Berger and Fohr Interview: Define principles for yourself.

Berger and Fohr are designers living in Boulder that focus on identity and communication.

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What projects are you currently working on and few from the past?

Lucian: We have quite a few projects going on. We typically work with small to medium-sized businesses, and almost all of our projects begin with identity. All of the businesses we’re working with are at different stages of the process, so we figure out the right way to stagger them efficiently. We’re working on a new fitness studio concept; the identity was just approved, so we’re beginning on collateral and environmental graphics.

Todd: It’s called Fitwall. They’re initially opening studios in San Diego, Boulder and New York. This project includes identity and collateral through environmental graphics, exterior signage, web and mobilecomponents – so it’s full spectrum.

Lucian: We’re also working with a video production studio and online magazine called Rare Icons in New York City. They’re one of the few projects we’ve taken in the past couple of years where we didn’t  design the identity.  We’re designing the website for the studio and the magazine.

Todd: Like the majority of our clients, Rare Icons is looking for a refined, minimal, progressive experience from us.

Lucian: We have a number of ongoing clients as well. These include working closely with Paul Budnitzthe founder of Kid Robot on Budnitz Bicycles.

Todd: Paul pioneered the explosion of collectible art toys  in the west through the creation of the Kid Robot brand. He’s really a genius. Budnitz Bicycles offers a high-end line of beautifully designed and spec’d city bikes that are all custom and hand-made. The work with Paul is extensive and ongoing. Budnitz Bicycles was based out of Boulder, but recently relocated to Burlington, Vermont.

Lucian: OpDemand is another ongoing tech client we’ve been working with for a while.

Todd: OpDemand is in the cloud computing space. We’ve handled their identity straight through to product design.  We’ve been working with the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art as well. We’ve created a new identity and collateral to help achieve their communication goals. The website is coming up and then we’ll design signage and interior graphics. The project is moving a bit slower than we’d like, but getting to make an impact on the museum and our local community is awesome. Another exciting project we’re currently working on is called Kakoona.  It’s a curated, social music experience.

Todd: Kakoona is a local start-up founded by a young entrepreneur named Joel Hilliard with whom we’ve worked for quite some time. The product will launch at this year’s SXSW. It utilizes some interesting technology that includes in-video purchasing.

The friend you met when you first got here is Mike Moore.  He is the founder and principle architect at Tres Birds Workshop. He creates super-forwardenergy-efficient architecture. We’ve done a number of projects with Mike. We’re hoping he pulls us in a couple of his latest projects. We’ll see.

We’re also starting a project this week with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. Overall, the Climate Reality Project aims to solve the climate crisis. They’re doing very exciting work and we’re looking forward to getting to do some of it with them.

Lucian: We are also building the web product for a client from Tel Aviv, Israel called Fresh. It’s less of a product bookmarking service and more of a store bookmarking service. It displays all of a store’s products, and based on the stores you follow, you can see all of the new products. We just wrapped up their identity and now we’re on the second phase of the web.

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Todd: We’ve been working together for ten years – we’ve been in this office for a year and a half. We don’t want to inherit anyone else’s identity work unless we feel it has a certain sort of equity that allows us to build assets in our style. Our clients are really coming to us for a specific style and a certain approach. Our style and approach yields a very modern, minimal, intuitive and aesthetic type of communication. There are a number of principles implemented including a limited use of typefaces, limited type sizes and weights. We pare down the use of color and base composition on content-informed grid systems. Our work has a certain look and feel and people hire us for that look.

Jamie Kripke is an exceptional photographer, he’s also our photography partner; we’re always working with Jamie – right now we’re designing some new print collateral for him. We’re also working closely with Brian Wilkens and his new fashion label based out of Denver called Awkwrd. They’re in the process of developing a new line of women’s tights and men’s ties. There are a lot of other smaller projects around the periphery. With about a dozen things happening at once, we’ve learned how to space them out and find breathing room for good thought to happen. We tend not to take rush projects because we want the optimal time for our ideas to gestate. We need time to sit on something and make sure it works before we present it to our clients. We also like our clients to have time to let the ideas sink in too. We always keep this notion of time in mind.

There are always new items pending… We’re fortunate we get a lot of leads [knocks on wood] because the proposal process can feel slow. It typically starts with an email, phone call and sometimes a couple of more emails. We’ll send a brief questionnaire that asks potential clients about their ethics, values, goals and what they’re really looking to achieve. Then we evaluate if the project and client would be a good match and, if we feel they are we’ll prepare and send a proposal.  When you filter clients like we do, it takes a little more time to actually close on a project.  We could say yes more rapidly, send out an invoice for a deposit and get started. But, we’re trying to curate our work and our relationships a bit more closely.

Me: It’s really amazing to figure out a process like this.

