Books and football

We asked the Košice designer, founder of Midfield studio and Eastern Design conference about his relationship with football, books, Košice and design; what it is like to do branding for cultural centres and a football stadium, and to help bring together top designers from the Carpathian region.

Where are we and why are we here?

We’re at Košická futbalová aréna, a football stadium in Košice, the construction of which started in 2017 – two years before I joined the project. I was approached by the city of Košice to help with the first graphic works and visualisations. As I’ve loved football since I was a kid, I got quite immersed in this work. I’ve been practically living in the stadium for two years now and I’m trying to cover every detail that concerns signage and navigation.

Is this a dream job for you?

Basically, yes. I like Košice, I like football, and I am glad that football is coming back to Košice, because there was a dark period here for quite a long time. Now a new club is starting to play in a very impressive stadium and I see it very positively. I’m getting my coaching licence now, so maybe I’ll train here one day (laughs).

What kind of things did you do at the stadium?

I created the information and navigation system in cooperation with Viki Mravčáková, who helped me a lot. I also worked on the branding and visual identity of the whole stadium. It is a very specific job, as the stadium belongs to the city of Košice – not to a private investor or to the football club itself – which makes it different from all the bigger stadiums in Slovakia. A very important element of the visual identity and communication is the font, which we have created with Ondrej Jób. This serves as a key tool in the implementation of the entire visual identity. Since it is a font, it can be quickly reproduced by anyone so allows for very fast results. The biggest challenge, both technically and psychologically, was to label all the rooms – the doors and keys. There are about 300 of them in the stadium and they include various technical doors, sliding doors, double doors and so on. It involved endless planning, most of which I owe to Viki, not to mention the actual implementation. To mark all the doors twice – that is, from each side – is quite a feat for an advertising agency. In terms of practical marking, my biggest achievement is that I managed to convince the security engineer to use a yellow and black fire evacuation plan (laughs), because white would have looked pretty unattractive on a yellow wall.

In the designs I have also included the symbol of hearts, with which I try to subliminally influence the fans to behave politely and respectfully at the stadium. I think that Slovak football needs this kind of education like chips need salt.

What are the reactions of the players and the club?

I think the players are very excited because the conditions here are on a European level. The only negative feedback I’ve seen so far is from the FC Košice fan club. Although it was not my decision, I know that the fans had reservations about the colour of the seats in the stands, as in their opinion they should be yellow and blue like the club colours. But there is a reason why the seats are not yellow and blue, as it was not known when the construction started which club would play here.

FC Košice are yellow and blue, Lokomotíva Košice are blue and white. In the end the seats have a very neutral shade of grey which I think is a good compromise. We try to balance the greyness in the marking and branding with yellow, which is one of the colours of the city but also of the club and it creates a strong contrast.

The stadium has already hosted the entire FC Košice season this year. We won the second league and were promoted to the first league. The stadium also hosts a European competition in which FC Dnipro plays, one of the best teams in Ukraine. Since they couldn’t play at home for obvious reasons, they looked for stadiums in neighbouring countries and the KFA eventually became their home ground. At the moment they have a great chance to finish second in the Ukrainian league, so it is possible that the Champions League will be played at this stadium next year.

What was the most interesting aspect of the branding of the football stadium?

The most interesting thing was definitely the link to the architecture and the link to people’s real experience. When designing an information system, it is important to take into account that the people who will be using it are here in the evening and at night so visibility can vary. There could be fog, rain or other challenging conditions, and we had to think about it all while designing the fonts, colours and the contrast of the colours. I greatly enjoyed this aspect of the work because it was connected to the real world. The capacity of the stadium at the moment is 5,500 people, but when it’s finished it will be 12,500. We also successfully passed the UEFA Commissioner’s safety test – for which the stadium had to be emptied in a few minutes – which was a big relief and a great test of our work.

Will there be anything happening besides football?

