Profile: Ninja Tune

"In today's oversaturated world, people need something strong and identifiable to grab on to in the torrent of media thrown at us 24/7." Kevin Foakes on building a Ninja brand...

"I'd say design comes a very close second to the music," says Kevin Foakes, aka DJ Food, aka Openmind, aka Strictly Kev, graphic designer at Ninja Tune, one of the most eclectic and well-respected independent labels to come out of the UK.

Ninja Tune was set up in 1990 by Matt Black and Jon Moore, better known as DJ duo Coldcut. Foakes fills us in: "The music they were interested in making was a fast-moving, ever-evolving hybrid of many genres, and this didn't make them easily pigeon-holed - a thing that major labels like to do so they can wheel you out if you fit the current trend. They were making a lot of records under different guises and in multiple styles that they wanted to release before they got stale. The majors don't work like that - they have long release schedules and prioritise high-sellers."

Ninja is born
So, Ninja Tune was born, and as Foakes explains, creating a unique identity for artists on the label has pretty much always been high-priority: "As soon as the label could afford it, there was a conscious decision to stop doing house bags for singles and let each release have a unique sleeve so that they could flourish from under the label identity." And acts that have flourished include Mr Scruff, Roots Manuva and The Herbaliser.

As an in-house graphic designer at Ninja, Foakes' job is diverse to say the least - and he gets a chance to be as experimental as the acts he designs for. "The jobs I favour the most are the ones where I'm largely left to my own devices," says Foakes. Sure, don't most designers like it this way? But how often do you get such an open brief? Well, it seems it's something that's always been at the heart of Ninja: "Each artist will come with their own message," he says. "The Ninja Tune brand isn't something that has ever been thought out in a meeting - it's a freely evolved thing, if it even exists, that comes from a way of working that is left to the individuals involved rather than dictated from higher up in the company."

Foakes' own DJing and successful music career has put him in a good position to work with other artists, visualising the finished artwork and branding. "I start by speaking with the artist about the record and the title, then try to get an idea of what they are trying to convey with it and any initial ideas they have," he says, telling us how he tackles a job. "Often I don't even have a copy of the music to go on - but this isn't that necessary." Interesting. "I'll think about what's been discussed with the artist and kick some ideas around in my head, discounting obvious solutions or ones that I think have been done before. Sometimes something will pop fully formed into my head and I'll set about gathering and making the elements to put it together. I sometimes do very rough thumbnails in my sketch book but I've had the same book for over ten years!" As you can imagine, Foakes is "not a big sketcher."

"The main objective is to think about each artist as an individual, create a visual coherence in their records and then try to tie that together with some of the elements of the label," remarks Foakes. But he realises this is no easy feat, especially for a label as varied as Ninja. When working as Openmind (his design moniker) Foakes creates an individual and unique brand for an artist according to his tastes and design aesthetics - certain completely unrelated releases will appear connected just because he uses certain colour palettes, typography and photography over other choices. You get the feeling this is a designer with a free reign, who is loving it. "On occasions, I will have an artist come to the studio and we'll go through images and rough ideas for an afternoon and I'll mock something up on the computer as a demo," he tells us, somehow bringing a sense of reality back into his life as a designer. "This is a good way to kick ideas back and forth and get an instant reaction to a direction," and just to reiterate the creative freedom Foakes has at Ninja, he adds, "although it's not my preferred way of working."

On to the bigger picture, in terms of keeping Ninja's identity focused and consistent, Foakes has a definite opinion on how a brand should be formed and maintained. "I think the only way to establish a unique identity is to have only one or two designers, preferably with complimentary tastes, working on 99 per cent of the material." So why is this? "This projects their vision on to a multitude of different releases." And he has a point, which he puts across with an educated knowledge that brings us closer to Foakes' methodology. "You only have to look at some great examples of labels that have done this: Blue Note - Reid Miles; Factory - Peter Saville; 4AD - Vaughan Oliver and Chris Bigg; Warp - Designers Republic; Mo'Wax - Swifty and Ben Drury; Twisted Nerve - Andy Votel; Output - Trevor Jackson." He continues: "Of course, most of these designers didn't do EVERY sleeve on these labels, that would be impossible, but their input was large enough to become the style that the public associate with the name. In today's oversaturated world, people need something strong and identifiable to grab onto in the torrent of media thrown at us 24/7."

Working process
Having explored the thought behind the method, we find out a bit more about Foakes' working process. "I'll make logos, choose typefaces and take/find photos to make my initial vision on the Mac using Photoshop and FreeHand. The first version will either work and need a bit of tweaking or it will be back to the drawing board. Some things have a very strong idea and direction from the beginning and just require hard work to get from A to B. Others are much more fluid and I'll play about with various versions. When I'm happy with the result, I send JPEGs to the artist, which will generally be typographic logos and a version of the album cover to check that I'm going in the right direction. This will either get approved by them and a few suggestions made or it will get rejected and I'll start again." After a design is approved, Foakes sets about shaping the existing elements into the various formats needed. "I always design the initial format as a vinyl record and then reduce it to CD later," he says.

As technology progresses and the web (and, more specifically, iTunes) begins to dominate the world of music sales, does Foakes see any advantages or disadvantages to the digital download revolution? "I don't see many disadvantages to downloads other than the absence of a physical product for your money," he remarks. "Call me old-fashioned, but I like to hold something in my hand for my hard-earned cash." There's another disadvantage, or problem, that seems closer to Foakes' heart. "The death of the record shop. Margins are becoming smaller and smaller and several prominent UK record stores have closed this year alone, being forced to go online because they can no longer afford inflated property fees. The main advantage of shopping online is taking valuable revenue away from them in the same way that eBay took the collectors' market from them and plopped it on the consumers' desktop a few years back."

And how will the designer's job change as consumers discover new ways of buying and listening to music? "If I had the answer to that question, I would be a very rich man in a few years and wouldn't be giving all my secrets away in this mag!" He's honest, at least...

We leave the designer as he prepares to play, as DJ Food, in front of a packed audience in Amsterdam. Then he's heading to Barcelona and France before returning to his day job in London, designing another sleeve or poster for another of his contemporaries. Kevin Foakes, aka Strictly Kev, aka DJ Food, aka Openmind embodies what Ninja Tune is all about - creative freedom, freedom of expression and diverse, yet prolific talent.