Taking thE WINDING ROAD TO DESIGN


The 28 year-old designer rarely takes the beaten path, preferring trails he breaks for himself and thinks will take him where he wants to go. Dennis Schäfer was born and grew up in Taldykorgan in southeast Kazakhstan. In 2001, when the city appeared to be in an inexorable decline, his family, which was of German descent, decided to seek their fortune in the land of their ancestors. Thus, at the end of that year, young Dennis found himself in Nordenham near Bremerhaven, where he was amazed to experience his first Christmas celebration – something that didn’t exist in Kazakhstan.

In the following year, he started school again, after completing six grades in Taldykorgan, and immediately had to grapple with two new languages. At home, they had spoken Russian, but now he had to learn German and English was also compulsory. Dennis did have a few classmates who faced the same challenge, but his language problems meant he often felt like an outsider. But then he had a stroke of luck: a woman for whom his mother occasionally worked as a cleaner offered to give him private lessons free of charge. His German progressed in leaps and bounds and soon he was on an equal footing with the rest of the class, linguistically speaking.

photo by Richard Cheung

photo by Richard Cheung


Star Wars: The birth of a passion

Two years later, a decisive turning point in his life occurred: his parents bought him his first computer – a PC with a clock speed of 1.3 GHz, 256 MB of RAM, 50 GB of hard drive space and, unfortunately, a pathetically lousy graphics card. Despite this shortcoming, Dennis plunged into his new hobby with all his might, and a few months later his knowledge of hardware and software had advanced exponentially. He scraped his allowance together and managed to treat himself to a speedy GeForce FX 5600 graphics card, with which he could indulge in his favorite games without restraint. One of those games was Star Wars Jedi Knight 2 – and nothing has changed since then: Dennis Schäfer is still a fan of the Star Wars saga.

After tenth grade, he left school with a high school diploma and registered for a one-year computer science course at the Wesermarsch district community college. That turned out to be a disappointment: the up-and-coming young nerd had a feeling he wasn’t learning anything. Wouldn’t it be much more productive if he simply sat down in front of the PC and learned what he was interested in independently? He was convinced of that, but his parents had other ideas of what a “real” job should be. Office clerk, for instance – which Dennis saw as the ultimate nightmare. So when he’d finished the course, at first he just stayed home, without any firm plans for the future. To earn some money, he temped at Thyssen-Krupp in Brake, cleaning the paint shops. However, he spent most of his time expanding his knowledge of software and teaching himself graphics programming, homepage design, interface design and other disciplines. But one thing was clear to him: this still wasn’t enough for him to be a real pro.

From the barracks to the design studio

Since he was now called up for his military service, Dennis let his parents talk him into pursuing a career in the German armed forces. First he enlisted for four years and seriously considered doing so for eight years. However, he promptly failed the aptitude test since he hadn’t prepared for it. After all, it wasn’t really the career of his dreams. Only at the second attempt did he manage to get the position he wanted. But he never abandoned his vision: in his four years in the army, he continued to work on his hobby in his spare time. He kept trying out new software and often sat at his PC deep into the night. He was absolutely addicted to design and always eager to experiment with new techniques and styles. He presented the results on the Internet platform deviantart.com, among other sites. He gained lots of followers – and more: he also received invitations from companies that had become aware of his work. But he still didn’t feel confident enough to carve out a place for himself at the professional level.

It was only in late 2009 that he was ready to make a move, when he got an irresistible offer: the well-known Munich agency stereolize, which had discovered his profile on DeviantArt, sent him an email inviting him to a job interview, with the prospect of a design internship. His parents were unenthusiastic when he told them about it – they’d had the impression that he had only been spending his nights playing around on the PC. Well yes, admitted Dennis Schäfer: maybe sometimes it was like that. But that kind of playing around was the exception.

So he accepted without hesitation, went to the interview in Munich, and agreed to accept a four-week internship with stereolize. He had finally decided to go full steam ahead with his design career: go big or go home! But he still had to wait a year, since he couldn’t just walk out on the army. In early 2010, the big day finally came: his internship started – he took his first baby steps as a professional designer. He made them wearing seven-league boots after the first week, Dennis Schäfer learned that he was going to take part in a big show in Bahrain. That was a magical moment for him: up to then, the only place he had gone was on vacation in Turkey with his parents. Now he was not only realizing his professional dreams, he was also going to fly to Dubai and get to know a brand-new world. In a word: cool!


Ready for the big show

When the concept and technology were finally ready, the show began and everything worked together perfectly – lighting effects, dancers, giant screen – something became clear to Dennis: this is a moment you’ll never forget. Thousands of people can see your work and they’re even applauding it! From then on, Dennis Schäfer became addicted to such moments, and this urge became his strongest motivation. Every day he learned more, mastered the software better and worked faster. The reward for his commitment: during his 20 months at stereolize, he was able to execute a whole series of major projects – including for global brands such as Microsoft, VA, Porsche, and Telekom – and travel round the world as well.

After this exciting but exhausting period, he decided to launch his own startup with a colleague from the agency. Despite all the challenges at stereolize, the two of them wanted a bit more creative freedom, so they were ambitious to try something of their own. For about a month, they mulled it over, deliberated and planned, and then their decision was firm. In fact, their startup, 2RISE, very soon became a huge success, able to hire its first employees and landing many interesting projects – even for large international clients such as NIKE, Jaguar, Nakheel, CCTV and more. The agency also won the IF Design Award for 2015 and the German Design Award.

 

At the end of 2015, it was becoming clear that the two partners were pursuing fundamentally different goals. So, by mutual consent, they wound up the agency and went their separate ways. In their time together, both partners had learned a lot about independence, so Dennis Schäfer decided that from now on he would work as an independent contractor, responsible only to himself and his clients. Propelled by the momentum of new ideas, he was successful from the start, working with large international agencies and studios and winning clients such as Audi, ABB, Tencent and Volkswagen. He was nominated for the German Brand Award in 2016. These days, he’s actively campaigning to get more creative young people interested in the profession of designer, by showing them what he does at training sessions and presentations.

 

written by Jürgen Ahrens (Oct.2016)