In this interview I speak to Markus Koellman, a Zambian born – German raised creative –Zambian on moving back home to Zambia, the future of design and grabbing your dreams with no regrets.
With a massive love of hip hop and reggae, Markus has a distinct style that spans across illustration, graphic design, web design, photography and apparel. Having amassed a wide range of international and local Zambian clients under his belt, it’s a given that you have most likely walked past his work on a billboard somewhere, or even liked and shared his images online. It is my pleasure to introduce to you the Art Director of Markus Designs, the man behind the machine that is ran on efficiency and creativity, Markus Koellmann.
Describe the road that led you to where you are currently.
I was born in Luanshya and grew up in Zambia before shifting to Germany in the 80s. I studied all kinds of things, worked in a variety of fields and with talented people across the world who inspired & influenced me. I’m blessed with the coolest sister and two incredible brothers who taught me a lot of what I know now as well as irreplaceable parents and a lovely wife, who’s been my driving force since the day we met.
Looking back, has creativity always been a part of your upbringing? Were your parents creative?
Rather indirectly. My mom’s a woman of many styles, powerful, driven by emotion and one of my biggest supporters. My father is like Miles Dyson from Terminator II: a man of computers, concepts and great ideas that take shape in robotics and stuff I don’t even get. I do remember him teaching me how to draw and handing me my first DOS-based image editor [Dr Halo] just around the time I entered primary school.
Have you noticed an evolution in your creative style? How have you evolved?
Yes. Experimenting with new mediums, styles and techniques allows you to grow creatively while practice & repetition help you progress successfully and perfect your work. I enjoy learning new skills constantly while following my heart and doing what I love.
Did music influence your design evolution? How?
I grew up with the Hip-Hop Culture of the 90s and loved the form of creative expression through rap, breakdance, turntablism and graffiti – without necessarily going by the book. Their nonconformity definitely influenced my way of looking at things, which is partially reflected in my work.
Was there a specific moment that you knew that being a Creative Director had your name written all over it?
I like to give a credit to those who inspire me, the ones I work with and those who provide me with what I need to get the job done. In most cases I’m just a piece of the puzzle.
What would you say is your strongest skill?
To see the potential in others.
What are your thoughts on the specialization vs generalization in the industry?
I enjoy individualism which is one of the reasons why I admire Zambia’s emerging talents which are unique in skills, styles and looks. Specialization is a blessing when people are willing to work together towards a common goal. Generalization sounds like Clone Wars.
Given that most people here are self-taught photographers and designers, do you think there is still a need for formal training?
Yes. The theoretical part communicated by an experienced mentor exposes you to techniques, rules and the roots/history of certain skills – once you’ve understood that part of the story you can flip things around and break the rules to create something new, something unique. Even though I admire self-taught talents, one can spot the missing links – that applies to me and my self-taught skills as well, of course.
How was the transition from Germany to Zambia, personally and design wise? Has living two completely different lives influenced your way of thinking?
Yes, travelling broadens your mind and coming home to Zambia has made me see things differently as well. I definitely learned to be patient, enjoy the simple things in life and met & worked with some of the nicest people I’ve come across. Zambia is full of energy and potential, most powerful in collaboration and unity.
What is your favourite Zambian destination?
It’s almost impossible to pick one and there are still so many I’d love to see. I enjoyed going up North to Mpulungu along the shores of Lake Tanganyika and was stunned by the Mosi-Oa-Tunya way down South every time I even got close, but I’ll never forget sitting on my balcony in Siavonga, listening to the waves of the lake and gazing at the stars like diamonds.
Apart from design and photography, have you pursued any other creative outlets?
Graffiti has inspired me from way back and years after documenting the scene in my current town, I’ve finally picked up a couple of cans to spray. I’m still a beginner but I’ll definitely try and do more in the future. Besides that, it’s just cooking, a little bit of painting and creative writing.
What drives you to experiment with so many mediums?
I’m encouraged and motivated by the creative works of others – thankful for the inspiration they provide. Flipping through comics & art books, admiring modern and classic works of architecture, visiting the museum & urban art galleries makes me want to follow the footsteps of the great whenever the opportunity arises.
What was the first big project that confirmed in your mind that you had what it takes to be a “professional” creative?
Designing the logo, promotional material, launch website and packaging for eye wear pioneer Willems Wonderglasses built on pretty neat quality frames, made in Japan – that was work! About the same time around it was great to be part of Silas Zephania’s “War Begins Where Reason Ends” album, designing the CD artwork, promotional material plus website – that was fun!
