Twins often develop their own languages in early development. The phenomenon of cryptophasia consists of secret codes the twin-pairs use to communicate exclusively with one other. These often begin at pre-linguistic stages of development and are abandoned when the children age. Fa and Fon, identical twins, and creative partners, seem to have maintained a visual artistic code in place of this through their creative practice.
If you are in London, you have probably seen their work on billboards. If you are anywhere else, and a user of social media, you have probably seen their campaigns on Instagram and Tik Tok. They are not ‘content creators,’ but commercially producing artists with fingers on the pulse. Working collaboratively across a smashingly broad range of mediums, the artists have recently partnered on viral projects and campaigns with the likes of , TikTok, Fila, Motorola, Converse – the list keeps growing. Their style is distinct, yet often makes apparent references to futurist pop-culture products, particularly the anime films and manga they were exposed to as children. They talked to us about working as a pair, crafting a distinct identity in a supersaturated creative economy and setting important boundaries concerning creative work.
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Could you introduce yourselves and your work to those who don’t yet know you?
We’re Fa and Fon Watkins, art directors/directors/graphic designers and content creators, mainly focusing on pop culture-inspired work that’s fuelled by our Asian heritage but we’re really navigating across a lot of different design media and genres at the moment.
Do you balance out one another’s technical specialities, or do you collaboratively approach most elements of a creative production?
There are certain technical elements one of us is definitely more well versed in than the other, and we often focus on those technical elements per project specification. When it comes to concept and art direction, we make sure to contribute our ideas and opinions collaboratively and equally. Strangely, we’re more in line with each other, and we have hardly ever disagreed on conceptual ideas etc., maybe it is the twin intuition.
You have spoken about Fon’s love of minimalism and Fa’s proclivity towards the chaotic, how does your unique identity as a pair emerge from this?
Fon has more of a traditional graphic design background, which is definitely a lot more structured and technical, and Fa is just dramatic in every sense, the chaotic proclivity has always been present within the two of us, however. Growing up with such saturated stimuli of anime, pop culture ingests, fictional novels, MTV, manga, comic books, etc. is bound to make you see things a lot brighter and fuel your imagination. Fon just came to appreciate minimalism during her uni years, which has helped us transition into the mainstream market and more easily work with bigger brands in the sense that we know what to tone down, but we’ve found a harmonious balance between the two factors.
You talk about pop culture, cinema and the design of everyday environments as inspiration for your creative direction. Yet you also work to ensure the cultural specificity and integrity of your work. In a creative ecosystem, where everything seems to be collapsing in on itself, and cultural appropriation is so common, how do you work to prevent commodification?
We feel that the problem is not within the current interscope of the creative ecosystem but what it has always been, things have been borrowed, stolen, inspired by; whatever you want to call it from the get-go. Everything has already been done concept-wise, it just looks different as technology changes, equipment changes, production changes – granted that doesn’t necessarily mean the work itself is getting more impressive. What we’re saying is that there will always be some sort of reference from prior work.
Do you want to elaborate on this?
People have always taken from a lot of different cultures, and we’re in no way saying that it’s right, especially when cultural borrowing a lot of the time is done in an offensive nonchalant way where there is no appreciation of the culture at all, and the base level is often a racist presentation of said culture. But on the other hand, you could also see it as a way of spreading cultural teachings and awareness, the graduation of cultural appropriation being called out with the help of the internet is making people more aware of it, and in turn wanting to actively research more and appreciate it more.
In our case, however, we’re just going through an identity crisis of feeling as if we don’t really belong to our Asian heritage or the British identity where we grew up most of our lives, in turn, there’s a lot we have to say about the two worlds we grew up in. We have so much material to work with in expressing our identity as South Asian women growing up in Thailand and then in England with Southeast Asian influence of pop culture intake that we feel like we don’t need to take from other people’s experiences and cultures to saturate our own work. And we don’t have enough time to do our research and truly understand and fall in love with another culture enough to the point where we can portray it in a way where it doesn’t feel taken for granted and give it the integral justice it deserves. We feel like we can’t do that until we’ve lived those experiences and lived that culture, therefore we can’t have a say on it.
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You have worked with such a broad range of creatives and labels; how do you adapt the Fon and Fa brand to fit a new creative partnership?
A lot of the time brands and clients ask for our specific aesthetic approach to projects, so there isn’t a lot of moulding our practice to fit theirs. We often would have long discussions and debates if a brand feels they want to go down a route that’s more suited to them, and through listening to each other we can both adapt to fit that brief. But it’s important for us to have a say on the project in every aspect from start to finish.
I am curious about the blend of fresh, contemporary aesthetics with your use of retro-futuristic sensibilities. I think a lot of anime, especially late 20th-century cyberpunk, has a nihilistic edge that comes through in both story and design concepts. Your work seems to also have this edge, with your use of outdated tech revived through a futurist lens. I am particularly thinking about the references to Akira in your Fila campaign. How do you balance these conflicting sensibilities while marketing a product?
We never really go into a project thinking about the limitations, we look at the brief and keywords that need to be expressed and bounce around ideas on what we’d like to do, inspirations we’ve had in the past often come up to the surface. However wild the idea is, we always play with it at first, budget constrictions, logistics and production elements all put to one side.
Instead, it’s thinking about the production as if it were as easy as drawing it out and it appears in a puff of smoke, just like how realities of late 20th-century cyberpunk classics such as Cowboy Bebop and Aeon Flux expressed storylines outwardly chaotic in a manner, where anything is possible, we see concepts in a similar sense with no industry attachments and rules. When marketing is at the forefront of your conceptualisation, there is a bigger tilt towards the product element which could water down the creative stimulant. It just so happens that the idea does get watered down a bit later when the marketing and production element does need to come into play.
