Ten questions for... Benji Wiedemann

Ahead of taking to the WEDF stage, we ask our speakers ten questions. This time it’s Benji Wiedemann from Wiedemann Lampe — below he shares a fantastic insight into his career path, influences and favourite projects. We’re even more excited for their talk now!

1. What was the Eureka moment that made you become a designer?

The moment I realised that being a designer didn’t necessarily mean I had to work in advertising. This Eureka moment most likely happened when I first picked up an Alan Fletcher book in the Uni library.

What was the first thing you ever designed?

I was raised in a very creative environment. My parents would take me to loads of exhibitions which always had a huge impact on me. I started making papier mache sculptures after seeing Niki de Saint Phalle’s work, smear paint all over the place after Pollock, weld scraps of metal together after Picasso. But all these were more creative expressions rather than design. One day during an art class at school we were asked to come up with a logo. I chose to create one for a fictional record label which I called Mr Scruff’. I was into my wonky electronics in those days, still am actually. I’d say this was the very first thing I ever (graphic) designed.

Where did you study and who taught you?

At the Arts Institute, Bournemouth. Before studying I worked as a Junior Art Director in a London advertising agency — both Creative Directors had studied there and recommended it to me. I was taught by a rather eccentric tutor called Roger Gould.

4. Design heroes? Who influenced you in those early days? And who influences you now?

Early days: when I was a teenager I was obsessed with the Norwegian psychedelic rock band Motorpsycho (named after the Ross Myers movie). Every spring a new album would hit the shelves and I would be the first in line to get my hands on their 180gm vinyl special edition. On the bus home I would soak up every tiniest detail of the artwork before drowning myself in the sound. For me it was a hugely meaningful experience of how the sound and vision would become one. The designer for all the artwork was Kim Hiorthøy: he’s one of those annoying people who could turn their hand to anything — music, film, illustration — and it would be amazing. I was (and still am) a huge fan of his work. Being German and extremely logical in my approach, I marvel at work that feels intuitive, visceral and above all completely effortless.

Now: people like Dr Donny George Youkhanna, Nadia Kaabi-Linke and Alejandro Aravena. Why? You’ll find out on 28th November!

Artwork by Kim Hiorthøy

5. Where was your first creative job? What did you learn?

I grew up in my dad’s advertising agency, helping out during school holidays. I learned how to build shelves, empty bins, scan, photocopy, paint walls… you name it.

Being the descendent of a German-Jewish family I was exempt from National and Civil service after my A‑levels. I took the year to go to London and got an internship for a month in an advertising agency. Due to my previous experience I helped out wherever I could, running around doing odd jobs for everyone. As a thank you the teams would start feeding me bits and pieces of real projects. Soon I was so deeply into several projects that they couldn’t extract me anymore, so I stayed. Seems like my dad Mr Miyagi-ed me.

What’s your favourite piece of work you’ve created? And what’s your favourite piece of work someone else created?

My favourite piece of work: every project I have recently completed or am currently working on should be my favourite piece of work. You can apply everything that you have ever learned whilst learning a huge deal more. This project is also your most important new business tool that you have.

We recently completed the design for the first Riga Biennial which has been a huge learning curve for us all individually and as a studio. It is also possibly one of the most complex projects we have undertaken. The whole studio worked on different components and it came together as a really beautifully joined up experience. But we’ll tell you more when we see you…

Work for the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art

Someone else’s favourite piece of work: responses grown out of catastrophic events, where creative thinking becomes a form of social justice and design takes on an unexpected form.

Take earthquakes for example. Massimo Bottura’s recipe for Risotto Cacio E Pepe saved the Parmigano Reggiano factories from bankruptcy. After being hit by a major earthquake in Modena, 36,000 big wheels of parmigano were damaged. Through the global distribution of his recipe, Massimo helped sell all stock. No one lost their job. No cheese maker closed their door.

Or, after Chile was hit by an earthquake magnitude of 8.8, (killing 500 people and destroying 80% of the buildings in the city) architect Alejandro Aravena was appointed to develop a housing scheme. He needed to create a design that could be built at $7.500 per unit for 100 families. The future inhabitants threatened the proposal of a housing block with a hunger strike, but building individual houses would simply cost too much. This forced Aravena to apply a rather radical (and controversial) approach and created the Half-A-House. The houses are simple, two-story homes — each with a wall that runs down the middle, splitting the house in two. One side of the house is ready to be moved in to, the other side is just a frame around an empty space, waiting to be built out by the occupant.

Pretty mind-blowing stuff!

Responses grown out of catastrophic events, where creative thinking becomes a form of social justice and design takes on an unexpected form

— Benji Wiedemann

The Half-A-House scheme in Chile

7. When you’re stuck in a rut, how to you get creative ideas flowing?

Firstly, I have to come to the realisation that I haven’t fully understood the underlying problem. Most of the time the real problem isn’t even articulated in the brief.

Secondly, I need to work out what I have to say about it.

Once I have clarity on these points I should be in a much stronger position to get going.

The worst thing that ever happened to you during one of your talks?

In 2016 I was invited to talk at the Swiss Typographic Conference in St. Gallen — obviously a huge honour, and I needed to be on my absolute best behaviour.

Shortly before my talk I was backstage when they fixed me up with one of those Britney-Spears-style-head-microphones. Moments before it was time to go on stage they asked me if I wanted some water. I happily accepted, took a huge swig and bounced into the spotlight. Very shortly after I realised that it was sparkling water (and I mean super-Swiss-style-sparkling) and the effects made themselves immediately heard. And yes… the mic was on… Talking about how first impressions last: this one lasted!

9. T
he best book you’ve read lately?

I recently read’* Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. If you ever wondered how we make decisions and how fickle the mind really is, give it a try. It’s a bit heavy on the brain but hugely rewarding. No pain, no gain.

*I have to say read’ as I’m dyslexic and therefore listen to books through an Audible subscription courtesy of Alex Lampe (Thanks Al!)

If you could have a super power what would it be?

Decisiveness. Maybe…