Originally we wanted to speak about Us By Night, but as your talk fell through, we decided it would be interesting to look back at 2017 — which coincidently is also the year in which Bureau Borsche exists 10 years. How did you get started a decade ago?

Before starting my own design studio, I’ve been an employee at different advertising agencies and publishing houses. It all evolved from working in advertising, which I got sick of after eight years. Then I started doing a magazine called Jetzt, which was published weekly with the Süddeutsche Zeitung. I continued to do magazines for another eleven years and eventually started Bureau Borsche in 2007.

Was 2017 a celebratory year for you?

I really liked it, it was a good year. I’m going to be a father for the third time, so personally it was a great year for me.

It was also a year that brought some concerning developments. Starting with the most obvious theme that dominated the year: new political movements gaining power.

It feels like forever already, but it has been only 11 months into the Trump administration. We also had elections in The Netherlands, France and Germany. Have you been more concerned with politics in 2017?

Definitely. I think potential problems have arisen everywhere, also in Europe. Looking at what happened in countries like Spain, France, Austria, but also Germany: there have been new radical parties in politics that have erupted instantly. A far-right party like the Alternative for Germany becoming as big as it did; a lot of people in Germany didn’t expect that to happen ever again. As a result, for the first time, Angela Merkel is struggling to form a coalition.

To me it feels that we are in something like a political no man’s land at the moment. This really concerns me. In the last half century, Europe always served as a powerful alternative for far-right nationalist sentiments to grow again, but after Brexit the negative atmosphere towards Europe has been growing in different countries. The dream of Europe seems to break down slowly.

I really enjoy this idea of Europe. Next to the fact that I can travel around freely, I really appreciate the idea of an European community. This conception of the existence of an European community is fading quickly at the moment, which I really regret.

Bavarian State Opera Season 17–18, Bureau Borsche

Maybe only the higher educated groups within European countries feel that sense of community? Parties like AfD and the Dutch PVV really speak to lower educated groups in society that have little affection with the European dream.

Looking at Germany in particular, a party like AfD also received a lot of votes out of the middle class. People used their vote to protest the current state of politics. In my eyes one should never toy with a powerful thing like a vote. It is really sad to see so many people deal with displeasure in this way.

If it comes to that: it wasn’t that good of a year.

Personally, I feel like a lot of people in Germany lost their interest in politics during the last twenty years. Things would pretty much stay the same despite what you would vote, so people stopped caring. With the developments as we have seen them in recent years, this attitude must change again. That also applies to me personally. For first time in my life, instead of talking about my work, I wanted to talk about politics during my Us By Night talk that eventually couldn’t take place. We discussed doing this for a long time and eventually we all agreed that we wanted to show how we felt that design can have a direct influence on politics, inspired by these recent developments.

In the current climate, there are things like this, which I feel you need to be fully aware of as a designer. That also applies to how you can have a positive influence on the world around you through your designs

We wanted to share a little investigation of iconic design work from the past, that has had an influence on politics. To name something: a lot of far-right parties tend to use the Futura font, which has had a strong presence in the Nazi history as well. Basically every time the Nazis wanted to share a modern message in their propaganda they would use Futura. Not a lot of people are aware of this.

In the current climate, there are things like this, which I feel you need to be fully aware of as a designer. That also applies to how you can have a positive influence on the world around you through your designs.

Despite the apathy towards politics, which you described, a president with radical views like Donald Trump also seems to have ignited a new élan of activism.

You personally worked on the Equality campaign by Nike and there were numerous other big corporations, often for the first time, that used their platforms to address certain societal issues this year. What did you do for the Equality campaign?

For Nike we do graphics and art direction. Campaigns are mostly created by Nike’s team at Wieden+Kennedy Portland, and they ask us for graphic ideas that work for different media, ranging from television to social media. So the idea and concept are basically always clear when our work starts, but we still have an influence on how it will communicate best in a graphic way: what kind of photography, typeface, those kind of things.

Kaleidoscope magazine, Bureau Borsche

Was working on a campaign like Equality part of your growing personal awareness that you need to speak out as a designer?

Not really. My wife is American, so I visit America a couple of times a year. From the moment when the Republican bid started in 2015, I immediately was confronted with people supporting Trump. To this day, when I’m in the USA, I keep meeting people that continue to support him wholeheartedly. Even when he ended the ‘Dreamers’ program, people who are recent immigrants themselves continued to defend him, despite their personal history. That’s just plain weird to me and it triggered something from that very beginning. I hadn’t felt that before.

What are your thoughts on a company like Nike making an open statement against polarization, did you see that coming as well?

We discussed this with Nike before the Trump election and everybody seemed to agree that something needed to be done, but I must confess: I didn’t think they were going to dare it. It obviously was a courageous move and in the end they even didn’t get too much headwind because of it. You could even say that it turned into an advantage in the end.