I have a lot of respect for the approach of the stadium manager. Peter Schmiedl is a very energetic enthusiast, who uses this space and especially the area of the main building for various conferences and training events. I think there was the first wedding here two weeks ago, and soon a restaurant is going to open within the premises. It’s a very lively space. The playing field, as far as I know, is not adapted for concerts or events, but the stadium building offers various possibilities for different functions.

How did you find working with the bare building of the stadium?

Most often we collaborated with interior designers Mira and Peter Maukš from Maukš studio. We also had separate consultations with them on how to link interior design with the proposed graphic design. In some of the rooms, we matched my decor with the wood panelling and interior design, where one thing was essentially created on the basis of another. Also, all ads have to go through me which is the deal agreed with the stadium. We worked out the logistics of the stadium together with Viki and, when we got here, there was basically just a bare construction. The stadium is a slightly smaller copy of the stadium in Dunajská Streda. Before I started, I went on tours in Bratislava, Trnava and Senec to get inspiration on what works well and what doesn’t. The stadium will be completed in April 2024. I have great respect for Marcel Gibóda, who repeatedly showed his great interest in this project; for example in the first stage of construction, when it was not planned at all, he was instrumental in ensuring that the foundations for the additional stands were built, and there are many other details for which he deserves praise.

What does the Eastern Design conference mean to you?

The idea to create a conference came about when I was as a novice designer attending various events of this type and I slowly got tired of looking at the world’s top designers and megalomaniac commissions, which did not help me as a new designer in Slovakia. I could take inspiration from them, but in practical terms they didn’t lead me anywhere. I was missing an event that would talk about our region and that would interconnect local designers. In 2018, Ľuboš Bišto and I organised the first conference that focused on Central and Eastern Europe and designers from that environment and, more importantly, from that context. We are now preparing the fourth edition, which will take place on 6 and 7 October in Tabačka Kulturfabrik.

The event has already found its audience and has profiled itself in such a way that, in addition to focusing on more local speakers, it is also thematically very diverse. It’s not just about graphic design and typography but we also feature artists and musicians, whose creative process is often much more rewarding for designers than that of their fellow professionals. We are also very pleased when our conference moves people forward. Here I can for example mention Martina Pauková, a Slovak illustrator who has been living abroad for a long time, currently in Berlin. She has worked with many big brands from Google and Apple to the New Yorker, but she was not well known in Slovakia. In 2019, we invited her to speak at the conference, which probably served its purpose: soon I saw her in Forbes magazine, she launched her collaboration with Mikina Dimunová, and in general stirred up the waters. Stories like this are, for me, a measure of how the conference is fulfilling its goals.

Is there something this year that we just have to see?

Among the confirmed speakers we have names like Mikina Dimunová, who is probably the most famous Slovak designer. The legend of Czech design Aleš Najbrt is also confirmed, as is the most famous Polish illustrator Ola Niepsuj. But there are 2 days and 14 speakers so there will be a lot to enjoy.

What about Ukraine?

We invited designers from Ukraine for the first time in 2019. It was one of the most prominent studios, Banda Agency. It was a classic presentation about what they do and how they do it – I think it’s super high quality work. Last year we invited them again, but they had different team members participating who are working on the subject of war. Actually, no, I have to correct myself, they are more interested in the theme of pride.

As an agency they have transformed from commercial contracts to branding the country of Ukraine. And their key campaign is called BE BRAVE. It was very personable because the two people who came to talk suddenly from February 24, 2022 have to live in Berlin where they just came for a trip. After their talk we had our first standing ovation. It was very interesting when they talked about, among other things, how to cope with emotional pressure, which I personally can’t imagine.

At the moment it is a bit more difficult to find Ukrainian speakers because in the case of men, there is a rather complicated legislative process that regulates their travel. But even so, most of the creatives and young artists from Ukraine are scattered all over Europe. We try to make sure that we stay connected, because Ukraine is close to all of us in Košice.

What is the most important thing for you in design?

