Eike König: Happy Branding (Copyright © Eike König, 2021).

When he was a student, Eike König always dreamed of building a place where people from different backgrounds and disciplines come together, work together, and form a community. It’s this very dream which later led to the foundation of his studio HORT. Collaboration is at the heart of the Berlin-based graphic design studio known for its experimental and free-spirited approach. Blurring the line between art and design, the studio has developed a practice that is playful, yet deliberate, founded on the principles of trust, community, exchange, and the courage to face failure. With a creative process that is never the same, HORT has worked with a plethora of exciting clients—and in doing so, never failed to surprise. 

As well as being the founder and creative director of HORT, Eike teaches graphic design at the University of Arts in Offenbach, where building strong relationships with his students is just as important as sticking to the curriculum.

In this interview, adapted from the new book C24 Archive One, Eike talks about his time on a gymnastics team, his experiences at university, what led to the foundation of HORT, and how failures were always part of his process. 

You recently had to move with your studio to a new area here in Berlin. Were you sad to say goodbye to your old studio?

It’s okay because our whole collaborative working process has changed anyway. In the beginning, we were a group of about ten people that moved to Berlin together to start a business. At some point, everyone started to work remotely from their homes, and suddenly, this place became redundant. When I got kicked out, it felt like a fresh start. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to let go of the old office. I’m a romantic guy, I get attached to such things. And now, the pandemic has normalized remote work even more. 

If collaboration moves more and more into the digital realm, don’t you miss something?

No, not at all. Nowadays, there are so many useful tools for collaboration. You can meet anytime if you want to. I recently worked on a pitch for a bigger client with three other designers. Even if we never collaborated before, I intentionally put this group of people together, because this sometimes leads to a special tension in the group. Everyone needs to find their role. After we won the pitch, we planned to meet every week to collaborate on the essential elements of the branding before assigning tasks. As remote work can feel frayed sometimes, it makes teamwork a little harder. But that’s what it is, we have to deal with it. On the other hand, I find it liberating in a way.

You are also a teacher at HfG Offenbach where you work together with students in the field of design and art. How has the pandemic changed teaching?

The pandemic had a huge impact on universities and forced them to transition to online courses. In my eyes, this is a complete disaster, because studying together with other students is so important for their personal growth.

There’s no real exchange anymore. All of these experiences happen solely online.

There are many aspects to it. When you study at university, you have this kind of social pressure to attend your classes. Avoiding digital meetings is much easier. Some students have lost their job in bars or other cultural institutions and thus had to move back to their parents because they couldn’t afford the rent anymore. Nobody talks about the effects of the pandemic on this generation. Of course, this situation also affects me, but I can at least adjust.

Did you have to rethink your role as a teacher this year?

Yes, but it’s not working. It’s easier with students that I already knew before because you have a history together. After two or three years of knowing each other, you can make a long-distance relationship work. It’s more difficult with the younger students. You need to be there and motivate them. You can’t do that online. 

The relationships with your students and the other designers at HORT seem to be very important to you. Looking back, was there any time when you rather worked by yourself? 

I think I have to dive deeper into my past to answer this question. When I was younger, I did gymnastics, which includes both team sport and individual sport. On one hand, it really triggered my ego, always striving to be the best. On the other hand, I also had to work in a team, except that it was not really a team. In the end, you’re just fighting for yourself. Sometimes, you even feel a spitefulness when the other person tumbles, which is a pretty bizarre feeling. I felt this immense pressure to discipline myself. My whole life was dictated by this discipline to go to training, to give my best for everyone, but also for myself at the same time. It’s weird to have this kind of competition within a team. That’s why I quit.

When I started studying, I always felt the need to work together with the other students. For me, it was all about learning from each other, sharing great experiences, and creating a beautiful project together. That has always been my dream, but it got crushed by the fierce competition between the students that reminded me of my time on the gymnastics team. I’ve always had this idealistic idea of universities as some sort of revolutionary institution, where the new generation would question the principles of former generations.But after two weeks, I felt like university was even worse than school because, at school, I had at least no expectations. I started to go to school at six years old and stayed in this system until the end, I had no choice. But I chose to go to university and that’s why I had all these expectations that were not met. 

