“Empathy is one of our key values.” ESH Gruppa on their growth and evolution as a design studio
ESH Gruppa may be working remotely, but they are deeply united by both their shared education and vision for courageous ideas. To learn more about the minds behind their bold brand identities, we spoke to the studio’s leading partners, Phillip Tretyakov, Valera Kozhanov, Violet Postnova and Stefan Lashko. They delve into the values-driven, passionate approach that guides the projects they work on and the people they work with – from the cultural platform NIMA, to the accessories brand JENEK. Plus, they discuss the important message behind their new logo.
PT Hi Phillip! How’s everyone at ESH Gruppa?
PT Hi! We are all good, thank you! As fans of TBI, we are all stoked to talk to you.
PT Likewise! To kick things off, can you please introduce yourself and the team?
PT My name is Phillip. We have four partners in our studio, and besides running the studio, we all work as art directors in our separate fields: Violet specialises in web design, Valera does wayfinding and editorial design, and Stefan and I work in branding.
At first, we didn’t even want to call it ‘studio.’
PT How did ESH Gruppa first begin?
PT Stefan, Valera and I were studying in the same group at university, and Violet was in the group one year ahead of us. We did all student projects together and really liked working with each other to the point that we even started playing experimental music as the ESH band. By the end of our university days, we wanted to continue working as a group, and that is when we first imagined ourselves as a commercial design unit.
PT When starting out, what did you want to do differently from other design studios?
PT Back then we looked at design agencies making boring commercial designs for boring companies and wanted to make something different. We liked to create bold graphics and experiment with the process of design creation. We wanted to work on projects in the fields of art and culture, with clients who value good design as we do.
At first, we didn’t even want to call it ‘studio.’ We viewed ourselves as a collective of independent designers who are also good friends. And remembering our musical experiments, we really liked a band format.
So in the start, we made a logo and a photoshoot bringing that rock-band energy to our style.
PT What does the name ‘ESH Gruppa’ mean?
PT ESH was actually the name of our university group. It comes from the names of our teachers: Erken Kagarov and Nikolai Shtock.
PT Can you tell us the story behind your playful new logo?
PT After Russia started a war in Ukraine, we collectively stood against it, and just could not continue to work as we used to.
This war changed us a lot and made us look into our values more. Back in 2016, when we started as a small studio in Moscow, we just wanted to rock the boat, but now as we grow, we focus more on building trust and connection within our team. Although we’re now fully decentralized, we have managed to keep our team together by collaborating from all over the world.
In our new logo, we attempted to reflect this change. Humanistic, soft, and flawed, it is the antithesis of the previous one, and serves as our response to the brutal, cynical, and inhumane context, in which we currently find ourselves.
We sketch designs by hand, especially when it comes to typography and logo designs.
PT What does your creative process look like? Has this changed at all in the last few years?
PT We always liked to brainstorm ideas together, but now, as we have more new designers in our team, our brainstorming sessions have become even more dynamic and fruitful. Really something that I am looking forward to on every project.
VP Collaborations with designers beyond our team. We are constantly looking around for amazing new designers and trying to collaborate with them when we can.
PT A couple of years ago, we started to include research in our design process, and now it has become an essential part of our method. Brand strategy and research skills are among the most important things that we are now developing.
SL We sketch designs by hand, especially when it comes to typography and logo designs. I believe that sketching is really important as a way of thinking and brainstorming ideas.
VK Since we’ve introduced Violet as one of the partners, we’ve included web design as a service. Now, from the start of the project, branding and web design teams work closely together to make sure that the website really conveys a project’s ideology and visual identity.
PT Empathy is one of our key values. We talk to the client a lot and try to get to know them as a person and understand their business better. We believe that the best ideas come from collaboration, that is why we’re not afraid to involve clients in the very process of brainstorming concepts and testing out designs.
PT What unites you as a team?
