as I can get a reading from these people as to who they really are so I can understand what the logo really needs to do, I can usually have a vague idea of how I’m going to approach it graphically before they leave the room.

Sounds like a really useful thing to do. Because if you got it totally wrong from the outset, you can clear that out in that initial meeting rather than waste time on something that’s not going to get approved. So, I really like that part of your process.

 

Louise Fili: Yeah, it’s great when it works.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. I also want to ask about the location where you work as well. Because you mentioned that you prefer people to come to your studio. Does that limit the amount of potential clients that you can get or would you still work with, say, a restaurant in a different country and work with them online, or would you only ever take on projects where people can actually come to your studio?

 

Louise Fili: Oh. Well, if they’re in New York, I’d like them to come to my studio. Certainly when I did Tiffany or Good Housekeeping, they didn’t come here, which was too bad, because people get excited when they come here because there’s so much on display and they love looking around, and they get gelato. So, what could be bad? But if it is an out-of-town client or out-of-country, I don’t expect them to come. Although, I always say, “Well, do you have any plans of coming to New York?” At some point, everybody passes through New York. A lot of times, we’ve been able to kind of schedule it so that if they were planning a trip, I’ll make sure that I can do a presentation when they’re here. It’s always better doing it in person, but it can’t always happen that way. So, I’ve done it one Skype, and it’s been okay.

 

Ian Paget: I want to also ask you about your logo design work, because a lot of your design have a really nice hand drawn aesthetic to them. You mentioned about sometimes you would put in a placeholder. I have a couple of questions on this. But for starters, how’d you go about creating logos like that with a really beautiful hand drawn aesthetic, like your Manhattan Fruitier logo?

 

Louise Fili: Right. Well, I think this all has to do with the way I design the logos, which is all about sketching, which goes back to my time at Pantheon. Because when I designed book jackets, the first thing I would do, of course, was read the book, believe it or not. A lot of people don’t realise that you have to do that. Then, I would sit down. This was my favourite part. I would sit down with a tracing pad and a pencil, number two pencil, and I’d draw a five and a half by eight and a half rectangle. I would just start writing the title of the book over, and over, and over again, page, after page, after page, just letting the words speak to me. I would end up filling up the entire tracing pad. But by the time I got to the end, the title type had gone to just an amorphous jumble of letter forms to something more precise. That’s when I realised that I had a typeface that didn’t exist and I was going to have to try figure out how to create it.

But without even realising is this was an exercise that was preparing me for doing logo design later on in my career. That’s how I design logos now, I just … Like I said, it’s still my favourite part. I think there’s nothing more exciting than a sketch, because a sketch has so much potential. Sometimes that’s the best part. Sometimes I wish it could just stay as a sketch.

 

Ian Paget: That’s another thing that I have a question about. Because logo designs are typically vector based, but these very illustrative logos, how do you go about vectorising something like that?

 

Louise Fili: Well, now is a different time than when I designed those logos when there was no vectors. About a year and a half ago, I had a big retrospective exhibition here in New York. It was really interesting to go through all of the work and figure out how to recreate it for the show because there were a lot of logos that were blown up to 15 feet tall. You can’t do that with the Manhattan Fruitier logo because that was not done in vector. So, for the show, we had to redo a lot of the logos because who knew? Who knew when you designed a logo 20 years ago that this was going to happen.

At the time, the way we designed the logos, it was perfectly adequate and there was never any problems. Except every now and then, if we were working with awning company, they would say that they needed it in vector. Then it had this really intricate illustration, which was difficult for everybody. But now, I think it’s a lot easier to vectorise things like that, and we can find ways to get around it. But that said, I mean, we do go to great pains with the logos here to make them look like they weren’t done on the computer. That’s always my goal. I mean, I’m not trying to make it look ye olde, but I do like to try to maintain that hand drawn quality in any way that we can.

Sometimes, like with a poster that we did recently, sometimes I’ll sketch to the type and then it’ll be vectorised. Then, I’ll be drawn in pencil after it’s been vectorised and scanned in, and that’s what we use rather than the vector, so it’s not so perfect. Because this was done for a poster, and I didn’t want it to blow up big and being so crisp. It just it didn’t feel right for a wrapper on a chocolate bar.

 

Ian Paget: So even when you’re aiming to retain that hand drawn aesthetic for a logo, am I right in understanding that you’d physically just do it by hand first, and then scan it and vectorise it based on the physical drawing?

 

Louise Fili: Yes. Yeah. Whatever it takes. Sometimes it looks better that way.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, I agree. You also mentioned that sometimes when you would present a logo with some kind of illustration what you would do is then pass it on to an illustrator to create the artwork. I just wanted to understand this process a little more. So, in instances where you do have to work with an external illustrator, obviously there’s a cost to that. How does that work from a pricing point of view? Because it sounds like there would be an extra cost to the client outside of the scope what the client had paid for initially. Is that correct?

