From a mere online gallery showing their favourite pieces, to a huge portfolio of work for some of the world's biggest companies, eBoy have stayed true to their style. Garrick Webster discovers the secret of their success
Pixels. Indivisible, perfect and the basic raw material used to create any screen image. To the German illustration trio eBoy, however, they're treated - or even celebrated - as an artistic medium.
Pixel by pixel the team painstakingly paint some of the most detailed computer artwork ever seen, and they've done it for global clients as varied as MTV, Honda and Christian Aid, from Los Angeles to Tokyo and back.
Just like the pixels they work with, eBoy themselves are pretty much indivisible. The group was founded in Berlin by Steffen Sauerteig, Kai Vermehr and Svend Smital in 1997, and has been a close-knit team ever since. This is unlikely to change now, despite eBoy's recent big news that Sauerteig and Vermehr have moved to Vancouver, in Western Canada. They were already working from different locations in Berlin, conversing via web chats on Flickr when necessary. The only change now, they say, will be the nine-hour time difference.
"Moving to Vancouver was a private decision. I like things to change and was worried about getting bored. I grew up in Venezuela, Germany and Guatemala, so I was kind of used to moving," reveals Vermehr. "The move is forcing us to rethink many details of our daily life, and I hope it will lead to some fresh ideas for eBoy. Steffen and his family liked the idea and decided to come with us, and Svend is being worked on. He's a sailor and he has yet to see the local marinas!"
Although eBoy established themselves in Germany - Smital and Sauerteig grew up in East Berlin - they've always been an international force. For a number of years they had a member based in New York. One of their first big works was for MTV in 1999: the broadcaster asked them to create some online visuals, after an eBoy illustration featured in the Image Source 100 book the previous year, and work had been published in various magazines.
"At this point a friend of ours, Peter Stemmler, was part of eBoy and he was in New York at the time. I think they called him first because it was easier for them to call somebody in America. After that everything was via email. I think they knew us from our website," says Smital.
MTV wanted eBoy to design some animated GIFs, as well as a Flash game based on Pac-Man but with eBoy-style graphics. According to Smital, the broadcaster liked their past work and gave them a lot of freedom to interpret the job as they wished. They took the opportunity of working with a big client in their stride, and continued to grow incrementally.
"With every job we do we get new experiences, and we develop ourselves, our technique and our style. I can't say the MTV project changed how we work. It was just one of many steps we took. It was our first game, we had to work with a programmer, and it was nice to do animations. We also did sound for the first time, which was something special that we weren't used to," explains Smital.
The illustration printed in Image Source 100, published in Japan in 1998, was also one of the trio's first cityscape-style pictures, using their modular system of image creation. Each building, vehicle, plant, animal or person they create for a cityscape is painted pixel-by-pixel in Photoshop, and stored afterwards in a database. Today there are over 2,000 graphics that can be pulled out, used, or modified for a new cityscape commission. The buildings and landforms that define a place are created bespoke for each city, but elements like cars, trees, clouds and dogs can be easily reused.
The first time that they ever created a pixel city for a big league client was working for Adidas in 2002. This time the job came through the agency Leagas Delaney. "Adidas is a very popular brand. A lot of designers like it and wear it themselves - it was a very good client," reveals Smital.
For this image there wasn't only the self-imposed limitation of working pixel-by-pixel to deal with: the agency wanted a greyscale city that worked alongside the theme of the ad copy. "It's great that it's black and white!" says Sauerteig. "But it looks rather empty compared with our latest works."
The piece brought eBoy to greater prominence in the industry, and while working for big brands isn't the most important goal for Sauerteig, Vermehr and Smital, it does help on a number of levels. One is artistic freedom. Clients come to eBoy for their style, and tend to trust them to do their thing. Secondly, the money is good. And finally, the big brands spread their work to broader audiences.
"If you do advertising for a bigger company, then a lot of magazines and other people see it and you get commissions based on this. It advertises us, and at the end of the day we get more money working for bigger clients," explains Smital. "Of course, if you work for clients like this you have to avoid certain elements. You can't have any violence or naked people in the picture, but you know that and you don't do it, so it's OK. We can do it in our own pictures."
