Mirko Borsche is one of Germany’s most exciting editorial designers. This week he’s speaking in Luxembourg as a guest of Design Friends then heads home to Munich and take part in QVED2014. Sven Ehmann, creative director at Gestalten books, recently prepared this interview for the Design Friends event.
Mirko Borsche is certainly one of the most influential German graphic designers right now. With a clear focus and unquestionable strength in editorial design the Munich-based designer and his studio have been working on projects for the supplements of German daily Süddeutsche and weekly Die Zeit, the German launch issue of Harper’s Bazaar as well as a number of cultural clients. He constantly manages to navigate the fine line between the authenticity of his rather classic clients and a sophisticated, very contemporary visual language. Here Mirko shares some of the creative thinking and process behind this approach, writes Sven Ehmann.
I frequently find your name attached to many outstanding projects. What are you working on right now?
Oh, let me think about that. We are working on the next season for the Bavarian Opera House, the Symphonic Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, Thalia Theatre, the German weekly Zeit and its supplement Zeit Magazine – but the last two are weekly jobs all year round anyway – the next issue of Tush magazine, a project for Opel together with Bryan Adams, a contribution to a group exhibition at Haus der Kunst in Munich, a relaunch of Weltkunst magazine. I think that is most of what I am doing right now.
Is the German Harper’s Bazaar also on that list?
I just did the first issue of Bazaar, the launch issue.
What did you take from the heritage of the magazine and what was added to that as a new, contemporary impulse?
The current design refers to the classic layout that Alexey Brodovitch created, but also breaks these rules where possible and therefore showcases its own style. For example, we used the Didot typeface and a generous handling of white space, but let the headlines float in a modern way.
You work on shorter projects as well as long-term assignments. What team structure and work processes are in place at Bureau Mirko Borsche to make this possible?
There are five team members plus interns that work permanently for our clients and act as their direct contact. I do the art and creative direction.
The middle of a busy newsroom, in first class seat on an ICE train between Munich and Hamburg, a cabin in the woods, … Where is the best place for you to get to your best results?
During conversations with my clients.
What is your role at Die Zeit as a consultant to the art director?
In my first three years there I was producing Die Zeit every week together with Haiku Hinge. Now I am more like a consultant, helping wherever I can. And every year Haiku, her team and myself do a relaunch together.
How do you become involved with such high profile projects? Is it more a matter of networking, contacts and existing references or do you always pitch to win a project?
We never pitch for a project. I think people should be a 100% aware of whom they want to work with.
What is the key quality you bring to a project? Or in other words: What are your clients “buying”, when they decide to work with you?
They get a good partner, a professional in his field of work, who really wants the best for his client.
You seem to challenge people’s aesthetic expectations. How would you describe that approach? Is it a trick to surprise, a way to make them develop more of an advanced visual literacy, a form of protest against boring mainstream stock-images?
I try to speak my own visual language as far as possible. If this challenges people I see it as something good, since irritation brings interest. Deliberate provocation means not taking the audience seriously; I am not interested in that.
Getting the job is one step, but then turning exceptional ideas around is probably the more difficult. How do you explain and finally sell your most radical ideas?
I never talk about “radical” or “new” or “funny” ideas. That makes it sound less of a dare for the people I am working for.
I agree. But a lot of the ideas are probably challenging for your clients, right? And not all clients are comfortable with making decisions about design. How do you help them gain the confidence they need?
I assure the clients that we are creating something together. It is not necessarily about creating something new, but getting the best out of an idea. I don’t emphasize the “new, unseen“ aspect because this would only cause a defensive position.
Who are the most interesting people for you to work with?
I really like my clients. That makes it easier, because work takes so much time out of our lives.
And what qualities do you search for in your team members?
I look for people who know how to do different things than I can do, to get diversity and a wide range of talents.
Do you pay your interns?
Of course. They play an impotent roll in our bureau and work has to be paid for.
What was the biggest mistake you made in recent years? What did you draw from that experience?
There is no certain mistake that I can name. I would call it challenges rather than problems, and these never stop. There are new challenges in every project and we learn from it every time.
You are known for exceptional editorial design projects but you started in advertising. Why did you move away from it?
I learned a lot about brands and how you make them work in advertising, but I wanted to do more design work and illustrations. That was the main reason.
Your work always has a very contemporary edge to it. How important is that to you and the studio?
We are all quite interested in what’s happening in the art, music, fashion scene, so a contemporary aspect comes naturally.
You seem to be rooted in designing for print. What role does digital media play in your projects?
Digital has a big relevance in what we do, even in printed works. They change a lot in these days. As designers we search for inspiration on websites, blogs, newsfeeds etc every day. Our own website is also very important to us. It is a great way to show our creative output and give visitors inspiration.
How you do you use media as a consumer? Do you still pay for a print newspaper subscription?
We still have subscriptions and the amount rises, but actually I try to read as much as I can.
Is there any subject you are particularly interested in?
Yes, architecture and industrial design.
How sensitive and critical are you about the design around you?
I wish that clients would be more critical about design and seek out good designers. That would change a lot in a better way.
Would you say there is enough public discourse about design in Germany?
No. Design in Germany did become very strong again over the last five years, but there are only a few people being interested in that.
You also teach, lecture and give workshops. What do participants learn from you?
To not be afraid of having an idea.
I do not know too many older, successful designers. What is your idea of growing your career for the years to come?
It is not about growing, it’s about maintaining a certain level – and that is the hardest I think; whatever level that is.
Interview by Sven Ehmann, courtesy of Design Friends.