You’ve heard the argument countless times: youth or experience? Youth, of course, embodies fresh thinking, new ideas, willingness to take risks. Experience on the other hand means knowledge, proficiency, and a honed ability to project outcomes accurately.
Twenty-seven year old Munich, Germany-based design firm Schmidhuber + Partner doesn’t view this equation as an either/or proposition. The best design firms deliver on all of the above attributes—and Schmidhuber + Partner strives for nothing less than to play among the elite.
The firm’s strategy has always worked. Originally founded in 1984 by Professor Klaus Schmidhuber and his daughter Suzanne, the firm leveraged its multi-generational combination of youth and experience to build a roster of international power-brands that includes Samsung, Audi, O2, Grohe and Lamborghini. But 20-plus years is a long time to keep the momentum going. So when Klaus Schmidhuber neared retirement, the firm decided that the departure of its original leader was also an opportunity. It was time to reinvigorate the experience design firm with an injection of new blood.
Enter Lennart Wiechell and Michael Ostertag-Henning, who joined Suzanne Schmidhuber and other managing partners Siegfried Kaindl and Gerda Pilz at the helm of the company about three years ago. “Michael and I are the third generation of the company,” says Weichell.
Wiechell says that bringing himself and Ostertag-Henning into the fold was highly strategic in keeping the firm’s tradition of innovation going. “Often as designers age, they have fewer big ideas. Sometimes people with too much experience are afraid to try new things. When that happens, the work suffers,” he says. He also feels that pairing his youth with Schmidhuber’s experience has given him an extraordinary opportunity. “Before I joined (Schmidhuber + Partner), I worked with friends from university. I had big dreams but no opportunity to fulfill them,” says Wiechell.
The reinsertion of Schmidhuber’s original formula has worked, fully re-energizing the company and its work. The Schmidhuber + Partner team, roughly 60 employees versed in the various facets of brand environments, has landed some of the most high-profile projects on the planet—including the architecture for the German Pavilion at World EXPO in Shanghai.
In addition to refreshing its leadership team, Schmidhuber + Partner followed up its injection of new blood by updating its tools and procedures. On the procedural side, the managing partners improved quality management and formalized the organization of the company. They refined their design and project management process—and created a clear outline of how projects come to fruition. At the same time, the structure allows the design teams to be flexible, with members moving in and out of projects as their specialties demand.
On the tool side, the firm implemented an across-the-board upgrade. Everyone has smartphones and laptops that enable them to communicate with the Internet and the office all the time. Wiechell says this has made everyone more efficient. Process and procedure are clear, everyone understands exactly what is expected of them.
Schmidhuber + Partner also goes to great efforts to keep its team inspired. “The atmosphere in the office is important for success,” says Wiechell. He and his partners constantly look for opportunities for the team to exercise their creative imagination. Within the office there are seminars and workshops that cover subjects ranging from design trends to computer design. There are trips to other cities to see architecture and other projects.
A key ongoing objective is to make sure the team doesn’t settle into any consistent design style. “It’s important that we keep our design language diverse—not just curves or squares,” says Wiechell. Every client is different. Whether you pick a square or an angle or a curve—and even what angle or curve you choose—should express the dynamics of the client company, not of your own design firm.
For additional bonding, Schmidhuber hosts barbecue parties where the team members kick back and enjoy a little down time together. Play is important too, says Wiechell.
As managing partners of the firm, Wiechell and Ostertang-Henning play key roles in the design development process. “We work directly with the team the whole day,” says Wiechell. There are lots of meetings, time spent designing in groups, and tons of reviews.
Their process is not atypical, just more comprehensive and intense than that of many other design firms—as is necessary for huge-scale projects. For instance, Schmidhuber + Partner’s approach to its initial conversation with the client. “We try to talk for as long as possible to understand his company, his business, his brand,” says Wiechell. This really deep understanding helps define the special attributes of a brand—the intangibles—such as look, feel, what makes a good visual and experiential representation, which end up being vitally important in expressing the emotion behind a brand.
For most projects, the team comes up with a variety of preliminary solutions—three, four, sometimes as many as 10. They then get together in a big group and discuss everything from as many perspectives as possible. “Everyone expresses themselves. Through the [discussion] we find another idea and explore that one, too,” says Wiechell.
While many design firms don’t call their clients in until they have a final presentation, Schmidhuber + Partner likes to bring its clients in early and invites them to participate in design development. “We try to involve the client in the process,” says Wiechell. Ideally, the client participates in design discussions and reviews. They add their own suggestions and provide feedback, resulting in the client having a much greater sense of ownership in the design, says Wiechell.
When Wiechell talks about the thinking and relationships that drive his firm’s designs—he refers to “the building behind the building.” “Sometimes the context and relationship [driving a project] are more interesting than the building itself,” he says.
For the German Pavilion at EXPO 2010 in Shanghai, the “building behind the building” had many facets—almost as many as comprise the angular façade of the physical structure. The primary challenge was message. How do you explain Germany to a predominantly Chinese but also international audience? Germany is a high-tech country, but it’s also a people in love with culture, art and landscape. “It was our job to articulate both the poetics and high technology,” says Wiechell.
Next came the needs of the agency behind the design of the exhibition inside the structure. Spatial needs, technical requirements and the like all needed to be accommodated in the design.
And because this experience was a guided exhibition, Schmidhuber had to focus closely on visitor flow—how to get people in, through, and out of the experience in an organized manner. This required that the experience be designed as a big channel that flowed people through the building in a single direction.
Finally, the preferences and typical behaviors of the audience were factored in. As lead architect, Wiechell personally spent weeks onsite experiencing local culture and observing people. One of the key observations was that in Shanghai, people try to stay out of the sun. Women carry parasols and people in general gravitate toward the shade. Wiechell says this led to the idea that on top of everything else, the pavilion should be a pleasant place to get out of the sun. An urban outdoor space that also functioned as a big sun shade.
As visitors experienced the angular structure faced in reflective solar panels they could be completely unaware of all of this backstory. They might experience the pavilion simply as a piece of high-tech art positioned over a grassy hill. They may not notice that the queue procession meanders beneath the shade of the building—or how well choreographed the experience is. But regardless of whether visitors were aware of these choices or why they were made, they all enhanced the overall experience of the space.
After the design is finalized, every requirement is fulfilled, and the client is satisfied, the Schmidhuber team moves on to detail and construction drawings. Its important that the architecture of the final environment convey a sense of quality that parallels that of the product and brand, says Wiechell. To this end, the team constantly looks for new materials and fabrication techniques that are quick and easy to build, but look substantial and well constructed.
On most projects Schmidhuber + Partner relies on internal resources that include lighting designers, graphic designers, theater specialists to develop each of those areas. But for huge projects like the German Pavilion for EXPO 2010 Shanghai —which took two years to complete—Schmidhuber teams with outside design specialists as diverse as animators, museum exhibition designers and technical engineers.
On large projects like the German Pavilion, Schmidhuber maintains a designer onsite throughout installation. This ensures that as the inevitable challenges arise and changes occur, there is always someone fully invested in the design strategy to steer the solutions.
Wiechell says there are also benefits to working internationally in that every culture reacts to and solves problems differently. “When your partner doesn’t react the way that you would, it opens your eyes to different ways of thinking,” he says.
So, youth or experience? Don’t even waste your time asking Schmidhuber + Partner. The answer is clear: Both, of course.