The following is an interview I gave Stephanie Levy for one of her E-Courses. Stephanie is an artist, illustrator, photographer, blogger and first of all a very charming person. She’s a resident of Berlin (with some breaks) since 1996 and knows a lot of stories about the urban development of this city. My answers to her questions were published in her e-course „Creative Courage – Berlin Edition“, which is now finished. But Stephanie will offer some other interesting courses next year. Have a look over here.
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Please tell us about yourself, your background, and how you started with design and your studio H².
I am a graphic designer working for advertising agencies as a freelance art director. I also offer – through my graphic design studio – a full range of quality graphic and consulting services for medium-sized companies, institution and sometimes small business clients.
I was born in Frankfurt in the Rhine-Main area. My mother is a professional photographer and my father was a graphic designer and photographer, who worked for a long time in the advertising industry before becoming a professor for design. So I grew up in a creative environment with an awareness for aesthetics from an early age on. Although my older sister is also a graphic designer, choosing this occupation was my own decision.
Before I studied graphic design, I tried out fashion design in Hamburg. But after two semesters, I wanted to go back „home“. Home in two ways: back to the field of work I was very familiar with and back to the Rhine-Main area.
How did you come up with the name „studio H²“?
When I started working as a freelance designer in January 2000, I wanted to pay homage to a part of my family background. My mother’s photography business was called “Studio Holtkamp”. Therefore, I founded “studio H²”.
I love your „Im Augenblick“ – „at the moment“ – photography and interview series. Why did you start this series and how did you choose your interview participants?
The questions I ask my interview participants are questions I confront myself with from time to time: Where do I come from? Where do I want to go? What drives me? What holds me back? Three things that I would like to have done in five years’ time.
I’m interested in the answers of people who impress me with their personality, their achievements or their way of life. I only select people I know personally. Like you said, “Im Augenblick” means “at the moment”. So my questions are like an inventory: The personal status quo.
Photography is a big passion of mine. This medium has always been around me. For me, taking pictures and documenting my life with photography is something that comes naturally. Nonetheless, doing this portrait series of my participants is something very personal. I’m grateful for their open doors and the trust they place in my work.
Photo by Johannes Kleske
You work as an art director and designer on a wide variety of projects. What have been some of your favorite projects in the past, and what interesting things are you working on right now?
Working as a freelancer for advertisement agencies often means that I’m not allowed to talk about the project I’m working on. Publishing my design projects as a reference is also rarely possible. That doesn’t make it easy to show a representative portfolio.
One focus of my work is corporate communications. (This includes corporate design developments, annual reports, image- and product brochures, trade magazine ads, etc.) Corporate communication is a very diverse part of my job. It’s highly interesting and informative to get in touch with new fields of expertise and products again and again. You continually learn a lot.
Another part of my job that I love is designing works for smaller business clients. Unfortunately, this can only make up a small part of my work as most of these projects have a rather low budget. Still, a lot of these projects are something special and can be my true “heart projects.” Currently, I’m happy to be working on the design relaunch for Katja Heil Photography.
Your book „LIEBENSWERT“ sounds fascinating. Could you please tell us more about this project?
“LIEBENSWERT” (LOVEABLE) is a book about people and their homes in the Rhine-Main area of Germany.
This independent book project was a big thing for Claudia Servaty (text) and me (design). Claudia came to me with the idea about making a interior design book about the city of Frankfurt. Together, we developed the idea further and made the decision to create a book about the entire Rhine-Main area.
The main subject of the book is to show how people live in this metropolitan area and how they feel about it. With 25 individual portraits, we show different styles of living and try to give an authentic, personal view of the region. Additionally, we explain the uniqueness and the structure of this metropolitan area.
Completing this book was a tough job and it took more than 2 years to finish it. During the development and realization phase, we had no organizational assistance or financial support for ourselves or our photographer.
On top of developing the book concept and the design, we had to search for locations and protagonists, find our photographer, conduct 25 photo shootings and interviews, finish all of the book texts and the layout, manage the post-production and the pre-press, search for a publisher and a sponsor, check the possibility of realizing the book through self-publishing as a backup plan, run a making-of blog and the whole social media communications – and all of that while we had to hold down our day jobs.
After the book content was nearly complete, we found a publisher who agreed to release the book. He got a regional sponsor for the printing costs and so our coffee table book became a reality. In the end, we learned a lot and had some good and bad experiences. Now, we are at last able to hold this beautiful book in our hands and we are still happy and proud of it.
What brought you to Berlin, and how long have you been here?
I’ve been in love with the Berlin spirit since January 2010. Yes, it was during a harsh winter when I became totally fascinated by this city.
During my childhood in the Rhine-Main area, snow was very uncommon. So I walked around in this big rough, gray and unfinished city, a snow storm was blowing around my nose, the public transport “S-Bahn” wasn’t running because of the frosty weather, and I still had a smile on my face. Everything looked nice with this white and powdery snow cover – and it thrilled me.
From this moment on, I had the wish to live in Berlin for a while. The following summer, my partner and I met each other and fell in love. While this happened, we both lived in Frankfurt, but my partner had already planed his move to Berlin. I think he was a bit afraid to tell me this. But as he did, there was this smile on my face again.
