French Agency Graphéine on Illusions, Typography & Sustainable Businesses


They’re fun, open-minded, hard-working, and they make fantastic design. The French design agency Graphéine recently concluded the 2017–2018 campaign for the Saint-Étienne Opera house with designs full of emotion, hence its title émotions partagées (shared emotions). And what’s more, they’ve reason to celebrate since 2017 is their 15-year anniversary.




Graphéine’s work begs second and third glances, not only because of the bold typography they incorporate into their solutions, but also because of the daring illusions they pull off, such as their anamorphic graphics for the Lyon St-Exupéry airport. Mathias Rabiot & Jérémie Fesson, Graphéine’s founders and creative directors, answered a few interview questions about their work and spoke about what makes them constantly curious and constantly creating—two ingredients absolutely necessary for being a designer.

Your studio’s work is fun and playful, and memorable. How have clients responded to it? Do they request certain things they’ve seen in your portfolio, such as the optical illusion work for the Lyon Airport?

Indeed, our role is to solve our clients’ communication needs, and we always do our best to provide tailored solutions, with a minimalist, playful and accessible design. In the case of the Lyon Airport project, it was about creating a graphic coverage for a very long underground tunnel, and the main goal was to reduce the transit duration perception. For this, the anamorphosis concept seemed particularly relevant. As the traveler progresses into the tunnel, the anamorphosis is deconstructed and the perceptions of time and space are poetically changed. The traveler experiences an optical illusion and doesn’t focus on the transit duration.




The Lyon Airport looks like it was a very complicated project. What kinds of things did you have to learn on the job and what tools did you have to use?

The project wasn’t selected by the client, but it wouldn’t have been that complicated to achieve. Our mockups are based on 3D views (from Sketchup), so it would have been really easy to export 2D maps from these mockups. However, it was a pretty costly project to produce, since it was based on a total covering. This might be the reason why the project never became a reality!







2015–2016 Opera branding and communication system et la magie opéra (and the magic opera[te])

Your work for the Opera is a blend of strong and playful typography with strong and playful photography. What was the client’s reaction when they saw the work?

The first year of our collaboration with the Opera, we presented both the logo and the season campaign concepts at the same time. They were intimately linked, as the accent on the logo makes the smile of the faces that appear on the season visuals.




The 2017–2018 Opera season campaign émotion partagées (shared emotions)

Right from the beginning of the project, we’d put forward the idea of photographing people from Saint-Étienne, to avoid the bank of images effect. Alongside the Opera’s communications team and our favorite photographer from Lyon, Ghislain Mirat, we organized a photo shoot inside the Opera. On a voluntary basis, all staff members were invited to have their portrait taken. Three quarters of staff members entered into the spirit, from the people who work at reception to the Director, not forgetting the faces hidden behind the curtain, the smiles of the dressmakers, happy children and a few drifters walking by! The people, the smile, the emotions: the main elements were all set, and we’ve been developing them for the following seasons, strongly supported by the Opera’s communications team.

Overall, your work has a strong typographic element. What words of advice would you give to a designer who is looking to incorporate typography into their own work, or their client work?

Typography is one ingredient among others, but it is the one that carries words. There are mainly two modes of communication, the visual mode and the verbal one. Typography can turn verbal language into a visual one, and must therefore be at the service of the message. Typography provides an additional semantic layer to a concept and makes an information more expressive. When treated only in a decorative way, typography becomes a gadget that doesn’t interest us. Plus, “decorative” works are often complicated to defend with clients. Whereas when you are able to explain your choices, clients get more receptive.




Everything about the Paris campaign comes across as friendly, exciting, and welcoming. What spirit were you trying to capture, what mood were you trying to convey, with the colorful illustrations?

Working for the Paris Visitors Bureau was very exciting as well as challenging. Well aware that we were entering an overused visual territory, we wanted to step aside from the usual postcard pictures of Paris. Using illustration allowed us to offer a fresh, colorful and poetic look on the capital.

We’ve collaborated with Lyon-based illustrator Séverin Millet for the 2016 season, and in 2017 the communication team of the Paris Visitors Bureau placed its trust in illustration again, asking Vincent Mahé, one of the most Parisian illustrators, to work with them. We’re now looking forward to 2018, to discover the graphic charter flourishing with another illustrator’s work.




The Paris work is also very diverse because you have so many different pieces, so many different illustrations. How do you push yourselves to create so much variety for the clients, and is there ever a point where the client is overwhelmed?

We do our best to create inspiring projects for our clients. To do so, we first start to look for solutions that inspire us. This is when we find new concepts, when everybody in the team has their eyes light up, that we can present our ideas to the client. This is, to us, the easiest way to make our clients satisfied and involved. If they feel inspired, we give them the opportunity to take on the project, to feed it with their vision and knowledge of the subject. In the end, they legitimately take part in the success of the project. This climate of trust is the only way to make good design.


Your agency was founded in 2002 and this year, 2017, marks 15 years you’ve been in business. Where do you see yourselves in 5 years when you turn 20? What about in 15 more years, when you turn 30?

We’re young, the future lies before us, and we’re extremely excited. We know we’re very lucky. What’s important to us is to build a sustainable and balanced business. We try to do the craziest things in the most reasonable way. We don’t have a career plan or goals for success. We also choose to work with people we love for their human qualities, and with whom exchanges are valuable. We want our small team to keep progressing, learning, sowing seeds, and blooming.

Edited from a series of interviews conducted via email with Graphéine.

See more graphic design that uses optical illusions for viewers to look at again and again in HOW’s 2017 Creativity Issue—coming soon! And find more issues in MyDesignShop.