E-mail interview conducted in June 2003 by Adrian Shaughnessy in preparation for an article in Eye magazine.

Interviews | A. Shaughnessy, 2003

What inspired you to take up graphic design? What age were you?

My original idea was not so much to take up graphic design, but rather to become a typesetter. I must have been fifteen or sixteen then, and I was fascinated with language, as a system, and particularly with written language. I liked to think that the development of alphabets must have been the most important step in human culturalization – the basis, or at least one of the most basic things, of what we call “culture” today.

At the same time, I was politically quite active, and I was confident that people will take any message more seriously the less shitty it looks – I think the first thing I sort of “designed” was some leaflet about how Shell, Inc. is doing evil things somewhere in Africa. I still work for an anti-war organization sporadically, and I still think it makes sense, but it can be very complicated in practice, unfortunately.

While I was still in school I took up a part-time job as a phototypesetter; after that I worked at a local experimental newspaper until I got a job in pre-press later on. I always worked as a designer on the side, but that only evolved into a real profession little by little.

Describe your design education?

I have no formal education. After I had left school I started to work at the abovementioned newspaper, the “scheinschlag”. That’s where I learnt a lot of basics, in terms of technology and organization first of all – I mean, I never had used a computer before, let alone defined a mask for a database to generate a good-looking page of classified ads.

I doubtlessly learnt a lot about design in that time, too, but I wouldn’t really call that an education; it was a mixture of learning by doing, reading up on things, and learning from others. The layout “department” at that time was a handful of very ambitious people, and the design concept of scheinschlag (nothing like “standard” newspaper design – it was by cyan, after all) was a great basis for experimentation. Since there was no client that we would have had to sell it to, we could basically do what we thought was right. More or less. Of course there were editors, and the discussions with them (and among each other) were somethimes pretty hard, but in the end the layouters were co-publishers with the same rights as everybody else.

The two years I worked at this project turned out to be much more important than any degree could have been. Maybe I could have gone to a design school at some point, but I don’t think that would have made sense – I would have been bored to tears there, I’m sure.

Tell me about your first experiences of working life?

With most of my (ex) colleagues at scheinschlag – Sebastian Fessel, Stefan Stefanescu, Andreas Koch, Anke Fesel, and Kai Dieterich – I’ve been working together on other projects as well. We designed and produced another paper, posters, record sleeves; not as a group or office, but as a loose network of individuals. I still think that this is an ideal working structure, at least for me it is.

Then I took up a part-time job in pre-press, which I kept for the following six years – a great basis, both financially and technically, to do all sorts of underpaid-but-fun design work “on the side” (although priorities slowly shifted over time; when I eventually quit in 2000 it was more like I was doing design and “on the side” the job I had there). The people there were very supportive, and I learnt things I would otherwise never have got in touch with – fixing other people’s broken fonts tells you a lot about how PostScript works.

I also did a short sort-of-internship at Moniteurs, Berlin, after which I knew (and they knew) that I’m just not meant to be working in a design office.

How did you get into design for music?


At first I got my jobs mainly out of interest: since I was interested in electronic/experimental music, that’s what I was doing. The scene is quite small, you see: musician A releases on label B, which in turn asks me to do something for C, who refers me to D, and so on. Also, I started to work for Kitty-Yo in 1998, a tiny little record label at that time – meanwhile they’re mid-size, rather famous (I would say), and quite a big client. Most of the work I do for them is production, though, not so much design – their policy is that each artist or band, and not the label, takes care of the artwork, so most of the bands have their own designers.

So it basically just evolved I would say – I have no idea how to acquire jobs, people always came and asked … and at some point there were enough people asking to make a living from design only. That’s not a technique I would recommend to anyone, though – it’s a little bit risky if you don’t have anything to fall back on. And with the nosedive that the music industry took around 2001, things have become a bit difficult in that particular area now.

Your work seems very close stylistically to some of the best experimental electronic music: do you think there are any parallels?

Naturally so, yes. The working process is quite the same I think – it’s no coincidence that so many great musicians are designers as well (although I’m as musical as a brick, myself). The formal methods are quite the same, I think that’s what you mean by “stylistically”: loops/repetition, filters, distortion, interference, enlargement, remapping, compression, layering, omission, alignment, conversion – those methods all exist in both worlds.

I’m not a musician, but I think most contemporary digital music is ideally making a formal statement in the same way design (ideally) does. That’s not to say, though, that design is just a methodical statement and nothing else – I’m only talking about the formal language here, what you could call “style”. Or “sound”.

Your most distinctive work looks as if it could only be created using a computer, do you agree?

Yes, absolutely. Although there are some projects where I used classical techniques – the wood type poster for Iva Bittovà, for example, and the lead typeset 12” series for Kitty-Yo (both of which are collaborations with Sebastian Fessel) –, most everything else is computer based. Take the 10” series for Full Swing, for example: this is a series of remixes derived from another 12” sleeve (the music is also remixes from that 12”); I don’t think the concept of a remix even existed before people made music with computers. Cut-ups, yes, and cover versions and whatnot, but the remix is an entirely digital concept I would say.