The first two years as a couple, we commuted back and forth between Berlin and Frankfurt. Then we decided that we had spent enough time in trains and on money for tickets. Since December 2012, I’ve been a resident of Berlin.
What do you think makes Berlin such a unique city and what do you most love about Berlin?
Since I moved to Berlin, everybody from other places asks me: “And Berlin – how is it?” My answer: Different. Different than any other city in Germany. Not better, not worse, but different. It’s exciting – for sure. A lot is happening for me. Not in “the big picture,” but in the details. I meet many interesting people, enjoy good conversations, and I’m motivated by the opportunities.
Making new contacts is pretty easy in Berlin. People in creative businesses here are much more open than in Frankfurt. There are many offers for creative business exchanges, information, and training. But also there is an extensive supply of designers of all kinds …
Do you have any „insider tips“ about Berlin for us? What do you tell visitors to Berlin not to miss?
The places I think you should see or enjoy in Berlin change every month. I guess that’s typical for this fast moving city.
Currently, I would recommend:
Do you have a „typical“ workday? We’d love to hear more about how you organize your daily schedule.
Well, the thing is that I have no typical workday. My current freelancing work means: most project processes are unpredictable. I have to be reachable for my clients during normal working hours. But I can usually decide on my own where I’m working from.
If I work from my home office, I try to leave the apartment for an hour in between. Some days I work at the office of my partner in Berlin Mitte. On those days we have lunch together, and sometimes with friends also working in this area. I love those little meet ups and exchanges. That’s a pretty special thing in Berlin.
Time management is a big struggle for me and it’s also a topic in this course. Could you give us some tips on how you manage your work time wisely and stay creatively productive?
It doesn’t sound “sexy” but for me time management means a lot of self discipline. Working independently isn’t possible without discipline. Working in your home office means that there are too many things that could distract you. Over the years, I have learned to ignore my housekeeping while working. It’s easier if you keep your place in a good condition generally.
Controlling my media consumption is more difficult for me. Scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, a feed-reader or thumbing through a magazine is enormously time consuming. These are my personal rules to reduce wasting time:
And TV? It happens so rarely that it would be good for me to consume some more. But the main reason is: I have no free time for watching TV and also, it just bores me.
Additional note: All this rules do not mean, that I follow them strictly all time.
What do you do to stay creative and keep coming up with new ideas? What do you do when you get stuck?
If my time table is getting too packed, I try to cancel appointments and commitments. Much too often, my private activities fall victim to those situations first. But that’s not good! You can’t stay productive without breaks from your work.
The better idea is to go out for a walk or do some sports or just drink a cup of tea in a café and not at your office desk. And sometimes, a bit more sleep works wonders.
Well, as we all know, there are sometimes situations, which don’t allow for breaks or enough sleep. You might be able to manage working like this for a short period, but not as your normal rhythm for work.
So if nothing is coming out of my mind, I’m not finding a solution for a tricky layout, I have no ideas for the conception of a project, or I’m making too many mistakes – then I try to stop working and do something totally different. Leaving my workplace is essential in these situations.
Is there anything special you do to nurture and inspire yourself, to take care of your body and soul, and prevent burnout?
For me, very important things to keep my mind fresh are: enough sleep, good and healthy food, long walks in fresh air, good reads and conversations, tea, ballet exercises, vacation travel and sometimes a slice of cake.
Many women ignore their creative ideas because of financial concerns. Do you have any helpful advice for women who are worried about following their creative passions because of money issues?
To be clear: the creative business is not a big money business. As an art director and designer in the advertisement and media industry, you could work a lot and only live for your work if you want to, but you still won’t get rich. My personal philosophy is: it’s okay to work a bit less and not earn a lot if I have the opportunity and enough time to realize my own creative projects in addition to my daily business.
To make this concept work, I consciously reduced my standard of living in past years. As a matter of fact, there are many things I’m not interested in anymore, and that makes it easier for me. I’m not interested in a huge apartment for only two people. I don’t need a cupboard full of countless glasses for every type of beverage. I’m tired of gourmet restaurants with white tablecloths and overpriced food. I have reduced my belongings again and again to be more flexible, but I still have too much stuff. I’m fully aware that this is much more difficult if you have a family and you have to take care of your children.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who would like to follow her personal creative dreams but is feeling scared, what would it be?
Try to do it. But don’t put all your eggs in one basket! If your creative dreams are to realize a creative business idea or a time-consuming project, first save up a basic income before you hurl yourself into the development of your idea. With fear of losing your livelihood, you can neither be creative nor productive.
Do you have any favorite books, magazines, websites, or other resources that you’d like to recommend for us?
It’s the same as with locations: it changes from time to time.
Since many years, I love the „Pure Style“ books of Jane Cumberbatch, so I also follow her blog.
I adore the illustration works and photographs of the Portuguese artist Joana Rose Bragança.
Currently, I’m reading the German book „Die ersten Tage von Berlin: Der Sound der Wende“ (The First Days of Berlin: The Sound of the Wall Falling) written by the journalist Ulrich Gutmair. It’s a good one.
Also, I still love the print magazine „The Weekender“. Texts are a mix of German and English.
Postcard set “Bathers II” by Joana Rose Bragança
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This interview was conducted by Stephanie Levy for her e-course „Creative Courage – Berlin Edition“.