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Tipografia Deliziosa: Louise Fili

By Terri Stone

It wouldn’t be a shock if Louise Fili were a little arrogant. She runs a successful New York City design studio, she’s the author of many books, and she’s been showered with medals by the Art Directors Club and AIGA. But far from cocky, Fili is almost humble, and she’s eager to share what she’s learned. Recently, she talked to Create about her inspiration, her process, her clients, and what she’s learned during her career. 

“My favorite period is the 1920s or 1930s,” Fili says, “It just speaks to me. The typography especially is so stylish and sexy. The combination of bold san serif letterforms with beautiful upright scripts — I never get tired of it. It was all hand-lettered; they just made it up as they went along. Every time I go to a flea market I find examples, and they still surprise me.”

These vintage finds are the touch point for Louise’s own hand-drawn letters, which she has created for everything from book jackets to food packaging and restaurant identities. 

“Usually, the way I design is to sit down with a tracing pad,” she explains. “When I was art director for Pantheon, I would write the title over and over again. I let the words speak to me. It would start out rough and loose and then turn into something more specific.” (Fili’s approach worked: her book covers won awards and drove sales. She would be responsible for more than 2,000 covers before she left to start her own studio.)

Her process is similar when designing logos. “I write out the name and see what kind of type treatment it wants to be. I like that exercise because it’s more personal.”

The personal connection is important to Fili, who prefers to work with smaller companies. “If I can’t communicate directly with the decision makers, I don’t take the job. When it’s design by committee, what are the chances they’ll agree with what you say? I can make eye contact with clients. It’s a much more effective way to design.”

If you eat out in New York, you can see Fili’s work at Artisanal, the Mermaid Inn, and Pearl Oyster Bar, among others. But some of her designs may be in your own home: Bartlett wines, Bonnie’s Jams, Dufour pastry dough, Late July crackers, Sarabeth spreadable fruit. Fili even redesigned the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Like the seal, most of her food packaging jobs are makeovers. “When they start out, they don’t have the budget or know-how to hire a real designer. A family friend might do the packaging,” she says. “That works for the first couple of years, but then they realize that the quality of the packaging design doesn’t measure up to quality of their product, and they come to me.”

Fili says that these clients tend to be nervous when they come in for makeovers. Paying a designer and reprinting labels, maybe even changing the shape of the packaging, are big investments. “They don’t know if it’s going to pay off. That’s why I show them before and after examples. Then clients get it.”

If she should reach an impasse with clients during the process, Fili uses another tactic. “Usually, the client can’t articulate their problem. I’ll ask them, ‘What are you afraid of?’ They’re always afraid of something. And then they’ll tell me and we’ll work it out.” 

While it’s clear that Fili is good with clients, her favorite projects are the ones she does for herself. For decades, she has been photographing old signs in Italy and France. They were meant only for her own enjoyment and reference, but the photos transformed into Grafica della Strada: The Signs of Italy and Graphique de la Rue: The Signs of ParisGood news for those of us who can’t get away to see these gems for ourselves.

WORDS OF WISDOM

Although I spoke to Louise for only an hour, I came away with a lot of advice any creative can use. For instance, who hasn’t had a client ask for a random design change (make it bigger, smaller, move it to the left, etc.)? When Fili gets those kinds of requests, she responds strategically: “I say, “Don’t tell me what to change. Tell me what you don’t like about the way it is now, and I’ll fix it.” Brilliant!

She learned a lot while at Pantheon. “I set ground rules. One art director would go into the editor with a stack of comps. She would realize the editor was in a bad mood, but she would still show him the whole stack. Of course, he would reject them. If someone’s in a bad mood, leave and review the work later.”

Some guidance is especially useful for new designers. “One, never depend on any one type of work or client,” she says. “And two, don’t just sit and wait for phone to ring. You have to come up with your own projects. It’s the only way you’ll find your own voice.”

Fili also gives advice to undergraduate and MFA students at the School of Visual arts. But if you can’t manage a semester-long commitment, there’s always her two-week masters workshop in typography. It’s every summer in Rome. Fantastico!

Louise Fili is leading a session at the Adobe MAX conference on Wednesday, October 7, 2015.