 

Louise Fili: Well, yes, when I first meet with clients, and I’ll talk to them. And that is the good thing about talking ahead of time about whether or not this might possibly have an illustration in it or not before I even do a sketch because they need to know that this is not included in my fee. So, I’ll tell them. I’ll show them samples. Like, American Spoon, it has a very intricate illustration in it that I … was done by Christopher Wormell, who is a wonderful wood engraver in England who I’ve worked with a number of times. A lot of the illustrators I work with on logos are sort of in my stable from going on for many years now, which is nice because we’re used to working with each other.

So, I’ll talk to the client and say, “You know, well, we could take this approach with an illustration, but it will be an extra fee.” I’ll show them something like the American Spoon logo and tell them what that range of fee could be. Or, sometimes we, as I mentioned, sometimes will just create it in house if it’s simple enough. But, I’ll still have to bill them for that because it’s still extra work. But, I’ll also explain that to them upfront as well.

 

Ian Paget: So when you do send that to an illustrator, do you explain to the client that the work is actually being done by an external illustrator?

 

Louise Fili: Yeah. Now, I’ll show them the sample of the logo that was done or the logos that they’ve done for me. Then, I’ll show them their portfolio online so they know exactly what they’re doing, and I also … It says in my contract, and I’ll remind them, of course, that they need to pay the illustrator directly. I don’t get involved in that.

 

Ian Paget: Then, how does the actual relationship with the illustrator happen? Are you art directing them in some way by showing them examples of how you would want it to be done?

 

Louise Fili: Yes, absolutely. Because I’ll send them the logo design with the placeholder art. Then, I’ll usually be extremely specific about what we require. Because that was the hard thing, especially when I started doing restaurants, to hire an illustrator when you’re working with a restaurant where they don’t get it at all. Because here I come from book publishing where I’d read a book. I’d read a manuscript, and I decide to use an illustrator. I just show the portfolio to the editor, and they’ll say, “Okay. That looks good.” Then, I’ll show them the sketch, which is usually just a really simple sketch on tracing paper. You really had to take a leap of faith, because you looking at … I would show them the sketch and I’d show them their finished … what their finished artwork would look like. But still, it was amazing that the editors would go along with it.

Then, we would get to finish, and I would just hold my breath that everybody would like it. But, it usually worked out okay because I had a good relationship with all the illustrators that I worked with in publishing. But in restaurants, it’s very difficult because they’re not going to use their imagination. So, that’s why I work very hard to show a placeholder art that looks as close as possible to what the finished will look like. Recently, we were working on a-

Finish one more client. Recently we were working on a logo for an alpaca farm. And same thing like I told the client that we would try some options as monograms. We would try some that were purely typographic. And I wanted to try one that would like an illuminated letter. And she didn’t know what that was, so I had to send her samples. And so she liked that idea. But then to try to comp that up, where do you find any illustrations of alpacas that look like wood engravings?

I even contacted the illustrator, and I said, “By any chance have you done a wood engraving of an alpaca?” And he said, “No.” And I looked through his books, we found … And I looked through a book that I also used as reference that has a lot of wood engravings in it. One of my designers did a really incredible job just Frankensteining it together from a cat. And he made it look like an alpaca, which was pretty miraculous, so whatever you have to do.

 

Ian Paget: It sounds impressive and it’s useful to know that process. I know myself, I’d love to sometimes provide solutions like that. But I don’t feel capable of doing those intricate illustrations. It’s good to know how you go about doing that, so that I could potentially do the same. And I’m sure listeners feel the same.

Another area that I’m keen to ask you about is typography design. As I know that you’ve worked on some really beautiful typefaces. Can you talk through how you’ve gone about designing typefaces as you have done?

 

Louise Fili: Well, a few years ago I did something I said I would never do, I designed a typeface. Because for all these years I would only design the letters I needed for a logo, or a book title, or chapter titles. But I had no patience for the rest of it. No numerals… punctuation. But I couldn’t say no to the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, which is an amazing place. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but it’s the place to see the best and biggest wood type that you’ve ever seen.

They had invited me to design a typeface that would be cut out of wood and sold digitally as well. I decided to develop an Italian futurist typeface, which was named Mardell, after Mardell Doubek, who was a long time pantograph operator at Hamilton, who came out of retirement to cut the wood for this type. And actually invited me out there to see it in action, which was really fantastic.

