The French are known for being stylish, and it’s a reputation that has endured for centuries.
However, while France has prevailed as the tastemaker in Europe and around the world — leading the way in fashion, art, and luxury design — its graphic design, particularly of recent decades, may be lesser known.
French design is unconventional in modern design terms; it doesn’t have the minimalism and refinement of Scandinavian or Swiss design, or the bold colors and exaggerated characters of Japanese design, but it certainly has its characteristic features that range from aesthetic to philosophical and ideological.
So take your style cues from the French and don’t let commercialism and functionality hinder your creative vision. French design has originality, artistry, and sophistication, and challenges its audience visually, emotionally, and intellectually. Here are ten characteristics of French graphic design that may help you add a little je ne sais quoi to your work.
01. Flaunt Your Drawing Skills
French art and design schools place a strong emphasis on students being able to draw; in fact you need to learn to draw before you can be admitted to many of the country’s prestigious schools. This translates to graphic design that incorporates beautiful illustration work in pencil, pen, charcoal, and various other mediums. This results in pieces of work that have elegance and finesse and that can be quite exquisite and one-of-a-kind.
Design studio Violaine & Jérémy has a stunning portfolio of work that captures many of the design characteristics of French design. This poster features a pencil drawing by illustrator Thomas Rouzière for an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
This incredibly detailed album cover by Yeaaah! Studio is a hand-drawn work of art with some elements copied from nineteenth and early-twentieth century illustrations, and others inspired by the graphic style of the turn-of-the-century period.
Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag are the talented behind well-known studio M/M Paris. They have been working closely with Björk since the late 1990s and their catalogue of album covers is testament to their creativity and skills. The cover of Vespertine (2001) features a photograph of Björk wearing the famous swan dress by Marjan Perjoski and an exquisite illustration by M/M laid over top.
02. Take a Pictorial Approach
Pictures have played a big role in the legacy of French graphic design, particularly when you think back to the illustrious posters from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras. So whether it’s illustrations like those shown above, photographs, colored imagery, or simple line drawings, it’s pictures – rather than typography or symbols – that are often front and center. This has the effect of adding sophistication and artistry to a design, as well as making the work appear more personal and emotive.
Adin Eli de Gunzbourg designed and illustrated this cookbook. Each double-page spread has a still-life illustration of the ingredients required for the recipe it depicts, adding tasty and colorful detail throughout.
Graphéine looked to the characteristics of the Baroque style to create a new visual identity for a renovated Baroque chapel in the Haute-Normandie region. Pictures of the venue and the performances feature on all printed material, while black and gold and the sun and moon symbolize the glimmering luxury of the bygone style.
A simple but effective line drawing of an extended hand characterizes this logo for Parisian concept store Democratie. Designed by Say What Studio, the picture is applied to all branding and visual identity material.
03. Tell a Visual Story
French design will often tell a visual story or narrative rather than convey a coded message. Certainly, visual compositions have always been a big part of French graphic design, which of course ties in with the strong emphasis on pictures and illustration and the desire to take pictorial approach. A visual story engages the audience and forces them to view the image longer in order to interpret the message.
Maïté Franchi illustrated this campaign for Eurostar to promote the city of Lyon, France. The train takes pride of place in the center of the image, surrounded by landscape features, architectural landmarks, and of course food and wine. Vive la France.
Using ink gel pen, Fiodor Sumkin has illustrated this corporate brochure for Nike to tell a visual story of the company’s use/reuse process. It combines typography, images, and detailed pattern.
04. Avoid Clichés
When it comes to advertising products, French designers, art directors, and copywriters push the boundaries to find new ways to present their ideas and reach their audience. This often means avoiding cliché images and recycled ideas, and coming up with new and innovative visual concepts in order to influence and challenge viewers intellectually.
Volkswagen is known for iconic and memorable advertising campaigns, and in many cases these don’t even feature a picture of the car, as most other brands typically do. Instead Volkswagen relies on its reputation, sharp copywriting, and well-considered concept to make an impact.
Designer and visual artist Maud Vantours nominates paper as one of her favorite materials to work with. She folds it, cuts it, and weaves it to create patterns inspired by volume and texture. Here, she uses inexpensive paper to represent luxury handbags.
05. Use Unconventional Imagery
Using unconventional imagery is certainly one way to avoid clichés and the French are very good at being unconventional, which is why they are often are the forefront of trends and fashion. Incorporating an image or picture by abstracting it or presenting it in a different manner can serve to challenge your audience’s perception and engage their attention.
