Berlin-based agency Mirage on designing with empathy, purpose and a Stoicism-inspired approach
Mirage is an independently owned strategy, design and communications agency, based in Berlin. Designing with purpose, the team aim to create experiences for brands that cut through the noise of our busy world and meaningfully participate in people’s lives. Providing an insight into Mirage’s methodology, ethos and evolution, we chat with Founder Mike Piepers and Creative Director Alex Popov.
PT Hello Mike and Alex! How are you?
MP Hi there! Summer in Berlin is great so not much to complain about! Hope you’re doing good as well :)
PT I’m good, thank you! Can you tell us how Mirage first began as a studio?
MP After years of having worked for various creative agencies I started to entertain the thoughts of starting for myself. I wanted to know what it was like to have my own company. To create an environment in which I could freely pursue and develop my creative ambitions. Mirage was founded just some time before the pandemic in early 2020. Even though a challenging time, this is when I really started to put things into motion. It turned out to be the perfect timing. During the first months of Mirage’s founding, I met Alex, who reached out to discuss a potential collaboration. After some conversations and a successful project, we felt it was a good match. He is now an irreplaceable part of Mirage and is working as our Creative Director.
AP Thank you for the kind words, Mike. The story was quite similar for me. Several years of working for creative and branding agencies and a few more as an independent designer brought me to the point where I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, something collaborative, even synergetic. I’d tried to work together with a couple of studios with this intention before joining Mirage, but only here I found the perfect balance between autonomy and inclusivity.
PT How has the studio, and the work you do, evolved since starting?
MP Mirage has evolved remarkably well in a relatively short amount of time. Our work started to get recognition fairly quick after Mirage’s founding, resulting in various interesting opportunities. Since then we have been able to expand properly, growing our team and working with a variety of international clients.
AP I believe that the most important outcome of Mirage’s evolution is in the crystallised work approach and methodology. We put a lot of effort into understanding our clients, their pains and fears, their dreams and ambitions. This knowledge and empathic attitude allows us to create the most accurate representation of our clients via design.
Empathy truly is at the core of everything we do.
PT Following on from both of your answers, how does an empathetic approach affect the design process?
AP Empathy influences our approach and work significantly indeed. We invest our time heavily in meeting and thoroughly understanding the client, we start by interviewing the crew, familiarising ourselves with the bigger picture, from different points of view. We need to understand both the functional and emotional goals of the design task. With every step in our process, we narrow down the array of design options that would suit the client to ultimately create the most adequate design solution.
MP Empathy truly is at the core of everything we do. It’s the driving force behind the entire process, from ideation to creation – the fuel for our work.
PT How would you describe the culture and working environment at Mirage?
MP We are all incredibly passionate about what we do and share an innate drive to create authentic results. It’s an artistic atmosphere in which we challenge ourselves and each other on a daily basis.
Mirage is heavily inspired by Stoicism. This philosophy influences us significantly and with the integration of the four pillars of Stoicism – Justice, Temperance, Courage and Wisdom – we found a way to create solid strategic perspectives that provide us with a lot of clarity. By executing a variety of ‘Stoic’ exercises, we enable ourselves to create relevant, and meaningful narratives.
AP We are really focused on building a sophisticated and inspiring environment where colleagues and clients enrich each other. It’s our personal commitment toward each other and our clients that allows us to build healthy and encouraging relationships. Chemistry is very important here, after all, we are in the emotions business.
PT Where did the influence of Stoicism first come from? How did you start integrating it into the studio?
MP It all began with ‘Meditations’ from Marcus Aurelius. While reading that book I started to develop a genuine fascination for Stoicism. After having read more writings from Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus, I started to entertain the thoughts of applying these insights to both my personal as well as professional life. Since then Mirage has introduced various Stoic-inspired exercises, which we execute during our strategic efforts.
All of these efforts are aimed at achieving authenticity, moral correctness (Justice), moderation in actions while having a composed attitude (Temperance), acting courageous and empathic (Courage) and everything should be well informed; with awareness and intellect (Wisdom).
PT Relationships and emotions are so important in the creative industries. What traits do you look for when hiring?
MP Attitude is most important. Skills can be taught. Awareness, curiosity and creativity are especially crucial to us. But surely at the end of the day, it’s chemistry that’s most important – an unmistakable part of any healthy foundation.
Our main focus is to create results that meaningfully participate in people’s lives.
PT If you could only show one piece of work – one to define the studio – what would it be?
MP Good, but difficult question! We feel that all our work is defining us. Every single case is a part of us and perhaps the most defining work is yet to come. But to answer your question directly, I think that our three latest cases: The Solution, TiHive and Rouvia, truly have proven to have this Mirage ‘watermark.’ No-nonsense, compelling and honest. Important to mention as well is that we’re not necessarily emphasising ourselves when at work, as we really are fully focussed on defining our clients.
PT Were there any lessons or insights (either conceptually, or design-related) from these projects that you’ll take forward into future projects?
AP We are constantly learning, otherwise you will be left in the dust very quickly in this industry. A lot of work is always hidden in the background. We tried using generative design and absolutely loved this. It’s fascinating how code helps you create endless variations of certain designs for you to use in the future. We will definitely explore it more thoroughly in the future. We for example used alternative grids in The Solution case, a Fibonacci sequence to be exact. It opened a myriad of optional grids for us to take with us. With every project, we acquire more and more instruments that we can vary, mix and match in upcoming projects.
PT Having a “unique combination of strategy and creativity” is a core element of Mirage’s work – how is this realised as a team?
MP Our main focus is to create results that meaningfully participate in people’s lives. A brand should be way more than just a ‘façade.’ More than a consistently executed promise. It should be a catalyst; for the people who engage with the brand internally as well as externally. The word meaning is of such importance to the work we do. We like to describe our work as ‘design with a purpose.’ It all needs to make sense. It needs to serve a function. The first step of our work is to strip everything down to the core, to the essence. Then we start building.
This year is all about more learning – which is a never-ending process.
PT Do you think designers have a responsibility to ‘do good?’ If so, what do you think the design community can do better?
MP Design should be honest. We live in such a demanding and noisy world. Therefore I think it’s more important than ever before to be genuine.
PT What makes a dream client for you?
MP Our dream client has a clear purpose in mind and is willing to embrace its own uniqueness. Our collaboration would involve the whole spectrum, from establishing a strategic foundation, to making design decisions and to ultimately launching the brand into our noisy, but beautiful world. Getting the trust to operate with creative freedom is very important to us.
AP The dream client is the one you would never get <laughing>. Joking aside, if the client is open and sincere with us, it is already a dream client.
PT What other industries would you particularly like to work in?
MP So far our work hasn’t been limited to any specific niche or industry, nor is our preference aimed at a specific industry. We do have a weak spot for humanistic, experiential endeavours, allowing us to create compelling stories that resonate and evoke emotions. Besides that, it’s really new cultures that we would like to explore further. This sense of purity we feel at the start of a project, discovering – and immersing ourselves in – a specific culture or industry from a fresh point of view is just very rewarding for us.
AP I would like to work on packaging a bit more as it is always very nice to hold an object of your work in your own hands or see it on a shelf.
PT What are you looking forward to, for the rest of the year?
MP This year is all about more learning – which is a never-ending process – as well as further development and expansion. Both internally and externally; our team, partnerships and our projects. But above all, we are much looking forward to continuing to turn companies into brands that can’t be ignored.