Sitting alongside its exacting grids, typographic experimentation, and bright, clean art direction, the work of German studio I Like Birds (ILB) radiates a certain positivity. We have the charmingly philosophical outlook of it founders, André Gröger and Susanne Kehrer, to thank for that. Describing their studio’s location by the harbor in Hamburg, Gröger says, “while working we always hear the seagulls. They make that special background noise, giving us nice concerts.” To interpret that squawking (which so many people hate) as “nice concerts” is indicative of the ILB approach. And it’s also a hint at where their name came from. Well, that and the fact the pair likes the Eels. “I guess this name is a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.”
Gröger and Kehrer met during their final year diploma exhibition at the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz, though Gröger had also previously interned at Eike Konig’s Hort studio–there are certainly hints of that sort of aesthetic in the ILB portfolio, as with so many of Konig’s protégées. “Our background and design education were different, but while talking about design, we found out that we share the same thoughts on how design should work and what it could be,” he says of meeting Kehrer.
“The unusual combination of our interests led to creating the design studio: a good mixture of illustration, visual communication, and typography with editorial design backgrounds.” ILB was born in 2010, within the apartment shared by Gröger and Kehrer, where the pair worked long, antisocial hours in the belief that this would be the key to getting the agency off the ground. However, it soon became a bit of a prison. “We never left the house, barely stopped working and went from the desk to the bed and back again in the morning. Suddenly we felt it was going into the wrong direction; we lost focus and had no structure,” says Gröger. “The whole apartment was loaded with a pulsating working energy. There was no actual relaxed spare time at home anymore, there were print outs from an editorial projects put on the walls, photography equipment, and working utilities—it felt like living in a factory.”
The decision was made to rent a studio space in Speicherstad, and certain rules were put in place: no working at the weekend, no working longer than ten hours a day, and no giving away private telephone numbers to clients. This new approach brought greater focus, and surely a happier way of life, too. Getting away from the screen is vital, especially at the beginning of a project, says Gröger. “Before and during a project, we’re inspired by art but not so much by contemporary design-related sources, like blogs… We’d rather visit museums.” Daily life is also a constant inspiration, taking note of “accidents and sudden coincidences. These situations become part of the process.”
Much of the studio’s work is in editorial design, having worked with clients including Brand eins magazine, Page and Zeit. For these sort of projects, the team worked with a “flexible system and a strong concept driven realization later on.” Gröger explains: “We think about single details, do a lot of research, build up a system behind it and exchange our thoughts before we even start doing visual parts. It’s like creating a map.
“Finding a solution and an expandable, functional concept automatically forms our visual language. Thats why we are taking the time to sit together and think about what is working and what isn’t, especially when you design with a partner, it’s a helpful tool to communicate. Exchanging ideas, talking and giving feedback affects the process and pushes the design ideas forward. In the end it builds a bigger, wider output.”
Their photography happened purely by coincidence–one of the first clients asked for a set design. “We thought it is a good tool of taking visual communication to another level, combining our knowledge from illustration to layouts to shapes, pattern, and color combinations, and finding a common visual language.” The client was more than happy with the results of ILB’s first foray into set design, and set the studio on the path to where it is today, with a practise based heavily around this multidisciplinary approach, creating and shooting installations for commissions from magazines including Hohe Luft, Neon, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and more.
Whether creating posters, books, illustrations, corporate identities or art direction, Gröger is keen to stress that a combination of analog and digital processes are always at play. But this isn’t just about showing off their abilities across various media, it’s about something that fundamentally links the design process to the nuances of being a human being. “Both of us have a strong connection to working the traditional way, using our hands; it helps us to bring ideas to life and make them individual,” says Gröger. “We like the idea of showing a bit of imperfection. Graphic visuals can become overdone through digital revisions, and lose their personality. Design is often linked to perfectionism, showing no mistakes, not a moment of struggle, roughness or fallibility. But I think those are the things connected to human nature.”