Eike König: Deliver the Unexpected

One word connects almost every graphic designer, illustrator, or young type enthusiast that I come across in Berlin: one inconspicuous code word that binds together a continually growing, ever-connected chain. That word is an expected one: it’s Hort, the German word for “nursery.” 

“Hort is where I discovered my stencil technique,” says an illustrator selling prints at a zine market. “Hort is the best place to grow,” says a code wiz turned typographer. “Hort is where I realized I shouldn’t work ‘for’ a client but ‘with’ them,” says a graphic designer at a poster show.

They’re actually talking about Hort studio, the Berlin-based graphic design collective founded in 1994 by Eike König; a studio known for its commitment to reinvention, its support of young designers through its internship program, and its playful sensibility. It emerged from the Frankfurt techno scene in 1994, a disruptive, vibrant blip in an otherwise repetitive song: König deliberately rejected the agency model he observed around him, and also the idea that a designer should be associated with just one aesthetic.

Hort was founded on the principles of play, fair pay, honesty, change, and exploration. König penned eight golden rules for his dream studio, including 1. Have fun, 2. Get paid, 3. Don’t work with assholes, and perhaps most crucially, 8. Quit when you don’t have fun anymore. In 2007, the studio moved to Berlin, and has worked with institutions such as Bauhaus Dessau, and global brands IBM, Microsoft, Nike, and The New York Times.

Hort is not, and never has been, just König. As I write this, Hort is Anne Büttner, Eike König, Elizabeth Legate, Tim Rehm, Tim Schmitt, Tim Sürken, Alan Woo, and its network of freelancers. (By the time this is published, more names will probably have been added to the list.) Just like Hort is not just König, König is not just Hort: since 2011, he has been a professor at Offenbach University of the Arts, and since 2015, he has been producing his own artwork and prints. And just as the studio changes, grows, splinters, mutates, waxes, and wanes, though, so does König. It’s been a long process, and one that is by no means finished.

For this story, König was photographed throughout Berlin.

When did you first become aware of graphic design?

When I was quite young, during the Cold War years especially.  Magazines were filled with infographics about the current global political climate: I found them touching and exciting. What was the power behind something so little? I figured out that the power was graphic design. I was also into music growing up. I loved records, especially the records that my cousins collected. I would go hang out with them and play close attention to the music that they were buying and listening to. I liked the ritual of a record: opening it up, taking out the vinyl, putting it on the player, and then listening to the music and looking at the artwork at the same time. There was a strong connection between the visual moment and the listening moment, which I was drawn to. Back then, I listened to music in a different way from how I do now. I took my time with it, I sat down, and I didn’t do anything else. Nowadays, music is more like having a nice background noise. It’s atmosphere in a room and not a ritual.

Were there particular sleeves where you found the connection between the visual and the aural was especially strong?

One of my cousins was listening to Pink Floyd a lot, so I got into Hipgnosis (fairly early on the designers behind Pink Floyd’s albums) I liked the way the covers told surreal stories using photography, and how by putting an image in an unusual context, a new story was created that you didn’t necessarily get straight away. I always appreciate it in design when there is something I recognize put into an unrecognizable context. Complex juxtapositions make you think in a deeper way. I found it very clever how Hipgnosis could translate the complexity of the music, the emotions of the music, into something that visually doesn’t just tell the same story as the songs but gives the album another layer of meaning.

After learning about Hipgnosis, I also got into Peter Seville of course, and his work for Joy Division. I admired the label 4AD, so I was looking at the work of Vaughan Oliver. At the same time, I got into magazines like i-D. With independent music labels and new youth culture magazines, designers were suddenly being connected to their output. Before, the designer had been invisible.

That’s how I got into design, and then I enrolled at the University of Applied Arts – they’ve since changed their name – in Darmstadt. I didn’t really know at that time what design was, though. The universities were focusing on educating people to go into ad agencies. When I got there, I realized that 90 percent of the students were going to go into advertising, which was a completely different world from where I wanted to be. 

You were admiring independent practitioners like Saville and Oliver, so you were looking at a model that hadn’t yet become pervasive. The idea of an independent practitioner, let alone an independent design studio, was still rare.

Exactly. It was a shock getting to university and figuring out there that what I wanted to do didn’t yet have its own framework or structure. I also had no real understanding when I was 19 of what design could really do. Design was not taught in school. You only knew what art is and what music is, but not what design means in your life. Yet everything is design. It’s very important.

I think even nowadays, most students starting out don’t really know what graphic design is or what it can do – I see that with my new students every year at Offenbach. They don’t really know how broad it is. Most people think, like I did, of record sleeves and infographics. I didn’t think about what typography is, or what a way-finding system is. I thought design was creating artwork for a product. Getting to art school was frustrating because I was a big fan of people like David Carson. I was fascinated to see that there was a designer using a platform like Ray Gun magazine to experiment and provoke. I wanted to do that. I didn’t want to work in an ad agency.

What was it about Carson’s form of experimentation that you found so effective?

