In a world full of illustrators and graphic designers, it takes something special to stand out. Enter Berlin-based art director, designer and illustrator Florian Schommer, who insists on keeping things fresh and challenging for both himself and his clientele. “It’s like chewing gum: the longer you chew, the weaker the taste gets” – that’s how he explains his need to renew himself. To get to know Florian, we spent a day with him in Germany’s capital. We started bright and early at his Friedrichshain apartment and ended our trip at the Reichstag.
SKATING THROUGH A NOWHERE TOWN.
I remember being a young teenager and going to the city with my mother. We’d often see skateboarders and they always fascinated me. Something about them was kind of scary, they almost seemed like outlaws. What impressed me was that they appeared to be fearless, skating right through traffic, falling, bleeding. So that stuck with me. I looked up to that kind of fearlessness, while – back then - I feared everything (laughs).
I grew up in a nowhere town in the West of Germany, close to the Dutch border. In between Roermond and Monchengladbach. As a kid I was somewhat of an outsider. I did really bad in school and didn’t really have many interests. It was music that helped me find a place for myself. Somehow hip hop clicked with me first, even though what they were rapping about was hard to relate to. My world was so different. Their problems weren’t mine, so it was hard to feel a connection. However, one of my friends from school had a skateboard and handed it to me one day to give it a shot.
When it comes down to it, it’s skateboarding that led me to where I am today. Even more than the actual skating itself, it was the design aspect of the culture that really started speaking to me. The visuals that I was exposed to were so strong. Take the Thrasher videos for instance, those made a huge impression. The combination of the skate footage, the music and the way different brands presented themselves in their commercials was very interesting to see. Toy Machine, for example, was very different from Osiris in the way they presented themselves. Toy Machine made sure their crew was very punk, chaotic and kind of fucked up, while Osiris had a very hip-hop influenced vibe, they almost came across as a real fashion brand.
Through skateboarding – the videos, the magazines – I got into punkrock, both were closely linked anyway. We created our own little community around the skatepark. When I started seeing local hardcore /punkrock shows in the early 00s, it inspired me and my friends to start our own band. It seemed attainable, something we could do too. Through the band I got to take my first steps in design, because everyone in the band had a role. Someone booked the shows, someone else wrote the songs but we also needed someone to take care of the visuals – me. I started creating logos, flyers and other artwork. I didn’t even have a computer back then, so it was all very basic, cut and paste style stuff. Sadly, I didn’t hold on to any of that early stuff. Not that it was any good (laughs).
Being terrible in school, I had to repeat a year not once but twice, which made me think things over seriously and switch to a technical school - realschule in German - where I started following graphic design. Which in turn lead me to study in Düsseldorf later, where I got my bachelor. The package there consisted of a variety of things. Photography, typography, illustration – a bit of everything. Most people didn’t bother with illustration much, I guess they considered more like a hobby, something you do on the side. But I loved it.
One of the teachers there really showed me what was possible. He taught typography and would give us assignments in which everyone had a level playing field. For example, he’d give you one font in 3 sizes and everyone had to find their way to make those work in a text on the same format. You could photoshop if you had the skills, but you could also just cut and paste them. At first it seemed totally random, but it soon started making sense when we put all the assignments next to each other on a table to select the strongest ones. It ended up being always the same bunch of people that created the best work. That was a definite eye-opener for me.
Düsseldorf was a very free, open environment. I could totally do my own thing, as long as I handed in my assignments on time. That takes some discipline, but what really helped me was the fact that I’d already done a 3-year internship before starting my studies, so I was already experienced and could function independently.
WEIRDNESS AS INSPIRATION.
In a way, I already got the creative bug from my parents, because one thing that did influence me was my mother’s taste in design. She was into nicely designed furniture and always made sure our apartment looked different and aesthetically pleasing.
Nowadays I draw inspiration from a wide range of things. Skateboarding and punkrock are the base but there’s so much more. Life in Berlin for sure, because it’s a crossroads where a thousand cultures meet. It’s also a place that is as beautiful as it is ugly – a peculiar thing. There is an enormous history: the wall, the cold war, museums, art and architecture of all kinds. I mean, David Bowie lived here, Iggy Pop lived here. It’s all very inspiring. Urban life itself is already an inspiration too. If I take my bike and ride to Kreuzberg I see so many different things.
