FFF podcast #06: Eike König on work, leadership & good Karma
FFF podcast #06: Eike König on work, leadership & good Karma
Above is a short film in which Eike showed us around the Hort studio and we followed him around Kreuzberg for the rest of the day. Check out the video first for a taste or dive right into the interview.
Below is an edited transcript of the podcast.
Well, for those who don’t who I’m talking to today, maybe you’d like to say hello and tell me who you are.
Eike: Hello, my name is Eike König and I run a studio named HORT in Berlin.
Maybe we could start off with a really easy intro question. What was your first encounter with art or design that you can remember?
Eike: I mean whatever art means or design means. My father was an architect so I was somehow surrounded by architectural drawings and sketches but that was the business of my father. So, I was never thinking of it as an artistic discipline. I think my first encounter was during the Cold War when all the magazines were full of infographics about the political or military situation between the two packs, showcasing how many nuclear weapons both sides had and how many times we could destroy the world and that touched me totally how much power these little graphics have. So, I got interested in what it is, why does it touch me so much and I figured out that there’s a business behind it, a discipline behind it, a graphic designer who’s using this visual language to explain complex situations in a very easy to understand way.
So, that was the first encounter where I really figured out okay, there’s a craft behind it and second was because of my interest in music and at that time we were still listening to records. So, it was kind of a ritual when you listened to music. You unpacked the sleeve, you put it on the record player, you put the needle on and then you start listening and while you were listening to it, you were looking at the sleeve and then there was always this connection between the design of the sleeve and the music that you were listening to and because of that I figured out — oh, I wanted to know who designed it. So, I got in contact with people or students like Hypnosis who designed Pink Floyd or Peter Saville, Joy Division and many other designers who were related to a specific genre of music or a label and I thought that could be something I would like to follow in my business life, in my professional life. So, that’s why I started to study graphic design.
Were you born in Berlin or what brought you to the city?
Eike: No, no, no. I was born in Hanau. That’s a small city next to Frankfurt but I grew up in a smaller village where my father built a house. So, I grew up most of the time, or I lived most of my life, in Frankfurt and 10 years ago, we moved to Berlin. But before that I was completely into the Frankfurt scene, involved, integrated, part of and I didn’t follow the magnet of Berlin like everyone else who wants to be here. It was more a decision by my team -they wanted to live and work here. I could have lived forever in Frankfurt. So, I decided because of my team, which at that time was very international, to follow the will of the group and finally we got here. I think that was 2007. It’s a great city so I’m happy that I made and followed this decision. Now I can’t think about moving back.
Maybe you could tell us a little bit about HORT. Did you found HORT when you moved to Berlin in 2007 or did it exist before you came to the city?
Eike: No, I founded HORT in 1994. Yeah, so, that’s already 13 years ago. I used to be an art director of a record label and then I figured out okay, I want to be by myself, I want to decide for whom I work, the way I work and all these things. So, I quit my job in 1994 and started my studio completely by myself. I worked from home like most people who start running a business and it became really successful in the first few years. Then I decided to get a studio in Frankfurt, in the city. Before that I was a little bit outside the city and then I got my first employee and from there the whole story started. So, we slowly grew up to four, then we were seven, then we were suddenly 12, we moved to Berlin and now we are seven again. I think it’s an ideal group size and we’re more of a kind of collective of designers. So, also the way we work together has changed during that time and also the commissions have changed.
So, in the beginning I think we were more like image makers. We were concentrating on creating beautiful images but we thought what’s the point, there’s no challenge in doing this anymore. You know how to do it and it’s easy to repeat that. So, we focused much more on more complex commissions like branding, identity, creating strategy, also consulting and from image making to identity creating, there’s a big step but that’s I think it’s much more interesting and also it keeps your brain much fitter because you always have to jump into a new situation depending on in which culture it should work or I don’t know. There’s so many things you have to include in your thinking and work and yeah, that has changed and also the people have changed.
Glenn: Talking about the people of HORT, what do you look for in the people that you hire to be part of this team? Do you select them personally or do they come together by themselves?
What do you look for in people?
