When graphic designer Eike König founded Hort in 1994, he set out to run his studio differently, choosing to make people – not performance – the centre of his business strategy. Twenty three years later, it’d be hard to find a more comfortable place to work.
“When I created my own agency it was all about imagining, ‘What would a place look like where as a creative, I feel respected, supported…home?’ Because we spend so much time at work,” explains Eike seated in his living room, where the walls heave with illustrations and typographic posters. A designer, boss and professor, he is dedicated to encouraging all of the team at Hort (a tightknit group he refers to as ‘my people’) to remain individuals by not imposing a general structure. At Hort, you choose when you work, how you work, and what you work on – be it a company job or a personal project. If it sounds idealistic, it’s not: Though a small team, the studio names Nike and Bauhaus Dessau among their clients, proving what can happen when personal fulfilment becomes the norm. Below, Eike runs us through how Hort continues to be a place you want to show up to every day.
When you started Hort, why was it so important to you to create a different way of working?
I didn’t agree with the structure where you do an internship get a junior job and accept that you get treated like shit by your boss because maybe someday you will get paid more or get a better position. I just wanted to make a good place to work, where people feel happy to be there every day. A lot of people make compromises, they think for business you need to do this and that, but for me it was always like, ‘No I would really like to spend my life with people I admire, I love and respect, who I look up to, who I’m influenced or inspired by.’ So creating Hort was that utopia for me. It was not about creating a company that becomes successful and makes money, it was more about creating a company that feeds me somehow and other people, too.
How does this work on a day-to-day basis at Hort?
When we work on a project everyone is responsible for when they stop working and how much time they spend on it during the day,because everyone knows best what their own rhythm of working is. I trust completely that everyone can do their job and by not controlling them and not starting to become a pyramid again – where there’s one person leading and the rest are just following – everyone remains an individual. In fact a lot of people who leave Hort end up starting their own studios, because it’s really hard to find this situation elsewhere.
You even encourage your team to spend time on their personal projects at work. What made you decide this?
When people work at Hort it’s not just about making money but it’s about figuring out things. We invest in what people are. For me, it’s important that they don’t have to work everyday on a commissioned project, they don’t have to ‘make money’ every day. I think if they also work on their own projects it will come back at some point to influence other work.
Does being a boss sit comfortably with you?
Well, I’ve been a professor for the last six years and it’s similar. A professor at the time when I studied was more like the wise guy who said what was right and what was wrong. And that’s how a lot of bosses see themselves, that – ‘Whatever I say is right and whatever I say is wrong, is wrong. You just do whatever I want.’ I think that’s totally the wrong system. I decided that I’d work with people better than I am and younger than I am. By being ready to say, ‘Okay, these people can do something I can’t do,’ I gave myself the chance to learn from these people. That was a very important step. How do you do this? What you can do is that you create a space where the person is at the centre of it and then everything else has to be adapted to this person. That’s why I also teach differently. A teacher nowadays is more like a supporter, the person who asks the questions, who’s interested in figuring out people’s skills and interests and help them to figure out who they are. It’s more about creating a place where they can find these things out and for me it’s the same with running a studio.
Why do you think that, 24 years on, they’re aren’t more places that work the way Hort does?
It’s interesting, companies and big studios in the US often ask me how they can get people to stop leaving. You can’t just do that. They say, ‘Oh but we have Free Friday where at 1.00pm on a Friday you can drink beers and have a barbecue.’ But then they also do things like, ‘Get to the office before 9.00am and get a free breakfast. Stay working until 10.00pm and you get a free cab ride.’ That’s bullshit. Every company has a DNA and this is set from the very beginning – you have to want to do it differently right from the beginning – I don’t believe in change, I believe in new. Think of how companies like Uber and Airbnb have changed things or how Google and Facebook run their offices. For example, some companies introduce sabbaticals, but they find that people go off to Nepal, realise, ‘Shit, what am I doing with my life?’ And then come back and quit. Because nothing about the actual work environment had changed.