The Designers: Koto’s Arthur Foliard on accepting his flaws, curiosity and why he loves London
The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For number seventeen in the series, we caught up with Arthur Foliard – a graphic designer and illustrator working as the Creative Director (Design Director at the time of the interview) at Koto’s London office.
EM Hi Arthur, how’s 2021 been so far for you?
AF COVID aside, it’s been great! On both personal and professional levels. I can’t complain.
EM Having grown up in Paris and worked in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Berlin and London, what differs between their creative cultures?
AF Paris is a wonderful city, it’s gorgeous, it’s small enough, so you can walk everywhere, it’s got mind-blowing architecture, but everything around you is from the past. Nothing really changes – it’s all set in stone. As much as I think it’s incredible and inspiring on a cultural and creative level, it never had the ever-changing landscape I was looking for and found in London. London breathes design and creativity. It’s always moving, changing and reinventing itself. It fuels our ideas (a bit like Berlin too).
It had a huge impact on me, and how I think today. The work we do today is soon going to be a story of the past. So how do we reinvent ourselves to be relevant and interesting tomorrow? That’s what drives me. That’s also what makes San Francisco so interesting and appealing to so many people. It’s got a sharp focus on the future, and the next thing that’s not even been made yet. So it feels like the city is always moving forward.
How do we reinvent ourselves to be relevant and interesting tomorrow?
EM Do you think working in different cities has shaped your taste and approach?
AF 100%. It’s one of the reasons I left San Francisco for London in the first place. I loved the city, but deep down I believed that working in different places and countries would be invaluable for my growth. I could feel how San Francisco was changing me for the better, and the idea of discovering and exploring a new culture amazed me.
When you go somewhere, you learn so much about people. And the more we understand about how we behave, interact, work, think, the more equipped we are to deal with challenges. We grow empathic, and for me, that is one of the greatest strengths we need in life, and at work! Because at the end of the day, work is about everything but you. It’s about your client, your boss(es), your colleagues, and I keep this close to everything I do. That’s a reason why I’ve always been so eager to live in different places, keeping my curiosity high and sharp.
Some of our weaknesses can become our greatest strengths.
EM Did graphic design or illustration come first for you?
AF Graphic design came first. I’ve had a rough path with illustration. I hated it when I was younger. From probably the age of six to twenty…two? I just couldn’t draw, and it frustrated me for years, I tried and tried and tried again, and it never worked out. It didn’t help that my dad was naturally talented at it. At one point I thought, ‘it’s not for me’ and literally gave up completely. It’s hard, especially when we spent the first years of uni doing academic drawings all day long. However, after a few years of struggle, I realised it was simply about acceptance.
Rather than trying to draw well, something I could probably never do, I just exaggerated this flaw to make it feel purposeful. Hence, why I draw like a child. I really believe that some of our weaknesses can become our greatest strengths. I often tell students (and friends) to accept their weaknesses and find a way to make them part of their life. Use them at your advantage.
EM Do your illustrations ever cross over to inform your graphic design work? Or are they totally separate things to you?
AF It’s so interesting you ask this question because it never really crosses over. I’ve had opportunities to use my illustrations on one or two rebrands, or my handwriting here and there, but what I found in illustration is an escape. It’s a space where I can do my thing. I don’t even think about it, so there’s no idea, concept, or message, it’s all about me just doodling on a page and that’s it.
I’m truly amazed by the talented people we discover day after day at Koto. It’s like an infinite well of creativity. I’d rather collaborate with someone truly remarkable, that can elevate our work. Hopefully, it goes two ways and we can help them too. Rather than me trying to add funny looking animals to a brand…
But what I’ve learned is to trust my team.
EM As you’ve transitioned through to senior design positions, what’s changed about the way you work?
AF I’ve read a quote (apparently from Plutarch?) that said: “A leader should do anything, but not everything.” That’s it for me. There’s nothing else to add, it’s spot on, ha.
What’s changed is that I can’t do everything like I used to. It’s hard because you always feel like you could do it yourself. And as a designer, I push hard until I’m truly convinced it works. But what I’ve learned is to trust my team. I know that they can bloom when given the chance, so I give them responsibilities. I give them space to grow, space to breathe, and space to practice – even if they fail – because it’s part of the process. Basically, I treat people how I’d like to be treated.
Trust is such a powerful feeling, and Koto is a fantastic place to feel it. I was given incredible opportunities at a young age to step up, and trust me I fucked up more than once. I just want to give that same opportunity to others.
EM Is being in a senior position what you thought it would be?
AF I never really had expectations about it, I never thought ‘wow I’ll do this, or I’ll do that.’ So, everything is an experience. Saying that though, it’s beyond everything I imagined. I’m living the dream. I like the responsibility of ‘if I fuck up, that’s on me.’ If I fail, I fail, there’s no one else to blame. More importantly, it taught me to be more pragmatic. To think twice, (or thrice), and to be a step ahead. As a spontaneous person, I discovered another side of my personality.
I like the responsibility of ‘if I fuck up, that’s on me.’
EM What do you think is the most important skill a designer can have that isn’t design?
AF Empathy. Like I said earlier, understanding people and their emotions is key to everything we do. You understand your colleagues, your boss(es) and your clients because you focus on them, not on yourself. What’s interesting about empathy is the fact it teaches you to be more adaptable as a person. Adaptability comes in at a close second to me as the most important skill to have. Everyone is so different, there’s no playbook, it’s about listening and being in the moment.
It’s about understanding what a client tells you. About understanding the subtext of a Slack message. Recognising the signals that someone needs your help. It also teaches you humbleness because you realise that there are much bigger things than you. It’s a challenge because it also needs to be balanced out with a good understanding of yourself. It’s important to know ourselves right, because if we don’t we can’t possibly understand others.
TBI What does your setup look like?
EM What would you like to see more and less of in the design industry?
AF I think that if we want to see change, we have to start with ourselves first. So, I try to be more open as a person, more understanding. I try to be less judgemental and critical of other projects. I try to praise people that have done good work, whoever they are. Not just that, I try to find time to help people with questions. And to be kinder with myself (not easy). If I do that better, I can only hope that it has an impact on others. That they will continue it, and so on, until we see global change.
EM What are you looking forward to over the next few weeks?
AF No hesitation, being back in our London studio in the next few weeks with the whole Koto crew.