Lucian: It’s taken a while.

Todd: And it’s a work in progress. It’s certainly challenging, but in the long term we believe we’re going to create better and more significant work as well as better experiences with our clients.

Lucian: We base our business on that premise. We’re two people and we have low overhead for a reason. We don’t have to take crappy projects to pay our employees.

Todd: We choose projects we want to be a part of and then help set them out in the world. If we had two or three more designers, we would end up not doing the work and someone else in the “studio” would. What would be the point of that other than making more money? If you have to pay more salaries, your studio has to do more work – more work doesn’t necessarily mean more profit, it often just means more total money. It comes down to becoming a design-business person or a designer. When I first started working with Lucian, I started to lean more towards the design-business person and we began to grow the studio a little bit. I had to start to thinking more like a business person and less like a designer. This can be lucrative but it wasn’t for me. One can certainly grow a design business, but then you don’t get to do the designing. That was a bit tangential, but I think it’s important.

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What do you think of the importance of creative spaces?

Lucian: We’ve been about a year and a half in this space; our last one was much larger.  Todd and I have always sat directly next to one another on purpose.  We’re constantly watching each other’s screens.  Everything we do, regardless of who is clicking the mouse, is collaborative.  We’re always talking and working on two separate things, but working simultaneously.  We set up our studio around this idea, but I think it takes the right kind of people to do what Todd and I do.

Todd:  We’ve completely redesigned our current space . We ripped out the ceiling and floor and Mike, who was just here, created the lighting system.  We recycled the lightening that had been in the space previously and Mike’s team refashioned it and constructed the overhead diffuser to soften the space and diffuse the light.

We don’t sit around and think of ourselves as creative. This is how I’ve always been, how Lucian’s always been and this is just how our lives are. We believe you need a space that transcends – and possesses the right kind of energy to maintain, for lack of a better phrase, creative output.  For us, it tends to be a simple, tidy white space. We don’t spend much time reviewing other people’s work. Personally,  I’m more interested in older work than newer. There are so many things that are just trendy and short- lived, so how do you apply your principles to contribute to the larger design lexicon?  Answering that question is difficult.  A way to do this is by not looking at other people’s work. Even given our principles and approach, if you look at too many other things, you can’t tell how, why or who came up with what. Maybe you just saw that idea you think you had somewhere else. It’s hard – things begin to blend together. It’s harder than ever to do original work. So having a space that brings in lots of natural light with high ceilings and limits distractions is important – the openness and emptiness. We don’t keep much on our walls anymore –  a beautiful photo from a recent project by our friend and photographer, Jamie Kripke, a poster we designed, a calendar designed by Massimo Vignelli and our Vitsoe, Dieter Rams designed shelving system. That’s pretty much it.  The close proximity of our books is particularly important in the new studio – there’s a lot of power and energy in those books. It’s a collection of some of the best shit that’s been done in our field; those books are the most valuable resource in the studio. The computer just happens to be something that we use to make our work.

Lucian: The books serve as our inspiration. We don’t cover the walls with art. If we need to research something, we find it in our books.

Todd: We also do research on the internet – but it isn’t tactile like a book.  All in all, we like only having a few things in the studio, so we can feel good about making new things and doing our work.

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What are the most essential items you need to design?

Lucian: Of course our computers.

Todd: Yes, we do limited sketching and a good bit of note-taking. We need the brief from our client and particular assets from them. We have a very detailed questionnaire for clients, and we need all of the information from this questionnaire to stimulate an idea.  Our projects start with a lot of talking. We don’t do that much exploration on our computers. By the time we go to our computers, we’re ready to build it and it’s just about execution.The exploration is more intellectual and based on conversation. Perhaps we’ll do a little sketch and reference something on the internet, but we don’t often produce many sketches. Once we choose a direction, we’ll hone it in and move forward. If it begins to feel wrong, we’ll throw it out; we’re not saying things don’t arise, but we try to triangulate quickly.  Our client is paying for the intelligence and knowledge we wield in getting there.  We don’t present multiple solutions to a problem, we present one solution. That’s why we sit on the idea for a while and challenge ourselves first.  We’re not saying that our solutions are more genius than anyone else’s but there are always several solutions to any problem. We need time to ensure that the work we ultimately present is work that we believe in and work that communicates effectively. When someone hires a graphic designer, one is paying him/her to hone in on a direction to accomplish what he/she is trying to achieve.

Lucian: We make everything objective rather than subjective. We get the client on the same page through creating a shared language and then create real things we can measure.  For example, just because you don’t like blue personally, doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense to use that color.  Blue might be the most effective color.  Through this process, we want everything to feel obvious and simple, which is the hardest part. We set up this criteria in order to find the best solution.