How he would take an image and place it somewhere else so that it didn’t have its previous context, but gained a new one, like what Hipgnosis did. If there is a disruptive moment, it instantly grabs your attention. 

I started to wonder, How can I not simply follow the rules that come with a platform? How can I hack something? That fascinated me from the start. How can I question things that have been built and developed and ingrained into an audience’s way of perceiving? How can I not repeat, but create something new? How can I put my own signature onto something? How can I deliver something to society that is more than a repetition?

At university, they didn’t want that. They wanted to educate people so that they would become functional workers. You weren’t educated to be a critical designer. It was about selling things. It was, “How can you make something that’s not great-looking something that people will buy?” You know, it was all about capitalism and tricks.

Apart from this emphasis on advertising, was there anything else about the university’s approach to the design process that you objected to?

The school came out of the thinking of the Ulm School of Design, and emphasized a holistic, multidisciplinary approach like the Bauhaus had done. It was closed-minded about pop culture, though, and more interested in the idea of designing something timeless. I was more open to the idea of the contemporary. I was interested in history, of course, but I also thought history is history. I wanted to create work that is rooted in its specific time, so that people could work out later where it came from. I’ve always liked that people can say, “Oh, this is the first time that a designer worked with a computer.” I don’t want to design something that looks like it was designed in the 60’s.

When did you get to put these feelings into practice? When did you first get to design something that you felt was truly “timely”?

I worked in an advertising agency during university, but then I started working at a record company, a techno and dance label in Frankfurt called Logic Records. That’s when I started making work that felt rooted in its time. I was 23 or 24. I was interning at the label, and then eventually I was asked to be the art director. I decided to quit university and accept the position.

There was a new genre around: techno. It’s amazing to see a new genre rise. It doesn’t happen very often. Techno at the time had no fixed face, so being involved at its genesis meant that I was able to explore different visual looks for the new genre. It was during a time when Frankfurt was one of the most important cities for techno music.

What kind of “face” did you envision for Frankfurt techno?

I didn’t want to design a cliché. The cliché would have been to do what other people had done in the 80’s for electronic music, drawing on the idea of a utopia. Using electronic imagery felt too easy, and I never like to go with the first association that comes to mind. Why not give the audience a visual experience that is different from how the music sounds, to jar and juxtapose and create new connections?

The label was successful, and they were open-minded and said, “Do whatever you feel is right.” I could explore, using the format of the record sleeve. I decided to design every single sleeve in a completely different way. Sometimes I did collage; at other times, it was purely typographic and Swiss. Sometimes I had a photo concept. The label liked it and said, “We don’t want to have a fixed identity; we want every product to look individual.” There were other labels that had more of a recognizable face. Our face was to have many faces.

This sounds a lot like your approach at Hort, where you emphasize the importance of trying things out, experimenting, and starting from scratch. At Hort, you don’t want to repeat an idea too often. Do you think these techno record designs were the root of Hort?

Yes; it was the DNA of Hort. I didn’t ever want to repeat. It’s easy to find something that looks good and works well, and then reproduce it over and over again. It’s clever from a business perspective, but it’s not challenging. I didn’t want to be the kind of designer that has a visual identity that they put on each record. It then feels like I’m taking over. Like I’m using myself and my aesthetic as the promotional tool.

You don’t want to be a designer with a brand.

Every musician and producer I’ve ever worked with is unique, so they should get something unique from me.

You mentioned quitting university to work full-time at Logic. What did you learn at the label that you weren’t getting at school?

I was trained not just to be a designer, but to work with a team and find the right people to collaborate with. I learned how to support and motivate others, and how to critique.

After about a year, I had complete freedom; it was a dream job. I got money, I could work with a product that didn’t hurt people – unless it’s bad music…but then you can turn it off. – I was also going to clubs, raving a lot, so my lifestyle became my job, and I never expected that that could happen. I learned that the culture I was surrounded by could be part of my working life.

How did you come to the decision to leave the label, go out on your own, and set up as an independent designer?

The great thing with vinyl at the time was that it was like your business card. If someone saw the design and liked it, your name was written on the sleeve, so they could contact you and say, “I want to work with you.” That started happening to me quite a lot.

I suddenly found myself in a situation: Did I want to work for different people or one client? I didn’t have to think about it very long, though. I was 25; I was naïve. I was like, “Everything is running so smoothly so, why not just jump in and try being freelance?” I wasn’t scared; I had no idea how things worked, and I had no business plan.

Logic supported my decision to go and said I could continue to collaborate with them. And amazingly, everything worked perfectly. I never had to ask someone for work; word just spread around that I was available. The design scene in Germany at the time, especially for music, was very small.

You formed Eike’s Grafischer Hort. When and why did you drop the “Eike”?

I was flying first-class, staying in fancy hotels; I wasn’t saving money. After three of four years working in this way, I had a breakdown. I was so successful in such a short time and I started wondering, What will be the next step? What comes now? It was all too fast and I feared the blank page. I kept thinking, What happens if I don’t have another idea?

