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Interview with Christian Freissler

Overcoming boundaries to find your own way. This is propably the dream of everyone. Especially designers have a inner desire to broaden up their horizon and to create something on their own. Christian Freissler, Co-Founder of Evolve Collaborative, a brilliant design agency in Portland, made this dream come true. From being a design student in Schwäbisch Gmünd (Germany) to leading his own design agency in the US.
Enjoy this 10 questions interview about similarities between european and american students, his way into the US and the will of making it on his own.

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1. Hi Christian. Can you explain what you currently do as a designer and who you are? Who are your customers, what is your expertise?

Since 2014, I am one of three founding partners at Evolve Collaborative. We are an insights, design and innovation agency with a serious passion for collaboration. We partner with corporations and startups, and create solutions that connect brands to people through products, services and experiences. Some of our partners are Nike, Bellroy, and Providence (a large health care provider in the western states of America).
I originally moved to the US in 2006 to work as a senior designer for Ziba Design in Portland, Oregon and fell in love with the life and and attitude on the West Coast. Plus I love being close the ocean. After 10 years on this side of the pond, I run my own agency and teach product design at universities in Oregon and California.

2.Back in the days…when you were a design student… Did you already plan on working as an industrial designer in the US or did you have different goals? What has been you first step after graduating and how come that you end up in Portland, CA?

Hartmut Esslinger’s story made me interested in an internship in the US originally. I remember watching a documentary on SWR (German TV station) even before I went to design school in Schwäbisch Gmünd. Probably also one of the reasons why I wanted to go into Design in the first place. So when the time for internships came up, I applied at all the big agencies on the West Coast. One of the places that invited me for an interview was Ziba. It was pretty easy to get a J1 Visa at the time (and still is), so a few months later I was on my way to Portland.
Living and working on the West Coast for about a year really kickstarted the plan to come back after graduation. There’s a different attitude to work and play over here, even if people work really hard most of the time. It just clicked for me. So I entered the Green Card Lottery, and found myself on a plane to Portland again in the summer of 2006. I’ll never forget that day, because I missed the Germany vs. Argentina world cup game being in the air 😉

3. There are plenty of young designers in Europe, dreaming about working in the US. What do you believe is the reason for that? What made you move?

The big US cities are creative hubs for our industry. There is so much going on here. And there are not many places in the world where you can jump from an agency to a startup, to corporate, and back to consulting so easily. Especially the West Coast and the Bay Area give young talent the opportunity to experiment and find their passion.
Ever since my internship the US had a special fascination for me. The mix of incredible nature, interesting people, and professional opportunities is unique. It all still feels like an endless vacation.

4. Since you are also a professor for Industrial Design at the San Jose State University, you talk to a lot of young designers as well. Are your students as much interested in working in Europe as ours are interested in working in the US?

Of course. I think it’s always the other side that we are interested in. Especially as designers, we want to know about people, other countries and cultures. That’s what inspires us and keeps us going. So yes, many of them would love to make that step. San Jose State offers a pretty good exchange program with European universities, and I encourage everyone to take advantage of it.

5. Do you have some advise for design students and young designers, which want to apply for internships or junior design positions in America? Are there important differences along the application procedure?

Internships placements are still very achievable. Luckily the visa process still allows students and trainees to come to the US for up to 12 months on a J1 Visa. And there are organizations that help with that. Junior design positions are a little different and require an H1-B visa. The visa process takes longer, has several requirements regarding your qualification, and a quota. I definitely recommend to get professional help with an H1-B, if your future employer doesn’t manage the process for you.

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6. Christian Freissler “the German”, Paul Backett “the Scotsman” and Chris Butler “the Englishman”… this is how you named yourself on your website. Those nicknames and your company slogan “a collaborative agency” clearly shows that you believe in variety and a “multi culture approach”. Why is that important to you? What benefit comes with it?

First of all this should tell you that we are not taking ourselves too serious. This is our gig and we are building an agency culture where our three personalities, but also those of our employees are the most important component. An agency is always only as good as the people that work there. We are looking for people that are passionate about what they do, at the studio and outside. And we love people that push us and themselves out of their comfort zone.

7. Combining people, combining skills and design disciplines is a huge topic now, since tablets, smartphones, smart homes, autonomous driving and such became essential parts of our everyday life.
That makes me wonder, if a classic separation of the traditional design disciplines (industrial, transportation, graphic, fashion,…) still fits in the modern world. What is your experience with designers specializing in one discipline only? Does the market need experts or does it prefer all rounder?

We definitely prefer allrounders. For exactly that reason. The traditional disciplines are merging and we work interdisciplinary. In fact, we just work. There are no real disciplines in our agency. We are in the business of creative problem solving, and I believe that you can apply this skill to any product, service, or experience.
But there is certainly specialization too. Productivity is the driver there though. More complex projects require that you can delegate tasks to specialists to get to results faster. 3d-modelling or UI prototyping are good examples for that. It doesn’t make sense to have your designers try and resolve surfacing problems or coding errors, when a specialist can deliver that faster and better.

8. Global Player Design Agency (ideo, ziba, frog, teams, …) vs. Evolve.
Since there are so many design agencies out there already, why did you and your partners decide to do it on your own instead of working as employed designers?

I wouldn’t even call the examples above design agencies. They are – as you say – global consultants that help clients to think through complex problems and develop their offerings, business, and culture. Something that we do too. But the difference is, that we were looking for another level of partnership with our clients. We are a smaller and more nimble team. And we are looking for more personal and long-term relationships. For many of our partners we are the extension of their internal innovation teams. They often engage us very spontaneously.

9. Thank you very much for the interview and for giving all those insights. Many people and quite a few designers don’t want to share any knowledge or talk about the way they work… because they are “afraid” of loosing the lead or something. But you teach students, “the upcoming competitors”, all the time and even agreed on giving this interview. How come? Why do you think sharing is important?

Myself and my partners believe in open source. Our mentors have shared their tools and processes with us over the years, and we were able to find our own ways looking through that lens. One of my biggest mentors was Nick Roericht in Ulm. For my partners it was Richard Seymour in London.
Now it’s on us to pass this knowledge on. This goes for our students, interns and staff, but also for our clients. Being involved in education is a very important aspect of what Evolve is doing. It’s a chance to show our culture of ’serious play’ and excite young talent about the ‚real world’ out there.

10. Do you have a final hint or advice for all the students out there, that you would have loved to hear back in the days?

Do as many internships as you can. Never stop sketching. Start conversations. Collaborate. Beg, borrow, and steal (tools and knowledge that is). Have fun. And the most important one – don’t be a dick!

Thank again Christian for giving this interview. To the readers; I hope you enjoyed this invterview as well and if you have any more questions about it, send a message or leave a comment. PLUS make sure you visit the Evolvle Homepage.stay tireless

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