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Travel and design have always been linked in powerful ways, from the advent of steam trains, with cathedral-like railway stations offering a vision of the architectural possibilities of steel and glass, to the other-worldly glamour of space travel, with its iconography of athletic astronauts, sleek rockets and hi-tech spacesuits.
For a designer, working in the domain creates specific challenges. “You’re not designing a thing, you’re designing an experience,” explains Michael Tropper, Creative Director at the design agency forpeople, whose clients include Hotel Indigo, Cunard and British Airways. “It’s about taking a much broad, more layered approach.”
How does that approach manifest itself with a client like Hotel Indigo? Surprisingly, Tropper says, it’s about avoiding consistency. “Consistency leads to something that can be quite flat,” he declares. “An example I often give is that you want to experience a journey like a really good film. It’s something that has a sense of drama and suspense, it’s got characters you want to relate to, it’s got a plot line, it takes you places.”
“Travel experiences should be more like that. So that what you remember is a strong emotion that connects you to a brand.”
A key part of the research process is spending time in a Hotel Indigo neighbourhood. “You end up with richer stories if you travel there. I always insist on the team going and experiencing a city, taking pictures, keeping a diary, making a collage, collecting things, buying things, talking to people…” The design team put themselves in the shoes of an Indigo guest. “You might be able to get a sense of a place online, but that can never compare with the experience of actually being there. “It’s often small, fragmentary details that become a defining part of the narrative of a place, like the smell of a waffle stand, a chat with the owner of a boutique, getting lost in a warren of medieval streets, or the tang of a locally brewed ale. The result leads to richer stories which in turn lead to design details that can delight and surprise.”
Travel is something the team at forpeople is well acquainted with; though based in London, most of the agency’s clients are overseas, while the agency’s 80-strong team comes from countries as diverse as Thailand, Israel, France, Korea and Austria. Their hands-on approach means they can also spend weeks or even months working on site for a specific project; last year a forpeople team spent 6 months in Shanghai.
For Tropper, plurality and diversity are important motifs in how the agency works. The different perspectives that come from diverse international backgrounds can act as a powerful creative catalyst. Similarly, though essentially a design agency, forpeople takes a, “post-discipline approach” as Tropper puts it, recruiting staff from diverse backgrounds beyond traditional design.
“We structure our teams by client rather than discipline. We ask, who are the people who should work on this task?” In the case of Hotel Indigo, for example, the team might include writers, filmmakers, textile designers and spatial designers.
This bespoke approach suits clients well; to avoid conflicts of interest, forpeople only works with one client per industry. At the same time the agency encourages dialogue between clients. “We’re a bit like a private members’ club,” Tropper says. And just like a private club, forpeople is nothing if not discreet. You will search in vain online for a list of their blue-chip clients, or indeed, for any information on what they do.
As the company’s founder Richard Stevens once put it, forpeople is, “Maybe the biggest design firm in London you’ve never heard of!” And that sounds fitting for a company that places such a high value on narrative – any good drama will always have a bit of mystery.