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Todd: For our clients, I think our design approach feels closer to science than art. We’re trying to interject as much objectivity as possible to arrive at solutions that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. When you hire a good designer, they ought to have the requisite skills, it’s their instincts and their understanding of the world that sets them apart. The latter, intuition and understanding is what lends one the ability to create accurate solutions, a good designer must be able to see things in new and meaningful ways and at the same time see how other people see things. For example, If someone is starting a new company, they should be head down in providing a valuable product or service offering, but not necessarily how to identify, and communicate the value of that product or service to their potential users or customers. A client like this typically hires us for our instinct and understanding; at the same time, we’re implementing very rational and direct checkpoints along the way.  We need to do this to make sure we’re staying on target – the world is perpetually changing and new shit is happening all the time. Clients rely on both our historical knowledge and our ability to look forward.

Larger socioeconomic trends shape people’s thoughts on identity, brands, logos, etc. For example, we were just working with a client on a new identity and they added something new to the brief during the initial presentation of work. The work was on target, but  this new information and thinking completely changed the criteria of the design. We had to create a new design since there was now new criteria. We needed to explain this to the client, so that they could understand everything that we’re taking into consideration and therefore understand how our approach to the new solution would take shape. With identities, we always need to consider what the design is communicating but also what’s appropriate to what’s happening “out there.”  Each project we undertake informs the next, so you always have more tools in your tool belt than you did the day prior.  Clients aren’t paying us to work with the computer, or as least we hope they’re not; it’s what we know about communicating ideas, communicating business and speaking through the language of design over these past fifteen years that has enabled us to develop our approach and make the work we make. Hopefully, this is what we’re being paid for.

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How did you guys meet?  How did you both know you wanted to become designers?

Lucian: It’s interesting looking back because I can see my path more clearly. I was always good at the computer, but not technically good at drawing. In high school I got into photography and learned Photoshop. I realized I could create a mathematical output on the computer that could create perfect straight lines. I met Todd when I was fifteen. I was at an alternative high school in town and doing an internship at a big corporate office in Broomfield. The full story is a little bit longer, but after meeting Todd, I checked out his design studio and knew it was right for me. I’m not saying the larger agency was wrong, but it wasn’t right for me. I didn’t realize at the time there was an alternate to the agency world. I switched internships immediately; I was supposed to work four hours a week, but I ended up coming to Todd’s studio every day – even on the weekends.

Todd: As a child, I was doing either playing sports or drawing. I was better than average at drawing and I took a couple graphic design classes, but there weren’t many in my high school. I gravitated toward graphic design. I was always interested in science and intrigued by nature. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to an alternative high school like Lucian, where he figured out what he wanted to do, but Boulder is pretty awesome like that. My high school turned out corporate executives. I always wanted to be an athlete, but had an interest in science and art.  No one was an artist in my family and I was confused about how to turn art from a hobby into a career.  I studied environmental science in college. I grew up with a half pipe in my backyard so I was always into skateboarding, snowboarding and racing BMX. In college, I started mountain biking and was naturally good at it. As I was studying environmental science, I was also forging a career in racing bikes, so I moved out here because it’s a great place  for racing and training. By the time I was done with college in the early 90’s, there were many government environmental jobs but there wasn’t much happening in the private sector.  At that time, I was racing bikes and loved science and nature, but I didn’t see myself in a government job or being a scientist, so I went back to art. The internet was booming and I guess I’ve always sort of naturally understood branding. I was always skateboarding, snowboarding and racing BMX. These sports were all about anti-establishment brands; these brands communicated to young people, athletes and could lead to sponsorships.  This was before branding became a popular term.  As a side note, we stay away from using that term as much as possible, we prefer to talk about identity and communication.  I thought there was an opportunity on the internet since people’s identities weren’t being translated to web effectively. In the mid 90’s, I taught myself web design and learned how to build websites. I started educating myself on formal design principles, Lucian came in and  we then formulated a new curriculum for ourselves.  Also, bike racing was a hard way to make a living.  With the first studio, I was still racing. I was sponsored and made a little money, but not much. I started my first studio with another bike racer – that was fifteen years ago. It seems like a lot of the people we know that are really good at design and/or development are endurance athletes. But, maybe that’s just Boulder… There’s a certain commitment and tenacity that these endurance-focused sports require; they require commitment and they reward similarly. I guess it’s about immersing yourself in process.

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Who is the most creative person you ever met and why?

Lucian: This would be a good place to say one another.

[We all laugh.]

