Everything in Harmony with Mike Giesser
The visual expressions emanating from communication design studio M.Giesser center on refinement, reduction, and simplicity. Mike Giesser, the studio’s owner and namesake, is intent on making things as simple as possible—distilling things down to their most essential elements.
It’s an approach that echoes the sentiment expressed by twentieth-century writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Giesser also recognizes this notion of “the essential” in his path to developing his craft and founding his practice. In his mind, his experiences form a domino chain that wouldn’t have fallen if any one of them were removed. Together we talk about designing a better world, learning to trust in your own approach, and how the moment we inhabit right now—personally and professionally—is a culmination of every experience we’ve had up to this point.
MG: I haven't spoken to anyone yet this morning. So I'm still getting my voice.
MW: Are you in Melbourne? It must be early for you.
MG: Yeah, I’m in Melbourne. I'm in this bad trend of continually getting up earlier and earlier. I'm averaging getting up at 4 a.m. at the moment.
MW: Oh my gosh. To start work? Or do you just enjoy taking the morning for yourself?
MG: It's probably just anxiety. I just can't sleep. But I've always been a relative morning person, so 5 a.m. was a typical start.
MW: Well, we promised no day-in-the-life questions. So no more about your day. What’s on your crewneck? What is this number?
MG: It's a graphic design studio in Belgium. I can never pronounce the guy’s name —Jurgen Maelfeyt or something like that. He does a lot of books. Some are borderline soft pornography, one called Wet and another called Fur. Apparently the company’s name comes from the song “Teenage Riot” by Sonic Youth. The running time of that song is 6 minutes and 56 seconds.
MW: That’s great. It’s interesting to think about the experience of other studios over the past year. Weirdly for us, not much has changed. How have things been for you?
MG: I’m in the same boat. And I feel bad saying it, especially to people who aren't in the industry. They're like, “It's been such a tough year.” And for me, very little has changed.
I was surprisingly busy last year. Things have actually slowed down a little bit this year in comparison. The only thing I struggled with was just not being able to unwind. There's nothing to do, so you may as well just get back to work. I never really stopped working.
MW: We’ve felt that too. Nothing else to do but work.
MG: Which can be great. Over my career, I've had periods that were more prolific than others—where I just cranked out a lot of stuff. I may not have done my best work last year, but I did do a lot.
MW: What about this music stuff you’ve been posting? I found some of your mixes and the covers you designed for them. Is this a side hobby?
MG: Yeah, music has always been a big part of my life. I started DJing—well, playing records with my friends—when I was about sixteen. That was all we used to do; go record shopping, play records, smoke weed.
I have a hard time doing nothing. With music, I'm still creatively engaged, but in a completely different way. My design work is intentionally unemotive, but I’m a pretty emotional guy and music is where I love to play with emotion. I'm doing what I call Emo House—melodic, melancholy, not stuff you'd hear at a club. You know, music for listening. Up until recently, I always had a fair commute to work, especially when I lived in Holland. I love curating the journey with music to accompany me. I never leave the house without my headphones.
MW: Are you working on these super early when you can’t sleep?
MG: It usually coincides with me doing some mindless design work like production stuff or typesetting. I’ll be making a mix in the background in Traktor while I'm designing.
MW: That's pro mode—making mixes and designing at the same time.
MG: It’s therapeutic for me. It keeps me sane during those times of intense production stuff that don’t require a lot of brain function.
MW: I find myself listening to that kind of music when I’m deep in that work too.
MG: Time can fly. Hours pass and you get so much done. Just tapping your foot and feeling a bit of a beat going through you.
MW: Totally. It’s interesting how different mediums convey emotion differently. You mentioned that your approach to graphic design is unemotive on purpose. Why?
MG: It's easy to get pulled into tugging at heartstrings in creative endeavours. And I've always struggled with that, especially on commercial projects. It’s that selling side of things that I struggle with, but it's hard to avoid in this industry because unfortunately, that’s often the function that graphic design is expected to serve. I guess I want people to make their own informed decisions without me using emotional ploys or tactics to persuade them. We let the advertising people do that.