Avant Post designed the posters and programs for the 2015/16 season of the Salins Theater in Martigues, with photography by Samuel Guigues. Each poster and program is based on the four seasons – summer, spring, winter, and fall – and has a disjointed image featuring iconic items associated with each season.
It takes some looking to determine what this image is, but once you have it, it’s certainly clever and artistic. Studio My Name is Wendy has rendered the leaves of a book to appear like large brushstrokes across the page for a series of posters advertising Les Livres de Mallarmé.
Sculpture, set design, and photography – plus of course graphic design – has gone into the making of Alexandra Bruel’s cover for Fricote magazine. For the issue titled ‘Epicurien Urbain’ an egg is presented with the yolk shaped like a great ancient pyramid.
06. Get Artistic Typography
Of course, the idea of being unconventional also extends to typography, which is almost experimental in some cases as designers explore how to create or enhance their visual story with letters and words. This has the effect of adding originality, artistry, and sophistication to a piece as these typography experiments and explorations may be one-off works.
This poster by Catherine Zask sees words and imagery merge as one. The look is wild and erratic, and appropriately so, given it is advertising a performance titled Concert Sauvage.
This cover for Redux by Paul & Martin has, amazingly, been made entirely by hand. A gel-like substance has been formed into the title of the magazine adding depth and dimension and distorting the striped background.
07. Distort images
Needless to say experimentation and manipulation is also applied to images in order to distort their form and volume. This adds a layer of emotional, intellectual and visual interpretation to what may otherwise be quite straightforward design, requiring the audience to engage with the image to understand its meaning or message.
For the Festival de la Photo Ratée (meaning ‘the failed photo’) Laura Normand has abstracted a picture of a woman’s head, essentially slicing it into horizontal strips and repositioning those strips to create a distorted image of a head and face.
Formes Vives calls itself “a political, utopian, and conscientious graphic design studio” working with a collective of designers. This cover for journal Le Travail A (‘The Work’) has a photograph of workers in a third-world country and appears like it has been smeared or offhandedly painted over.
Designed by Twice Studio, one side of this program for La Gaîté Lyrique is a rigidly formatted display of typography while the other side is an extreme close-up of brushstrokes, smeared color, or other forms of painted work.
08. Take Inspiration From Artistic Works
France has a great canon of artistic work, so it makes sense for designers to draw inspiration from famous artists, great masterpieces, and standout artistic styles. This undoubtedly adds cultural capital to a work, aligning the graphic design piece with a legacy of French art as well as encouraging viewers to situate the work within a broader framework of artistry.
While this work by Violaine & Jérémy may not reference a particular work or painter, it certainly takes its cues from art with a focus on color and the use of watercolors, as well as other pigments and inks, to create a variety of chromatic scales.
09. Provoke an Emotional Response
French graphic design seeks to create a connection with its audience by provoking an emotional response. This may be through imagery, text, or overall concept and by conveying a thought-provoking message or using imagery that conjures up a certain mood or feeling. The aim is to make viewers think about the deeper message or broader context of the work.
Animals are always a sure-fire way to tug on an audience’s heartstrings, but even more so when it’s for non-profit International Fund for Animal Welfare. A clever concept by Young & Rubicam sees an orangutan being 3D printed and a tagline that translates to “all is not easy to make.”
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? The wolf nearly always plays a notoriously bad character in fairytales and folklore, and here Yeaaah! Studio has used a hand-drawn wolf front and center on the poster for the alternative music Damage Festival in Paris.
In 2001, M/M Paris created a special typography called ‘The Alphamen’ for the first issue of VMan magazine. Photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, the alphabet distorts and manipulates faces and bodies to create a powerful typographic image.
10. Create a Dialogue
A great goal of French graphic design – and any graphic design, for that matter – is to win the hearts and minds of the audience. The French are a culture known for their passion and intellect, and creating a dialogue through design can help win those hearts and minds. Images, messages, and repetition can be used to stir emotions, hit on hot-button topics, and question the status quo.
In her poster series “City By Blind People,” Laura Normand questions how to formalize the feelings of a blind person, for whom a city is noise and movement. A pixelate, grey-scale background represents diminished sight perception, while brightly colored braille is laid over top.
Tom Henni created a large series of posters for the Festival d’Improvisation De Lyon. Each one features a smiling green circle in different spontaneous scenarios and situations, all of which are humorous, clever, and playful.
There’s no denying the French have style in spades, so when it comes to taking a varied approach to your graphic design do as the French do. Emphasize the imagery and visual story and speak to your audience’s intelligence. And just to keep it all in check, remember to take French designer Coco Chanel’s words to heart: “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” Voilà, c’est tout.