Todd: But really, I believe in Lucian  and we have accomplished so much  because we have a lot of faith in one another.  It’s interesting now as Lucian gets older, he’s 24 and I’m 37. His peer group is sort of evolving like mine.  All of our close friends, like Mike, my girlfriend, etc. are very creative, inventive people.  When we think of “creative,” being creative means being able to see the world differently and make shit happen differently than other people – in valuable and cool new ways.  These are the type of people I like to be around, and I don’t think I could name just one as being the most creative. We enjoy our friends Grant, Mike, Jamie, etc.  Most of our closest peers are who we would consider to be the most creative people we know.  Our friends Josh and Tran and their kids Noah, Quinn, Ellie and Hesh live in a warehouse in Denver with an art gallery in the front. Lots of our friends are artists. Thinking back, my father’s father was very creative. He had a lot of patience and drew a lot; he taught me how to draw and that was very valuable to me.  One must think and distill ideas.  It’s a characteristic that I think is admirable, but many people don’t have.  These people also share a similar philosophy of wanting to work with cool people that will change the world for the better. That mentality, fast-paced “Are you done yet?,” we need to make more money, etc. is not the type of environment in which we like to work. The people we spend time with share that philosophy. I mean, Lucian’s dad is on the list. His father is a writer. He’s very talented. Lucian’s mom and my own are super creative as well.

Lucian: The people we surround ourselves with are creative types.  To pick one and say one is more creative than the other is hard.

Todd: Paul, one of our clients, is so creative.  He doesn’t sleep, it’s like there’s a new, big idea every day.

Lucian: Everyone has their own set of problems to be solved.  It’s a shared philosophy but everyone is putting their efforts into different kind of solutions.  It boils down to people making and creating things.

Todd: Yeah, it’s anyone who challenges themselves to really think about what they’re doing.  It’s really easy to get out there, get a job and make some money.  But to make a career that lets you see how you are going to contribute to the world and make something valuable that people enjoy interacting with is pretty cool and more significant to us than the alternative.

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Is there a specific type of space you feel the most inspired in the world?  

Lucian: We would both say nature.  Our lifestyle is structured around working really hard and then spending time in nature.

Todd: We’ll get really good ideas while riding bikes. There’s something really excellent about the feeling of moving through nature and space and time. We work hard and then we recreate. When I fly fish, I am standing in the river and not thinking about anything work related – just trout ; this is recharge time, so when I come back Sunday night I have a ton of ideas.  Design, design, design, nature and then back to it.  We believe there’s a magical balance in nature that’s very well designed – it reinforces and informs graphic design.  If you’re writing code and designing, you’re thinking – probably quite hard. To shut it off and not think – is super valuable.  Moving through the outdoors is important.

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Anything else? Words of wisdom?

Lucian: For us, we’ve picked this path, it’s right for us, and it’s a lot of work. We do everything ourselves (we do have a bookkeeper and CPAs and attorneys).  We did not pick the easiest or even the most lucrative path, but beyond that we feel like we’re improving the world through design and leaving a legacy. Finding out what path you want to pursue and which one is the best for you is important.

Todd: If you never want to negotiate a contract or retainer fee structure, then you don’t need to own your own studio.  But then you have to become the person who designs what other people want you to design – and in a limited, preordained amount of time.  We can create the future and that’s why we pick our clients carefully, so we get to shape our destiny and help shape theirs.  It’s not for everyone. People come through here and say it’s awesome that you get to pick your own clients, but it took a really long time to get here and its going to require lots of maintenance coupled with forward-thinking to sustain.  Lucian got a little bump ahead because I had figured out the general premise behind the studio’s structure, and now we’ve figured out how to get to the next level together.  If I had worked in an agency in the beginning, I would’ve probably avoided a lot of fuck-ups, but  I wouldn’t have learned what I did and developed the philosophy we now have. We’ve never been informed by an agency mentality. We go into agencies, see how they work, and it’s fucking crazy to us. But then again, we’re not agency guys. We see what happens in agencies, bureaucracy and how clients work – we aren’t like that.  If clients come to us with a lot of money, but with crazy demands, we just tell them we can’t work together.  Whereas, if you have thirty five hundred or even – thirty employees, you say yes because you need to pay those salaries.

Lucian: I would also say, define principles for yourself. Figure out what you want to stand for. For us, it’s making and designing things without the subjective role.

Todd: Not everyone needs to live their life with these guiding principles, but this is an extension of our lives.  We’re fully pleased and happy with what we do. I mean, if we’re walking around outside, we know we’re not doing anything fucked up in here.  It’s not like we go on vacation and say to ourselves “Well, even though I didn’t feel right about that at work, it’s now paying for this vacation.”  We think our criteria are pretty good.  At this point in history, there still have to be these huge corporations that hurt the earth, we don’t want to be part of that, but things are looking up. We’re just trying to do our work mindfully and make sure we feel good about everything we do.

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Thanks for all of the great insight.  It was a pleasure interviewing you!

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2 thoughts on “Berger and Fohr Interview: Define principles for yourself.

  1. Pingback: Ello : je n’ai pas pu m’en empêcher |

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