MW: It can be hard to remove the personal emotion in client work, but I guess it’s necessary. At the end of the day, it's about them and their story, and helping them convey it visually.
MG: That's probably why I gravitate to more typographic expressions. As much as I love strong art direction and photography, I think those can often be mechanisms used to affect people and push them over the line. For me, type is more objective. It has to work harder to entice people. I like that challenge.
MW: I agree. You’ve been doing your own thing for as long as I’ve followed you. Did you always want to work solo?
MG: I never really wanted to be doing my own thing. For a long time, I hoped that I would just end up in the right studio environment where I could grow as a designer, develop the directorial and managerial skills to guide other designers and clients, and to play a role in deciding which projects the studio took on. In hindsight, that was pretty optimistic. If anyone finds themselves in a situation like that, hold on for dear life. You’ve found the holy grail of employment.
MW: (Laughs) Noted. So what led to you starting a solo practice?
MG: This is one where you’ll have to stop me if I’m rambling on too much. I’ll try to keep it succinct, but to state the obvious, every opportunity I had to work in different studios taught me something, and I don't think I would be the designer I am today without any of those individual experiences.
The first job I landed out of college was with a company whose two directors and three staff members had virtually no formal design training. They were doing a real crazy mashup of print and digital projects for some surprisingly large clients like Microsoft, Apple, Disney, General Motors, the US Department of Defence and the Minnesota Department of Justice alongside some smaller furniture retailers—which started my love affair with Eames chairs. I spent 7 years there, which was frankly about 5 too many. But I did learn two incredibly valuable things:
1. How to make something with nothing
I encountered a whole raft of campaigns and editorial projects that had no assets and no budget. The lack of anything visual to use led me to use text as image. Anyone familiar with my work can probably imagine how fundamental this time in my career was to becoming such a type-obsessed designer. But beyond that, I learned to be resourceful.
2. It's not what you know, it's who you know.
Ultimately, the opportunities you find are largely determined by how much people like you. We were getting outrageous work with little experience and a below-average portfolio because people liked the two directors. They were both good talkers, gregarious, and genuinely likeable. And while I like to think that my own portfolio is responsible for establishing my practice and bringing me new opportunities, I've realized that referrals are everything. And you don't get referrals if you're a dick. Being a good person who's connected, who keeps their word, and who's enjoyable to work with will get you a lot further than simply being good at what you do.
MW: I think a lot of creatives are with you there, wanting the work to speak for itself. But that sounds like a really valuable first-job experience. When did you know it was time to leave?
MG: So, after 7 years of being thrown in the deep-end and under numerous proverbial busses, I left in a blaze of glory when the studio Christmas party turned ugly. One of the directors got nasty with one of my colleagues and I lost it. I grabbed my bag and jacket, gave that director the two finger salute, quit, and never turned up to work again.
MW: Wow. What’d you do next?
MG: There weren’t a heap of places in Toronto—or Canada for that matter—that I was interested in working with. I felt that if I wanted to develop as a designer, I needed to go somewhere else. So I started applying to work with studios in The Netherlands, London and Germany.
MW: I had a similar feeling in Chicago. There was something lacking that I sensed might be more easily found in places like New York, LA, or Europe. I had that similar itch to leave.
MG: The U.S. would have been another option, but I think the style of work that I was doing, even back then, made me better suited to Europe.
MW: It’s so apparent over there. Placards on the street. Posters on a bus stop—the way graphic design is implemented in all these everyday places—there seems to be a different philosophy about what it is and what it's for.
MG: 100 percent. And I think a lot of it can be attributed to the age of a place. It's about maturity. If you think about how long things like graphic design have existed as professions or trades, obviously they’ve existed in Europe for a lot longer. Just by the nature of how old these cities and countries are, they've reached a level of maturity that North America and Australia just haven’t. We will get there eventually, but we'll do it in our own way.
MW: No doubt about it, Europe rules. So you moved there?