Eike: I mean there’s always a selection from both sides I think. Someone also has to agree on working with you but the whole system works by internships. I only started accepting interns in my studio and from there I decided that it’s a great way to get in touch with people and have a look how they integrate in a group, how open they are for discourse or discussion, how able they are to step back a little bit from their ego because we work in a team so, that’s a bigger thing. So, throughout the 23 years, everyone I have worked with for a longtime used to be an intern before and now the team includes two of them, Tim and Tim for example. We met when they were 19 and 21, very, very early in their career and we’ve been working for 16 years now together. The other Tim I’ve been working with I think for 10 years or even more and the others like Anna and Lizzie for more than five or six years.
I want to work with people for a longer time and with each of these people I have a very strong relationship and also we share part of our biography. We spend so much time together and so these people are not just exchangeable. They are an important part of the studio. I think they shape the studio even more than I did. I just arranged the situation in which we are working but the way the studio developed and evolved and grew, it’s more related to the people who work there. So, you can’t just exchange. You can’t just say okay, if someone is leaving, I’ll just find someone else. There’s always a gap for the rest of our lives but that’s amazing because if you have a strong relationship with people, I think you also care much more about how they feel and what is important to them. You respect them on a different level and I think it’s a blueprint for a lot of small companies nowadays how to work together because it’s not just about the work. It’s about the way you work together.
It’s much more important than just the outcome and the money that brings the work. It’s much, much more complex and I think it’s much more fulfilling if you have the feeling that people really love to be there and love to share their knowledge and ideas with you and that you are proud of doing things together even without being the one that created it. So, now I’m not really designing much anymore. I’m not really part of the daily design situation but I’m really excited to see what the people are doing and that makes me even more happy than if I were to do something amazing. So, that’s shifted too from the graphic designer I used to be, the creator of things to someone who’s more involved in running a team, supporting them, helping them to ask the right questions, to be critical about what they’re doing and then fighting for the ideas they’re coming up with. Building this bridge between the ones we are working with like the clients and our concepts that’s my task or business right now.
Do you still see yourself as a boss? Do you still see yourself as the leader of this group?
Eike: No. In a way, I’m a little bit more responsible. I have to take care that everything is running, that the money is paid and I’m also like a firefighter still, jumping into a situation when there’s a rumble. But we don’t really have a strong hierarchy in our studio. They’re all grownups. They’re all taking care of the quality. They all want to create good work, optimize processes, design process, working processes so it’s much more — that’s why I also say it’s a collective because there are also individuals working on their own projects and we only come together under this umbrella HORT when there’s a bigger job and we need this power of many people and then we work together. I never saw myself as a boss, whatever that is, a boss but yeah, sometimes I have to make decisions other people won’t and that maybe pushes me a little bit in this direction of being a boss. And a leader doesn’t need to be a bad word. It depends on the way you lead.
What do you think makes a great leader?
Eike: Leading has this bad tone in a way. I think someone who’s respectful and open or has an empathy for people and is able to understand the situation and is willing to put energy in supporting these people and helping them to develop. That’s very positive I think and in this case, I accept to be someone who leads a team. But I think that has changed also during the years. The generation of my parents was completely different and I am the generation who’s had experience with that kind of leadership and figured out that this is completely a waste of creativity, a waste of energy. It’s a one-way road. It’s this old – how do you say? Pyramid
And that’s a waste of knowledge, a waste of possibilities and it just shapes an even bigger ego than you should have so during my experience in working in advertising agencies and other structures, working structures, I thought this is not a good model for myself and also for a lot of people I respect. So, probably that’s why we keep working together for a longer time because probably there’s no bad feeling of, like oh, there’s this guy on top (or girl on top although mostly they are still guys) and it’s all about them and their ideas and I don’t even want to be like that — I mean ?the face of the studio because the other people just don’t want to be in the spotlight. There’s also a role you would like to take part in or not.
Glenn: Right at the beginning of our conversation you questioned the distinction between art and design and then you briefly said I used to be a designer.
Do you see yourself more as an artist these days?
Eike: No, no, no. I’m still… I don’t know.
Glenn: What do you think bridges the gap between — where do you see the distinction? Maybe that’s an easier place to start.
Eike: I think it’s a constructed distinction. It used to be some years ago, I don’t know, 50, 60, 70 years ago, no one defined a difference between art and design and people who… for example…
Glenn: I guess the whole Bauhaus era?