Another example would be the Laub tour poster from 2002 (“Filesharing”): the image is converted to plaintext with a little utility I built in Max/MSP, which took one afternoon. How do you do this kind of thing without a computer? Sure you can do the same thing with a typewriter – people have been doing that -, but that might take a little while; it’s at least ten square meters of small print after all, if you count in the layers.

The aspect of your work that I think is the reason that your work is important is your use of seemingly random pattern making. I’m thinking mainly of Full Swing, 6.45KB RAM and Heroin (Mathieu & Ehlers). These projects strike me as remarkable in that they almost appear random, as if untouched by human hand. Can you tell me about this type of work?

“random, as if untouched by human hand” – but that’s not quite the same thing ... Oh, randomness. Good cue. =)

The three projects you mention are four different stories, actually: the motif on the Full Swing EP is the result of a file conversion failure (originally a CAD file showing the floor plan of a dormitory), and the stuff on the series are remixes of that. I chose the motive for this EP – it’s only a very small detail of the file – because of stephan’s very similar approach to the music on it: everything is made from one tiny sample, not even a second long I believe. So it’s basically about magnification, both the music and the design … although you don’t have to know that in order to enjoy it (I would hope). But while the motif is certainly 100% computer generated – is it actually random? I think the act of choosing *this* detail of *that* file is something that only humans can do, I mean, it’s a conscious decision. Still, this image is different from many others in that it has no author – it wasn’t made, it happened.

The motifs on the remixes – the [edits] series – are all derived from the file that’s on the EP. The music is, again, made from tiny snippets of the original sound material of the artists that Stephan is remixing – the design is based on the same principle: I generated a series of variations using tiny details of the image itself as halftone patterns (in place of regular autotypical screening). In a way, the results are the digital equivalent of “generations” in analog copy art, where a detail of an original is enlarged over and over again until the traces of this process itself become the image.

6.45KB RAM is a series of details from screenshots I made from the output of “Procedure #9”, a little application I wrote a couple of years ago in an effort to learn C. Its working method is basically a bug I had in another application – it reads the memory of the machine and projects it onto the main screen, in the form of black and white pixels. I believe that’s really the mythical zeroes and ones in the brain of your Mac that you see there, although I’m not sure exactly where they come from – the original program (the one that had the bug) should have been reading from an offscreen port but read from an unspecified memory address instead. So this actually is quite random I’d say – at least as random as computers can be.

The pattern on the Heroin CD is, again, “made by” my machine: it’s what happens when you re-map colours to the MacOS system colour palette. A very fascinating process; I never found out exactly how it works. I had made a series of those patterns and Stephan chose one. Later on I wrote a Max patch that generates this kind of pattern, instead of fumbling with screenshots – an extended version of that patch I’m currently using for live performances, as a “mutating wallpaper” backdrop for Mitek / Mikael Stavöstrand and others.

In comparison, I’m really rather uninterested in “classical” images I must say. There seems to be some kind of cult about “realism”, whether you look at photographic reproduction or synthetic images – to make it “perfect” and look like the “real” thing. I mean, in the end the *real* thing is little dots of ink on paper – or little pixels on the screen -, that’s what I find much more interesting.

What is your feeling about the computer as the main tool of graphic design?

I can’t answer this so generally I’m afraid … It’s a bit like being asked “how do you feel about electricity”. I like my Mac, and I like the way how computers, as a means of production, have softened up working structures that were quite rigid before. A project like scheinschlag, for example, wouldn’t have been possible in the environment of mechanical repro – you can’t do a newspaper “just for fun” if you need a complete production line first, cameras and darkrooms and typesetting machines and all that. Also, I wouldn’t know how I’d go about working with people in other countries and time zones without e-mail; that’s not a graphic design tool per se of course, but for me it’s a very important means of production.

On the other hand, it’s a bit unsettling to see whole lines of work eroding; it may be a logical progression, but I don’t see how capitalism can survive another automation process in any civilized fashion. Take computer-to-plate imaging for example – the idea is great, but the downside is that the kind of pre-press studio I used to work at will probably not exist anymore in another ten years. What are those people doing then?

How do you feel about on-screen design? Do you prefer print based work?

I can’t really say that I prefer one or the other. I consider myself mainly a print designer because that’s what I’m coming from, but there’s a lot of screen design in my print design as well. Using the screen as a tool, I mean – screenshots are a great filter, like fax machines used to be back when faxes still looked good. I expect I will be a bit bored with System X.

I’m also doing live visuals sometimes and I don’t feel out of place there either, although I think the “on-screen” vs. “print” categorization doesn’t really work here. I mean, live visuals are certainly on-screen in the technical sense, but apart from that they have more in common with wallpaper (at least mine do) than with a website or a DVD.

Which designers, and which schools of design were you influenced by?