MG: Well, nothing came of those applications immediately, but I did get a job with one of my dream studios in Toronto—Concrete. The one year I spent there was short and not always sweet, but it showed me what working in a “real” design studio was like. I learned many things about process that I still employ to this day—one being never present work that isn’t ready. It’s better to cancel a meeting the day before in order to make sure you’ve got enough conviction behind your ideas.
During that year, I got an email from Dietwee in Utrecht, one of the studios I applied with in The Netherlands. They offered me an interview and I got on the next plane. I called in sick and missed two days of work—I still feel awful about the lying. But I landed the role. Dietwee showed me the difference between graphic design and communication design, and while I think I probably always leaned towards the latter, it was my time here that formalized the approach that I’m known for today. I mean, it’s one of the most design-rich countries, so I was overloaded with inspiration all the time. I got exposed to how large the world outside of commercial graphic design is and my eyes were truly opened to the differences and positive social impact that design could make on the world around us. I’d been working in design for 10 years, but I reckon that was the point when I finally became excited about it.
MW: Speaking of impact, I was reading through a recent presentation of yours and you included this quote by Massimo Vignelli: “You do design because you feel it inside; you have a moral issue to spread quality in our environment.” Do you feel that weight and responsibility as a designer?
MG: Sometimes I include those quotes and I agree with like 80 or 90 percent of the sentiment, but not the whole thing. The funny thing with that one is it’s less about quality, because quality is a subjective term. Something that's high quality to one person might be garbage to another person. We see it on Instagram all the time.
But I do think there is a moral obligation. We should be working towards creating a better world. Even if that’s through small gestures. I think it’s about constantly chipping away at the status quo.
MW: What do you think that looks like from a design perspective?
MG: We need to be challenging conventions. Like questioning the all-important logo. Do we really need it? Branding is so much more than the logo, and every opportunity we have to try and convince clients of these things, we’re chipping away at old models and old ways of thinking. That's probably one of the most important things we can do as designers—change the things that are within our grasp. And hopefully, those ripple effects lead to bigger effects, and end up changing the world that we live in.
MW: It can be hard to find that line. Giving the client what they’re asking for, while still pushing the envelope.
MG: Well, things have to be appropriate. I'm not suggesting that designers go out of their way to do things that are inappropriate. Young designers often think, “This is a great opportunity for me to do that thing I saw.” They're already jumping to stylistic executions, running before they walk. And that’s often more about ego than making positive change. Our motivations get muddied by personal desires or things that we’re watching, and I get the impression that social media is making it worse. Designers are exposed to so many more wildly different things. It can almost be a bit dangerous, I think.
MW: Like, with so much input for young designers to consume, they may not necessarily be ready for it?
MG: 100 percent. That is so much of the graphic design that we see nowadays. It's a styling exercise, it's window dressing, you know, decoration. And all that stuff has its place, especially for brands that are representative of those things. There are shallow brands that need shallow design. It’s about authenticity. Things just need to be authentic. They need to be truly reflective of that business. If it's a boring business, it shouldn't be a super whiz-bang, exciting thing that makes people think, “Oh wow, these guys are really exciting,” but then you get down to it and you're like, “Wow, these guys are boring as fuck.” It's being honest—being authentic to what that client is.
MW: (Laughs) You’re so right, even if that means being boring. I love that you call that authenticity. So, Utrecht—am I saying that right? You were still there at this point?
MG: After 5 years in The Netherlands, the global financial crisis hit and things got tough, so I moved to Australia with my partner at the time where the economy seemed to not be sinking as fast as everywhere else. I ended up at Studio Round where I eventually became the design director. It was a wonderful place to work and I had the opportunity to put into practice everything I’d learned up to that point. It showed me that I could do what I did and be successful with it, which was frankly a huge learning. Understanding that my approach did have a place gave me tremendous confidence. That’s something I'm sure we all struggle with.
MG: In my last year at Round, I started taking on side projects for friends and friends of friends. I was lucky to have an entrepreneurial social circle full of people in need of branding help. Things eventually got to the point where I couldn’t juggle both, so I had to decide whether to stay or go. The studio was also shifting towards larger clients and projects and my ambitions to be involved with decision making around clients wasn’t really happening so, as hard as it was to leave such a great team of people, we were ultimately on different trajectories and I knew it was time to start my own practice. I knew this because I was already doing it.
