Profile of John Lewis’ creative chief Paul Porral

Developing the design heritage of John Lewis is a dream challenge for its creative chief Paul Porral. Anna Richardson discovers a man with a great appreciation for its pared-down, classless feel

When Paul Porral joined John Lewis as head of creative services last year, he had already notched up quite a few notable marks on his career trajectory. From his early days at Fitch, to senior creative at Imagination, head of global design at The Body Shop and creative director at Designhouse, Porral has been on both sides of the consultancy/in-house divide – although he finds such distinctions quite blinkered.

Porral’s experience of branding and identity, as well as commercial design and retail environments, made him a tasty target for John Lewis, but he was just as intrigued by the challenge offered.

‘It wasn’t just about the opportunity to get involved with this brand, which I considered to be very special and very real,’ he says. ‘It was also about the fact that the organisation is a partnership. It makes working here a different experience.’ John Lewis is a business with a great legacy in good design, he adds.

For the past year Porral has built on that legacy, working on projects that will come to fruition this summer and autumn. There’s the opening of the new 22 300m2 Cardiff store at the city’s St David’s development, the launch of John Lewis’s new magazine, and the identity for the retailer’s new shop format, John Lewis at home.
Eschewing a more formal roster set-up, Porral tends to work with his 30-odd-strong in-house team, some key consultancies and other creative specialists from his substantial contacts book. ‘I can build my own mini team,’ says Porral. ‘I prefer a much more one-to-one, intimate model of working with designers and other creatives.’

The Cardiff store will feature an interior by the John Lewis Retail in-house team, a new womenswear department by Dalziel & Pow and communication and point-of-sale visuals by what Porral calls his ‘virtual team’ of in-house and individual design consultants. The magazine is published with John Brown and a creative team of former Marie Claire editor Marie O’Riordan, art director Clare Watters and creative director Chris Parker. It will take the best of the current Source magazine, which is distributed by the partnership’s direct services company Greenbee, and ‘move it closer to the master brand’, says Porral. ‘It gives us some freedom, visually and from a brand point of view, to have a conversation with a customer that you wouldn’t have in-store or online. The magazine is a great vehicle and a great creative opportunity.’

Porral stresses that all new vehicles develop from the same starting principle. ‘The starting point is this Modernist aesthetic/ clean, pared-down and very elegant, and it’s about quality,’ he explains. ‘Everything we do in design has to reflect that and express the brand, from the paper to the quality of the photography and the typography.’

Apart from the ambitious new projects, there has been a general refreshing of the brand. ‘The job was to look back, look around and look outside, to identify what the key handwriting features are for John Lewis and start to work with them flexibly across the categories,’ he says. ‘It was about understanding the heritage, what’s important to the brand, and identifying the elements that a designer can use.’

The John Lewis logotype – a hand-cut version of Gill Sans that was originally brought in by Pentagram – is an integral part of that handwriting, says Porral, who commissioned some new versions of the font to apply to different sectors. In beauty, for example, a more elegant and feminine version was required.
Another main element is the imagery and photographic style. ‘We concentrated on getting quality imagery and working with specialists with a brief of this pared-down, clean approach,’ explains Porral. ‘It’s about realness, and it doesn’t need too much clutter.’

As for choice of colour, green is associated with John Lewis, and it also links to sister company Waitrose. But, as with the different incarnations of Gill Sans, Porral says it’s not about sticking to one Pantone. ‘That would be looking backwards, rather than forwards. It’s all about refreshing and drawing on heritage.’
Porral is clearly taken by that heritage, making frequent reference to John Lewis’s flagship Oxford Street store in London. ‘It’s very different to Selfridges up the road, and that was a conscious decision,’ says Porral. ‘John Lewis is about a much calmer environment and a Modernist, classless view of the world, which is reflected in the design.’

This year’s launches attest to the enduring relevance of that original idea, as the company continues to expand during the recession. ‘Don’t be fooled by that “proper” impression,’ says Porral. ‘This is a very innovative company, based on innovative business ideas.’ And his task of developing the design and branding to match is well under way.

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