From MoMA to Etsy: Interview with Julia Hoffmann

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Julia Hoffmann moved from Germany to New York, then back to Germany, now to Switzerland. For the former Sr. Creative Director at Etsy and former Creative Director at MoMA, her moves were mostly inspired by certain jobs she laid eyes on combined with life situations (like wanting to reunite with the love of her life, giving birth to a child, or raising a family). As the Executive Creative Director for EF’s Central Creative Studio, she now faces new and exciting challenges in her life.

I had the opportunity to chat with her about moving, languages, leading a brand as a creative woman as well as design trends and changes in the industry.

Your new career was accompanied by moving to a new country. It is courageous and admirable to move to another country for a job. Where do you get that courage and motivation from?
“Simply fear. Fear of settling and becoming too comfortable for a change. Fear of not being relevant anymore. Fear of not developing further, not learning anything new and stagnating. Being at one job for 5 years seems to be my maximum for those reasons – I need that change and want something exciting where I can evolve as a creative and a human being. I loved all of my previous jobs a lot and had to pull myself away from them to force myself to make new experiences. Obviously, this is becoming harder and harder since a family is now involved.

When you started your career, it was important to be knowledgeable in printing and production methods. That has massively changed in recent years. How does digitization help today’s design, what do you think are disadvantages?
“Yes, there has been a lot of change in the industry. Obviously, our tools have developed dramatically and the medium we design for didn’t really exist before. Back when I started, it took days, even weeks to prepare a presentation which often was physical, including actual prototypes. Now it is a matter of hours, to plop your ideas into a template, do some renderings and create a compelling presentation. One person theoretically could do anything – from concept to the design, making print files – but something got lost in that process: when making things by hand, like printing your ideas and testing them (for offline projects), serendipitous mistakes can happen which can lead to different ideas because you literally look at it from another angle, you designed and made a prototype at the same time, which saved you time afterwards, because you tested them before you presented them. We also focused on fewer things (because it took so damn long to comp them up). I noticed that young designers have a hard time editing their work, which is understandable when you can create volumes of work in such a short time you must be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, choices and endless possibilities.

You have been working in leadership positions since your early career – was this more difficult, especially as a woman, and do you think that young, aspiring designers have it a little easier today than they had it 10 years ago?
“My first leadership role was when I went to MoMA and it was a challenge. When I first moved to the US I always felt a little older than my peers, I felt more mature. But when I got to MoMA I suddenly was one of the younger ones. The average age at the museum is a bit older than in design studios or agencies. Especially as it is such an established institution, being older would have given me maybe more authority – so I had to step up and prove myself through my work.

I never had issues being a “female” leader – since I had strong female bosses and was trained by amazing women – I learned from Paula Scher, so I learned from the best! In terms of being a woman in a higher position, well the C-suites of the places I worked at were always very male-driven until I got to Etsy. I never saw it as a real disadvantage being a woman rather as an opportunity to fight and represent. (I guess growing up with 3 brothers as the only girl gave me a competitive advantage here).

Being young and a leader is a different topic. To be a great and amazing designer, age doesn’t matter, but to lead well, age and experience will help you a lot, and that cannot come from hard work alone, but from working in different environments for a few years. Working and learning from different people. After all, you are responsible for the business and for people. You are not necessarily born as a leader nor is it a talent, you gain it simply through experiences. Reading a book about leadership will only get you halfway there. That’s not something you sign up for in Art School. When I was given the opportunity to lead a large team at MoMA, I had to dive into the cold water and practice on the job. I took it probably way too seriously, but I was very motivated and dedicated to become a spokesperson for that team and make sure that design was always been taken seriously in the senior ranks.

But what did help me most later, was being a parent! As a mother of three, I learned how to deal with crisis and drama!” (laughs)

Julia Hoffmann

EF was founded back in the 60s, the logo was designed by Paul Rand – what do you think, how much influence you as the new creative director will have on the brand and what are your plans?
“We just did a brand refresh – I only got there during the very last phase of it, a month before the launch. The logo won’t change and overall it is too early to say how we are going to implement the changes globally. I very much respect Paul Rand’s design and feel like we could have a lot of fun with the logo as it is. It was treated wrong in the past, usually pushed into a corner, small – that’s why it might look so corporate. There is always someone who doesn’t like the logo but the logo is not the brand. We need to embrace it and work with it, revise how we are using and applying it.