Glenn: I mean they mixed all disciplines and that was…
Eike: Max Bill for example. He’s a respected artist but at the same time he’s a respected designer and at this time these people were — I mean that was a craft they were using, but the bigger value I think is the way they were thinking and this thinking can switch between disciplines. It can be applied to different disciplines and this border between them was created at one point. ore from the fine arts than from the design side. Probably too we have created a difference but nowadays I think it’s melting together again. There’s a generation of artists, designers, fashion designers, musicians and writers, they don’t care anymore about how to name your profession. It’s the way they research different fields and then they create an answer or a question based on that research and that could be a painting, that could be an installation, that could be a written piece, that could be an applied piece too. So, working in applied fields and in ? commissioned work, even finance is commissioned in a way because if you want to sell your work then you have to deal with the market and the market has expectations of your work. Things are selling because of that and a lot of artists are applying their art to a need and to a market.
So, I’m still just — no, I’m not an artist. I think much more relevant is the way I’m thinking and the way I’m dealing with topics. The output could be commissioned, applied to a client or completely self-organized, produced and shown in a gallery by myself. I don’t see so much difference anymore nowadays and everyone is influencing everyone now. I’m using the strategies of art in my applied work, in my private work, artistic work. I’m using a lot of the knowledge I gained through work in applied fields like mass production and mass communication, urban communication, visibility through social networks. I’m very much into that, how to promote your work or how to give your work an audience on social networks and it works. You can combine that nowadays. It’s very easy and that’s interesting. I mean if you always just repeat what other generations did because they thought that has to be like this, then you don’t change anything. so, I always thought to question that, use everything you can use to create something. So, forget about how to name the work you’re doing. It’s more important the way you do it and that you take care of, that you have a responsibility for what you’re doing. That’s all.
Glenn: Great answer. Here we’ll change direction a little bit. You’ve been traveling a lot recently. You tend to travel quite a bit for work and for pleasure.
Do you enjoy traveling? Do you think that has an influence on you or do you like getting out of Berlin and seeing other places?
Eike: I figured out very early in my life that leaving your own culture gives you a good chance to have a different view on your culture. It also opens your mind and builds an empathy for other people’s life, other people’s thoughts. So, I used to travel just because of that, getting to know myself a bit more but also I’m very interested in different cultures. I’m very interested in also learning from these cultures and I think everyone should do that. You can understand people much better if you enter their cultural environment, if you see the circumstances in which they are living, the way they are seeing the world or they’re seeing themselves. I learned through traveling that there’s not one truth. There are 8 billion or nearly 8 billion truths and so whatever you think is true or wrong or right, it’s always based on your own biography, what you accepted as being right or wrong but that doesn’t mean that it is like this. So, I learned a lot by just meeting other people from around the world and realising how lucky I am. I got invited by a lot of people around the world to speak at conferences and I always tried to combine this because then you get to really meet people and then ask them what can I do. So, I get into their cultures. I can travel the world and that’s why I’m doing it I think. It’s a nice combination between working, sharing, getting inspired, meeting people and at the same time looking at my own work from a distance, at my own culture, my surroundings here in Berlin, my studio, be a little bit offline from everything that happens and spend some time to myself. To get to know yourself even more.
So, I’m always happy if someone invites me to go far away. Next week I’m going to Nicaragua, Peru, Costa Rica and Galapagos. So, I’m speaking at a conference, I’m going to meet some people who I’ve met before and the rest is spending some great time with my girlfriend just seeing the world — I like to balance life much more because I work a lot, I travel a lot for work so I also like to spend a lot of time without working too. I try to not over work anymore. I did that when I was younger but now I think it’s much more important to somehow get a balance between these things. Anyway, you are always working or you’re always thinking, whatever work means. A production of work is the work and it’s also the muse, like the time in-between, like doing nothing, I think that’s also part of the process and I’m always coming back completely refreshed from that. I mean that’s the way I refill my batteries. Everyone has their own strategy on how to refill but I think that’s an amazing way. You combine things and then you are back and you want to do things. I also really love to come back.. Some people like to escape from their life and go on holiday and when the holiday is over, they don’t like to go back because their life sucks. So, I don’t know. I like both.
Glenn: So, when you can’t go and travel far away, how would you switch off when you’re here? Like you’ve maybe got a period of time you have to work a lot, are there ways that you manage to get away from work and get offline as you said?
