Interview: Hugo Hoppmann

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Graphic designer and art director Hugo Hoppmann speaks about positivity, his move to NYC and the lessons learned along the way

Perverse Optimism since 1988. Graphic designer Hugo Hoppmann’s Instagram bio sums up his personality perfectly. People say all sorts of weird shit on their social media profiles but after speaking with Hugo for just a few minutes I was convinced this statement was an extremely accurate representation of the person before me. Beaming at me over Skype from an Airbnb room somewhere in Brooklyn Hugo is immediately charming and infectiously positive. Originally hailing from Cologne Hugo has worked with some of the industry’s most influential names, from Mike Meiré to Joerg Koch of 032c, and continues to carve out a name for himself as one of Germany’s best young designers. Having just started a new chapter of his life in New York City we caught up to talk about his introduction to graphic design, how he ended up in NYC and the impact being overtly positive can have.

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"When somebody is doing something with such confidence the end product is always kind of sexy."

How are you?

I’m good! I just got back home, which is an Airbnb room at the moment because I’m testing out all the neighbourhoods in NYC before I settle somewhere. It’s been a longer journey than expected.

What have you been up to today?

I just had some beers with an old friend who's visiting from Germany. It’s been a good Saturday, I got some personal work done, which is always hard when you’re employed full time.

Nice. Any plans for tonight?

Yeah, I’ll be joining some people for dinner and drinks later. I really love bringing friends from different backgrounds together so tonight I’m connecting all these people I know from university, from work and from my home town.

That’s great. So, I wanted to ask about your upbringing.

Growing up my mother was a furniture restorer so when I was younger I’d spend a lot of time in her workshop which was like a big playground for me. After school I'd go directly to the ateliers and hang out there which was fantastic because I really got to experience an interesting mixture of crafts, creativity and entrepreneurship. She was very passionate about art, design, architecture and photography and would always take me to museums. We’d discuss those experiences later and I feel she was a big influence on me developing a passion for design. When I got my first computer my friends and I were really into online gaming. We created our own clans and competed against other players from around the world and I started experimenting with cracked versions of Photoshop and Illustrator, designing hundreds of logos and identities for all my teammates. There was a feature where you could spray a motif or a symbol on a wall and could also upload your own symbols so I made all these logos for my teammates and we sprayed them all over the walls in the game.

Where did you study?

After high school, when I was doing my civil service and preparing applications for schools there was a bookshop in Cologne called Buchhandlung Walther König which I spent a lot of time in. ECAL, which is a design school in Switzerland, had put out this big black book that was like a bible and I was fascinated by it because all my heroes at the time were either teaching there or had attended as students themselves, so I made the decision to apply. My journey though is in part thanks to Adrian Frutiger. Today is actually quite sad because this morning I heard that he passed away. I just posted an image from when I visited him in 2006. Adrian was an incredible typographer who attended the same church as my grandfather. When I was eighteen and still in high school I was really into typography and Adrian Frutiger was a big hero of mine so my grandfather organised a meeting with him in Berne, Switzerland. It was my last year of school and I was wondering where I should study. Adrian really inspired me to go and study in Switzerland because there was such a rich design history there. I was captivated by the way he talked about his studies in Zurich when he was a young man.

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That’s amazing.

Yeah, so I decided to apply at ECAL and I was accepted. When I got there I was in a new country, a new city, I had to learn a new language and I knew nobody. It was actually really great though because I started from zero and was really able to focus on my next steps. My years at ECAL were intense. The studies were very structured and pretty hardcore, in a good way. A lot was expected from us but it was a great feeling to be there and I was so grateful, excited and motivated. People thought I was crazy or on drugs. (Laughs) I was so enthusiastic and had all this positive naivety. "Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow" and "Fail harder" were my motto’s. I didn’t try to hide myself and I think this made me stand out because everyone else was often so shy to show the work they’d done. I was on a mission to say "Fuck it! I’m doing my thing here." The school was incredible, everything was top­ notch. The computers, printing workshops, teachers, the furniture, even the canteen was super nice. It was a new building and and they had all these crazy workshops with people who normally wouldn’t do workshops. Joerg Koch from 032c came in one day for a workshop. I was such a fan of his magazine so being my typical self I went straight up to him and was like, "Hey Joerg. I’m Hugo. I’m doing a magazine, can we do an interview this week maybe?" He agreed so I interviewed him and it went really well. Afterwards he asked me if I could design websites because he needed one for 032c. I was absolutely shocked. He asked me to come to Berlin and work on the website. I knew then that my blunt approach had payed off. We have a lot of freedom so really taking advantage of that freedom is something I like to try and do.

Yeah, on that topic of freedom, I actually found it interesting and quite easy to conduct research before this interview. You provide so much information about yourself online and have remained really genuine when it comes to sharing your knowledge and opinion to others. Where did this willingness to openly share your thoughts come from?

That's an interesting question. I think it stems from when I was starting to explore graphic design. I had so many questions and when I got stuck and the internet wasn't providing much help I emailed people asking for advice. Often I didn't get a response and I became a little frustrated. I was disappointed that people didn't share their knowledge. When I did get a response though it was the best feeling in the world, it was shockingly good. From that experience I created a personal mission, no matter how well known I become I always want to be the guy who answers every email and every question. I like to share my knowledge because I remember it was something I really needed once. Everything I know is because somebody was generous with their knowledge at some point and being transparent has always come back to me in such a positive way. My current job in NYC came about because Ryan Weafer, one of the lead art directors at 2x4, followed me online and was able to see my progress and process. He wrote me an email saying they were searching for a designer and asked if I would be interested. When I tell the story some people find it crazy. "What!? You got an email from a studio in New York! How do they even know you!?" People like my aunts or grandmother freak out, they don’t understand it. But I’m very visible on the internet since many years so I wasn't surprised. It pays off in the end to be this active, people have to notice you in order for these opportunities to happen.