Phew—sorry for the long-winded response. I guess my point is that what led me to start my own practice was cumulative. It was always guided by a desire to do good work for great people who want to make a difference, and to amass a wide variety of experience in order for me and my own practice to become as well-rounded as possible—pun intended. And if you took away any one of the experiences I had along the way, I’m not sure where I’d be today.
MW: That’s amazing. Really inspiring to hear how it all unfolded. We are only two years into MOUTHWASH as a studio and we’re still in the process of figuring things out—a major one being core values and beliefs. How do those play into your practice?
MG: To be honest, I hadn't really sat down and ironed that out for myself up until last year. When you’re working for yourself, and in my case, by myself, those things sort of just live in your head.
I tend to look at values from two different perspectives: There are values that influence your approach to your work, and then values that reflect who you are as a person and the experience that clients will have working with you.
So I've got three pairs of values that are very much about my approach to design. And then another three pairs of values that are more about the things that I believe and the types of clients that I want to be working with. It's helpful from a new business perspective, because I can use those things to gauge whether or not a client and I are aligned before we even start working together.
MW: Yeah. Are we a good fit for them? Are they a good fit for us? It has to be the right pairing.
MG: Yeah, fuck—I don’t know if there's ever a point where you totally figure that out. I know I haven't. As much as I try to let my values guide those decisions, I'm not necessarily in the financial position to say no to every prospect who's not totally in line with my values.
I have made some semi-firm decisions, though. And right now, that’s not working with any product-based brands. Most of the people I work for are in design services themselves. They’re architects and interior designers and while they are designing things that do end up being built, I’m not directly involved with that, which feels better for me at the moment. I may not be able to exist forever with that kind of stance on things, but it feels right for now.
MW: Working with other creative companies can be even more challenging. Trying to help execute creative vision for people who already understand what they believe creatively.
MG: It is. I used to think, if a client has a Pantone book, they're probably going to be a nightmare. But my business has primarily been with creative organizations and individuals, and I like the challenge. They understand process better than others, and fundamentally, you get into better conversations. If you're going to have arguments or dialogue about projects, it's nice when they're a little bit lofty or academic. I just found that working with design-focused brands was right for me. Because otherwise, you have to spend so much time educating them on the right way to do things.
MW: Definitely. Is there anything you're working on right now that you're particularly excited about?
MG: I always go blank when I get this question. Whenever I'm out at the bar or something and someone asks what I’m working on, I'm like, “Fuck.”
MW: I’m right there with you, I have to keep a running list so that I know how to answer.
MG: I'll open up my phone and check my email just to get an idea. I'm working with a really interesting landscape architect at the moment called Florian Wild, which is such a great name. They’re doing very different stuff from most other landscape architects, and they're just lovely people to work with. There’s a bunch of other brand identity projects coming up, one for a collective of urban designers here in Australia, another for an architectural visualization studio in London, and hopefully one for a young architectural practice in Mexico, which would be my first time working with a Mexican client. Those are exciting for me—working with more clients overseas is something I’ve been striving for.
MW: That's a great spread. Some studios in Mexico City are doing insane work. That’s really exciting. Is there anything new you’re hoping to learn or get into right now?
MG: The 3D or motion graphics type of work is something I've always been interested in. When I was still in school, a friend gave me a CD with all these applications on it. I was like, “After Effects...What's that?” I had no idea what it was even meant to do, but I saw that you could open up a PSD file and make it move with all those color dodges and crazy effects—it blew my mind. It’s one of the things that when I'm doing it, I never think about going for a cigarette or whatever. I just get so sucked into it. Virtually everything else I do, every hour on the hour, I get up, go have a vape and walk around. It’s kind of the only thing I can just get lost in. But it's also wildly complicated.
MW: I have such a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of a timeline and 3D space within design. It's really hard for me. Maybe I’m just making excuses to not try it.
MG: I think we have to, whether we're doing it for ourselves, or integrating it into our client work. Otherwise, it feels a bit like we’ll be left behind.