PT We have the same education and similar values in design, yet we are different people (and this affects the process). For me as an art director, it is fascinating to watch where Stefan leads his projects. I always appreciate his thought process and try to take some notes. So it’s safe to say that we all are still constantly learning from each other. And that’s the beauty of teamwork.
We’re not afraid to involve clients in the very process of brainstorming concepts.
PT How does teaching inspire your creative practice? Does your work at ESH Gruppa ever influence your teaching?
VP Teaching and education in general is an important part of our self-definition as professionals. The university where we met was characterized by an experimental and independent approach to both graphic design and design education. Many of the values we learned back then we continue to cultivate in our work, in our personalities, and in our work with students to this day.
For us, design education is about creating an environment in which students get the experience of autonomy, experimentation, and the ability to feel and value their own responsibility. It is an environment in which the love for one’s own labor and the labor of others, the freedom of the individual is manifested; it is a place where humanity is the highest value. That is the type of environment in which we have met each other and that we are now trying to build within our team and in our teaching practice.
PT I love your work for NIMA! How long did it take you to develop the custom typeface, and what was the thinking behind it?
PT NIMA is a museum and cultural platform devoted to popularizing the art of peoples and countries across disciplines and time. To highlight NIMA and the important work they do as an emerging cultural institution, we created a striking identity that evokes diversity and multiculturalism.
For NIMA’s identity, we designed a custom typeface of the same name. NIMA’s projects focus on non-Eurocentric art, so we decided to base the characters on the world's writing systems, merging the West’s Latin script, the North’s runic alphabet, the East’s hieroglyphs, and the South’s Oceanic glyphs.
By closely examining these scripts and fusing their unique visual traits, we aimed to produce a system that functions as a whole. Because of this complexity, the font appears ornate, eclectic, and almost pictographic.
NIMA, which means ‘sun’ in Tibetan, represents the institution’s mission to shed light on long-hidden and marginalised cultural phenomena. To emphasise this idea, we used solar symbols from various cultures in the identity. We adapted these graphic elements to match the font.
The NIMA font is so expressive, it becomes the primary graphic language for the museum. So rather than creating a new logo, we chose to type it out using the NIMA font.
We created a striking identity that evokes diversity and multiculturalism.
PT Do you enjoy crafting custom typefaces, when a project demands it?
SL We don’t usually create stand-alone typefaces, but we love making typefaces as a part of a brand identity. We like to work with type because it is the purest form of abstraction in graphic design, yet it translates emotions and can give a brand its unique voice.
We have made a couple of brand identities that are based on custom fonts created specially for every project by Kate Daugel-Dauge, our type designer.
Our first such work is Richter, a 5-star hotel, restaurant, bar, library, art gallery, and garden, all in one. Richter is an independent venue for entrepreneurs, artists, educators, musicians, and creative thinkers located in a 19th-century mansion.
The contrast between the old context and the new content became the main idea behind the identity. We tried to merge these two worlds together using fragments of the mural found in the old interiors of the house, and the quirky custom font called Bipolar Grotesque.
In Bipolar Grotesque, every letter has an alternative, which gives us the freedom to create custom character combinations. Bipolar Grotesque gives Richter its unique tone — it is eclectic and versatile.
PT Which project or typeface are you most proud of?
SL We love working with clients who are passionate about their work, especially when their product is great. For these types of customers, we want to go the extra mile to make the brand they deserve.
One such project is JENЁK. It is a brand that sells bags and accessories, named after its designer and creator Zhenia Petrova, affectionately known as Zheniok. We immediately loved their bags and connected with Zhenia’s creative vision.
PT What are your plans for the rest of the year?
PT Some of us are still in the process of moving abroad, so the plan is to get that visa 🙃
Speaking about projects, we are now working with a set of diverse clients in the fields of classical music, hospitality, HR, beauty, and more.
Also, this year we began working more on our own projects like a studio blog where we are going to post our team’s opinions and studies on design. We also have our own studio typeface in the making, so if everything goes well, we will make ourselves a nice Christmas present.