Snow fell overnight and winter seemed to have returned to our part of the country the day we met with Bristol based graphic designer Paolo Grasso in Hay-On-Wye, the quaint “town of books” sitting on the border between Wales and England. Having lived and worked here for almost two years before moving to Bristol, Paolo was keen to show us around the town, and took us to some of his favorite book shops and for a walk alongside the wooded banks of the River Wye, chatting about his past experiences, his life in Bristol and his graphic design practice.
Working mainly with clients from the charity or political sector, Paolo’s design language focuses on the functionality and clarity of the message expressed through a significant use of typography. Moving away from his freelance career, Paolo recently started a studio practice called WaterMelon in collaboration with his fellow designer and illustrator Joe Latham.
For those who do not know you, who is Paolo Grasso?
I am a quiet person who has a few interests, a couple of strong beliefs and a big passion for “the visuals”… and I’ve been lucky enough to have made a career in that field as a graphic designer.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Something that I would have called “The Battle of the Ants”. It was a summer’s afternoon, one of those really hot Italian days. I was around seven and I was hanging out with my friend Fabio. We were bored to death. At some point something caught our attention. I don't remember exactly how it started but I can still picture it, even now. It was a very neat line of red ants moving towards an equally as neat line of black ants. The two lines met at the centre which was the battle ground for an incredible fight.
I’m sure that to an adult, that scene wouldn’t have been anything spectacular but I remember it as an epic battle, it was really theatrical. I remember how excited Fabio and I were about this discovery. From what I recall, we both watched this scene taking place over a few hours. We took sides and narrated the battle. We came up with some “interesting” ideas like “what if we caught a spider and placed it in the centre?” By the end of the evening we had actually caught a few spiders. We put them in a little jar ready for the following day for when the fight would re-commence and we would both play our roles in it. Unfortunately, the ants never showed up again.
What sparked your interest in graphic design?
I don't know, really. I can't recall a moment or a mind-blowing experience that made me think “I want to be a graphic designer”. I guess I have always wanted to be one. As a kid, of course, I had no idea what graphic design was until years later. For instance, when an adult around me was watching a football match on television, I was always more interested in the details of the kit the players wore. I liked the team colours and the shapes of the numbers on the players backs. Usually to most people, these things were just a small detail. However, for me, it was specifically this that caught my attention.
As a teenager then, I became more aware about art and visuals. Even though I didn't know where my place was in any of this, I knew that I wanted to be part of it. The truth is that back then I found it quite confusing. There wasn’t a clear line between fine art, illustration, design, or even photography. I was trying a bit of everything but never felt like anything was quite right.
You make a significant use of typography in your work. Why is that?
I think this is somehow connected to what I was saying earlier. Studying fine art, I had finally gained knowledge of what graphic design was, in particular typography and type design which is where things finally felt right. I didn’t consciously make the decision to choose those specific subjects though. I guess something clicked in my creativity and made me feel a certain way about typography.
I knew I could draw and I had some knowledge about photography but because there had been no clear barriers between these subjects for such a long time, I felt the need to ‘compartmentalise’ them in order to make things more simple. It was around this time that I simply fell in love with typefaces.
What are your major sources of inspiration? How would you describe your style?
Modernism and the Swiss Style (or International Style) are still nowadays the starting points, I guess. I like to go back to the work of great designers from the past, Müller-Brockmann, Otl Aicher, Wim Crouwel to name a few. I find it really fascinating to find out their thoughts when designing something which has been recognised as iconic. Also, I think I have a mathematical mindset and as those particular styles have been developed following a “scientific approach”, I find that they work really well with my creativity.
As a final touch then, I’m keen on details ‒ the smaller, the better. And those elements usually come from different sources and areas of interests which move away from specific rules like the punk movement, left wing activism, video games or the street art of the 80s to name a few.
What makes a good design?
Clarity of the message. That counts for a good 90%. I believe that a graphic designer is someone who rationally approaches a communication problem and produces a functional solution. That’s why I’m always a bit uncomfortable when someone defines graphic design as art or a graphic designer as an artist. For sure, there is a common ground there but I feel that graphic design is a very distinctive and a unique discipline in the art sector, again, a bit more scientific. I feel there is something more in graphic design than just the visual aspect of it.
How do you go about developing an idea for a new project?
Usually, after the understanding of the briefing, I try to collect ideas and find some visual inspiration by creating mood boards or lists. Then I make some sketches, which is something I have always been keen on. Some of my designer colleagues don’t really do that. If they do it is usually a quick sketch. I enjoy spending time working on paper and I tend to go as detailed as possible. It gives me confidence to then move to the digital version and polish it up.
There have been many times when I have moved the work from paper to the computer, encountering problems that were not clear in my sketches such as the dimensions and colours etc… But having that initial reference to go back to rather than just a blurry idea in my mind is really helpful and saves a lot of time in the development.
What is your approach to finding work, and retaining clients?
I’m not sure I have a good answer for this. When a client approaches me directly and not through one of the studios I used to work for, I always find it to be a bit of a surprise. I guess in my case it works mostly via my website and word of mouth, such as suggestions made from previous clients.
I probably have a better idea about retaining clients. I think that being professional and honest is the starting point. If they want you to work for them, they probably value your expertise in the area and they may be receptive to any advice you want to give them. At the same time, it’s important to understand who they are and compromise if necessary. Compromise is really key in this job.
