From Finance to Flair | Interview with Claudia Fischer-Appelt

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In ‘the Age of the Brand’ people like Claudia Fischer-Appelt, co-founder of design agency Karl Anders, are worth their weight in gold. MiND caught up with Claudia from her office in Hamburg to hear more about the changing role of design in an increasingly connected world.

After an unsuccessful and unenjoyable foray into banking Claudia realised her true vocation as a Graphic Design student in Kiel and Den Haag. She then found her feet as one-third of communications agency fischerAppelt and stayed there for more than ten years before deciding it was time to pursue her own creative path, co-founding Karl Anders in 2011. Having since sat on the jury of numerous prestigious awards events in the advertising world (think Cannes Lions), it’s fair to say she knows a thing or two about the secret to a strong brand identity.


Can you tell us more about how you started at fischerAppelt?

CLAUDIA: Yes, so from my heart I’m a communications or graphic designer. After my studies in Kiel and Den Haag I worked as a Freelancer for several agencies in the fields of design and branding. I came to fischerAppelt when there were nearly thirty people and we built it up to 300 over ten years. It was a great job to build up the creative part , really exciting. In the beginning the focus of fischerAppelt was PR but we moved the agency into all fields of communications to what they are now. I was responsible for the creative output as a chief creative officer. We had a lot of fun – and success! But you can imagine, the managing part increased enormously and my own creativity suffered. I tried doing creative stuff at night, but it didn’t work out on the long run. So I quit.


How does this compare to the work you’re doing at Karl Anders?

CLAUDIA: You can’t compare a big ship with a small boutique studio. At Karl Anders I am free to work on concepts, designs, ideas and all creative stuff. We cooperate with architects, artists, filmmakers, musicians and I work more directly on results, doing a lot of rebranding and brand profiling.  That’s great.


How did you get into this design world? Were you born creative, were your parents creative?

CLAUDIA: No, [they were] not at all. I don’t know if you can say I was a creative person from birth but I was interested in art and graphic design since I was a girl. So I majored in art at school and focused that in my Diploma. I had a lot of advice from my teachers [about the design world] but my parents didn’t believe in that idea: art is suspicious. So what did I have to do? I started in a bank. Horrible!

But that gave me enough power after finishing to break through: I wrote only one application. And from that day on my whole life changed.


Can you tell us about some of your favourite projects you’ve worked on?

CLAUDIA: That’s always a hard question…every project? Okay, we’ve just finished – my heart is in the culture – an identity for the biggest and one of the best orchestras in the world, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. It’s one of the top ten orchestras and I’m very proud of that. Over two years we changed their complete identity – they had one but it was very dusty. We build up not only the design, we redefined their language, behaviour and communications strategy. We redesigned everything. Logo, website, campaigns and brochures. Even their stocktaking stickers.

Re-branding of Gewandhaus Orchestra

Is it very different when you work with an orchestra compared to a corporate brand?

CLAUDIA: A little bit. C-Level-Managers and artists are very different, but at the end of the day it makes no difference. Cultural people are more driven by creativity, business people are more driven by strategies. For successful branding projects you need both.


Can you talk us through the process you go through when a company approaches you?

CLAUDIA: We team up with companies, we are partners. Those projects produce the best results. Clearly. Mostly we work together in mixed teams doing a lot of co-creation and participating parts. We have to understand a lot: the brand, the people, the markets, targets and so on. In the beginning we always have tons of questions.

Claudia Fischer Appelt

Do you target specific industries?

CLAUDIA: No, we work for love brands like Vitra, Marco Polo, thom/krom or all the art and cultural brands. But we love to work for Blue Chips like Covestro, Volkswagen or Coca-Cola as well. In these days we are doing some projects in the real estate business, which is very new for us. And really fresh is a veggie food start-up with great ambitions to make the world a better place. So no focus, I think everything can be interesting if you give it a chance. That’s what I love most in agency business.


You’ve been on the jury for some big festivals in the advertising world, what makes an agency stand out for you?

CLAUDIA: On the jury the agency is hidden. Of course, sometimes you know who did it or you recognise it by idea or style. The most interesting part of being on the jury is to meet the other jury members. It is very international and to discuss great work with the best people is really remarkable. You see a lot innovative and really surprising new things.

And of course those awards are a huge business themselves with a lot of money involved. we were able to give the grand prix at Cannes Lions to a very small Norwegian agency who entered just one board. It was an identity for a music festival in Bergen and it was outstanding, really great work.


When it comes to brands is there still a place for offline?

CLAUDIA: Yes, I think so. Things have changed, so identities do. But brands will definitely need still offline but in a different balance to online. All the mainstream newspapers and magazines struggle but the specialised, focused, niche areas ones are going up. There are new magazines every month, a new thing I saw was a magazine for redheads – I know the person who does it – and it’s growing. What’s also interesting is first it was digital and then it went printed. You see it with blogs like Slanted, which started to have a printed version.


Do you think it’s because people feel nostalgic for print to have something tactile?

CLAUDIA: Yes, maybe, also. I think there’s also need for collection, if you want to keep something. Online is always changing and once it’s gone you can’t get it back. But the printed version you can keep, you can hold it. But I like to be mixed.

Designs for Vitra Furniture Company

How do you see the future of brands and design going?

CLAUDIA: Brands and identities are still very important, of course, you need orientation. But I think the role of design is becoming more important than ever. Because everything is so the same: services, products, places. Everything. So you have to make a difference, which you can do by design.

Clients ask for ‘design thinking’, they want to go through a process of looking through the eyes of a designer. And what I hope, and I see a lot of cases, is it’s going more social. You have this word ‘social design’. I know a lot of people who started as really hard-core business designers and did premium and luxury brands and now they start to take all those tools to a more social impact, like helping refugees by building homes.


It seems it’s difficult to be a social designer and a commercial designer at the same time.

CLAUDIA: I don’t think it’s so complicated. So I’ll give you an example, at a conference I went to a month ago about social design there was an Austrian office, EOOS, who does product design and they make luxury kitchens for Bulthaup. Then they started to work with refugees in Vienna and tried to make a big house more comfortable and homelier for them. So they did, for example, a kitchen with the same structure and design [they used for Bulthaup] but different materials. I think this is nice, it’s not ‘refugees, okay let’s make it cheap let’s make it no design’.

Claudia Fischer-Appelt

What advice would you give to designers starting out in the industry?

CLAUDIA: I was asked what I would change if I could speak to myself at 18, I would say take your pleasure seriously. I didn’t do that for a long time and I think that’s wrong. You’re good in things which make you happy, there’s the right energy there and you don’t feel like it’s work. I think it’s hard to work against that.


Can you see yourself moving out of Hamburg?

CLAUDIA: Yes of course, I moved around with my parents a lot so I’m used to moving. This is why I’ve been a lot of years in Hamburg because I said ‘No, I have to settle down’. Of course like every Hamburg girl you try to move to Berlin – maybe later. I think New York is still a great city. I could even imagine Tokyo, it’s crazy and so different, especially for design people.