The most direct influence probably comes from the people I’ve been working with: Stefan Stefanescu, Andreas Koch, Sebastian Fessel – all of which I met at scheinschlag -; more recently Stephan Mathieu, aka Full Swing, and Christopher Murphy of Fällt Publishing. I assume I’m influenced to some degree by the work of grappa design as well, who we shared office with during the first year at scheinschlag. They were our superheroes (along with cyan, which are a grappa spin-off and thus stylistically very close).

In general, I’m rather trying not to be influenced too much, though. Although I find experimental music very inspiring in its methods – I’m probably much more influenced by this kind of music than by design or anything else.

I think I know what you mean by “schools of design”, but I would have a hard time naming any one … there are certain principles that I adapt, because they work, but it’s not like I have a fixed formal system that I’m following.

Which contemporary designers do you admire?

tdr, for their All Art Is Shit / All Shit Is Art double poster.

plazm.com, for their http://anti-war.us initiative. (Okay, I don’t quite *admire* them, but the idea was overdue, given the state of political graphic design.)

In non-graphic design, I currently admire Lisa Norinder for her “Benjamin” stool. I hate buying things, but this one I *want* – it’s simply done right.

You don’t mention John Maeda. I wonder if he is any influence?

No, not really. I only learnt about Maeda’s work maybe two years ago – I see the similarities of course, but most of the stuff mentioned above I did long before I knew anything about him, so you can’t really speak of an influence.

Do you consider yourself a German designer?

Good question. =)

Depends on who you ask, I would say – if you let the Germans define “german”, then I’m certainly not german, although I live in Berlin since I’m twelve. I would say I’m a german designer as a matter of fact, but not with a capital G.

Is there a contemporary German graphic design style?

I don’t know. What do you mean by “German”? So-called nationality is quite irrelevant in this context I would say – if you would tell me that grappa were Italian, eboy Finnish and Ständige Vertretung Austrian, I’d have no problem to believe it. The other way around, the differences between just those few are far too great in my eyes to put them all in the same “style drawer” … “style” is just a lot more complex a matter than “nationality” I think.

So, I don’t know … I don’t see one. Do you think there is?

Do you see design as a global activity, or is it still rooted in place and environment?

If you ask about the work that I’m doing, designing a record sleeve is always quite “global”. Semiglobal in fact; Africa and most of Asia aren’t on the map, but still. It’s going to be distributed most everywhere else. It’s also going to be rooted somewhere, I don’t think that’s a contradiction … I mean, every designer is coming from somewhere.

Design in general, I don’t know. The notion of graphic design itself is probably a very Western thing, but then you’re asking about *design* and not graphic design, and that starts when you tie a stick to a stone and call it a hammer. So how could it not be global?

Are you inspired to work on global projects?

You mean, the client/musician sits on continent A and the designer on continent B? – Yes, I’m doing that all the time.

I’d just feel a bit funny working with a language I don’t speak, or an alphabet I’m not familiar with – but in the music business most everything is English, so that’s not likely to happen. I’d love to give it a try, though. I’d also find it interesting to work with a designer who doesn’t know the Latin alphabet, but then how would we communicate?

Are you attracted to commercial work: if a big global conglomerate asked you to design an identity for them, or an annual report, would you be interested?

I don’t like big institutions, be they commercial or not. Up to 12 people or so apparently works OK, but anything larger than that seems to go haywire. Projects just dissolve, and if they don’t they never go to print, and even if they do that doesn’t mean that I ever get paid. Is my experience. I’m much happier dealing with individuals and small companies – people who can decide for themselves and stand by it, instead of asking three project managers first.

However, although I can’t say I’m particularly attracted to commercial work per se, it would depend on what that “big global conglomerate” would be doing: if they were to ask me of all people, they would have to have a good reason; I mean, I’m not a big advertising agency. So if it’s a publishing company that wants accurate typography in their reports, and that’s why they ask me, then why not? On the other hand if it’s some innovative marketing idea (recharging brand value, creative young designers, etc) I would probably find it too silly – whether it’s commercial or not, I just can’t work on a basis of hot air.

What sort of work would you like to be doing besides the work you are currently engaged in?

Um, good question. Do you mean design sorts of work, or something entirely different?

As far as design goes, I’d like to do more ongoing projects in addition to the one-off things I do at the moment. Nothing to say against record sleeves, but series just feel more substantial – you don’t have to have one good idea until next week; you can construct a basis to work on first. The Ritornell series was one of my favourite jobs, for example.

Also, I wouldn’t mind doing some more work outside the music business – not because I don’t like it, but while graphic design certainly has a high influence here, it has a lot more weight in other areas. If you think of time tables or user manuals, for example – things that are actually being used. I did a calendar a long time ago, which is still being re-printed every year; that’s probably one of the most useful things I’ve ever done.

There’s also a couple of things that I’m already doing but would like to do more often: photography, programming, type design … that’s all side branches of my “actual” work though, not really “besides” it. So, in general I’m quite happy with what I’m doing.