What do you do to switch off while you’re in Berlin?
Eike: I mean it’s not harder but it’s a little bit more complicated to do that. I think it’s much easier if you just take your pack and enter a new culture and then there’s so much new stuff that happens to your mind. You’re seeing new things, you’re meeting new people and instantly you forget about the rest. But here in Berlin what I do to recover is my private work, this research and language, especially in written language, and then the technique I’m using to make that happen, like creating the output. You have to do it by hand -most things I’m doing is working by hand. So, within that technique, there is a specific time connected to that technique that means I have to slow down. I can’t make it faster. I mean I can optimize things but still there’s a specific speed and it slows me completely down. If I’m nervous, I can see it in the result, if I’m not concentrating or if I’m rushing things. So, especially nowadays when everything is happening simultaneously at the same time, I’m reading emails, I’m eating, I’m getting news all the time, listening to news. I don’t know. So much information you have to deal with simultaneously and when I’m doing this work, I go back in time in a way because that’s how I learned graphic design, doing things by hand. So, instantly I’m in this studio space, I can feel the temperature, I can see the format I’m working with, I can touch the materials.
It’s very sensitive or sense-focused work. I enjoy it and if I’m not there with my thinking, with my thoughts, then I will destroy the work. So, it really pushes me to be into “the now” and I think if we explore that now a bit more, then probably that now recovers me. Like this is kind of a grounding, it’s a momentum you’re part of. So, I can feel the connection between my thinking, my body as a tool, my body as a shell, the connection between the sense I have and the material I’m working with. It sounds a little bit ?right now but that’s something that really can delete a lot of bad energy- just doing that. So, it’s a good combination. I’m able to get something out of myself, something I was thinking of for a long time and I need to deal with and so I give it a body I can have a conversation with. I materialize it because thoughts are… it’s not a concrete material you can deal with. I can’t really solve problems by thinking. So, I have to somehow give it a face or a body so I can talk to it and at the same time, I have this sensation and as my heartbeat goes down and I don’t answer a phone, I don’t answer emails, I’m offline, I can enjoy the moment of creating this.
I think you briefly mentioned at the beginning that you’ve also been doing some teaching and some lecturing at, is it here in Berlin or…?
Eike: No. Since 2011 now, I’ve been a professor in Offenbach for graphic design & illustration. But before that I used to be a guest professor in Weimar and I was teaching in Bremen and Salzburg, in different universities but in 2011, I accepted this professorship and yeah, it’s amazing. I mean it’s amazing to work with students.
Do you find it beneficial not only to your psyche but also to your work? Does it influence your work in any way?
Eike: For sure. I mean especially the way I or you know Offenbach is a University of Arts, there are different disciplines like fine arts but also applied arts and it’s an open structure so people can switch between the disciplines, so they get influence or knowledge from all sides and as there are already two classes for graphic design like Sascha Lobe does typography and Klaus Hesse does a class on conceptual design. My class is more like an open discipline class. It’s more a discourse class. So, in my class, there are painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic designers, illustrators, writers, musicians and it’s more about sharing, questioning the answers, cross discipline and I think that’s much more inspiring if you work together with people from different disciplines. If I ran a studio nowadays, if I started up something nowadays, I think I would get, I don’t know, a philosopher, someone who comes from a social background because I think if you are surrounded by just the people who have a similar discipline, they always ask the same questions and if you want to get a different answer, then you need to ask different questions. So, you need to find people who would ask different questions and working with these students, it’s completely changed to the time when I was studying because that was the idea?
There was one person who knows a lot, the professor and whatever he said was the right or wrong because you were just trusting this person. Then the digital revolution, however you want to name it, came and suddenly, knowledge is everywhere. Whenever you want, you go online and you can find something. So, it’s a very democratic idea of knowledge. Forget about these people who have all this knowledge integrated in their DNA or whatever – you can create your own opinion now. I see my role not as a classic teacher anymore. For sure, it’s a lot about what I explored in my life and the network I built up. I want to share that knowledge and I want to share that network and the experience I have with the students. But at the same time it’s much more about figuring out who are these people, what are their skills, where are they weak and how can I support them to create an opinion or a trust in themselves, how can I help them to be a brave, critical thinker and that’s what I want to support in my teaching profession.
