I designed my first cover for the German literary magazine Krachkultur in 2013 when its publisher, Martin Brinkmann, who coincidentally is also my literary agent, asked me to refresh the magazine’s image.
I took the task at heart because apart from a good agent, Martin is also a good client. Normally, when someone asks you to rebrand an important project, they send you a barrage of instructions: favorite colors, various (indispensable) ideas their family and friends came up with, etc. In my career as a graphic designer I’ve met plenty of people who treated me as a photocopier (which is a word that proves I’m as old as I claim to be). Under the strain of such misplaced priorities, the results are often disastrous. However, the request about Krachkultur was brief and simple. I just had to create something fresh.
There was something about the name of the magazine that really struck a chord. German is a remarkable language. It allows you to stack words together and craft composites whose meaning often transcends the sum of their parts. Krachkultur is such an example. The approximate English translation is crash culture, but that doesn’t do it justice neither graphically, nor phonetically. Latin-influenced languages use C to represent the voiceless velar plosive. Its pronunciation sharply contrasts with its uninterrupted, elliptical shape. Most of the other European languages use a far more suitable letter—K.
The German K is also aspirated—there’s a bit more oomph to it. To produce it, you have to raise the back of your tongue a bit higher and force a some extra air through the gap where it meets your palate. This phonetic richness is not always noticeable for non-native speakers. I still remember my German teacher staring disapprovingly at me with her teutonic blue eyes, forcing me to repeat the word Katze.
“I don’t understand you,” she insisted. “I don’t know what Gatze means?”
My sixteen-year-old self thought she was being a bitch, because she didn’t back off until I almost choked myself, trying to imitate her.
By the way, cruel as it sounds, my adult self fully embraces didactic torture. This derided aspect of the communist educational system occasionally produced excellent results. I have completely forgotten my teacher’s name, but her judging blue eyes are still haunting me. It won’t be a stretch to say that without them, Krachkultur won’t look nearly as sexy.
Apart from forceful and gritty, German can sound delightfully tender, especially when it comes to word endings. If the final syllable of Kultur doesn’t tickle your ears like a feather, you’re a cold hearted monster.
Harmony vs Conflict
There’s a particularly annoying cliche that links inspiration with peace and harmony. Most people think writers come up with their best ideas as they sip orange juice and watch the sunset.
Actually, inspiration thrives on conflict. Its fuel is contradiction. If the magazine was called Amazing Stories, I would have scribbled something superficially elegant and never written an article about it. But when I picture Krachkultur in my mind, I’m instinctively torn between its Wagneresque beginning and Shilleresque ending. I never asked Martin if he intended it this way. Perhaps the contrast exist only in my head. I might be overthinking to the point of absurdity. But isn’t that what branding is all about? You have to create a story around a bare symbol. You have to inject meaning in it, even if it’s not meant to be directly communicated to the public. Logos are like eyes. They can’t speak on their own, but you’ll get a sense of their owner’s character if you look straight in.
Nothing spells conflict better than committing a sin. The first rule of logo design says Thou shalt not mix serif and sans-serif typefaces! Designers who do that are destined to rot in Hell for all eternity, so I decided to burn all my bridges to Heaven. As sulfurous clouds engulfed my Designer Castle, I stacked Open Sans and Garamond together. Menacing laughter echoed in the dark corridors and the Krachkultur logo was born.
It was a night I shall always remember.