Studio Najbrt setting standard for graphic design in Czech Republic

12-02-2009

The trailer for the 2007 Karlovy Vary Film Festival is a highly kinetic and graphic introduction told through various typefaces. It was also the first – and so far the last – break with the festival’s traditional practice of using directed pieces with actors. The ad is exemplified by several things at once: immaculate decorum, for one – it is about film and nothing but film. Hyper-minimalism for another: the entire video uses exactly five words: “Karlovy”, “Vary”, “International”, “Film”, “Festival”. And last, symbolism and sound effects that convey immediately recognisable meaning.

I remember how impressed I was that the absolute lowest common denominator between ad and product could be so perfectly effective. That is, until I saw more of the work of its craftsmen. Like when you read a new word and then hear it everywhere, once I learned the name “Studio Najbrt” I realised we are surrounded by their work. In addition to providing the face for the Karlovy Vary festival for the last 13 years, their work stares out of a myriad of books, magazine and CD covers. The studio is even responsible for the logos for entire cities, in this case Prague and Ostrava. As the studio’s monograph, Life Happiness Surprise, states, “The Czech graphic design studio Najbrt has carved out an extraordinary spot in its home market: total ubiquity.”

For more insight into Studio Najbrt, I caught up with designers Petr Štěpán and Mikuláš Macháček, the creator of the Karlovy Vary trailer. They told me more about the studio and the design process.

“We are a quite midsized graphic design studio from Prague, at the moment we have 13 people. The studio was founded by two guys, Aleš Najbrt and Pavel Lev, in 1994. We mainly do cultural projects, corporate identity design for Czech companies, for example the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is maybe quite well known as a cultural event here, and we make books, some trailers and graphic design activities”

These activities have brought the company high acclaim in the form of two Czech Grand Design awards, four Czech Lions, an Anděl (or Angel) award from the Academy of Pop Music and an honourable mention in the World’s Best Book Design contest, to name just a few. Behind their success is a consistent strategy – one that can be summed up as decorum and simplicity. Petr Štěpán and Mikuláš Macháček again:

“We are always trying to do things in a way that is easy to understand, maybe sometimes funny, to illustrate the topic in the most effective or simple way for the viewer to understand.”

“A lot of our work is based on typography and really strong, simple colours that give an easy understanding of the way we think about the project.”

And so how do you know when you’re on the right track and when are you finally “happy” with a job? It seems you could play around with a single image endlessly, especially when the technological possibilities are so limitless so... at what point in the process of working with an image do you finally say, that’s it, it’s done, that’s what we were looking for?

“That’s when you can see you cannot take anything out of it and you have nothing to add - when the viewer can clearly see what you meant. Then in that way the project is done.”

Perhaps the best example of this is the company’s new logo for the city of Ostrava: three bold, blue exclamation points. To quote the author, Aleš Najbrt, the idea is “to express the energy, self confidence and the kind of swagger and humour that is typical of Ostravites.” The blue is taken from the city’s heraldry, and the exclamation points can be used independently as a symbol, or preceded by useful words, like, Ostrava!!!, I Love You!!!, or Hi There!!! The minimalism is an open invitation – or baited hook – for the viewer to complete the eye-catcher with their own imagination or experience.

“The easiest way to do things is when the client tells you what he wants. And that’s a very important beginning – many clients don’t know what they want. They want a change, something very colourful or playful, but they don’t know what and you have to get it out of them. Maybe you can say the client makes the logotype or the idea for the project, that’s the important thing. And then when you get this, when you get the topic and he tells you what it should be, then you have to take a very close look at the content and try to make it interesting or effective in some way. It depends on the topic, and maybe that’s something interesting about the work – that you go very deeply into the different themes of the work. When you create a logotype for a bakery or an automotive factory, it’s very different, and you have to do both things with the same intensity.”

The modern world is a finicky place, where style and popular tastes change very rapidly, what’s avant-garde and fresh one day might very well become passé the next. How does the studio keep up - how do they stay on top of their game.

“We don’t look much at styles. I think people mostly don’t know what they want to see. We show them something and we see if they like it or not.”

“We want to say through our work that ‘this is the style now, this is the fashion’. So we hope that people want to look at it and understand it.”

12-02-2009