That’s the difficult side of this kind of engagement by corporates to begin with: activism can quickly become marketing, or it might have been intended for it to be just that from the very beginning.

That’s the thing, yes. As long as you end a message with a brand-logo or a product, it’s also marketing. Although you shouldn’t forget that certain marketing could also have a counterproductive outcome. Backfiring can happen more easily when the message touches on societal issues, so it definitely takes courage to take a stand. But, as you say, there is an obvious double standard in corporates engaging themselves and in the end selling more product because of it. That doesn’t take away the fact that it’s better to do something at all, instead of keeping your mouth shut.

ZEITmagazin, Bureau Borsche

Another major theme of 2017 is the the ever-growing public sphere, that has empowered individuals to effectively speak out against wrongdoing, like for instance the #metoo movement.

At the same time I feel that Trump’s social media platforms also helped him to become head of the biggest institution in the USA in an unprecedented way. What are your thoughts on today’s public sphere?

Personally, I’m very grateful to still work for ‘old media’ institutions, like newspaper Die Zeit, who still curates its content through specialists. Because of this proposition, they will always be held accountable for what they publish. I still believe in the relevance of such curated institutions and see how they can have a progressive influence on society.

As we have to manifest ourselves as a company in this public sphere, at Bureau Borsche we chose to stay away from all the personal stuff on social media and just share our work

It is revolutionary that individuals today have the power to unmask wrongdoing within such institutions. Nevertheless, with individuals, like for instance Trump, becoming their own little institution with an enormous platform, it is very concerning that they seem to be able to say whatever and nobody really holds them accountable.

As we have to manifest ourselves as a company in this public sphere, at Bureau Borsche we chose to stay away from all the personal stuff on social media and just share our work. In the last decades some graphic designers were perceived as ‘stars’ and it became a lot about who they were as an individual. That became an even stronger element when social media turned into an integral part of the industry. In this atmosphere, we always made the strong decision to just reflect on what we create and keep our personal world private – it just isn’t that relevant in my eyes.

The work you create will show your ‘private’ influences one way or another, anyway.

Definitely. It think the world of design is a rather small world and what we do isn’t all that interesting to most people. As a community we all feel it’s interesting of course, but the rest of the world doesn’t really care. As Bureau Borsche we see ourselves as a service agency, not as artists.

Nevertheless, you have said before that the position of the graphic designer is quite different today than in the past.

Of course, as I said before, designers turned into ‘stars’ in the last few decades. Being invited to talk in front of a couple of thousand people, having a large online following; that all has had an effect. I still feel that Bureau Borsche is just a little company based in Munich, but every time when I go abroad and meet other designers, most of them know about our studio. That’s still weird to me. Them knowing for which clients we work, that still baffles me. Although I’m totally aware of the whole global design community of course, when I’m confronted with it in real life I’m still super surprised by it.

Super Paper 98, Bureau Borsche

So you naturally manifest yourself within this new global public sphere, but you stay critical by not letting it intrude into areas that you feel aren’t relevant?

By just sharing the work we produce, it doesn’t become a burden, as that’s content we would have produced regardless. Dealing with social media in this way, enables us to keep it low-pressure. But I have to say: being a small studio in a city like Munich, social media also forms our direct gateway to the world. Quite some of our overseas clients that we have been working for in recent years, noticed us through social media. Sometimes it only takes a direct message via Instagram to get to know somebody. It’s all a matter of balance.

People will need guidance and interpretation on all the major issues by people who have proven themselves in these areas. At least I hope so

Similar to the proposition that we still need curated media with certain specialists to really understand a lot of things, today you have complete freedom if you want to question the institutions as an individual. That last element gave us things like Trump, influencers, vloggers and all kinds of bullshit, next to all the good things, but above all one should be fully aware of one’s position in this new public sphere and make mindful choices how you manifest yourself within.

Will these ‘individual institutions’ eventually replace the old institutions?

I don’t know if this will happen, but I do know that we will still need curated content by experts, which traditionally are at collective institutions. It will be all about the quality, though. People will need guidance and interpretation on all the major issues by people who have proven themselves in these areas. At least I hope so. That doesn’t mean that the media landscape will not shift again soon, there is simply too much printed media at the moment — the quality institutions that continue to be relevant and continue to perform at the highest level will stick around, no doubt.

That brings us somewhat full circle to your Us By Night talk that never happened. People have always been guided by institutions when it comes to ideology, which formed the playing field for politics.

In the last two decades, many people have lost interest in this, but as oppositions grow within our society, everyone, including designers and every individual with a platform, have to become aware of the individual responsibilities when you have certain believes that drive you.

I absolutely agree. That’s what we need right now: people becoming aware of the world we live in, the influence they have and the responsibilities that come with this influence. Especially in design.

Mirko Borsche