Interview with Willie Neumann

Every year we run a poster design competition for the Berlin Summer University of the Arts. In co-operation with professor Fons Hickmann, we choose the best poster designed by one of his graphic design students. We talked to this year's winner Willie Neumann about his poster concept and work approach. 

Willie grew up near Frankfurt am Main. He got his Bachelor's degree in Film, Theatre and Cultural Studies and Philosophy at the University of Mainz. Currently, he is doing his Master's in Graphic Design at Fons Hickmann's class (UdK) and works for the creative social media agency Granny.

How did you get into Fons Hickmann's class? What brought you to the UdK?

At the UdK, I found the professional orientation in the middle course between art and design very interesting, meaning that not everything is subject to applicability and lots of experiments can be performed. Also, theory has a lot of room here. That is what I like about Hickmann's class: there is a balance between discourse and doing it the easy way.

How did you discover graphic design?

My first serious creative works were drawings and sculptures and those went more in the direction of fine arts. Then from time to time I began to design posters or album covers for my friends and came to appreciate the playful aspect of graphic design more and more: you are not necessarily always existentially involved, as was the more serious approach of my art. It is as if you were asked to solve a riddle. Then it is about the most playful and elegant way. I like that. 

Do you remember your first design? If so, what was it? How do you feel about it today?

My first designs were probably self-painted and cutout birthday invitations in the shape of bats for my fourth birthday. I still stand behind them 100%.

Do you have a certain approach to implementing new designs? Certain rituals in your work?

Not exactly that. It is mostly my intuition that I follow and work out in as many ways as possible. A very profane ritual is probably that I leave things lying around for a few hours or days and then look at them again. It always helps.

If you could choose a design project to work on, what would it be and why?

I always find projects that you do not think you can handle yet, the most exciting ones. To have to understand it, this challenge then urges me to devote myself to something in detail. This way I am always one step further than before. From the current point of view, I would probably be interested in a project with a strong typographical focus. I would like to explore the logic and rules of typography in more detail than I have done so far. A second project would be a rap music video! Even if it has nothing to do with design in its strictest sense. However, I work a lot with moving images and this exuberant and hectic aesthetic of rap music videos is one of my greatest sources of inspiration.

When did you realize that you wanted to work as a graphic designer? When did you first come in contact with design?

First memories of such fascination with designed pictures come from the album covers of my parents' CDs or my childhood books. From there, the conscious decision to become a designer was rather a very gradual process, which has probably not finished yet. I have never been able to decide between a more humanistic and creative work, and so I decided to study Cultural Studies, a humanitarian discipline, first. It was precisely in this study programme that I got more and more involved in the sphere of art and design through theory until I decided to enter this field. Nevertheless, I don't want to work "only" as a designer any more than I decided against working purely in the humanities. I think that will always remain so. 

Can you tell us more about your design for the Summer University of the Arts, what are the thoughts behind it?

When I created this design, I first thought about the intersection between summer and university. The work shows itself to me through the metaphor of light: it is obvious that light, summer, and sun belong together. In the university context, light traditionally serves as a metaphor of knowledge, of enlightenment, and knowledge as enlightenment. However, this is not limited to the metaphorical: in early artistic research, especially in the theory of colour, such as Goethe or Itten, light plays a major role. There, methods were developed to fan out the light into different colour spectra by viewing panels with strong black-and-white contrasts and shapes through a prism. The light refracts differently, for example, at white and black edges. It is precisely these experiments and their historical illustrations that my design takes up.

The poster tries to unfold the light of the summer in its various qualities and in doing so, to combine the history of artistic research with the thematic complexity of the summer university. It plays with the concepts of perception, discoveries, and their transitions.

How did you develop the idea? What were your first impulses?

I got out and went for a walk. Then I noticed these plays of light under a bridge – when the sunlight reflects from the surface of the water and the reflections dance on the underside of the bridge. I especially like these refractions of light and had the idea to work with them. At first, I tried to take photographs myself and worked a lot with prisms, water, and black and white contrasts. Then I came across these historical display boards of prism experiments and found these formalised images much more graphic and clear.

You presented the drafts of the poster in May 2020. At that time during the lockdown, we were mostly at home in front of the screens. How much does the pandemic concern you in your artistic work?

Not at all. Dealing with the pandemic artistically seems too boring to me since the first day of the pandemic, because everyone does it from then on. My demand for my work is that it deals with something timeless rather than commenting on current events. My approach is probably as romantic as it is untenable because of course no one can break away from the spirit of the times. Perhaps the pandemic occupies me indirectly, precisely because I defiantly look in other directions artistically.

What inspires you in your everyday life?

Beyond the daily design content flood of inspiration on Instagram, it is probably a mixture of very intense or dull stimulus satiation on the Internet and reading books, away from any design discourse. I can kneel into seemingly dusty stuff, like the early German Romanticism, and I am just as inspired to create something new afterward as I am after watching some disturbing Body Horror Animes. I think it is somewhat nice that both go together these days.

Thank you, Willie!

Photo: Maxie Czoski
Photo: Willie Neumann
Photo: Willie Neumann