So you’ve been in New York since February?

Yeah. after the email, I had a Skype call with Ryan and Michael Rock and that was it. I was a bit skeptical about going back to an agency, so we made a deal to check in at some time. After few weeks in NYC I was super happy with the situation and they were pleased with my work so they gave me a full time offer.

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What do you love about the city?

It sounds like such a cliche but I find the energy of this place truly remarkable. When you're standing on the street or you’re on the subway and look at the people you can see the motivation in their eyes. Everyone’s chasing their dreams and trying to make the best of each day. They’re all fighting to be here — and to make it here. I like the positive attitude towards success. In Germany if you see someone driving past in a nice car people tend to think "He must be an asshole, fuck him." Here, if somebody has a nice car people say "I bet he deserves it, he probably worked really hard. Good for him." (laughs) I also love that every random street you go down there’s a door you open and behind it is the nicest bar you've ever seen or an amazing restaurant. Everything in New York is of such a high quality because mediocrity doesn't survive here.

Definitely. So I wanted to ask you about the incredible group of people you’ve worked with and for over the years. Mirko Borsche, Mike Meiré, Joerg Koch — What were the most important lessons you learned working with them? 

I think I'm always drawn to charismatic characters who stand for something and all of these guys definitely fall into that category. I was drawn to Mirko Borsche because he had this interesting background in graffiti and hip hop. He went off to London when he was younger but eventually returned to his home town of Munich to start his own thing. That really resonated with me, and the same goes for Mike and Joerg, they are so open and active on a global scale but still drawn to their roots. Even though I was only at Bureau Mirko Borsche for a short time I felt so welcome and part of the family. I was still studying at the time so I learned a lot by watching the way Mirko worked. I mean, he was so quick … I remember him doing layout’s, rapidly duplicating pages and trying so many different things. He was so free, he didn't care if it wasn't right or didn’t follow design rules. If Mirko thinks it feels right, it’s right. When someone is doing something with such confidence the end product is always kind of sexy. This was a really important lesson for me. He didn't give a shit, he was just being him.

That’s awesome.

The next summer after my internship at Mirko Borsche I applied for another one, at Meiré und Meiré. I didn't get a response but then I got an email from creative director Tim Giesen which I thought was about my application, but my application had actually been lost. Tim was apparently a little frustrated because he couldn't find any interesting designers in the region and Joerg Koch had told him I was studying in Switzerland but was actually from Cologne. I started an internship there which was a dream come true. Meiré und Meiré was a different atmosphere as it’s a much bigger studio. It was great to be back in my home town the first time working professionally. I learned a lot from Mike and Tim about the structure of an agency in general. How to approach projects, how to deal with clients, where to go for lunch (Laughs) and simple things like that. But maybe the most important lesson I learned during this time was that all these highly respected designers are just normal people. There's a kind of celebrity status surrounding these guys but it was important to see that they’re very approachable, humble and down to earth people.

On the topic of managing time, how do you spend your weekends?

I’m really fascinated by habits and for the past couple of years I’ve been experimenting with them a lot. I try to pursue the same rhythm and rituals every day, regardless of it being a weekend or Monday or Christmas. If I’m not hungover — which unfortunately happens more often than planned (Laughs) — a Sunday morning is pretty much the same as a Monday morning. That’s why I love Monday’s, there isn’t such a harsh contrast to the weekend. Next to our office there’s a co­-working space called WeWork who have a huge poster that reads, "Thank God it’s Monday." We walked by one day with the crew from work and everyone was like, "Who’s actually thinking shit like this?" but I had to be honest and said, "You know, I actually like Monday’s. I think Monday’s are really nice." (Laughs) — Anyway, I haven’t perfected it yet but I like the idea that how you begin your day is the same every day and you do things that are good for you on a daily basis. At the moment I try to rise super early, do my workout, meditate and then write down everything that’s going on in my head.

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Nice. So what makes you happy?

I’ve learned over the years that starting my day with these rituals makes me happy. I love early mornings when the world is still quiet and I have time to reflect. Having time for myself is important. I actually prefer the word content to happy though, happiness is a feeling that comes and goes — but contentment can be something more permanent. I try to be content and have a constant positive energy in my life.

So, the future… What are you plans over the next few years?

I’m not sure yet, at the moment things are going pretty well. I’m super happy here in NYC but I’m not sure how long I’m going to stay. I’ll just try and go with the flow and be aware of how I’m feeling. I see my time here as an education, and I want to keep learning, but I feel that in the future I’ll have to do my own thing independently again and eventually start my own studio. I think it’s an urge that stems from my childhood and family…

The entrepreneurial influence?

Yes. I really love running my own business but looking forward I’m also fascinated by the idea of being a digital nomad, travelling and working from wherever. I'm currently doing lots of branding, print, and editorial work but I also love web design and coding, and the fact that all you need is your laptop and an internet connection. 2x4 and NYC is an awesome place for me to be right now. But I have a rule that if it doesn’t feel right anymore I have to move forward. I’m careful to remember that it’s all a choice. I hate to see people that have lost the motivation and are just doing their job for the sake of it. You can always say no and do something else. My aim is to always do the things I love, the things that fulfil me and the things that help me learn and evolve.

That’s a really nice sentiment. Thanks for speaking with me Hugo.

My pleasure!

Hope you enjoy your night.

Thank you so much Nick.    

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This story was originally published as part of our ongoing interview series exploring the work and lives of inspiring creatives. 

Photography: Lloyd Stevie
Words: Nick Smith