In general, I don’t see design as a fine art but as a service. Coincidentally, I also have a Bachelor’s Degree in Free Fine Art and I like to bring that approach to my work. I think it’s appreciated in more pragmatic commissions as well. Overall, design is a service through which I try to help. The Midfield studio I founded has the headline: We pass the ball, the client scores the goal, and that’s what it should be about! Graphic design is about passing the ball, not slotting it in the net. So, for example, it’s not about winning prizes at any cost. You can probably feel that at the conference we’re organising with Ľuboš Bišto, which we discussed earlier. From the beginning we have had the idea that we are organising the kind of conference that we ourselves would like to go to, so it is also pro-client oriented. I’ve tried many things in design and I know what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. Something I want to do is, for example, branding and book design. But when it comes to design, I have a certain moral compass. A friend of mine doesn’t drink alcohol and he confided in me that he would never do branding for any company that makes alcohol, and I like that a lot. I still try to retain the view that I’m using my craft to help the client to do something, and if it doesn’t fit with my worldview, I certainly wouldn’t do it. For example, I wouldn’t do design work for a political campaign anymore. It makes me happy when my design helps the client, because frequently it’s the other way around and it makes the client’s job harder. The designers want to keep it their way and the client gets a headache. In the end they receive a fluffed up identity and they don’t know what to do with it because they can’t even do an electronic signature in an email.

Why do you enjoy designing books?

Books have been my favourite medium since I began working with them. It has nothing to do with being an avid reader. Like most keen footballers, I didn’t use to read many books. But while designing them, I enjoy the materialisation of the work of many people and also the historical aspect of the medium, which survives against all odds. I enjoy helping to share good stories. It’s such a romance. You can hold the book, smell it, or even destroy it, but it’s still a real object. I’m much more inclined to this kind of offline design than digital outputs. I’ve been working with Absynt Publishing for about five years now, it’s been a lovely collaboration and I hope it endures. The work on the book of Lyrik H has been interesting as well. I enjoyed it a lot because I’ve been listening to rap since I was a kid, even to Lyrik. The commission from the publisher was very clear and the design was quickly transformed into the first draft. Good material is a joy to work with. The lyrics were strong, it had an interesting context, as Lyrik had created alter egos to which Miro Nôta later added photographs. These, in turn, could be nicely paired with the lyrics. So a pretty easy job.

You mentioned in one of your interviews that community is important to you, whether it’s a community of designers or artists. Why?

Slovakia is small, but we can be fractured. This applies to all communities whether it is football, design or culture. This is also one of the things that Eastern Design is trying to hack. The fact that there are designers in Bratislava and designers in Košice and we don’t know each other at all seems like science fiction to me. And what’s worse, it’s a terrible shame. I have learned a lot from my professional contacts and I know that it can work nicely when there is a space for them. I just want to talk about our work and also get critical perspectives from people who are relevant in it. In addition to Eastern Design, the National Design Awards are helping to build that community and they’ve started doing it really well in the last few years, which I’m really excited about.

How do you evaluate the artistic community in Košice?

I very much appreciate the work of the local theatre Divadlo na Peróne. Apart from the fact that we have become close friends over the years, I also greatly enjoy each of their performances. I especially admire how they use their art and craft to take the culture of Košice to a completely different level. After having seen the performance of Dievča z morského dna (The Girl from the Bottom of the Sea), I have the feeling that this is a world-class production and I am glad that I could have helped them to achieve this. In the past I also worked for Tabačka and I still work for Kino Úsmev which was actually one of my first clients. The artistic community in Košice is one of the better aspects of the city. It’s one of the things I’ve seen functioning since I was in school. I don’t know if it’s the size of Košice, or if it’s the historical fact that different communities and minorities have mixed here, nobody has a problem with anybody – so to speak. But I think that this tolerance has also created a mycelium in which people are more kind to each other, more southern. I see it happening in the art community as well, there are no conflicts. Collaborations like Kino Úsmev and Tabačka Kulturfabrik, who can share a cinema hall together, are a very special thing. We see it as normal but it’s quite unique.

Do you have any other designer dreams?

I would love to do the branding of a football club and if it was FC Barcelona that would be a bonus (laughs).

Invisible Mag is supported using public funding by Slovak Arts Council. The Slovak Arts Council is the main partner of the project.

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