After that I decided that anytime we have any downtime in the studio we should work on fonts. The next was one Montecatini, which takes it cues from Italian Stile Liberty posters, which was their Art Nouveau period. And my favourite thing about this style of lettering was the use of ligatures. For our font we designed 200 of them, which was pretty great.

And then that was followed by Marseille, which is French art deco themed sans serif that comes in six weights. And that was developed from the lettering that I had used long ago for the cover of the Lover.

In most cases these type treatments are ones that I have been using in my work for years. But now they’ve finally found a home, and other people can use them as well. And it’s also really nice to get a royalty check once a month.

 

Ian Paget: I can imagine. If someone wanted to create a typeface, what software would you recommend they use?

 

Louise Fili: We use Glyphs. And it’s a pretty sophisticated program. And it’s worked well for us. Because I knew how to make letter forms like I said for the five letters I needed for a logo. But I certainly never thought about making it into a font. And you know there are a lot of requirements.

When I worked for Herb Lubalin years ago before I worked at Pantheon, he was designing typefaces, but it was an easier and more difficult process then. Because we didn’t have a computer, but you also didn’t have to do all those extra characters, and diacritics, and everything else that you have to do now. But now because of the computer, anybody can be a typeface designer. Just like anybody can be a logo designer for better or for worse.

 

Ian Paget: I think that’s a good thing to be honest. Is it makes the whole process easier, and faster for those who are experts. And it also opens up the doors to people like myself that just want to try it out, and experiment with it a little bit.

Another topic I wanted to ask you more about is your books. A few of them have collections of incredible typography. For example, there is one I’ve seen that you’ve done recently of signage in Barcelona, which is somewhere I’m planning to visit in a few weeks. I’m looking forward to that. But what’s the reason why you put these books together?

 

Louise Fili: Well, I think that as a designer it’s really important that you must develop your own personal projects ’cause I think that’s really the only way that you’ll grow, and find your vocabulary. As soon as I started my studio, I looked for projects to create. And that’s when I started the series on art deco graphic design. The first one was Italian art deco. And then we went on to do every other country. And I did those with my husband Steve Heller. He would do the writing, and we would design the book in the studio.

And in the studio, I had two rules for these books. We would always put a woman on the cover, and we would always create a font exclusively for the book based on an image that was used inside the book. Steve and I have done over 20 books together. Most recently we’ve done what we call our S series. It’s scripts, shadow type, stencil, and slab serif. I find that it’s a great way to just take all of our collections. ‘Cause we’re obsessive collectors, and put them out there so other people can enjoy it. And it’s also an easier way for me to find all this stuff. ‘Cause I never know which drawer to look when I need it.

In the meantime, for decades I’ve been obsessively photographing shop and restaurant signage in Europe. Particularly, in Italy and France. And whenever I traveled to Italy, I would aways make a point of going to a city I had never visited before, just so I could document the signs.

I started off shooting these in 35 millimetre slides, and then I did point and shoot, and then finally I got up to digital. They were never meant for anything more than my own reference and enjoyment. I never considered a book. But as the signs started disappearing at a rapid rate. And as the digital technology got better, I finally realised that I had to seize the opportunity, and do these books before it was too late.

But as many of the signs started to vanish, one after another, it was really painful. But as the quality of the digital photography got better and better, I sort of felt this sense of urgency to record as much of the typography as I could before it was too late. I spent a lot of time on Google Street View here at my desk here in my office, just trying to relocate signs that I had photographed decades ago. I still had all the negatives from the point and shoot prints, so I used those to figure out the sequencing, and then check it on Google Street View. I couldn’t have done it without that.

And so when I did my Italian book, I went to Italy four times that year. And I just tried to go back to rephotograph as many of the signs as I could. And for the ones that were no longer there, we had Photoshop. And so the great thing about when the first book came out, is that to my great surprise it got really, really good press in Italy, which I wasn’t expecting at all. And interestingly they all said the same thing. They all said, “Gee, we walk by these signs every day and we never took note. And it took an American to come here to make us appreciate them.” That was a great compliment.

And so after I did Italy, then I did Paris, and Barcelona, which are … It’s an enormous amount of work, but nothing makes me happier than doing that, and making these discoveries, and then passing them onto other people who will appreciate them.

And then after the sign books I started doing some products for the same publisher, for Princeton Architectural Press. I’ve done a line of pencils. Perfetto, Tutti Frutti, and Brillante, which are all … They’ve all done very well, and they were all inspired by my collection of Italian double sided pencils from the 1930s.

The coloured pencils, Tutti Frutti have done the best because I didn’t anticipate the adult colouring book revolution. Everybody who buys a colouring book has to buy pencils, which is great.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. They’ve been really popular even in my house. Now with your books, I can see that you put a lot of time, effort, and energy into them. Because every time I see a new come out, it’s got such a nice hardback cover to it, and it just looks absolutely stunning.

