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KNOTORYUS Talks to Ken Kirton of HATO

KNOTORYUS Talks to Ken Kirton of HATO

London design studio, publishing house and independent printing press HATO is a rare bird. Not literally: ‘hato’ is Japanese for ‘pigeon’, which is a nod to storied publishers like Penguin and The Doves as well as London’s ubiquitous flappy fauna. But co-founders Ken (short for Kenjiro) Kirton - who will be taking the stage at Us By Night 2018 - and Jackson Lam have garnered worldwide recognition for their unique views on co-creation through play. Ever since linking up at the prestigious Central Saint Martins University of the Arts and creating the first incarnation of their business in 2009, everyone from Facebook, Tate, Jean Jullien, Somerset House and UNIQLO to restaurant Sketch London has joined forces with them.  

Creating design that adds a worthwhile moment to everyone’s day – having folks doodle to then use those scribbles to create a festival campaign or sourcing a new font with an interactive letter tool – is what makes HATO singular. They’ll go the distance to avoid the so-called ‘Boaty McBoatface’ scenario (do read on). More so, in this world of turmoil and political strife, HATO understands that design and the printing press have always worked in unison to provide push-back. They share their risograph, a soy ink sustainable copier press, with the local community to help spread the people’s beliefs, a crucial act of solidarity. And if you want to take your mind off of it all, you can take one of their workshops - like the DIY holiday wrapping paper one. Having Ken Kirton as a speaker at #UBN2018 is a delight you’ll want to witness first-hand, as the spirited designer is sure to plant an inspired smile on your face.

(c) HATO

KNOTORYUS: Hi Ken! Thanks for taking the time to chat. Before we talk shop: I saw on your Instagram that you have a new-born at home, congratulations!

KEN KIRTON: Thank you! She’s joining the conference in November. She’ll be a 3-month-old Us By Night-er.

KNOTORYUS: The cutest one, bet. You must not be getting a lot of sleep at the moment though.

KEN KIRTON: I can’t complain actually, it’s a different type of sleep. Not as deep and sound though, I would say. (laughs)

KNOTORYUS: Is there anything you can already share about your UBN talk? 

KEN KIRTON: We’ll mostly be looking at how HATO believes in a co-creative practice that has play at its centre. How that works as a design studio and how it can engage with communities. We want to shape a more informed society through co-creation and play by designing visual tools that let people reconnect with their creativity as well as learn new processes. For example, we sometimes crowd-source graphic identities, design typefaces with a group of artists or design installations with young children. We see design as a method of engagement as opposed to a one-way monologue.

KNOTORYUS: I had a lot of fun mucking about on the Sketch website you designed, tossing David Shrigley plates through the air. Though it’s definitely never going to be an IRL scenario for me, that’s sacred crockery, I appreciate the opportunity. What excites about you experimenting with the unknown factor of co-creating with the general public?

KEN KIRTON: We always want to make sure that we’re adding value to someone’s day. When you’re playing around on the Sketch website, we want it to be fun and something to keep exploring. Granted, the added value is often very personal and we can’t necessarily define your experience. We’re very careful about how we define the participants’ process. That’s why we design these tools, to help guide that creative journey. In many ways, we become facilitators and not just designers.

KNOTORYUS: I feel like that is also a very democratic approach. Design can come across as a bit of a members’ only club – in a “Did you just mistake my Isamu Noguchi washi paper lamp for IKEA?” sort of way. How do you think the industry could stand to become even more democratized?  

KEN KIRTON: As a practice, we’re quite heavily influenced by a few periods in time. We started out as a printing press, HATO Press, because we were really inspired by the Industrial Revolution and the Arts and Crafts Movement in particular. That era was a reaction to the monetization of production and to machinery becoming producers. It’s actually very similar to this digital age, where you have businesses like Amazon Prime providing content or services that are instantly available. Arts and Crafts saw some notable publishing houses in the UK being set up – like The Doves Press, Penguin-Pelican or William Morris – where they would spread utopian texts. One in particular, by William Morris, talked about a future where everything was done through exchanges: there was no money but you’d have a conversation with someone in a store and that could be the currency for buying something. Printing presses were popping up at churches, at political parties and at anarchist publishers alike. That concept of the press as a production tool to let people communicate their beliefs to a wider audience is very inspiring to us. I think our big goal is to say that as a design studio, we can do more than just the output of our work. We can also connect with the people who engage with it and try to add value to their day.

KNOTORYUS: I think you’ve created a system that feeds itself: through your interaction with the public, you as designers can become inspired by what they put back in. It’s sustainable and a very circular way of thinking. We landed in the Industrial Revolution there, perhaps we can fast-forward to the road you travelled to get here. Did you always know you’d end up in design?

KEN KIRTON: Fortunately for me, my mum’s an artist and my older brother went off to study product design first. There was a retrospective on 20th-century graphic design at the Barbican Art Centre when I was growing up and I just found myself staying there the entire day, looking at posters. From then on, graphic design was the lane I wanted to venture into. At university, Jackson and I met in our final year. We were both really interested in workshops and facilitating events, exploring how design could be more than making a poster or a book; how it could be more holistic or engaging. From uni onwards, we grew into a publication and press where design fitted in but I think we always knew that we wanted to have an engagement factor to our practice. We were interested in finding stories about how other printers lived. Like Célestin Freinet, the French pedagogue, who taught a small community group of 8 students from around 5 years old to 17. He instructed his class through a newsletter. Every day, the students would go out to find something they might be interested in and Freinet would encourage them to research that topic, write an article, edit, typeset it, print and distribute it. That got us thinking about what design could be. In the early days, we did an artist residency at the Serpentine Galleries working with communities, which lead to more projects like developing a digital tool for Facebook to design their own cookbook, as a one-day internal innovation programme. I think my favourite HATO workshop was the one at Facebook actually, mostly because of the people we got to work with. A lot of our workshops now are targeted towards an audience that is in some way involved in the creative industry. At Facebook, our group consisted of personal secretaries and administration-focused people who said they couldn’t draw. For us, that’s a great audience to be able to work with. Everyone can draw, it’s just a thing you lose touch with growing up, so we worked with them to re-spark their creative thinking. That’s something we’d like to do more of.