Because of that, I looked inside myself and realized, “OK, I want to work with other people.” This was in 1994. I wanted to learn by having discussions with others, so I got my first employee. I still want discussions; it’s a crucial part of my process. Eventually, we dropped the “Eike Grafischer” and just became Hort because I didn’t want the studio to be about me as a brand – I wanted it to be a collective. Now, we’re seven people in our office, plus a couple of interns and our network of freelancers outside the office.

How do you choose the people that you work with?

Designers often start as interns; it’s the way that I get to know them. They do internships for six or seven months, and then during that time I can figure out how well they fit into the idea of Hort. I like when people are up for conversations and are open to critique; when they step back from ego, when they can work in a team. Right now, I think more than 80 people have gone through Hort. We still have contact with a lot of them. We keep in contact and create a network. I also wanted a flat hierarchy from the start.

Can you tell me how the flat hierarchy works on a practical level?

We decide on jobs together. Everyone has their own little company within the studio, and they work on their own projects, so they can design their own future while being a part of ours. We only join forces on the bigger projects. It’s a modern way of working. It’s important that people also have their own thing going on because it keeps up the creative energy and flow and mental health. That’s always been important, for myself too.

When a new client comes in, how do you divide up work or decide who is going to get the project?

In the beginning, I had to think about people’s strengths and decide who would fit a project best. Now, though, we’ve worked together for such a long time that I don’t have to do that anymore. I usually get the first email from a new client, and then the whole team sits around the table and we discuss each job together. We debate whether it’s too small, too big, whether it’s challenging enough, whether there will be too many problems. We decide together; that means that the whole team is involved.

It’s completely organic. Back in the old days, especially, I would put people together who had never worked together before, in order to create a spark. The work you get out of collaboration is much better than if one person does it alone, especially if it’s two people who you might not necessarily think would fit together neatly.

When you put two people together who don’t normally work together, the drawback is that things become less efficient in terms of working under deadlines. Can you tell me about time management at Hort?

There’s a lot more discussion when you work this way, at the cost of time and energy. But people then learn from each other and share, and that’s what I always wanted. For sure, things do take longer. Absolutely. We have had to build this into our strategy. The way we work doesn’t have a rhythm. You can’t say, “In a week we’ll have completed that, and in the following week, we’ll have completed that.”

Often, we have to have quite difficult discussions with our clients to get them to understand that design is a process. In the beginning, clients come with a specific image in their mind and a concrete timetable. A new client will say, “We want a new identity.” We will ask, “When do you want it by?” and then the reply will be, “We want to launch in three months.” We’ll take a look at the brief and say, “Oh. It’ll take us two years.” The clients are always completely shocked.

If you’re allowed to take your time, than the outcome will be much more exciting and precise then if you follow a strict, systematic method. No single job is like another one. There’s no recipe for how to solve a problem.

When you’re working for certain music industry clients or smaller independent ventures, it’s a lot easier to negotiate the kind of freedom you’re describing. How did you negotiate time when taking on major international clients?

First, we deliver something that they don’t expect. I remember the first job we did for Nike, which started as a brief for the packaging design for the LeBron trainer. We thought, Sure, we could design the surface of the box, but then it’s just a nice skin. Why not create an entire system, and with that system, there could be a connection between the box, the poster, an in-store decoration, even the fashion? We created a typeface based on the characteristic of the shoe, so that Nike could do whatever they wanted with it. Nike was surprised but also pleased. They said, “Oh, why don’t you also do the visual guidelines for the entire season?” We developed the guidelines, including store applications, fashion components, posters, everything – a big identity that started off as the design of a box.

Nike now always expects something unforeseen from us, and I think that’s our trick. We don’t just deliver; we create something that lets them imagine a bigger picture, a picture they haven’t seen yet. It’s much more interesting to us than finishing a job in a short time and getting the money quickly. Most of our clients understand that. They come to us and are open about seeing where things could go. Everyone comes with a picture in their mind, but we prove that it’s not always about delivering that image by, first of all, showing them something unexpected.

We’ve talked about how you went from art director at a label to independent practitioner because you wanted to be on your own. Then you realized that what you thrived on was being in a team and bouncing off others. In the past two years, though, you’ve started working on your own again and reclaimed the name “Eike König” as something independent from Hort. You’ve been working on your own typographic prints and posters. How have you found it returning to something that is entirely your own and that has your name on it?

I do three things, and all with the same passion: I have the studio, I teach, and I do my personal work. With my personal work, I am still a designer. I still use the same methods of design and typography. It’s not like I’m knitting or creating sculptures. It’s the same as what I’ve always done, but with the stress of a schedule taken out of the process, and I find this incredibly rewarding.

Ultimately, I made the decision to spend some of my life focusing on my own personal work because I realized it’s good for my health and my brain. It’s not a different way of thinking from what I do at Hort, but it’s a different context. I’ve learned that I need three elements in my life: I need the team at Hort, I need my students, and I need time to work on my own design projects. It’s the combination of these three things that keeps me balanced.

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