Studying in Berlin

Interview with Michael Sans, Studio Director and Rob Ball, Managing Director

What makes Berlin such a great place for ArtCenter students?

Michael Sans (Prod ’97): Berlin is evolving, still changing. It’s anything but ‘set’. It’s very young in heart and by the mindset of the people who live and work here. So much has changed since the Berlin wall came down 30 years ago. Although there was a lot of friction bringing 2 political systems together it also created a lot of space for new things to happen. Other cities had their start in medieval times – evolving and growing on that solid historical base. But Berlin had a different path, going through a lot of changes economically, geographically, politically. In that way, Berlin is a relatively young city and it’s still re-building.

Much of the land in Berlin was freed up after the wall came down. It opened up many possibilities of how the city could be re-organized: from new housing to new neighborhoods. New systems needed to be re-created. All of these possibilities provided an opportunity to ‘re-think’ a city. That kind of ‘re-thinking’ is what makes Berlin such an important place for ArtCenter.

Rob Ball (Env ’83): Berlin is a city of many layers. It has more questions than answers – and it’s never static. I believe that’s a great metaphor for creative people, for ArtCenter students. We never quite fit in, seek new ideas in places and with people who are open to change. Berlin has never felt pretentious although it’s an important cultural center in Europe. There’s a kind of energy here found in embracing both high and low culture. Neighborhoods are quirky and unique and with a little digging you’ll find a hidden gem, a music club, a café, a bar, a spot in the park – that becomes ‘your spot’. For ArtCenter students – inspiration is everywhere. And they have a lot of company since Berlin is the gathering spot for young creatives in Europe. Looking outward, it’s right in the middle of Europe, a perfect place to jump off to visit other countries, experiencing more cultures, more ways of thinking.

That’s a fantastic asset to being here.

Why is it important for students to have a study away experience?

MS: One word: Globalization. Professions or trades cannot be thought of in a national way, especially in design. Companies are hiring internationally – to bring in other cultures, other ways of thinking, other histories, other approaches in craftsmanship. It’s always good for students to ‘put a light on the other side’ to see how other people are approaching a design problem and how culture affects that. It’s just mind opening – and that’s a good thing for creativity. To find the best jobs, you must have international experience on your CV. Unless you have some kind of global experience, in Germany, you won’t even be considered. This is required for the future. It’s just how the world is.

RB: As creative people, we must challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone and seek new input and opportunities. At ArtCenter Pasadena, we focus on building skill sets while developing our conceptual abilities. In Berlin, we test those skills and abilities, press them further and deeper while introducing a new muse to the mix - the city of Berlin itself - and the sensibilities of Europe. It’s critical to introduce some positive ‘disruption’ into our lives.

Sometimes we find our truest selves in a place we’re least familiar with – it allows us room to be more honest and to take more chances. I can’t think of a better situation for an ArtCenter student to super charge their education and get in touch with their creativity.

How should students prepare for an experience in Berlin?

MS: I’m not sure you really need to prepare a lot. I’m a fan of keeping that part simple. Maybe I’m old school, but I’d start with a good travel guide – so much better than scrolling on google. Get a condensed version – looking for history, culture and basic cultural differences. But the best is just coming here and experiencing it. Being surprised. I’m against reading 20 books – with expectations. Jump in the water and then swim! Be fearless! But of course, students have us to help them, they won’t be lost. If you go someplace, read one guidebook as a starting point, to get an important overview – a starting point and then dig deeper in things that interest you. But come experience it for yourself, it’s different for everyone, that’s the magic of it.

RB: I think the most important part is to prepare for the unexpected and be open to something you’ve never experienced. Flex your muscle for “letting go” and be open to possibilities. Be prepared to adapt and adjust - and at the same time, feel confident that you’ll be looked after, there’s a structure in place. In the studio, we work hard so that we may relax and explore Berlin afterward. And investigate, be prepared to explore! Berlin has a unique history – it’s evident everywhere in the city through memorials, monuments, the layout of the city and certainly the culture. Understanding some of the history will give you greater appreciation for the culture and make the experience richer. But other than that – come with an open attitude and be ready to explore.

What are the challenges in coming to Berlin?

MS: Going away is always a challenge. You miss your friends and family at first but that will soon change as you get familiar with the city. I think Berlin is one of the most welcoming cities on earth, especially compared to other big capitals in large metropolitan cities. It is quite safe and you can get around easily and cheaply. Most everyone speaks some English which makes it an easy city to visit and live in. There are a lot of other people from other countries and tourists who share the same desire to explore so you’ll never feel alone, it’s a relaxed place to meet people and connect here. Berlin is open 24/7, there is plenty to do for almost every kind of interest. And no one is offended if you ask questions!

RB: Berlin is so accessible, finding cool places within the city - to venturing out to the lakes that surround Berlin. As Michael comments, it’s super easy to get around – and Berliners use every mode of transportation available to them, including a very integrated public transportation network. Of course, a bicycle is maybe the best way to navigate the city and now e-scooters are everywhere to help out. I think one of the biggest challenges is the internal challenge to ‘take a chance on growth and change.’ Adjusting to life with your fellow students and colleagues takes time and can definitely be challenging. But it can also lead to big rewards with new-found friendships and the empowerment of navigating a new culture on your own.

How has Berlin shaped who you are as a designer?

MS: I profited from many of the things that I spoke of before: Berlin has been a place of possibilities and due to its changes, it’s a great place for a designer to work and to live.

I found clients here that I wouldn’t have found in other parts of Germany – and really in Europe. It was easy for me to get started here because it was extremely cheap to live and work. The kinds of clients I’m interested in are also here, those businesses that are looking to try something different, to attract a diversity of people. The perception from the outside is helpful – it’s an asset to be in Berlin. It means that we’re not provincial and the design we’ll create is going to reflect that. It has the reputation for being the hub for art, design, creativity – for thinking different and being free. For thinking outside of the box. That’s what Berlin stands for.

RB: I found a different side of who I am as a designer and as a person in Berlin that I couldn’t find in the U.S. The openness here provides an easy way to enter any community you want.

And there are a lot of them.

The neighborhoods are all very different and help shape your day-to-day life. I feel freer to experiment here, less like I need to follow my old rules or constraints. I feel like I can tap my own inspiration, accessing museums and galleries that are just a bike ride away or meeting friends for a brainstorming session at a café in a new neighborhood. It’s just more fluid here. People are less protective of their creative capital and more open to sharing resources and contacts. Of course, this has been on hold during the past year but I’m confident things will open up soon – to a very eager community of creative people.

Exchange and Study Away

ArtCenter’s curriculum offers students the means to address design challenges and explore artistic opportunities wherever and however they occur—in our own backyard or across the globe.