After I dropped out of college, I worked for a few techno events in my city and did an internship at Logic Records which later offered me a job as an art director. In the end, I was completely self-taught. I still try to recreate this experience of working together and learning from each other that I always dreamed of.

When I founded the studio, I’ve always searched for other people that I could work with. From the beginning, I collaborated on various projects with other designers and artists. After I hired my first employee, I hit my stride. But after a few very busy years, I had a breakdown. I suffered burnout. That’s when I realized that I wanted to create a space where good, talented people came together and worked on projects with me. That’s how the idea of HORT was born.

Learning from each other seems to be at the core of HORT. 

Exactly. I also learn a lot from my students. This constant discourse allows me to question my practice, gain new perspectives, and learn about new techniques and technologies.

The more you get older, the more you think about your past. You get a better understanding of your past and learn from it. Today, I love working on my own, especially when it comes to my art projects, but maybe because teaching and working in the studio compensates for that. It allows me to slow down and escape from the high-speed life that I was living before. Always on, always available, so many people and so much responsibility. It’s healing to take some time off and do something just for yourself, both physically and mentally.

I also learn a lot from my students. This constant discourse allows me to question my practice, gain new perspectives, and learn about new techniques and technologies.

Do all the people at HORT have a background in graphic design?

We’ve always been open to diverse disciplines. I also don’t have any friends that work in the graphic design industry. [laughs] I mean, I know a lot of people, of course, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them my friends. I always stayed close with my old friends instead. Whenever I go into a bar in Berlin and meet other graphic designers, all they want to talk about is business and I just don’t feel like it. [laughs] Graphic design is not my life, to be fully honest. I’m a citizen. I’m a father. And of course, I’m also a graphic designer. But I see it more as a profession, not as a calling. I get enthusiastic about many different things, I don’t like to reduce my life to this tiny bubble of graphic design.

I try to free myself from those shackles by engaging myself in art, even if my artistic work is still related to graphic design. Some of my haters say I’m not allowed to call myself an artist. In the end, I don’t care what people say. There’s no client involved. These artworks are just inspired by my experiences and emotions. It’s just natural that I use the same techniques that I know from graphic design. My knowledge is like some sort of branding that I evolved over the years.

HORT is a place where people can come together, work together, and learn from each other. Is it also a place where you are allowed to make mistakes?

Of course. Mistakes are part of the learning process. You can’t avoid them. You shouldn’t avoid them. Every innovation bears the risk of failure. If you want to create something innovative, you need to accept the fact that it might not work out. And if you want to avoid that, you won’t create something innovative. It’s two sides of the same coin.

When I founded HORT, I imagined it as a place where I can still experiment and try new things whether they work out or not. If they work out, great. If they don’t, I learn from them.

Sometimes when my interns work on a certain project for a big client like Nike, they all have this specific idea in mind, because they’ve seen the work we’ve done for Nike as a studio before. And then they start to limit themselves to recreate the same style. I always tell them that I want to see something that I have never seen before. For some of them, this was a very liberating experience, for others, it was not easy to let go of their associations.

All of the brands start to look the same, like Airbnb, Rimova, and many fashion labels. They had such unique and fancy logos, it was a broad variety of shapes and symbols. Like a rainforest, you know? Now we are turning this rainforest into a monoculture, a birch forest where all the trees are planted in a row. We deform and destroy this living culture. Maybe that’s a result of the algorithms that entertain us every day. When we always see the same things, we mark them as “good”.

Instagram is still an important platform among designers. The problem is that you often see only the outcome, you don’t see the process behind it and then certain styles get copied or ripped off. Instagram gives the graphic design scene a weird uniformity. 

It’s really important to free yourself from these kinds of “presets” in your brain. Otherwise, you just end up repeating cliches, making no progress. We live in a world that tells you: don’t fail. That’s how we grow up. You always have to win. You need to be the best, the most beautiful. It’s all driven by performance. We always look up to those people that are so talented in what they’re doing. But we forget that they probably have come a long way paved with failure. We need to understand and accept that failures are also part of the process because then it doesn’t hurt as much anymore.

This interview has been lightly edited. You can read more in the new book C24: Archive One, available now.