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The Making of the Adobe MAX 2017 Identity

Thomas Wirtz is a German communications designer living in Düsseldorf. His Master’s thesis, “BTW,” caught our eye on Behance. It’s based on an experiment that evolved into a font he designed and 3D-printed, and a variety of physical materials that he ran through those printed letters. The combination of precise type and organic experiments captivated us, and we asked him to adapt the concept for the 2017 Adobe MAX conference identity.

Read the interview below to learn more about Wirtz’s methods, and then watch the behind-the-scenes video to see him apply those methods to the MAX identity.

CREATE: What did you study at university?

WIRTZ: It’s called communication design. Typography is my special field of interest, next to physical processes. Typography is man-made, optimized, and reduced. It’s very static. In contrast, physical processes move; they’re uncontrollable and very complex. There are rules you can’t force. I unite these opposites.

CREATE: Tell us about your thesis project.

WIRTZ: During my studies, I experimented a lot with physical phenomena and processes. I decided that my thesis would deal with an experiment that was free from any plan or content. It was important to me to not aim at any specific goal so I could focus on the process and document it. The process was more important than the result. But I was rewarded with a modular typography system that you can adapt for any content or any information.

I think it’s very important to first play, and then—as soon as there are results and some kind of evolution—focus on that.

Click the above image to go behind the scenes of the MAX logo creation process. You’ll see Thomas Wirtz and technical assistant Frédéric Wiegand fill a 3D-printed model with dry ice, sodium, and other substances.

CREATE: What was your path to blending science and design in this way?

WIRTZ: It just happened during my studies. I started without a plan and tried all kinds of things. I threw a glass of water in the air, I dropped milk in it, I used ink, I put acrylic letters into jelly, I sprayed massage oil onto glass plates and breathed on them. There were so many possibilities that I lost orientation. Then there was a point when I said, “I don’t want any more experiments, I want to come up with a shape for it. I’ll make a logo for this, and I want my disorientation to flow into that logo.” And so I made a logo, and the logo became a labyrinth. And I saw the logo and said “Hm, looks good. Maybe I should make a font of it.” That was the process.

Physical processes are incredibly hard to control, but that’s why they are so appealing to me. Of course there are digital alternatives, but we are flooded by digital processes and somehow disappointed by them. If you can apply an authentic physical process in the right way, it appears as if you can work magic. People ask, “How is this possible? How did they do it? What’s behind all this?” With digital matters it’s quite clear: Somebody programmed something, there is an algorithm. You don’t try to get to the bottom of the matter. 

CREATE: How long did you experiment?

WIRTZ: I had to restrain that experimentation period to three months; it seemed as if I could go on with it forever. I was almost overwhelmed by the range of possibilities and also a bit confused as to what to choose and do.

CREATE: And you took a break from experimentation to do the typography? How long did that take?

WIRTZ: I worked on the experiment and then went on with the typography, but then had to go back to the experiment. I went back and forth. But all of the typography work took two months.

Wirtz meticulously documented the results of his Master's thesis physical experiments.

CREATE: When did you get into design?

WIRTZ: I always wanted to study communication design, but you have to pass an admission exam. I failed twice, and I was finally accepted when I was 26. I had already accomplished an apprenticeship as an insurance salesman because my parents wanted me to learn something “respectable.”

CREATE: Was the exam a practical test?

WIRTZ: No, I had to compile a portfolio of my works. The quality of my first portfolio was really poor. But the older I got, the better the quality of my portfolio got.

When I flunked the first time, I was a bit down. I took my time, then tried again, and again had to recover. Then I tried again and got in. I love what I do now. I didn’t love the insurance job.

CREATE: Do you see what you do as science or design or art?

WIRTZ: I think it’s all of these things, and therein lies the problem. I have to combine something that has to do with both science and art into a design service.

CREATE: When you’re experimenting, you can do whatever you want. How was it to work with us as a client who has specific needs?

WIRTZ: One of my professors said once to me, “What a beautiful waste of time.” It may be beautiful, but maybe it’s not useful for a client. Now I can go back and say, “I found a client for experimental design.”

Be inspired to make your own beautiful experiments—come to the Adobe MAX conference