Travelling’s a big one too. I actually just got back from Sri Lanka, which was the most recent in a series of trips to Asia that I’ve done. The first time I ever visited Asia was when my band played Malaysia. We had an Australian tour booked and figured that Malaysia was on the way so why not. I had no idea what to expect but ended up really enjoying it. After that it was China, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore.
For a while my work was heavily inspired by what I came across in Asia. I was impressed by the signs, the lettering, all the mysterious religious stuff. It’s so fascinating to be on a continent where you don’t understand a thing that’s going on. Even hand signs are very different in meaning there. You don’t know what you’re eating, you don’t understand what you’re seeing, it’s bizarre. It can be tough, but it gets you out of your comfort zone and it challenges you. I love the weirdness of it all, it makes you feel very alive. When you’re out there on your own, it can be scary. Which I guess brings me back to that feeling I had when I was a young kid seeing those skateboarders.
I get bored easily, that’s why I always want to keep trying new things. Repetition can be nice for a little while, to get good at something. But after that, it’s time to switch it up. Some people can stick to one thing or one style their whole career and I respect that, but it doesn’t work for me. I would get burnt out. It’s like chewing gum.
Balance is important though ‘cause it’s not just about me. When a customer really wants something in a certain style that I did before, I’ll still do it if I can still find the challenge in it and if the money is right. But the main thing for me is to keep evolving and challenging myself. That way, it doesn’t even feel like work to me. I want to keep it fun and enjoy what I do.
Of course, I need to make a living too, but money doesn’t dictate my choices. If a small start-up brand with a limited budget approaches me with a project that I find interesting, I’ll do it. It gives me the chance to add something new to my portfolio which may lead to other, bigger projects. When I started out, a friend of mine was launching his own beer as a part of his master exams. He asked me to design the label for it and he loved the result. A few years later he had his own brewery and got back in touch to see if I could create the complete visual brand identity. Other, bigger breweries took notice and then contacted me to work for them. That’s how it works.
The problem with a lot of graphic designers is that they see themselves as artists. I believe that in the end you’re there to make a customer happy, so don’t take yourself too seriously. You have to learn how to deal with criticism. Even if you put a lot of your personality and emotions in your work, that doesn’t mean you have to take criticism as a personal attack. I’m very wary of becoming that annoying, grumpy cliché graphic designer or illustrator.
THE EXTRA MILE.
Usually, I present myself as an art director with a focus on illustration. When someone approaches me for a job – whether it be a brewery, a whiskey company, a record label – I’m usually quick at figuring out what they want. I develop an idea of the direction that I think we should take based on whatever ideas or mood boards they send me. Sometimes I also go against what they have in mind because I feel like I have better ideas. Sometimes you compromise, sometimes you don’t. In the end, it’s simple to me: you either go for a style that traditionally fits a certain product, but then you’ve got to do it better than everyone else to stand out. Or you can go in the opposite direction – which is what I really love.
What I miss in design now is weirdness or character. It’s easy nowadays to find well-done, good looking graphic work but it’s all so similar and interchangeable. I wish there would be more people taking chances, going different routes. What’s helped me is that my style isn’t very German, which would’ve been a problem 10 years ago, but now – through social media – I get to work on a broader scale. Most of my clientele is actually from elsewhere, they’re often English or American and I’ll admit that I prefer working with them. They’re usually very practical and want to keep things moving.
I’m not super talented, but my limitations have helped me to get better, they keep me sharp. I know I have to make up for it with work ethic and originality. I was never one to dream big because it can set you up for disappointment later, but I always worked very hard, I always went the extra mile. Weekends, late nights, early mornings. Because I loved doing what I did, it was hardly ever exhausting. It was fun. To see a client being super happy with the work I did is the best. I’m always rather low-key about what I do for a living but when people find out and I see their reaction to my work, it feels good.
Pictures by Thibault de Schepper
Words by Bjorn Dossche