From graduation in 2007 to wowing book publishers with their cutting-edge ideas, new agency 'Populärgrafik' have hit the ground running with their trend-setting work. Ed Ricketts finds out how..
"We're planning to make a book with a young and - until now - unknown photographer called Thomas Mocka," enthuses Mathis Weymann of German design studio Populärgrafik. "He's an incredible artist and some day he will be a popular photographer. Now we just need to find a publishing house that wants to publish his fantastic photographs in a book."
This is quite a bold statement coming from a studio that is still only just over a year old. Its founders and sole employees, the Red Dot Junior Award-winning Mathis and Lina Weymann, are clearly eager to develop not only their own style, but that of other young artists with whom they can collaborate.
Populärgrafik is currently best known for its innovative print and publishing design, working with photographers, illustrators and magazines on a variety of design-led projects. Subject matter varies widely; it ranges from Erlebnis Korallenriff, a dazzling, text-light showcase of underwater photography by Hans Maier-Bode; to Der Büro-Code, for office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, which tells the stories of six different people around Europe, with illustrations by Michael Meier. Then there's their personal project, Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts, a paean to the imagery of the 1950s - particularly the way women were represented in society at the time.
This emphasis on printed and published material is a delicate area for the studio. While far from ungrateful for the work, Mathis and Lina are also determined to widen their client base - which is currently confined largely to publishing houses. As Mathis explains, they tend to approach the duo simply because of their track record in this area, which has both advantages and drawbacks. "It's a bit like a closed loop: we do some books for publishing houses; other publishing houses see these books and then ask us to do more books. So in our free time we try to do different sorts of work."
With just the two creatives at the company currently (plus their dogs), their roles have become easy to define, and follow a pattern laid down during their college years. Mathis, he says, generally deals with layout and typography, while Lina specialises in collage, illustration and photography. Not that this is set in stone: "We can both tackle either specialism, but these are the areas we really excel in and I guess that's the reason we can work together that well. We always have a different outlook on our work."
As always, each job starts with a search for sources of inspiration - but not necessarily within that particular field. Actually, says Mathis, he often finds the best ideas come from elsewhere. "So for example, when we design a menu for a restaurant we don't look at other menus; we look in totally different areas and search for things we would like to see there."
Erlebnis Korallenriff, the studio's first big project for publisher Kosmos Verlag, is a perfect example of this. "We tried to give it more of a graphical, magazine-style look," explains Mathis. Although they were allowed plenty of freedom to be creative when it came to the layouts, Mathis and Lina were still wary of pushing the boat out too far creatively, given that it was their first major project and could thus potentially alienate the client.
So, he says, "we approached the layouts by looking at what Kosmos had done before, which way they wanted to go in the future, and then we simply looked for things we'd like to see in a Kosmos book." The decision to incorporate a subtle magazine feel was something of a compromise, then: "We had to ensure that it looked like a Kosmos book with a Populärgrafik touch, and not a Populärgrafik book with a Kosmos touch. But in the end we think we did a pretty good job, and so do Kosmos."
Steelcase's Der BÃ¼ro-Code project arrived almost out of the blue. "The publisher Weinbrenner Verlagsgruppe phoned before we'd had anything published," explains Mathis. In fact, scouts from Weinbrenner had seen the duo's diploma work at the annual graduates' exhibition of the Merz Akademie and decided they would be ideal for this showcase/brochure/story work.
Populärgrafik were given a brief on how the layouts should appear in general, but were allowed to experiment within those limits. "The work was really good, but hard too, because the customer had high expectations. In the end those expectations and the hard work were worth it though."
First Floor 01, another project for Weinbrenner, couldn't have been more different in terms of working. First Floor is essentially a customer magazine for Bauwerk Parquet, which produces a huge range of parquet flooring for both corporate and private clients. "That was a project with which we really had little creative space," Mathis says. "We had a very strict brief and Weinbrenner had already published one before, so our only creative input was to make the new Bauwerk magazine look like the old one." PopulÃ¤rgrafik weren't even supplied with many of the final images to be used, incorporating dummy grey space instead for Weinbrenner to insert them later.
Such working conditions are hardly perfect but, as a new company building up a client base, Mathis and Lina weren't so naïve to think that every job would be a creative paradise. "In the end I think it's a good-looking magazine," adds Mathis.
The pair's favourite project to-date, and one on which they're still working, is another book for Kosmos Verlag: a glossy, coffee-table photography compilation about, of all things, insect-eating plants. With Kosmos already confident of the studio's skills, and the studio's willingness to push the publishers in new directions, Mathis and Lina are truly flexing their creative muscles here.
"When we saw the fantastic pictures for the book we knew that this could be one of the best books we've made so far," says Mathis. "We tried not to think of it as a book about plants - we're trying to make it look like an art book or a photo book. Kosmos even made some of the text shorter so it would fit in with the layout. For this project we had no direction, hardly any briefing: nothing. We can do whatever we like."
In short, Populärgrafik's initially diplomatic approach to Kosmos has paid off - an object lesson in how a new studio can cultivate a working relationship to everyone's advantage. "When we showed the layouts they were so happy. It's just fantastic that Kosmos Verlag is trying to go in new ways, and to do so with a young agency like us," adds Mathis.
One other thing Populärgrafik have learned is the importance of having an eight hour day, even if - like them - your studio is small and you're tempted to work piecemeal. "There's always something to do: your own portfolio, homepage, other projects," says Mathis. "Even when we have no work we leave the house at 8am and spend eight hours in the office. It can be hard, but it really helps when the first jobs are coming in."
And, of course, never forget to big yourself up - even if it means being ever so slightly creative with the truth, as well as the designs. "Young designers should learn how to represent themselves," Mathis advises. "At the start of our careers, some clients asked us to do things we'd never heard of. We told them we were specialists in that area, left their office - and learned what they wanted as fast as possible!"