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Features / Graphic Design

“Authentic brands really deserve sensitivity”: Pentagram’s Harry Pearce talks through his rebrand of the John Lewis Partnership

In 1985, before Dominic Lippa and Harry Pearce were Pentagram partners and even before they shared their studio Lippa Pearce, the pair worked on designing the own brand packaging for Waitrose. Today, 33 years later, Pentagram is releasing Harry’s redesigned identities of Waitrose, John Lewis and the John Lewis Partnership, which encompasses them both. It’s a rebrand that’s complex, sensitive and authentic; it’s the result of three years of detailed design thinking.

When you look through Harry Pearce’s client list, which includes the Royal Academy and The Old Vic Theatre, his new work with the John Lewis Partnership stands out as one of his most commercial. However, what attracted Harry to the project was the long-standing authenticity of the brands involved. “It’s just got such an amazing history of design integrity,” Harry explains of what initially engaged him with the brief. “Brands with integrity is a really attractive thing.”

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership

This integral history not only inspired the consequential redesign but empowered it too. Parts of Waitrose, John Lewis, and its founder John Spedan Lewis’ tone of voice echo throughout Pentagram’s redesign, especially in the details; for instance, the decision to keep John Lewis’ use of Gill Sans but apply it to all identities. “We haven’t slavishly copied the past, but we’ve used inspiration from the past,” Harry tells It’s Nice That. “We’ve taken heritage and used it as a springboard for a new visual system fit for the future… It’s not just inventing stuff for the sake of it. I think that if you’re in a line of activity that’s been going on for 100 years or more, to give it any weight, you have to honour what’s gone before. I think it would be foolhardy to not honour it. Authentic brands really do deserve sensitivity.”

To tackle a rebrand of this size – one that involves logo redesigns, is included in a new advert by Dougal Wilson, uniforms for staff members and signage for both Waitrose and John Lewis, staples on high streets across the UK – conversation was a key process Pentagram embraced over a “very long and complex period”. Rebrands such as this start with the source and begin with meetings acting as “an examination as to why this is even necessary,” Harry explains. It was 18 years ago that John Lewis last redesigned and in that time frame much has changed, “in terms of retail, and media, and everything really”. Consequently Harry’s team and the managing directors of the brands “looked at whether the current identity was fit for the future that they imagined they would inhabit,” the Pentagram partner continues. “It’s kind of examining what you have and that’s what initiated this experimentation in creating a richer design system. I think each step of the way you have to prove that it’s the right thing to do.”

The “right thing to do” turned out to be incorporating an element of the John Lewis Partnership, which differs it from other high street brands, and bringing it to the forefront. If you’re an employee of John Lewis or Waitrose, you’re automatically a partner, an initiative set up by its founder in 1929. It’s a structure that empowers its employees by giving them a chance to offer their thoughts on how the business is run, a “share in profit, knowledge and power,” says Pentagram. This initiative is one that has always been fairly well-known but not one that was ever communicated through the business’ branding. Now, Pentagram has ensured “the philosophy of the company has been written into the logo,” says Harry.

From today the term “& Partners” is designed underneath the logo of both John Lewis and Waitrose to amplify this, locking it “into the name above the door and on every piece of packaging that you’re ever going to buy”. Utilising this idea that was “born from the business,” made complete sense to both the managing directors of Waitrose, John Lewis, Harry’s team at Pentagram and strategist Carrie Stokes who Harry names as invaluable to the process. “We didn’t come up with it, or were like ‘you have to stick this on your logo’,” says the designer. “It came out of all their exploration and self-examination that was happening at the time. Collectively that [idea] arrived, it wasn’t a big strategic decision, it was a wonderfully harmonious and collaborative growth of the design systems.”

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, John Lewis

The fact that the John Lewis Partnership hasn’t previously shouted about this democratic initiative is quite surprising. “I don’t know whether it’s shyness, confidence or whether it’s just maybe now the time is right,” suggests Harry. You could argue that if this initiative wasn’t written into its history for the last 80 odd years and was suggested now, it would seem a little fake. However, because of it always being an integral part of both brands, it only adds to the aforementioned integrity households establish with the company. As Harry points out, we’re in an age “of the false truth and I think John Lewis and Waitrose have always stood for a sense of integrity, trust and love,” he says. “I think people are so welcoming of the truth. In so much design and brand work, you can see things being an invention and there’s no invention here. It’s partly why I reconstituted things from the past and appropriated things as they use them. I’m working with a deeper truth to create a modern system.”

Pentagram’s reconstitution of the brand’s past in terms of design details is most obvious with its logo design. Gill Sans is a typeface synonymous with John Lewis and so it appeared to be a unifying step to redraw it across all companies under the John Lewis Partnership. It was also a logical step as John Lewis already owned its own cut of the typeface but in terms of tone, “Gill is kind of British, isn’t it?” Harry suggests. “I think that resonated with Waitrose, John Lewis and all of the John Lewis partnership. It just seemed to be that it was one of those things we wouldn’t want to lose. It just seemed so natural. And, why change a good thing?”

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, John Lewis

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, John Lewis, Pattern Design: Bryson Loxley

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, Pattern Design: Bryson Loxley, Packaging Concept: Pentagram

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose

Picking up on one element of the brand’s current design identity and evaluating the possibility of moving it somewhere else is a common approach in Pentagram’s redesign. It keeps recognisable elements for customers, necessary when you think about Waitrose and John Lewis’ clientele, but places it somewhere that makes more cohesive sense in the hope that it “will all just feel like an enriched story for people,” says Harry.

Another example of this is the development of a new patterned logo which runs across both identities described as a “brand lines logotype”. A combination of lines alternating in thickness, and in shades of green for Waitrose’s identity, the pattern is inspired by the "precise proportional relationships derived from the original pattern” – one Peter Hatch designed for the John Lewis Partnership during the 1960s. When this pattern is used across the Waitrose branding, a darker green is particularly noticeable and is the result of a new colour developed by Pentagram titled “Partner Green”. “It’s a lovely story,” Harry explains on the development of creating a distinct colour as part of his design approach. “John Spedan Lewis, the founder of all of this, used to sign all of his correspondence in green ink,” he continues. “We decided we should make a special green which you can see on the edge of a bag, and more online. It’s a little gem of green and it’s meant to be used like homoeopathy; it’s more powerful by its constraint.”

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, John Lewis

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose

On the surface, each of these design decisions, and there are far many more to be gradually rolled out, are slight, sensitive changes. But in Pentagram’s refined simplicity its created an apt redesign for a brand of mammoth size. “You know, we’ve done nothing lightly,” says Harry. “We’ve moved something from one place to fish it back into somewhere else where it has more gravitas. It’s a very careful and prescribed system, even though there’s a huge amount of flexibility and change between all the elements.” This flexibility is developed through a system the designer describes as “the design bloodline,” behaving differently in certain places as it would to others. “It was a long and complex thing to build, like a jigsaw.”

In a redesign as large as this – one that will change the way customers perceive a shop they’ve frequented for years and one that the design community will certainly be eager to comment on – I ask Harry if there was any slight temptation to make his direct stamp on it. But, “that’s where you have to separate your ego from it," he explains. “It’s not about you, or impressing yourself, and you mustn’t get in the way of what it needs to be. That’s what I try to do in all my things… it’s about me trying to find the innate truth in things, and they shift and change. Hopefully, it’s more about John Lewis than it ever is about Pentagram.”

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, John Lewis

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership, John Lewis

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Pentagram: The John Lewis Partnership