Award-winning graphic designer Mirko Borsche shares his top tips for cultivating a unique visual style of your own
As any established graphic designer or art director will tell you, there’s no magic shortcut to honing your aesthetic sensibilities and translating them into your own unique visual language – it’s an ongoing process that takes time and practice, differing from person to person.
For German graphic designer Mirko Borsche, it’s all about being daring and fluid. It’s been 13 years since Borsche founded his own studio, Bureau Borsche, in his native Munich, and in that time he has steered his company from strength to strength, working with an impressively diverse roster of clients – from Givenchy and Balenciaga, to Nike and BMW, to London’s Serpentine gallery and the German newspaper Die Zeit, where Borsche has been creative director since 2007. The Bureau Borsche aesthetic is bold and eye-catching, with a focus on storytelling, as encapsulated by the striking visual identity it commandeered for last year’s Venice Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, replete with acid yellow posters, a geometric reimagining of the city’s leonine symbol, and a linear typeface made up of vertical bars, inspired by the striped mooring poles dotted about the island.
Here, Borsche looks back across his career to date – from his early days as a graffiti artist to his stint in advertising – to share his top tips for cultivating your own visual language, and keeping your clients happy along the way.
“Before I started doing graphic design, I did graffiti – I began when I was 16 and did it for over 15 years – and that’s been the biggest influence on my style and how I work. The way I approach a project’s aesthetic, and the way we react to clients’ briefs and feedback, is very close to the way you do graffiti. With graffiti, there are a lot of variables that influence the way you work – like rain, snow, other artists, whether it’s a good space, a good wall, a wet train carriage and so on? I think learning to cope with less-than-perfect circumstances has helped me to be flexible. For instance, I don’t get too disappointed if a client wants to change something like the colour or the typeface. Some of my colleagues feel very disparaged when this happens but I see it as a challenge – you try a different direction or you start again, and most of the time you find a good solution.”
Find a platform for self-expression
“I finished my studies in the 90s, at a time when advertising was still a typical path for graphic designers to take. I worked in advertising for eight or nine years, and for that period of time I couldn’t really stick to my own aesthetic point of view because I just had to do what the clients told me to! But towards the end of the 90s, I had a really brilliant time working on magazines as an art director, learning how to express my aesthetic, how to develop my own narrative concepts – picture-wise and graphics-wise. It was then that I came to understand that the more I worked in a direction that I liked, the more fun I had with my job. I think that’s how it all started. We don’t have so many magazine clients anymore, but when I first started up the studio in 2007, we made a living doing art directions for magazines.”
Think about the narrative first, and the aesthetic will follow
“A lot of people think that I have a single aesthetic, but I think the way our aesthetic is is more down to the narratives we create – the way we tell stories, visually. That’s a very unique thing for us, and very much at the heart of what we do. Of course, we always try to find the right aesthetic for the client but nothing’s fixed; the story comes first.”
Keep the decision-making process fluid
“To find the right look for a project, you need to find out what your client wants. That means talking a lot early on – either on a call or ideally in a workshop – to establish the directions they do or don’t want to go in. Based on that, we always do two or three completely different drafts to try and find the right style and position for the product or brand. These are very rough mock-ups to help the client envision certain environments. When we present the ideas, we leave things pretty open so that the client can comment on what they feel works, or which components from other concepts might work better, and we shape the final direction from there. We’re a very small team and we have quite a lot of clients so to me it doesn’t really make sense to fiddle around on my computer doing 200 drafts. We try to get to the point in the most direct way possible and I think that’s why our most successful work looks the way it does.”
Don’t force your vision upon your client
“In advertising, we were always trying to sell an idea but I think that’s very outdated because you can’t sell anyone something they don’t want. Occasionally clients accept ideas begrudgingly because you talk them into it, but in those cases we’ve often found that the final outcome is very weak. You end up with some of the graphic language of your original idea, but the straightforwardness, the coolness of the initial concept somehow gets lost along the way.”
When inspiration’s lacking, you just have to make a start
“I don’t think you should treat having a creative job any differently to having any other kind of job. At the Bureau, we work from nine to six, not longer. During that time, of course, you want to work efficiently, but you shouldn’t panic about the responsibility of “being creative”. It’s not such a hard job – it’s actually quite fun thinking about creative ideas – but a lot of people completely stress out because they put so much pressure on themselves to find inspiration on demand. People often ask us, ‘How do you get to the idea? How do you get creative?’ but I don’t think that’s the way to look at it. Imagine if a dentist told you he couldn’t fix your teeth in a set amount of time because he was waiting for inspiration to strike? If people are stuck for ideas, I say, ‘Just take the first thing that comes to mind and start working.’ Because as soon as you have one idea, the pressure starts to ease, and after that, the next idea is never far behind.”
Remember that taste is subjective
“Who says that your taste is the right taste? There’s another graphic designer here in my house and we had a big fight recently about some aspects of the house architecture that we’re looking to change. He thinks some of my ideas are ugly, and that I should know better because I’m a graphic designer. I keep saying, ‘You think it’s ugly, but I think it’s cool – having the same profession doesn’t mean that we have the same taste!’ Coming back to my history in graffiti – a lot of the people that influenced me came from all over the world. They were super young because, when I started – in Europe, at least – graffiti was completely new. We were all learning from each other as we went and that was a great foundation for learning to respect all kinds of different styles.”
Don’t be afraid to be different
“On Instagram and graphic design blogs, you’ll always see these big waves of popularity for one specific style that all the kids follow because everybody else thinks it’s super cool. I find it a bit sad because it means that specific characteristics – of say Swiss design or German design or British design – somehow get a bit lost. And people who have very unique styles get lost as well. I love these guys in Paris called Vier5 – two German guys, who have a brilliant, crazy cool style – but a lot of people don’t see it because it’s not what everyone else is doing right now. A few years ago, nobody really understood our house aesthetic either, but now we have clients from all around the world so I guess it works both ways.”
Experiment! (And don’t worry about the likes)
“I think it’s super important that young designers try not to focus on how many likes they have underneath their post. If they think something is good, they should just keep doing it – even if they only have one like. Certain things on Instagram are popular now, but that way of doing things, and Instagram itself, will get old, just like all the past social media platforms. You only have one life, and one chance to make it as a graphic designer. As long as you’re young, you should try out everything, in all styles, and dig deep into what you like. You can’t land on the perfect style or aesthetic in your mid-20s; it takes a lot of experience.”