We spoke to Lisle Abrahams, Art Director at the culture behemoth Highsnobiety, about the trials and tribulations of finding your own style, wayfinding and the future of design.
“Too many young designers are pressured into finding a style.”
So first things first: what is Lisle Abraham's style?
Brash, loud, CMYK colours — RGB colours — big brutalist design. I’m a big fan of large typography and I think type in general is a very underused tool, especially in the digital realm which is a shame because typography has so much power in it.
So to me, my style rests on having large typography and being able to use brutalism to its best extent — essentially having a framework and a structure and then breaking those rules.
It’s important to note that it takes a while to formulate your own style. Too many young designers are pressured into finding a style — but it takes years to develop a style organically and naturally. I've personally fallen into this trap in my career, where I tried to take a style or saw a style that I really liked and tried to copy it or try to mimic it and it didn't really feel like me.
Over time though you begin to notice your own style — and mine is large, loud, bright and brutalist. I love breaking rules and in today’s world where there are so many rules and grids and borders and pixels to follow that sometimes I just want to smash those rules to bits — there’s power in that.
What’s your biggest peeve in terms of design?
Bad UX — it could be anything from a service that's been offered or going to a website where certain elements aren't placed in the right place in terms of how your eye moves — there’s no reason to have bad UX at this point.
This is the curse of the designer though. If I'm walking down the street and I see a poster and I'm instinctively analysing it and its measurements, thinking how it could and should be done better. On that, I’m constantly disappointed by wayfinding I can talk about that for days.
What is it about wayfinding that disappoints you?
It’s just really lacking. You have signage everywhere and it takes you nowhere. Airports, train stations, it’s so easy to get lost. Why? I think that bad wayfinding is part of the reason why we are glued to our phones — because wayfinding as a discipline is broken. As always though, if you go to Scandinavia, you notice immediately how its wayfinding is on point.
Do you think it's important for a creative to have many different strings in their bow?
Absolutely. You should have as many different levels of perspective as a creative, because there are so many disciplines that can convey the outcome for the vision you are chasing.
Thinking non-linearly allows you to approach things differently and more creatively — to think outside the box and think bigger. Really as a creative you should always be outside your comfort zone — constantly pushing yourself and stretching briefs to their creative limits.
Tell us about some of your strings.
I write scripts! I realised after helping friends with music videos, that I didn’t want to just direct or just design, I wanted to be creative. So I started writing, and now I write short films, and have written a few adverts too with my creative partner and we’re currently pitching some pretty cool fashion labels.
I like the idea of being a quadruple threat: writer, director, designer, creative director and having the ability to have a vision and see it through with the help of these different disciplines.
What about going to university?
I've mentored quite a few young creatives and they've asked me the same thing. I think to a certain extent, it is important to go to university because they teach you and you have this freedom to be really creative. You can dip your toes into letterpress, screen printing, all of these different analogue mediums you rarely would get to use outside of it.
Then there’s all the teaching about design principles and design basics which are really important. But at the same time, university doesn't prepare you for real life and when I left university and I went out into the real world, I was shell shocked.
What's the most intense project you've ever worked on?
It was probably for Bread and Butter with Zalando. It was the last one they did in 2018 and it was intense because it wasn't just a branding project, it was everything it was art direction, creative direction, exhibition design, interior design, Wayfinding, digital — every discipline that you could think of was in this one project.
And it was so huge as well! The budget was so big and it was a great learning experience for me. It goes back to what I was saying is not being a linear creative and the importance of being able to dip your toe into all these different aspects of creativity and design.
What’s the piece of work you’re most proud of?
The piece of work I'm most proud of was probably for adidas. It was a project called Predator Edge. And it was the first time that adidas championed female athletes so it was purely focused on them.
It was a turning point in that sense that it came at a time where not enough people were addressing this huge and hugely important topic — that women athletes were not getting the fame they should be. So the fact that we made this campaign and it was global was something I was really proud of.
Is there such a thing as too much freedom when it comes to a design brief?
I would say at times yes — but my solid answer would be no. I love briefs where they give you enough freedom to be able to explore but there's still a framework and a structure that keeps you grounded. That’s the sign of a good brief: having that structure and a framework to be able to be free, but not too much — sometimes us creatives have a knack for getting carried away with our ideas after all!
What projects and briefs excite you most?
The ones that have the capacity for social change, or to change the world. I firmly believe that as creatives and designers we have a superpower and that is to communicate and unfortunately sometimes we use this power to communicate things that aren't necessarily beneficial for the world at large.
So I like briefs that allow me to exercise the responsibility that being creative comes with. It’s so important for us as creatives to use our creative mind — which is ultimately about problem solving — to help with the challenges of today. And there are a lot of challenges, too many to even count.
How important is it for you to feel like you're doing something new?
So important. My favourite designer is Virgil Abloh. His creativity spanned multiple disciplines and he got inspiration from immersing himself across all these different spaces. He was all about putting himself in new environments and doing something new is intrinsic to that.
I try to emulate this mindset particularly when I’m art directing by really researching the brief, understanding the mediums and immersing myself in the right headspace.
Anywhere you look and think: “Damn I wish I was doing what they are doing”?
There’s a lot of 3D studios out there now. After Covid, it really came into its own because people couldn’t shoot in real life obviously so they instead relied on these tools to fill in the gap — places like Man Versus Machine for example.
But there’s a lot of stuff going on really in terms of 3D printing and Generative AI. I’m trying to experiment — take a piece of code, adjust it and see what it will produce. Most of the time it won’t be too good, but it’s changing rapidly and it’s just so relevant.
Is AI going to be positive or negative in relation to design?
Some brands already use AI in their design process by using it to analyse and criticise key visuals. The AI then relates this to the data its trained on is able to see whether or not the design rhymes with actual behavioural data (where it is positioned on the page versus where people often look for instance).
But ultimately, this is just a tool — it can’t replace a person or their creativity — and if it helps brands achieve their goals they are going to use it regardless of what I think about it.
And finally, to bring it back to humanity — what is the importance of a good company culture?
Getting it right culture wise is everything. Here at Highsnobiety, I was struck by how important they take company culture, and they show this by taking care of their own people. A key indicator for me was how they really care and are conscious about people's mental health — which is key today when we are all talking about burnouts a lot more due to stressful workloads.
And even though this is the right thing to do, it’s good for business as well. Because if you take care of the people that work for you then the outcome is always going to be superior. If people don't want to be there, then it shows in execution. And if they burn out, you won’t get anything out of them at all.
Ultimately having a good company culture comes down to being a bit more human about it all, and that’s when the best work happens too.