Illustration and design studio Fanakalo was founded in 2009 by friends, Jan Solms and Rohan Etsebeth from a tiny room at the back of Jan’s dad’s office in Stellenbosch. Since then Fanakalo has grown to include Hugh Fletcher Cox and Janneke de Kock on design and Dinah Dick as studio manager. Designtimes had a chat to the team about their growing illustration studio.

Why the name Fanakalo?
Fanakalo is a very descriptive pidgin language that developed in the mines of South Africa and some southern African countries where people from various cultures and languages had to communicate with each other. As graphic design and illustration is a form of ‘visual communication’ we saw Fanakalo as a metaphor for creating work that exists because of having to convey information.


Did you start out expecting to be specialists in packaging design?
Having started in Stellenbosch we never deliberately went into packaging design headfirst, but because of the wine industry we did work that quickly drew attention and spread via word of mouth. We always loved illustration more than cleaner design, and started out with an inhouse approach to doing our own illustration work. We did work for festivals like Oppikoppi and Ramfest, but wine grew because of our location, and that propelled us into other produce’s packaging.


How have you managed to grow the studio in terms of your client base?
The wine industry is small and word of mouth has always been our strongest advertising. We have a website and submit work to blogs, but we generally find that clients knock on the front door having been referred, instead of googling us. Overseas clients have come in through Behance and blogs. At this stage we want to be hands-on in our work and don’t want to grow in size unless we really need to.


How much research goes into the product before designing a label or packaging?
It is absolutely crucial to start with a strategy to what needs to be achieved. “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln. We always start with research or asking questions first. We try to “tell a story” or convey a philosophy with each brand that we work with. Whether it is as simple a philosophy as “wine should be fun”, or whether it is more complex to include a “green” consciousness, terroir and something uniquely specific to the winery, we try to make packaging that conveys or draws inspiration from this “story/philosophy”. We often see it most simply as the label should be conveying the winemaker or winery’s personality. Incorporated in the questions that we’ll be investigating, will also be the general marketing placement. Is this wine commercial or niche wine? What does the price point, competition and target market look like? How and where will it be distributed and sold? Etc.


Can you talk us through your creative process for typical project ?.
1) Meeting with client, especially if it is a new client. 2) Research, brainstorming and conceptualising based on the brief we were given or drew from the client. 3) Doing design options. 4) Client feedback and the typical process of working until we have a design that is deemed as a final. 5) A combination of printing and production assistance. Mostly Jan, Rohan and Dinah meet with clients and everyone splits up the workload based on who is best suited to the job, or has the time to work on it. With products like wine, a worst case scenario is that it can often take longer than a year to get something done as a client may ignore a project and come back at a later stage, wanting to finalise it then. We work with invoices for different stages to keep it financially viable for us.

How involved are your clients with the design process?
It totally differs from client to client. Some clients know what they want or like and are obviously better at briefing us where others can be very vague. We really approach each client differently with regards to each job. Some clients deserve to be kept in the loop where others simply can’t visualise the process or communicate what they envision and then you’d maybe approach them more with a ‘pick-a-final-option’ type of approach.
With regards illustrated pieces do you start on paper and then scan and trace these works or do you work directly in illustrator?
We all have different strengths and passions. We work across pencil, ink, wacom and purely using a mouse. We don’t really have a single approach for everything we do.

Do you agree with the statement that packaging design is the final frontier of print design?
We reckon so. Sad to say but packaging is the closest to the actual product and specifically in wine it is a massive topic of debate how much the label influences the taste and whether wine critics should be allowed to taste the wine with or without the label. We will always love a book you can page through that has a beautiful cover, but the statistics show that media like printed magazines and newspapers are in decline. With packaging, the packaging becomes part of the experience of the product, more than a print ad of the product will ever be. We see a really nice drinks packaging more like a little sculpture than something engineered purely for consumption. Thus, with a decline of printed media packaging, it is even more important for the product to sell itself.

What brands out there do you think has really good packaging design and what brands do you think need a redesign?
Drinks packaging is much more creative than it used to be ten years ago and we would love to see things like medicinal packaging be less clinical. That said, medicinal packaging (as an example) has merit and credibility in being clinical and minimalistic, but we can’t see why there can’t be a bit of a mindshift towards more creative approaches on especially non-prescriptive medicine’s packaging which also needs to compete on a retail-shelf.

Have you entered your work into any Awards? Do you think Awards programs are important?
When we first started we entered the DA&D awards with one project. It didn’t win and we aren’t sour about it, but the entry fee is so heavy for a small studio like us that we made a resolution not to enter awards from then on. We don’t want to be selective on which awards we enter and which we don’t based on entry fees. We think creatives normally follow the results of awards more than any of our clients do. Awards will obviously have value when you pitch for really big clients, but we’re not really into working that way.

If you were stranded at sea and could pack one sandwich, what kind would it be?
A masala steak Golden Dish gatsby.


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