I’m really getting inspired by the students, the way they think and the way they come up with solutions. I can touch ground with — or I have to touch ground with technology or I need to understand the environment they are living in and also, I have to foresee a little bit into the future that we all will live in. So, it helps me to stay young. Some of them are doing internships in our studio because I got to know them and I could see how well they would develop in a more kind of studio structure, leaving the institutional structure and getting into a situation where they’ll be welcomed into jobs. So, I think university, in a way, it’s just a bigger way of the way I’m working at HORT. It’s just a scaled version of it and yeah, it refreshes me every time I go there. I mean it takes a lot of energy and time, it’s time-consuming but at the same time, it’s awesome to see how these young people evolve, grow and then start to make their own business and suddenly, yeah, they are prepared for getting out and making good work.
So, that’s a great thing to be part of and by helping them — or I focus a lot about social activity, interactivity. We work in a society, we have to do something for the society, creating empathy or developing empathy, working together, sharing, not being a competitor. I mean we are all competitors in a way but at the same time university is a safe space. So, we can push that back a little bit and be a little bit more about helping other people to understand things or get things done and I think good people — if you try to be a good person, other people will be good people too. I try to have a good karma.
Glenn: You briefly mentioned that by working with younger students, it really helps you to understand what’s happening to them at this point in time and also understand how technology influences them in their society around them. How do you see the role as a creative, designer or artist or whatever you want to call it? How do you see that evolving in the near future? I mean you read so many articles about automation and AI taking over so many jobs.
How do you see the future of the creative industry?
Eike: I mean it’s still a young industry. It’s not that old. I think there will be a massive change for sure coming up. There are already logarithms or apps that can design whatever you can do. I think much more important is to use that creative thinking as a method. It has a value and I think that the skill you can use in all kind of problem-solving processes. So, it’s not just about designing a poster, whatever a poster is nowadays, or to create an identity for a brand or design a chair. It’s more about how you read the world, how you read the problem and how you create a solution for that and that’s ??. You can work on all kind of environments if you have that skill. It’s a very powerful tool. So, that will never die I think but people still get trained in this idea of being a creator of physical things and I’m a little bit concerned about that. We shouldn’t romanticize our business. We should be a little bit more open to the possibilities of the future that there will be technology that does things we do now. I think a lot of people fear that moment but I think that’s a great chance.
If we don’t have to do that anymore, then we would have much more time to be innovators. We can use the space or the energy we have suddenly to think about totally different things and create our future in a different way. Technology always involves a positive and a negative part in it and it’s all about you, in which direction you want to push it. In that way, I’m looking into the future because I experienced the switch between analog to digital and suddenly, it goes back to analog. There’s always this — in analog, there’s a power. In digital, there’s a power. So, don’t forget about that. Why not put that all into your knowledge box and use it whenever you think it’s right to use it? So, I’m keen to see what will happen in the next five years and I will be part of it for sure. I try not to get stuck in the time I got socialized with design and I don’t think that time was better than it’s now. I think this time now is much better than the time I grew up.
What do you feel is your greatest achievement so far? What are you most proud of doing in your career?
Eike: It’s for sure not the work I created. I’m most proud of right now how I was able to define a space or design a space in which a lot of amazing young creative minds could find their voice and share their ideas and work together on wonderful, amazing jobs and I think that’s what I’m most proud of and I will be most proud of. I still have strong connections to a lot of people I met throughout that time and I completely respect the work they are doing and the personality they have. I’m really thankful because they also made me who I am right now, that reflection I got from these people that somehow formed me as a person and that will be the legacy I think and the rest, I mean, we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously. There’s a much bigger picture than a graphic designer or a product designer. I mean yeah, it’s an amazing job but we’re not really changing the world or most of us don’t do that. But maybe we can do that in a small way, in a micro-way. The way we are, like how we work together, that influences a lot and I think that maybe also changes the world a little bit. But I met a lot of people who are very arrogant because they think they are creatives and I want to laugh to myself. I always say to myself don’t take yourself so seriously. I also don’t want to create something that is forever. This idea is an illusion. We will pass away anyway and we will be forgotten at one point. So, that’s the most fulfilling feeling I have when I meet the people I’ve been working with for such a long time or see how they grew up and started their own businesses. That’s a little bit of me and then that makes me happy in a way.
