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Eike König — Living Utopia
2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the birth of HORT, the Berlin graphic design studio that is as brilliant as it is unruly.
Eike König — Living Utopia

2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the birth of HORT, the Berlin graphic design studio that is as brilliant as it is unruly. The brainchild of Eike König, HORT is known in the design world for its uncompromising approach: producing work that is never short of spectacular, which clients can either take or leave.

While a lot of design agencies lose quality in pursuit of commissions, Hort does just the opposite. Having met not just Eike but also a few current and former Hort team members, we can only confirm that Hort is every bit as you imagine it—a community of incredibly talented designers who are bonded not by hierarchy and contracts, but by respect, friendship and a mutual creative ethos.

I: HORT is famous for its studio culture of mutual support and trust. One can hardly believe that such a utopian workplace can exist in today’s harsh economic circumstances. How do you maintain such a dream work environment when other design agencies struggle financially?

E: The way we work won’t make us millionaires. We’ve made a decision to only work with brands or people who present a challenge for us and with whom we can build a relationship. Every studio has to make the decision—it’s either better work, less money, or more money, worse work. Working on things you like and are proud to show is much more of a motivator for us than the financial reward. HORT is always about people. We don’t work for brands; we work with people, whether they’re clients or members of our team. Luckily after 20 years in the business, and having been very consistent with our client work, we have reached a point where we are only approached by clients who seek the HORT attitude.

Our studio culture is very simple. Everyone at HORT is a special character. I’ve had my own experiences working in agencies and found that certain workplaces were more about fitting in than about developing my personality and skills. I decided to create my own studio that would focus on providing a platform for personal development. I wanted to create a space where young people have the chance to be who they are; to try, fail, learn and grow. This was something I searched for, but couldn't find. My idea of working with others is focused on creating an environment where they feel respected and safe and where they’re allowed to try different things. The team at HORT is very important to me, and the bond we have is irreplaceable. The studio culture comes directly from the respect we have for each other.

It seems that at HORT you’re concerned with the process in addition to the final outcome.

A good project for me is a combination of factors: a challenging task, a strong relationship with the client, having a good time working on it and a product that satisfies the audience, the client, and us as designers. All these things together make a good project; that’s something people often forget. I never say that it's all about the outcome—for me it's about everything leading up to it as well, and that's the reason why I run HORT the way I do. That's a bigger thing than looking for fame or financial success. When I’m at HORT, I meet people who have their own stories and their own lives, which is why I work with them. HORT is about creating ideas as a team, getting paid for them and having a good time in between. I don’t want to work on things I hate just to earn money.

Every studio has to make the decision—it’s either better work, less money, or more money, worse work.

That’s clearly an effective way to bring the best creative potential out of people. Why do you think most studios deviate from this approach?

It's an ego thing on the bosses’ part. Our way doesn’t focus on maximizing business, but on maximizing creativity. We work as a collective—HORT is not “Eike König Studio.” The people on our team are all strong personalities and most of them have their own businesses. There's probably no other HORT because there's no other me. It sounds a little bit strange, but others don't run their studios the way I do. I want designers to stay true to themselves as much as possible, while other agencies try to erase individuality and fit people into a structure that works from an egotistical point of view. If someone has an idea that’s better than mine, I have no problem with letting my idea go, because it's about something that’s bigger than my ego. When you said that HORT is a utopia—it is. It's a utopia I live in, and it can’t be implemented anywhere else.

Big agencies ask me to give lectures on studio culture, but the thing is that a studio has a DNA that’s defined from the beginning and can’t be changed afterwards—just like human DNA. So when an agency asks how they can change their studio culture, the only thing I can tell them is that they can’t. The way HORT works was set the moment I started it, inspired by my own ideals of a working environment. I can't change that anymore.

Your approach also requires courage. You often say that "people fear to say no" or that "we are surrounded by fear."

Fear is the most dangerous energy you can be confronted by. What I miss most in some designers—and in clients—is the courage to make decisions. At HORT, we often come up with ideas that question the brand’s status quo, which can be seen as extreme or daring, and if I don’t have the courage to fight for them, neither will the client. I’m the one who pushes things and tries to make them feel confident about an idea. The visual language we use is very powerful; it takes sensibility and courage to embrace it. It works well with people who are visionaries looking to the future. We’re very lucky that we had the chance to work with such individuals at Bauhaus, [Künstlerhaus] Mousonturm and Nike.

For me, design has always been about questioning the past in order to shape the future. People often prefer to settle for tried and tested methods, but I always look for other ways. When someone comes to us, they want to find out what possibilities there are for their brand. They want to see both the most extreme ways of perceiving the brand, as well as what’s closer to its current image.

Of all these different possibilities, how do you choose the image that works best for the brand?

I don't have a clue. If you look at good things, you know they are good. A friend of mine builds bikes. When he's finished with one, you can just see it. It's a moment when knowledge, technology and design come together to a point where you think, "It's good." If you’ve experienced this, you will be able to see it.

Is it possible to train the eye to see this?

The eye is only one part of it. It's really about how you process the information your eye gives you. When we work on a big project, everyone does what they think is right for it. That’s what I expect from them, and I offer support during this creative trial and error phase even if they come up with something that is not a perfect fit. This way, we get a variety of personal ideas, which gives me the chance to look at a brand from several perspectives. If the designs are a little far from what’s expected at a given time, I can still see the possibilities and I try to persuade the client to look at the bigger picture. I think I can sense potential in people. Even if they don’t necessarily realize it themselves, I try hard to get it out of them. I can clearly see the progress everyone on our team has made since I first met them.

How important is research for the design process? Do your concepts stem from research, or is it the other way around?