At MoMA, for example, we flipped the logo on its side, made it really big so it became graphic shapes, it became a useful tool for us to play around, it anchored every page and artwork. At Etsy, we kind of ignored the logo, which is rather a wordmark. We designed around it. It wasn’t as important as the entire product experience was. There are so many fun ways to design with a logo, which then becomes the identity.”

As a German in New York, you spoke and studied in English. How do you think language influences design and art? And, what language do you design when you design concepts in your head?
Language had a huge influence on me and my career, that’s why I was so drawn to the job at EF. I love being put in situations that challenge me because that’s when you are most you. I speak two languages fluently and it’s almost that there are two different people in me because I am not bilingual from birth. I learned English as a young adult. My children are raised in three languages, I often wonder what their experiences will be like when they grow up, and how that will influence them

Now at EF, language, travel, and teaching is the core business of the company, it is about breaking borders and creating empathy. Language can carry a culture and these values speak to me.

Growing up, I was terrible at languages, whether it was my native German or English, I was truly clumsy expressing myself with words. But with design I was finally able to express ideas that I had no words for, people would understand those ideas without me having to explain it to them. That was a very satisfying feeling, that gave me a power that I had always missed. Design and art are forms of communication and they can go deeper than words, you can communicate on all levels.

When designing, through all my jobs I design in English. It is hard to design in German, the language still feels quite formal too me, and the words are too long which for example makes poster design hard. In English, you can be more snappy with shorter words. It’s also a cultural thing – Germans need it a bit toned down, in the US you can be more casual and louder with your design.

I personally design my concepts in English, as this is the language that I learned my craft, my colleagues were always English speaking. Funnily, for some design terms, I don’t even know the German word.

Which trend in the design world has impressed you most in the last 5 years or, how do you think the scene has changed – especially since everything is becoming more and more digital?
“What fascinates me most about trends, in general, is, that it tells you a lot about where we are as people. You can feel the general mood of what people are feeling. There is a correlation between trends in design and what is going on in the world.

But I can also tell you which trends have annoyed me the most in the past years. Firstly, the “start-up design” – all of these pastel, ice-creamy colors and sans serif brands, which made all the companies end up looking the same. This plus AB testing made those new companies look very similar to each other because their users often overlap. Another hypothesis of mine is that there are a lot of product designers that are in charge now, but they are not the best brand designer. They are good at product design and testing it, they don’t spend much time on a logo or long-lasting brand elements because it is not instantly measurable,

It seems like a lot of startups have the same data and use the same design templates, which kind of makes sense when you are starting out. Maybe I am old school but the design should be appropriate to the subject and it needs to be timeless. You don’t want to redesign your brand every 2 years. A good design should last 3 – 7 years

How important is it for individual designers but also for brands to deal with social media?
“It’s very important and it is a great, affordable way to get the word out about you and your work or your brand and product. These days it is almost better than a website (that you never get to update) as it is very instant and immediate.”

You started the Berlin chapter of “Ladies, Wine & Design”? What brought you to it, and will you do it again in Lucerne?
“Yes, and to be honest mostly out of selfish reasons. I was new to the city and wanted to meet people and get more designers into the Etsy office to simply network and get to know the design scene of the city. In Germany, there were not many of these networking opportunities like they have them in New York, so when Jessica Walsh started this initiative in New York and asked for local chapters around the world I jumped on to the opportunity.

I might want to start one here in Luzern, but there is a chapter in Zürich which is close by, and I should probably take it easy for a while, I only moved here a few months ago. But Ladies, Wine & Design is a great way for female designers to meet and connect.

What and how do you inspire yourself?
“To be honest, I always dread this question because I never have an inspiring answer to this. As an advice I would say, not to look in the expected places, do something completely different, challenge yourself. Or be simple, and go to a cafe with only your notebooks – leave your phone at home, it’s such an inspiration killer.“

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