(c) HATO for Jean Jullien via It’s Nice That

KNOTORYUS: You’ve stated before that it was important for you to realise that you can stay true to your values as a designer, that you don’t have to change yourself. It’s always interesting to know what you would tell younger designers who are trying to navigate working with big clients or international businesses. Any valuable lessons you could share?

KEN KIRTON: It’s important to understand the value that you offer and that in some ways, people are purchasing the experience of working with you. Think of collaborating on a project with a client as being part of the actual product. It’s not necessarily just the end design that’s the product, it’s the process as well. Grasping that makes you rethink how you conduct your original presentation and your working relationship with clients. For us, our projects are very collaborative. We want to establish quite a close relationship and a lot of clients become our friends or friends of the practice. That changes the dynamic as well. A friend expects more from you than a supplier, for instance. Either way, I think it’s an exciting journey for anyone going into the field.

(c) HATO

KNOTORYUS: When are you happy with a design that you’ve created? 

KEN KIRTON: The ones I always look back on that make me feel proud of the team would be the co-creation projects we’ve done with a few schools in Liverpool. I’m a bit weary of the term ‘co-creation’, though. Many throw that word around but they’re not really co-creating. It’s like companies saying they’re collaborating but there will be 20 people in the room while most of them are just listening and being told what to do. A little while back, our U.K. government had started a poll to name a research boat that was going to help see and understand global warming. It ended up being named ‘Boaty McBoatface’, which was just a huge piss-take by the public. (laughs) Because there was no value exchange, you weren’t getting anything back for taking part. In Liverpool, the pupils learned about Thomas Moore’s utopian publication and how the written word first started, through designing a space bus. They learned about history, design production, literature and a whole range of skills were exchanged. I think that’s a lovely project because not only is there an end product but you know that there’s a year group you’ve informed about history and design as well as created conversation with. We’d like to expand on that, with bigger audiences as digital tools develop. Doing these in person, in an analogue way, still has a lot of added value though.

KNOTORYUS: Are these co-creative projects mostly logistically challenging or is it hardest to get people to flip a switch and start playing again?

KEN KIRTON: Advertising and marketing have evolved, just like the many ways political democracy doesn’t necessarily work so well right now because there’s this prevalent top-down notion of telling people rather than informing them. In that sense, trust might be one of the biggest challenges. Having a client trusting the process and not doing something that they’re used to. But also trust in the way you engage an audience or community, people trusting the platform or the workshops in order for them to be open to the process.

KNOTORYUS: Considering the huge Brexit rally in London recently, do you feel like people are looking towards design or art more to voice their grievances? Seeing all of those signs at the marches, I can imagine you noticed at the press that there’s a heightened urge within the community to express through design.

KEN KIRTON: Definitely. I think design, art and any creative space is a part of that. We want to help facilitate this facet of the printing press through a new project we’re just about to launch, called ‘Copyshop’. In the 70s and 80s, you’d have copyshops pop up in London as spaces where communities would have access to tools for making political protest posters featuring Margaret Thatcher, Russian politicians or Nixon for instance. On our end, we want to create open nights where people who have something they want to vocalize can come in and work with the designers here for free to create and print a series of campaign posters and flyers. The first edition is particularly focused on the “We Are The 3 Million” Brexit referendum campaign. In the last 10 years, we’ve gone from Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama imagery to Jean Jullien’s Eiffel tower peace sign for the Paris attacks. In some ways, the notion of design has changed. We’re connecting as communities through social media and through shared imagery. It almost feels as if all of these political rallies have a sort of distinction through posters or messages. We’ve been wanting to facilitate this part of our press for a while and when the last London rally happened, we asked ourselves why we held off for so long. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect, you just have to start so it becomes a regular thing.

KNOTORYUS: Exactly! I think it’s a brilliant initiative, timely too. Are there more projects you’re working on pushing forward for the future at the moment?

KEN KIRTON: We’re always looking into AR developments and new community implementation possibilities when it comes to browser updates. We also have a HATO practice in Hongkong as well that opened earlier this year. Over there, we do a lot of work creating cultural identities for new museums and galleries. In many ways, these are the leaders inspiring people to think differently. Over time, as both sides of the world change and grow, we want to explore co-creation and play in countries like Hongkong or China where they have different political structures. That’s something we want to work out over the next few years, looking at realities outside of Western society or a European context. We want to see how certain topics play out in a country like China or America and how we can help other studios become a part of the process as well.

KNOTORYUS: I’ll be following closely. Thank you so much for your time, Ken.

KEN KIRTON: Nice meeting you!

(c) HATO

KNOTORYUS is publishing an exclusive Us By Night Interview-series, digging deep and grilling the UBN line-up on what they do, how they live, their challenges and triumphs alike. Read them all HERE.

Ken Kirton of HATO will be speaking at US BY NIGHT 2018 . The festival is all sold out, but KNOTORYUS will soon be giving away combi-tickets via our Instagram page. Follow us here so you don’t miss out. 


Header image via It’s Nice That


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