Anime production teams often have entire units dedicated to conceptualising the design sensibilities of a project’s world. Which anime cities have the best design concepts in your opinion? Are there any anime world designs you return to as references for your work?
Bleach is always going to be the go-to for us, it feels like home! It’s what we remember from our time growing up in Asia and seeing the boom of anime, manga and Japanese pop culture influx into Thailand. Obviously, we’re always going to pay odes to the classics like Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion, but there really is a wormhole in these extremely expressive works that aren’t as big in the western world. We grew up reading Crow Zero, which is one of the rare mangas that is as good as a drawn-out piece as live-action, the movies are really amazing works of art with some stand-out fashion moments and acting. In newer worlds like in Blue Exorcist and Gantz, the level of detail of the landscape and overall storytelling is so appealing to the eye it really kick-starts your imagination.
I wanted to ask a bit about your work on the Converse x Ambush collab. Yoon is a designer also heavily inspired by the futuristic aesthetics of anime and manga and this collection was a futuristic revisit to the Converse archive. Could you speak a bit about working on this project? Are there any other designers or artists who have influenced your creative developments, or are working with similar references?
Yoon is a role model for us, I get goosebumps when I see their work, they are consistently outdoing themselves each time they release work, it just gets bigger and better. Admittedly, we would have liked a bit more time on our interpretation project for Ambush x Converse, we didn’t really express it how we would have liked, and it wasn’t the quality that we could have made it. But, if anything, it taught us that concepts and execution really can’t be rushed, and I don’t think we’ve taken fast turnover projects since.
You spoke in an interview about Central St Martins being a catalyst for much of what came next, but that networking was far more important than the school’s name. Do you have any other tips for young artists on how to find their footing, networking, and branding your work?
Central St Martins gave us a lot of confidence. Our time there really shaped us as confident human beings, and I say human beings, not designers as it didn’t pave any paths for us creatively, maybe more of a technical experience but, if anything, it limited us from expanding in our creative genres. Mainly I think it’s the ego you get from being accepted there.
The moment you get there, you are told that you have achieved greatness for even breathing the air there. Arguably, this could do a lot of damage to you as a designer, as there are moments where we have thought we were indestructible and guaranteed an ostentatious career. But all that goes to your head and, until you have a wake-up moment, you will continue to ride a wave that ends with you crashing and drowning in your own ego. In terms of networking, our advice is to introduce yourself properly, go up and have a casual conversation, but also be upfront and honest that you want to collaborate. Market yourself as being a valuable asset to the industry.
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You have spoken about the collaborative nature of London’s creative scene as ripe with opportunities for emerging creatives. For people who want to work in the art and design world broadly, it can be difficult to craft an identity for themselves within the overwhelming amount of content being produced. How did you find a unique sensibility, and creative niche, in such a hyper-saturated creative culture?
Honestly, we wonder about this too, and we still won’t be able to give you a clear answer. I think a predominant characteristic within the way we work is essentially to ensure that we never refer to work that is currently out, we can appreciate them and be fans of all the exciting pieces coming out, but must never reference it on our boards, or actively try to be inspired by it.
Arguably, there is a thin line between referencing work and replicating work, so it is sometimes favourable if it could be ignored on our creative radar. We see it as being more commendatory to just keep our heads down and immerse ourselves into the world of design we love from the past, and the little fictional worlds we’ve come to read, and from there draw our inspiration. With that in mind, it really is about the team you are working with too. Other creatives bring new and exciting ideas to the table, and they also elevate your ideas too. Sometimes people can get stuck in their own ways. We didn’t go into this thinking we needed to become a niche, we just wanted to create the work we like, each new work can fall and travel into different design realms.
You have done an immense amount of commercial work in past years, but also have a background in individual arts practice. How do you balance your art with the needs of commercial projects/partners?
Admittedly, we haven’t been balancing it as much recently with Covid and the state of the industry. In turn, we had to put our passion for individual art practice to one side for a while. With that said, we’ve also become a lot more selective, due to the fact that we’ve come to terms with the fact that life is fleeting, and we can’t be accepting projects we won’t be one hundred per cent invested in.
We used to do two passion projects a month, however, that’s changed. So, to keep sane we definitely want to go back to that. We are still trying to balance the two, it just takes time and growth!
Could you speak a bit about maintaining your unique integrity within the commercial creative industry?
This is a really hard one, as we’re trying to still figure out who we are as designers. We went into the industry quite early, our first account being a big contract during our second year of uni, which shaped our path from the get-go. It’s really down to gut feeling at the end of the day. There have been projects we’ve taken on in the past where one of us had felt as if it was the wrong thing to do but we ignored that feeling, and later down the line, we’ve regretted it. Subsequently, it’s down to learning from your mistakes.
We actually got some very good advice from someone that said something along the lines of; humans are still simple creatures, no matter how much we’ve evolved and developed ourselves in the technological sense, we’re biologically dependent on our instincts, similar to the theme of predator and prey or killed or be killed. Though not so literal, it could still be applied here. If we ever feel cornered or uneasy about something, we should still listen to our gut. If something feels wrong, nine times out of ten we shouldn’t be involved in it.
To close, are there types of projects your hope to work on in the future? Do you have any plans to make more non-commercial, gallery exhibition work?
We would love, more than anything, to curate more exhibition work, but feel as if that won’t happen for a while as we’re very much still learning about our practice, and where we see ourselves in the design world. We have set a lot of long-term goals, our main one is to start our own design agency, so that’s sticking in the commercial world. A big dream for us is to direct a feature film that isn’t restricted to client guidelines but more on how the everyday public receives it. But honestly, we’re just very keen to try everything and anything in the creative world. The future holds no boundaries for us and there are so many different pathways opening with many opportunities to learn and explore.
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