Excerpts from a chat with global tastemaker Robert Klanten
What we can't stop thinking about from our recent episode with renowned editor, creative thinker and the CEO of Gestalten.
Our host, Harald Dunnink, recently sat down with Robert Klanten, CEO and founder of Gestalten, the world-renowned book publishing company.
Gestalten was founded in 1995 and has created some of the most visually stunning and insightful books we’ve come across. From the early club scene in Berlin to the culture of hiking to children’s books explaining death, they’ve explored it all.
We’ve pulled some of our favorite highlights from Harald and Robert’s conversation below. To listen to the whole thing, go to Memberful Design on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio inspiration.
To kick off this creative conversation, Harald asked a simple question: How do you decide what to print? Robert’s answer below:
The complicated part is not the doing. It's the not doing. There's just a plethora of possible content at hand. So that is really a process that evolves over time, and there's a lot of craftsmanship involved. But I think in a nutshell, we have a kind of a 360 degree radar on covering the topics, the categories that we're publishing in and following a couple of larger trends or super trends and seeing them evolve and vanish over time.
After decades of experience coaching first time authors, Robert shared his insights on how people react when their first book is about to be published:
Making a book does something to you that a lot of people are not prepared for.
We call this phenomenon the “dark side of the moon” because it's like you're being shot to the moon in a rocket and you have all these hopes and aspirations. Then you're coming closer and at some point you have to go behind the moon and it's dark and it's frigging cold and you don't see home and you don't have any kind of radio signals.
And that is exactly the kind of state that a lot of people are in when they have completed their work. Files are being sent to the printer. They haven't seen the book yet. They become aware, “My dad is going to see it, my spouse is going to see it. My school teacher is going to see it.”
Then they freak out and want to stop the presses because it's so final. It's a little bit like stage fright. They don’t know if people will love it or hate it.
But I tell you, once launch is over and the first positive feedback comes in, people are usually over the moon, metaphorically speaking.
Gestalten is a firmly independent publishing house, but has also had the pleasure of collaborating with unexpected partners over the years. Robert shared one example of how inspiration from a corporate source led them into unexpected and delightful territory:
We worked on a book about a series of fonts. They were used for Nokia but it was just really very interesting graphic design work.
It was a plain typography book. And after the publication, you know, at some point Marko Ahtisaari [the former executive vice president of Design at Nokia] called us up literally saying, “Robert, you have to help us. We now have to talk to all these Americans and they're about to buy the company here, and they don't know where Finland is. What can we do?”
And we say, well, we could do a book about Finland and think about what's precious and interesting about Finland. And so we did, and it was funded by Nokia.
It had a Nokia reference in it. Okay. But it was more about what we found out about Finland. I mean, we found out that the Fins are really good with everything that requires a helmet. Whether it's ski jumping or rally driving.
We also learned that the air guitar was invented there. They have the biggest tango community outside of Argentina. There is a beautiful sense of freedom and creative expression across the board in Finland. It's just unbelievable. And so that's the kind of stuff that we found out, and that's what we put in the book.
Being independent means creative freedom, but also can come with some risk. During the conversation, Robert and Harald went deep into the ups and downs of Gestalten over the years, and reflected on the power and peril of being an entrepreneur.
As an entrepreneur, you take risks. You have to turn uncertainty into certainty as much as possible. You try to evaluate opportunities, be realistic about the possible success, the possible outcome, and what might go wrong. And you do that on a very personal level. And there's nothing that would help you with these kinds of decisions.
There's not a lot of people around who want to do that and sleep well. It's a lot of dark side of the moon where you spend time not knowing how it will look on the other side.
And that’s just the smallest taste of what Robert and Harald discussed. Listen to the whole conversation to hear everything from Robert, including why books are printed smaller in Korea, the story of his hardest financial moment, and more.