Trust me, I’m an art director

Mirko Borsche works for some of Germany’s more staid institutions, but his work is anything but conservative. The key to his creativity is his relationship with clients, he says

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Going by a cursory glance at Mirko Borsche’s online portfolio, it might come as a surprise that the German graphic designer’s creativity was forged in the mainstream of big-buck advertising. On his studio’s website – a quirky, in his words deliberately “stone age”, site designed by an enthusiastic intern – work of a fanzine/trash aesthetic sits alongside bold graphics, photography and illustration and sometimes discordant imagery, as well as music videos and large-scale installations.

In fact, Borsche says that his career and creative process developed through a round-about string of coincidences. For instance, just as he was getting itchy feet after eight years at advertising agencies (working for clients such as Mercedes Benz and Reemtsma, one of Europe’s biggest tobacco and cigarette producers), an offer from German newspaper Süddeutsche’s youth title jetzt-Magazin provided the perfect get-away. And a few years later, when he was looking to set up on his own, the publisher of national newspaper Die Zeit came knocking – the perfect first client for a fledgling studio.

Making a mark

Even his choice of graphic design as a career – following a stint as a graffiti artist in the late 1980s – was a process of elimination, rather than the result of burning desire. Too in awe of contemporary artists to choose art as an education, and too unsure of the career prospects of an illustrator, Borsche chose graphic design and art direction, which he believed would let him pursue his interest in illustration while paying the bills.

And pay the bills it has. Following his time in advertising, he quickly made a name for himself in publishing, with prospective clients tending to seek him out. “There are not so many art directors in the German language who understand what the magazine or the author wants, who read text – there are only two or three people doing that, so it’s not hard for clients to come across my name,” he explains. This might sound a tad exaggerated, but Borsche states this in such matter-of-fact manner that it seems likely.

Founded in 2007, Munich-based Bureau Mirko Borsche now employs five designers and creates a variety of publications, from the mainstream Die Zeit and its weekly magazine to the alternative Munich city paper Super Paper and gay magazine Horst. Working on magazines is “good for the brain”, says Borsche, as it forces the designer to be flexible, to multi-task, and to work in different visual languages, with illustrators and different types of photographers, in reportage or fashion shoots. He encourages the studio’s designers to work with him on at least one magazine in addition to other projects for clients such as independent record label Gomma, the Bavarian state opera and brands like Nike.

Borsche is emphatically client-blind, providing the same involved process to everyone he works for, whether they are alternative gay publishers looking for “straight art direction” or the decidedly more staid Bavarian cultural institutions. What runs through all the projects is a unifying humour, surprising use of imagery and exploration of typography. Recent samples include Craig & Karl illustrated posters for the Bavarian state opera, surreal imagery of the opera’s in-house magazine Max Joseph, and the juxtaposition of hand-written children’s type with modernist photography in a recent Super Paper issue.

A contemporary twist

Borsche points out that his experience in advertising has had a strong influence on his creative process. He says, “In advertising you always have to concentrate on the very small amount of content you get. You have to find in this small thing that the client gives you a special idea.” Distilling a strong core concept from content now drives all his work.

“Many of our clients are very traditional – opera houses, orchestras, museums,” says Borsche. “But we always have good content to work with. Also most of them are not that young but have [a similar challenge in that they increasingly] have to interest younger people. And the twist between doing classic graphic design and then trying to translate that into modern graphics from our age is a very important part of what we do here.”

Typography in turn forms a key part of that graphic language, and is particularly important to Borsche. The studio designs custom fonts for many of its project, and often a certain type informs the overall design direction. The hand-drawn Super Paper headline font was created by Borsche’s four-year-old son to lend the magazine more of a fanzine look, while for Horst the studio created Dorothy Rude and Sweet (named after The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale), two fonts always used on opposite pages of the magazine’s spreads.

At Die Zeit Borsche reintroduced the newspaper’s custom serif typeface, Tiemann, designed by Walter Tiemann in 1923. “It’s a very special typeface. It works well and is very classic. It could be in Vogue or Harpers Bazaar, and it is very unusual for a newspaper to do that, so I brought it back. I like the idea of a typeface being very old fashioned, because I think the break [between product and typeface] works better.”

Always finding “this single point to break with the rules” is crucial, he adds. “But it has to be one single design idea. There shouldn’t be too many things, because it makes it very annoying for the reader. That’s a very German thing – very Bauhaus – to just concentrate on one solution or idea.”

Yes, Borsche likes to break the rules, but he does so in a considered way – just as he now and again looks to shock. “The bold or shocking pictures are the ones that people remember and talk about,” says Borsche. “Most of the time we try to be very quiet with the design and the pictures, so that these bold ones really stand out.”

A naked penis

Quite a few covers for Die Zeit’s magazine have stood out over the years. One featured a photograph of a naked penis to illustrate an article exploring the question of why mainstream media show naked women galore, but shy away from male nudity. “You have to do that once in a while, as long as the story is worth it,” says Borsche, who took some time to convince his editor in chief. “But you can’t run a story about why you never see a naked penis in a newspaper and not show one. The other people from Die Zeit hated it; but that’s the point – if you want to write about it you have to show it.”

A close relationship

It is his long-standing relationship with many clients that allows Borsche to occasionally push the boundaries of what’s acceptable in this way. At Die Zeit, he is an integral part of the team, and is as likely to suggest content as he is to accept design ideas. He takes relationship building seriously, and constantly weighs up clients’ design needs versus what they might be prepared to accept. “I never do something the client doesn’t feel [comfortable with],” he says. “If the client arrives in a Zegna suit I wouldn’t give him a Jil Sander suit – a completely different style. The client is always close to the process, so he never gets something where he thinks we’re crazy – at the end of the process maybe [the work] is crazy, but the client is used to it.”

Again Borsche credits his experience of advertising with helping him build this rapport with many of his clients. “I had to work with marketing chiefs from very big companies – so I know their language,” he says. “It’s easier for a designer to sell his stuff if he knows what they want; otherwise you just go there and they see you as a freak or an artist. Or you’re not even one of those, you’re just the guy choosing the colours and a bit of typography and a few pictures, and you’re not interesting for them and they don’t hear you.”

Being able to talk the corporate talk also means  that Borsche can maintain a mix of big budget projects, such as a series of installations for Audi, alongside his various art director roles and more independent creative endeavours including quirky self-initiated fanzines (one of the latest was dedicated to the studio’s Spanish cat Felipe) and a growing number of exhibitions. For this year’s ‘Unplugged: Mirko Borsche – Design Works’ at Munich design museum Pinakothek der Moderne, for example, Borsche distilled the visual language of his past work into hand-painted posters. “Clients like the Staatsoper and Symphonieorchester [state opera and symphony orchestra], they pay the rent for my people,” says Borsche, while clients such as Audi allow the studio to finance one-off expenditures, such as a silk-screen printing machine.

Despite his distinctive German twang and the occasional reference to German design of yesteryear, Borsche doesn’t see himself fitting into a wider narrative of German graphic design. “When I started doing graphic design, German design was just crap,” he says. “You talked about Switzerland, The Netherlands, England, the US, or if you talked about Germany you talked about the classics, such as Otl Aicher.”

In any case, even though he boasts plenty of industry awards, Borsche tends to eschew the design establishment. “We don’t take ourselves that seriously and have a very low profile,” he says. “Humour is a big part of our work. We have a lot of fun and that’s important in our work, because what we do is entertainment.”