Well, how about we finish up with maybe anything that’s coming up in the future? I think you just opened an exhibition recently. Is there anything else that you’ve got planned that you’d like to mention?
Eike: I focus a little bit more right now on my private work, on my artistic work. I opened the store when I did this residency at Villa Massimo in Rome and suddenly I found this unseen world that I want to explore and the deeper I enter this room, the bigger it gets. I felt like there must be an end but every door I opened, suddenly, there’s an even bigger room behind it and it’s completely fascinating that I’m able or it’s also a luxury that I’m able to spend a lot of my time exploring that topic. So, right now, I just opened the show in Hamburg. I’m preparing one in Cologne. Another one has finished in Sydney but will be open next year because…
Is that the one where the car crashed?
Eike: Yeah, a car crashed into the gallery so the gallery has to be reconstructed now and I’m talking right now about shows in Russia and in Munich. So, I think it’s part of that process that you create work and then you put it in an environment so it can get in touch with an audience because then it somehow comes alive. I mean if an artwork is just existing in my little studio without any contact to another person, then it’s just a dead piece of paper. I’m excited to put it n the space context and see how people react to it and I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a little bit of a heavy weight I’m carrying with me. I also want to be successful with that. So, I did the show in Hamburg and the opening was completely full, like a lot of people. I got some great response. A lot of young people but it’s not just about the response you get from people, you also somehow want to sell work and then I went to another opening on the next day from a painter and there it was also packed with people but older people, a different kind of audience and then my friend said in Frankfurt, my best friend said you can’t choose your audience.
The audience is choosing you and that’s what I really like because I thought I also want to have this grownup audience, like the lawyers and the I don’t know what. But I have my specific audience that is, I think ,much more related to what I’m doing in my business life and then suddenly they also get in contact with my artistic work and they see the connection. That’s my audience and they will grow and they will keep this connection to me I think. So, I’m really looking forward. I could calm down a little bit and not rush into things. I don’t know. I want to build a foundation of work and based on that foundation, maybe something can happen and I shouldn’t speed things up too much. So, now I’m happy. On the weekend, I was a little bit frustrated. I was a little bit like ah, you’ve put so much energy into it and I’m always doing these things by myself. I get in a car, I put the artwork in, I drive there, I build it up by myself. I see that as part of it but now I thought like no, I also should work with people who help me to do things and I don’t need to do everything by myself and then relax a little bit more. I wasn’t relaxed at that opening night. I couldn’t really enjoy it any more. So, I was like shit, I can’t do things and then not enjoy it. I should somehow savour the moment as an enjoyable moment and not as okay, it’s done. I’m tired, yeah?
Glenn: I imagine it almost being like the chef cooking all day and then you get to sit down and you’re like yeah, I’m not really hungry.
Eike: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was in a similar situation. So, next time I want to focus on that opening day. So, I need to have like I don’t know, two or three days in between and say now it’s the opening day. I’m ready. I want to meet people. I didn’t really want to meet people. It was so busy and people were talking to you and they were analyzing your work and I was like you can analyze my work but you don’t have to talk with me about my work. I will not give you any answers on my work. So, there were these people talking to me. Do I read it right and I was like no, my work is that every person can read something completely different in it. That’s the ideal of my life. Ah, yeah, but maybe this is what you thought about it and I was like no, I will not give you a hint of what I thought about it. So, it was a mix of stress suddenly but I totally understand people have questions, people want to understand things and people want to be next to you because I don’t know why and so, I was lucky that Anna was there and she calmed me down a lot and in the end, it was an amazing evening.
But next time, I think the next one will be in Cologne in November where also my family will be there and friends. I’m already into the stress of making it work but I think that will be an evening where I can enjoy being surrounded by the people I like, that I spend a lot of time with in my life and show them the work I’m doing right now. My mother doesn’t really know what I’m doing. But I think it will be the first time that she will get in contact with that and then there will be this moment when ? father meets my mother for the first time. So, I think there are so many things that will happen on this evening and I’m so much looking forward to that. So, it’s not just about showcasing work in a space; it’s also about the social things that happen when all the people gathering together meet my work. I’m excited.
Glenn: On that note, Eike, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me.
Eike: Yeah, it was my pleasure. Thank you.