While Adidas introduced eBoy to sports shoe fanatics (and thereby designer studios around the world), it was the clothing designer Paul Smith who took them into the world of fashion. He discovered their posters in Magma Books in London and purchased some, which were used as decorations at one of his shows. Initial contact was made in 2003, and Smith travelled to Berlin to meet them. They began work in 2004, and the clothing came out in spring and summer 2005.
"It was just a very, very nice collaboration to work on," Smital discloses. "He was very enthusiastic and nice - really interested in all the designs, and yeah, it was great. It was the first project where we did something for fashion, so it was a new experience. It gave us the chance to do something on real, three-dimensional objects, not just in print."
"It wasn't much different, really," adds Sauerteig. "We only made the designs and not the fashion itself. Paul Smith gave us a lot of freedom. We did many different patterns - with flowers, birds, masks - for the designers to choose from, and we did a London cityscape. The small parts of the city like the people, cars and coats of arms were used all over the collection."
Much of the work was used in Smith's Japanese collections too. eBoy have long been popular in the Far East, and today work for one of the biggest agencies in Tokyo, Dentsu. Through Dentsu, eBoy have worked for Honda, creating images of a variety of its vehicles, past and present. More recently, they've worked for the Japanese telecommunications company Docomo, creating imagery for the mobile operator's website.
Some of eBoy's most popular recent work has been for Coca-Cola Ireland. Coke's agency, McCann Erickson, asked for an illustrated cityscape of Dublin in 2008. The image works with the new Coke identity, and it proved so popular that the agency came back for three more cities in 2009: Cork, Belfast and Galway. "We get a sketch from them, and then a briefing, and then just start to do our image," says Smital. "There's always collaboration. We send our work-in-progress from time to time and we get their feedback, and then we have to modify or change something."
Usually, changes are minor. One of the secrets to eBoy's success, and one of the reasons they're usually offered the kind of work they love, is that from the beginning Sauerteig, Vermehr and Smital only showed their favourite work on their site. eBoy.com was started in 1997, and at the time they were all freelancing, doing the usual kind of design work - brochures, posters, typography and so forth. However, eBoy was the preserve of their favourite work, and even if they did something for a big client, it wasn't shown unless it was in the eBoy pixelart style. They even distributed a diskette containing artwork for the computer screen.
"We used it more like a gallery where we showcased the work that we did for fun. Nothing was shown just because it was an important client, or whatever. We just displayed the work that we really liked, and it helped a lot because we got commissioned for jobs where we could do what we wanted to, more or less. Not always, of course. But it was very helpful to go public only with the things that we really liked, and not to show something just because it was for a big client," explains Smital.
That independence of spirit meant that eBoy had a slow start, and grew organically rather than according to any business plan. However, by creating illustrations for mags and newspapers, backed up by the website, their work gradually crept out there and eventually led to eBoy's advertising work.
Another key to their success has been in their choice of domain name, according to Sauerteig. "From the beginning we got clients from all over the world. This might be because we did our website in English only, and chose a dotcom domain instead of dot-de. In most cases, clients don't really know where we come from. This makes it easier for them to get in contact with us."
Strictly including only work they like under the eBoy banner has led to a consistent identity, which they've carried through to a whole range of their own products. Cityscapes have been collected together in their book, Pixorama, which took six years to compile. You can now buy eBoy posters, t-shirts, puzzles, stickers, necklaces and toys. The latter are the result of one of their favourite collaborations - with KidRobot. In 2005, KidRobot founder Paul Bunditz approached them to create a range of figurines. They'd always wanted to do a toy set, and readily agreed. Today there are 29 figures across three series of Peecol toys.
Their own merchandise remains a smaller part of the eBoy business than the illustration work, and while the team love having their own lines, there are still several big-name brands they'd like to work with in the future. Apple, Nintendo and Knoll are a few on Sauerteig's list.
"There are too many to name," adds Vermehr. "It depends on the project. I'd really love to create a huge, automatic, self-evolving 3D module inspired by sci-fi. Something like World of Warcraft, only not that dwarfy and elvy. More of a weird, hardcore Philip K. Dick kind of setting. And then before I die, I'd like to get fully uploaded to that place."