Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, isn’t home to many designers, which is perhaps why AKU has attracted such a wide range of clients. From microbreweries and music festivals to the more buttoned-up Estonian parliament, founders Alari Orav, Kaarel Kala, and Uku-Kristjan Küttis have already made a name for themselves in their mother country—but the international design community is getting to know them, too. At first glance, their work is startlingly simple, but upon further inspection you begin to appreciate the intricacies involved in color choice and type placement, as well as the use of illustration and graphics. This spare yet exquisite layering of details is the result of years of experience—Orav, Kala, and Küttis have been honing their design skills since they were teenagers. We recently caught up with them about the growing design scene in Estonia, how they collaborate with local artists, and their special recipe for particularly exciting work.
What’s the design scene like in Estonia?
Like the country itself, the design scene is small but developing fast. Desktop publishing created a huge void in the newly independent Republic of Estonia in the beginning of ’90s. The older generation of designers who couldn’t adapt were soon replaced by new, computer-literate people with no formal design education, mainly working in advertising. This changed slowly the mid-2000s when the first students from Estonian Academy of Arts returned from design schools in Europe and established their own practices.
Now there are digital, branding, and service design agencies as well as small design studios and freelancers. Our clients are varied too, from microbreweries and tech start-ups to the Parliament of Estonia. The share of international clients is constantly growing.
For us, the struggle isn’t to do great design, but to educate clients on design. We believe this helps not only us, but every other designer in the long run.
Do you often collaborate with other local artists?
Collaboration is essential as part of our process. In many ways, a designer is always collaborating with someone: clients, printers, illustrators, type designers, etc. We share our office with Ryan Chapman, a great British illustrator, and we’ve used his work on several projects, most recently the identity for Tallinn Music Week 2015 (above).
You seem to do quite a lot work with local art/media/government. How did that come about?
Some of this can be traced back to freelance projects we did individually before forming AKU, but a lot of work has come to us by referral. There are 1.3 million people in Estonia, so personal connections are actually an easy and efficient way to get things done.
As a rule, cultural projects tend to offer more artistic freedom and let us experiment with new things, so we try to have a few of these going alongside the more “commercial” work. We don’t take part in unpaid competitions, but all public/government institutions have to commission work by tenders [akin to bidding], so we’ve made a few exceptions, like the new identity for the Parliament of Estonia (above). This turned out to be one of the biggest and most complicated projects we’ve done so far, with every member of the parliament and the media wanting to have their say. We’re very pleased with the outcome and continue to expand the identity with new applications.
Can you describe your style, as far as your approach to color and typography?
We don’t have strict house style, especially as the three partners all have slightly different approaches, but we try to follow certain principles for all our work.
Coming from a print background, we tend to limit the use of color, mainly for practical, production-related reasons. Consistency across different color spaces can be hard to achieve, but we believe there are great combinations still to be found.
Everything can be designed using the 8-10 “classic” typefaces. However, we always like to try out new things because every choice in type creates a new dialect of communication, local or global.
The typeface(s) should form a part of the solution to the problem, so the choice is always clearly communicated to the client. We rarely use the same typeface twice and spend quite a lot of time trying to find new (or old) fonts that excite us.
It would be great to see more releases from Estonian type designers. So far Anton Koovit at Fatype is the only one constantly delivering the goods.
Tell me about the new campaign for Tallinn Music Week.
Tallinn Music Week is an annual festival that’s now approaching its seventh year. AKU has been responsible for the graphic design since the very beginning, however we completely redesigned the festival last year, keeping nothing from the previous years. To instill the idea that new music is like a rare species, we hired Eleriin Ello to do the illustrations of a rare tropical plant (very top).
The 2015 campaign has a completely new look again, with the only constant element being the typeface. The main concept revolves around migratory birds as a figurative comment on importing and exporting music, which, as we mentioned, were designed in collaboration with Ryan Chapman. TMW 2015 is shaping up to become the most coherent festival experience yet, with the identity applied across digital, print, interiors, and various activities.
What kinds of projects excite you?
We get excited by the unknown, if there’s a problem or element that we don’t know how to tackle. Obviously, trust and meaningful communication with the client are essential to any successful project. And it’s important to have fun while doing it. We’re always working on various branding projects. Currently, these range from a printing house in Tallinn to a fashion designer in London, and a hair salon in Doha. More and more of our work is digital, so the agency is set to grow, and this year also sees us dabbling in product design.