Did you have mentors when you started out? How did you learn to handle the business side of your freelancing?
Laughs – don’t ask me about the business side of things – that’s what spoils the art of our profession.
Have you ever felt pressure to change your style to make you more market friendly?
It’s more disappointment than pressure, I’d say. Sometimes the designer is right – sometimes the client, but it’s important to learn how to adapt to ensure a healthy relationship with your clients as well.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken for your career?
Quitting my job [a couple of times] to follow my dreams.
Are you satisfied, creatively?
Yeah, I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing, but also always looking forward to creating more works in collaboration with creatives from all corners of the world in new and existing fields of work. I like to be spontaneous and am normally up for a lot of crazy stuff.
What recent projects have given you the most contentment?
I never thought I’d be working with DC on some of the Batman comics – so that’s a small dream come true. Another project that has keeps on surprising me since day one is “Monochrome in Zambia” and the way it is being received across the globe.
Talk us through the times you hit creative roadblocks and how you handle yourself when you have deadlines.
I believe creativity is fueled by inspiration – that helps me overcome certain obstacles. Tight deadlines can be a positive challenge to push one’s limits, but I do prefer realistic ones of course. If worst comes to worst, I throw in a couple of late nights plus espresso with lots of sugar while listening to The Roots and old-school rap. That and a team of those who think alike do the job.
Do you set aside time to draw?
I try to encourage others to #keepdrawingdaily but I don’t always practice what I preach. No creative work space is complete without and it’s important to always keep pencil & paper close in case ideas need to form quickly!
What are some of your favourite collaborations so far?
“Street Art Stuttgart”, the above mentioned “War Begins Where Reason Ends” with Silas Zephania, the “Behind the Beats”-Series in close collaboration with the late Praverb the Wyse as well as Politiks’ “Symphony” Instrumental Beat tape-Trilogy.
Are you ever intimidated by projects?
No. Bring it on!
How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance doing something you’re so passionate about?
Pick the right team to work with, don’t be too serious and try to enjoy work as much as you can. Know when to stop, listen to your body, follow your heart … quit if necessary. Yeah, that sounds like I’m speaking in bullet points.
What movies give you a creative kick?
Martial Arts movies directed by Tsui Hark, mind-twisting-stuff by Chris Nolan, Ren & Stimpy’s Animated Series, The original Star Wars Trilogy and the Godfather II.
What is the future of photography and graphic design in Zambia?
I would welcome a shift from wedding photography, creating more space for objective photojournalism, local landscape & wildlife photography, artistic & abstract forms of photography and a thriving Zambian Motion Picture industry – just don’t call it “Zambiwood”.
I’d love to see more institutions and resources in form of access to readily available learning material and books, teaching the above mentioned as well as graphic design, app and game development and the business side of things, giving the youth the chance to access practical and in-depth theoretical training locally that will allow them to grow independently, forming skill-routed and Zambian-owned businesses.
Give us a peek through your design process and what parts you enjoy the most.
OK, I’ll try and simplify a complex process
- Inspiration: Yes, I definitely count this on into my design process as a constant element. I’m stunned by the works in art galleries, photography books and online. Life itself is inspiring and I love to keep my eyes open wherever I go, wherever I am – capturing those moments was one of the main reasons I ventured into photography with “Street Art Stuttgart” in 2012. My work wouldn’t be the same without inspiration.
- Research: It’s important to know what & why you design certain things before you even start – because if it doesn’t make sense, you might as well save yourself some stress and spare the world of further redundancies. I prefer to do enough research before going into my first concepts to know the client and his reasons, the target audience for and the aim of the job.
- Concept: The original concept starts on paper and this doesn’t mean you have to be skilled at drawing – if you skip point you might miss out on the the ideas that take shape when you’re able to put them down as quick as possible. Besides that you might spot errors only at a later stage when things become tricky.
Be inspired – Research – Conceptualize – Design – Refine – Execute – Chill
Besides work, what are you passionate about?
History with a focus on the Civil Rights Movement and the Shoah, DC Comic books, architecture, movies, sweets, coffee … the list is too long.
Do you have any rules that you try to live by?
I try to live by Mark 12:31 regardless of heritage, language and colour.
Talking about work, I’d tend to follow these words: “Be inspired, don’t rush to perfection and love what you do” and once you’re at it: “Create something of purpose, beauty and quality”.
What type of legacy do you hope to leave?
A smile on someone’s face.
Markus currently resides in Stuttgart and works internationally.