It depends on the project. A cultural institution naturally needs a little bit more research than a commercial client, because consumer products are more contemporary. By contrast, a cultural product, such as a concert or an exhibition, is located on the timeline of art. To find out what it refers to, we need to look into the history of the discipline, whether it’s performing arts, architecture or painting, to find the connecting points between artist, brand and history. In such cases, research can be the foundation of the concept. But extensive, structured research is not our main strategy. I’m very open to the way everyone does their research because they all do it differently and there’s no best way to do it.

The problem with research is that a lot of universities put too much emphasis on it. I like research because of all the information and knowledge you can get, but the real challenge is translating everything into a language that speaks visually. A lot of people get stuck at this stage, which is why there’s so much intellectual, research-based design that’s just unattractive to anyone who doesn't know the full story behind it. It's also the reason why there’s so much self-publishing nowadays. The problem graphic designers face is that a lot of them are unhappy with what they do professionally. They’re able to do so much more, but they’re not asked for it. In order to showcase their skills, they become their own publishers, design their own products, and so on. I think it's an ego thing in the end. And a lot of graphic design work is completely unapproachable because you don't know the story behind it—things have to work emotionally. Work that requires an explanation to be understood should remain in the domain of art. The point of art is to question what you know and direct you towards things that you don't. But graphic design, in the end, is a communication tool.

You do a lot of workshops with children and really value their creative potential. It's often said that children are born designers.

Probably not designers, but creatives. The way they see things and the way they translate it into a visual is amazing. Their creativity has no limits. A child's creative mind is a little universe. If a child draws something and calls it a sun, it must be a sun. We, as grown-ups, try to convince them that it's not a sun, or that an ordinary stone can’t be called a treasure. We no longer have the courage that children have. They just do what they feel without thinking whether someone is going to like it or understand it. The need for acceptance, which they develop later on, comes from education. Education kills a lot of this early creativity by dictating what is right and wrong.

The big problem is that the older you get, the more you want to perform within the system. To adapt to it, you have to find out what works well, and then repeat the solution. We can't leave the comfort zone we created for ourselves because of the fear we have of the future. In our way of thinking, we always stay close to what’s possible and never dream up utopias. When I was growing up, I found out about a group of architects from the 70s called Archigram. They never built anything; they just developed ideas of living in the future and made collages to visualize their utopia. I’m heavily influenced by them. I really love what they created, even if they didn’t “correctly” foresee what happened later. Archigram and other paper architects of their time came out of World War II with an optimistic vision where men would use technology to make life better. This was a very positive moment in culture because it pictured a better world. That's what I miss today—people who imagine a brighter future in their minds. Today, everyone seems to think that it’s dark. I think that when you have a positive future in your head, you try to design for it; if you have a negative future in your head, everything you do is somehow influenced by this negative energy. I wish there were people nowadays who look into the future and say it's going to be bright, that we're going to live in peace, that we're going to go out to space and explore other planets and all these things. It doesn’t happen anymore. I'm so sad about that.

You mentioned before there is pessimism because agencies struggle and graphic designers are paid little for their work. It's our own fault. We accepted that at one point. It's easy to complain that we don’t get paid much for our work, but the truth is we don't fight for it. At some point, we just let it go. I can’t accept this as a designer. That's exactly why we didn't want to work for Nike at first. The budget simply wasn't right, and to say that the prestige of working for them is a part of the payment is a misconception. A lot of companies will tell you that if they’re a part of your portfolio, you're going to get more jobs. It’s not true. I think the bigger the company, the more they should pay. I could work almost for free for a small neighborhood bookstore. I know they don't make a lot of money, and because of that I can support them with my work. But why would I need to support a global corporation? I don't get it.

I wish there were people nowadays who look into the future and say it's going to be bright, that we're going to live in peace, that we're going to go out to space and explore other planets and all these things. It doesn’t happen anymore. I'm so sad about that.

Do you think this may also be due to the fact that there are too many graphic designers out there? It's become amazingly popular to study graphic design recently.

That is true, but the decision to limit the number of graphic design graduates should not be on the shoulders of those who want to become graphic designers. It's a question of governance. At the school where I'm teaching, there are 60 people entering the program every semester, and that’s just one of many schools. The market is just not deep enough for that number. It’s increasingly popular to think of the profession as a cool lifestyle. Even in daily soaps in Germany, there's always some character that’s in advertising or design. What it doesn’t show is the daily struggle—that you’re poorly paid and you do the work you don't want to do. There’s a misunderstanding of what the lifestyle really is. I think that's the biggest problem we have. We educate way too many people—maybe a third would be enough. It's disturbing to see so much creativity going down the drain.

Part of the problem could also be the contrast between the students’ expectations and reality. That's probably why there are so many people wanting to work at HORT, because HORT is what they dream of professionally.

I think their expectations about HORT may be wrong. We don’t have a magic formula to turn everyone into a fantastic designer and have a lot of fun in the process. There are few who can really work here. A lot of people think we’re a magical place where you can do whatever you want, but we're also a business in the end. We try to survive in the system, and even though we have our own unique strategy of survival, it’s still hard work. Getting the designs on a level that you see on our website requires a lot of effort. It's not like there's a golden mountain where clients put in millions and say, "Do whatever you want." HORT works because of our will to fight. We're not just hanging around and having fun. It involves a lot of thinking, creating, failing and being frustrated—that's all a part of our daily business too. But we try to make the positives outweigh the negatives. That's what we want to reach. Becoming a good designer here is a combination of many things, not just the technical or creative skills. It's also about social skills—how you interact with a group. Some people can get completely frustrated working on a team like ours. It's a combination of talent and personality. You need to have guts to join HORT. —

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Thisispaper Magazine
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In this publication we have collected stories from the designers and artists that inspire us with their creativity and skill. Whether working in fashion, design, photography or architecture, they share the commitment to process and have a strong, personal voice.

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