What was the most meaningful project you have worked on?
Through the years I’ve been involved in various impactful campaigns whilst working for NGOs such as Greenpeace and Amnesty. Still nowadays, a large amount of my work is made for clients which act in the charity or political sector.
A few years ago, shortly after I graduated, I was asked to design an identity for Stop the Arms Fair, a newborn network of antimilitarist organisations which stand against the DSEI, the largest arms fair in the world which is held in London every two years. It definitely wasn’t my best design, but it has always been such an amazing thing for me to see pictures of demonstrations where groups of activists were carrying giant banners with my logo on them. I found out recently that Stop the Arms Fair has been rebranded so my logo is no longer in use. It’s always a bit sad when some of your work ends up disappearing.
What made you choose Bristol as your home city? What do you love about living here?
It was really a coincidence. I had lived in London for a long time before and from there I moved to Hay-on-Wye, a village on the border between England and Wales. I needed a change back then and I always longed to move to the countryside. I really enjoyed my time in Hay, almost two years, but, honestly, I think that it was a bit too early in my life for that sort of settlement. I still needed the interactions with people that only a city can give you.
So, for a while I played with the idea of leaving the UK and moving to Toulouse where a few of my close friends live. Then once, I came to Bristol and I found myself pretty much into it. It felt familiar, really similar to Bologna, the Italian city where I studied. It has good vibes, you can tell it’s a place with a strong creative community and most importantly it is a left wing/progressive city. So I decided to give it a go and I’ve been really happy so far.
What do you do or where do you go for inspiration?
To be honest, I don’t have a physical place to go ‒ you know, those sort of inspirational places to walk, sit down and gaze at the landscape in thought. Mostly, my “places” for inspiration are in my graphic books and my love for music and cinema. The first ones are never-ending resources, acting always as a reference and a stimulus from the great designers I admire.
Music and cinema are constant elements in my life and have always been a recurrent inspiration for my work. What I design is heavily influenced by what I’m listening to and what I’m watching in a particular period.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
It’s not really advice, but it’s something that the manager at one of the studios I used to work with would say. Any time we had a stressful day dealing with tight deadlines and too many tasks, she was always trying to lower down the pressure smiling and saying “it’s gonna be fiiiiine!”. It worked for me and I have also used this phrase several times when I see someone in a tricky situation with their work! It kind of became my catch phrase! I find there is in it a good level of empathy and also the right amount of humour that really help to downplay the tension.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
I’ve been in love with Vienna for several years. I visited it many times and I’ve dreamt of myself owning a little studio flat there, walk down to the Secession building whenever I want and clear my mind in front of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze.
There is something about Vienna that really catches my imagination. The Austro Hungarian Empire for a long time was ruling over German, Slavic and Italian people. I actually come from an Italian region which, until the end of the First World War, was part of it. Vienna was the centre of this huge empire, a place where all these cultures were coming together and making it vibrant and exciting. The legacy of that golden age is still visible, in the architecture, in music, in culture in general.
I think I’m attracted by central Europe, but I’m more a “Vienna person” than a “Berlin person” if that makes any sense… it does in my mind.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on few different projects. I’ve recently started a new partnership called WaterMelon with a fellow designer and illustrator, Joe Latham. Our biggest client so far is an Italian journalist cooperative who are launching a new magazine which will cover politics, social issues and culture. We have already realised the graphic identity for the magazine and we are currently designing the website. Later on this year we will move on to the design of the first printed issue. We have a lot of creative freedom on this project and that is definitely one of the most exciting things that is happening to us.
More recent short term projects have been the creation of the identity for a Fair Trade campaign in support of tea workers in Assam and the design of a new website for the environmental coalition Greener UK.
What are you dreams and ambitions for the future?
I’m really pleased whenever my designs have any kind of visibility, even without a clear credit to myself. For this reason, I’ve always dreamt of designing something that would become suddenly really familiar in people’s lives. A visual element which is literally everywhere, but in a subtle way without bringing any sort of celebrity or “spot light”. Something like the old British Rail logo.
The two red facing arrows that nowadays symbolise any train station in the UK and which are also used on street signs. A visual element that is a silent part of our daily routine but we don’t really think who was behind it or who came up with that idea and finally designed it. Being everywhere and being the only one having the knowledge about it can be really exciting feeling.
And now a Max Frisch question: Which person or persons, now dead, would you like to see again?
I would like to have the opportunity to talk again to a friend of mine who unfortunately left us really young, over ten years ago. We were really close and we grew up together during a particular period of our life. She was always straight but always brilliant. She had a big heart. Nowadays, when something happens either in my life or in general around the world, I wonder “what she would be thinking about this?”.
Can you recommend us a book, a film and a song?
I would always recommend anyone to read The Aleph and Other Stories which is an amazing collection of short stories and characters by Jorge Luis Borges. In terms of movies, it may be a bit more tricky as I really love a lot of directors, Stanley Kubrick over everyone. But, in order to mention something less "mainstream", I would recommend M by Fritz Lang. Finally, I really love the songwriter Sharon Van Etten and in particular her song titled Tarifa.
Thank you, Paolo for the wonderful tour in and around Hay-on-Wye and for sharing with us your thoughts on graphic design.