 

Louise Fili: Oh, thank you.

 

Ian Paget: I think they’re obviously very inspiring. And it’s nice to see that work because not everyone gets to travel. And I think it’s really great that you put this together. And they’re really inspiring books for anyone interested in design, and typography, on top of people that are just interested in travel.

 

Louise Fili: Thank you.

 

Ian Paget: You’ve been incredible successful in your career having done a huge body of work. And you’ve received numerous awards, which is absolutely incredible. What do you feel is the primary reason for that success?

 

Louise Fili: Oh. Well, aside from luck I think that you just have to keep working. And fortunately I enjoy it. I wouldn’t know what else I would do. And you have to keep reinventing yourself. Because just as the industry keeps changing, we have to change at the same pace. I mean, imagine if I had stayed at Pantheon Books, and I was still doing book jackets. I shudder to think of it. But I think it’s really important to have a second, or a third act, or more. It’s a new and exciting challenge, and you can do your best work in your third chapter. I highly recommend it.

The other thing that’s been very important to me is being a mentor. Because when I started my career, there were no role models for women. None. I mean, I really looked, and I couldn’t find one. And as a result I’ve made a point throughout my career of mentoring young female students, and designers. And I’ve been very lucky to have had many talented designers male and female working for me over the years, so that’s very important.

And oh, and then most importantly I never take vacations. When I spent a very stressful year writing and designing my monograph, Elegantissima, I made a vow that once I was finished I would take a month off. Something that I had only done once in my career, and that had been 30 years before. Let me tell you something, every 30 years it’s a really good idea to take a month off. But not for a vacation of course. That’s when I did Grafica della Strada, my first sign book. And I think it was definitely better than a vacation.

 

Ian Paget: That’s interesting to hear. I haven’t personally taken any time off for personal projects like that since I started out working, so I should consider that for the future. Another area that I’m keen to discuss before we end the interview is throughout this you’ve briefly mentioned about women in graphic design. And I know throughout your career there haven’t been many female graphic designers. There are certainly very few role models from your generation, that’s for sure.

Although, I think this situation is improving now. I still think it’s a fairly male dominated industry, and there is substantially less female role models.

 

Louise Fili: Right.

 

Ian Paget: I feel that you are one of few really inspiring female graphic designers that have had an incredibly successful career. I’m not sure how to ask this question… But I wanted to ask something along the lines of do you have any advice for female graphic designers that want to be successful like you have done?

 

Louise Fili: Well, what I should explain first though is that when I started my studio ’cause this resonated a lot with me. When I started my studio, again it was in the pre-Google era. Believe it or not, people had to find you in the telephone book. Imagine that, right? You couldn’t get very creative when you named your studio. They had to be able to find you by your name. But what some people were doing would be like … What was I going to do? Louise Fili LTD, which is what I am. Or it could have been Fili Design, or Fili Associates to make it look like I was big, and maybe not just one woman.

But I was very aware that by calling it Louise Fili LTD, that this was a liability. That some people weren’t going to call me because of that. But I decided that’s all the more reason why I wanted to name it that. Because I really wanted to send a clear message, and that was if you have a problem with my being female, then I have a problem with you being my client. And I don’t regret it.

But I mean, now, 30 years later, I think it’s a much better time for women by far. It still is not easy. And certainly what’s going on right now with our government doesn’t help. But I think we just have to keep fighting that uphill battle, and we have small successes, and we just have to work with what we can. But I can recommend a few people that you can interview for your podcast to get your numbers up. But I’m glad that you’re aware of that, but yeah it is difficult.

But I also have to say that just last week I spoke … I gave a keynote at TypeCon, which is part of the Society of Typographic Aficionados. And I was really quite impressed to see that there were three keynote speakers, and they were all women. And this is typography, so that gave me hope.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, things are definitely changing. The topic is being widely discussed now. And I would say within like the next ten years, I’d like to think that the numbers will become more equal, and we’ll start to see more and more female graphic designers become a great success like you have been. I do think that you’re one of those people that have been through the hard times, and it’s nice that you’re still doing work, and being an inspiration, and role model for other women in graphic design that want to do something like you have done. I think it’s amazing what you’ve done, especially with the challenges that you’ve faced.

You’ve been incredibly successful, and as I’ve mentioned I’m a really big fan. I just got to say thank you so much for being on the podcast, and for making time to speak to me today. It’s been a real honour, thank you very much.

 

Louise Fili: It was a pleasure, Ian. Thank you.

 

 

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An interview with Louise Fili

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