Munich's TOCA ME has many faces: a design studio, an online community and a creative conference. "We always try to realise our ideas and make things happen," says one of its founders, Thorsten Iberl. The three talented members of this vibrant design outfit are creating solutions that successfully bridge the gap between their experimental sympathies and the commercial demands of an increasingly stellar client list.
From its base in the Bavarian capital, TOCA ME reaches out to clients and contemporaries around the world - including BMW, Xbox and Vodafone - through print, web and events. The quality of its creative offerings stretches from end to end - there are no blemishes or unsightly patches.
It could be that this is achieved by developing an underpinning of experimental material and community ties through the TOCA ME Stage, the agency's online platform for creative expression. Speaking as one, they endorse the need to test their boundaries: "We're always thinking about new ideas and checking out the limits," says Thorsten.
An interesting proposition
Listed in the order in which they joined the studio, TOCA ME is staffed by Thorsten Iberl, Nina Schmid and Ronald Iberl. Schmid and Thorsten Iberl are the senior members who make up the creative team, while younger brother, Ronald, is head of operations and business development.
Schmid started out studying fashion design, but found that she, "liked the graphic design part even more than clothes." This led her to the world of advertising and internet agencies. And, as she puts it, "I got to know the guys and decided to stay."
By the time he met Nina Schmid, Thorsten, the oldest of the TOCA ME family, had been working for various design and advertising agencies long enough to start itching for greener pastures. The two designers worked together on a number of projects and, having toured around the world visiting sundry design conferences, the pair decided to start organising their own events. TOCA ME was born.
The team of three form an equilateral triangle. "Each one of us looks after everything and is responsible for all kinds of work," says Ronald. "There's neither a boss nor a secretary." But any way you slice it, TOCA ME is an interesting proposition.
This heterogeneous approach extends throughout the agency. "We have no strict separation concerning either commercial work at the design studio or establishing our international design community," says Ronald. Much like the sides of a triangle, the members of TOCA ME reinforce one another. "We support each other where necessary," says Schmid.
A balancing act
"If you're talking about design," says Thorsten, "we really complement one another." It's always good to have instant feedback during a design process. "Very often you're too deeply involved in a subject and you lose overview - you're no longer able to see the wood for the trees," he says, and having another set of eyes helps. The third point of the triangle prevents the relationship pulling it in two different directions, providing the third wall. Thanks to what feels like its naturally occurring structure, TOCA ME can cover what seems like an impossible amount of ground without letting its game slip. The studio's print work for magazines such as Rojo from Barcelona and Soap from the Czech Republic are as engagingly 'real' as its recent website for BMW. Pulling these disparate elements together is what being TOCA ME is all about.
"This is actually the main issue of our work," Thorsten admits. "There's a daily struggle to keep it all balanced." On the one hand there are the commercial projects, which are essential to earn money and to develop the studio. "On the other hand we are trying really hard to pursue our idealistic goal - to bring together and interact with designers from all over the world."
"It may be a challenge," agrees Schmid, "but it also offers us a wonderful variety of projects." She points to something that anyone who's spent time designing letterheads and logos for pocket change will appreciate: "It never becomes boring." After all, variety is the spice of life.
It seems that Munich's fledgling design scene is still in the early stages of development. "There are plenty of individual designers and agencies out there," says Schmid, "but you cannot talk about a vivid design scene here in Munich."
"We are trying to change it, at least a bit," she continues. "We're trying to connect with people at our design conferences and also throughout the year at the bi-monthly TOCA ME open room." This process dates back to 2002. "Nina and I were travelling a lot," says Thorsten. "We were visiting design conferences such as the OFFF festival in Barcelona and finally came up with the idea of organising such a conference by ourselves."
It was a long and not always easy journey, says Thorsten, "But when we opened the doors in 2004 for the first TOCA ME design conference, all the hard work was forgotten and it was a wonderful experience." The appearance of names such as Joshua Davis, 123Klan and Tomato Interactive in Munich led to such high spirits that the whole thing happened again in 2005, and is scheduled once more for 2007. "It's too early to go into details," says Thorsten, "but we are already very excited."
When it comes to the challenge of a commercial project, the studio's diversity finds a direction - each job is all about the product and the client, pure and simple. "If it fits and you're lucky enough to have an open-minded client, you can realise a project that is interesting for both parties," says Schmid. "So, for example, with an online BMW project we were able to use some ideas originating from experiments with sound and video." These resources simply wouldn't be available if TOCA ME didn't experiment. The abundance of such material on the TOCA ME portal gives the illusion that this kind of thing is abundant. Spend a few more minutes surfing the rest of the internet and you instantly lose that illusion. These are certainly scarce resources.
"For us, it's always interesting to add some experimental aspects," says Thorsten. "Even though we generally come up with a concept before starting to design, we allow ourselves to experiment and play around." This could change the direction of the design process, ending up with a totally different and better solution.
Crossing the divide
It's not that TOCA ME has an easily definable style, but the agency has become known for its 'skin'. "In the first version of our website, toca-me.com, we took close-up-pictures of our skin and used them as background images," says Schmid.
"We originally chose to show our skin because of TOCA ME's philosophy," says Ronald. TOCA ME is Spanish for 'touch me'. "The first step of communication is to know who you are talking to - to come out from within the shadow of anonymity and show your face, and your skin."
The TOCA ME team believes in the importance of experimentation, but that not everyone puts their desires into action. And of those that do, an even smaller number seem to work to make those ideas cross the great divide into commercial viability. "It's important to just leave the computer aside,"
says Thorsten, "and to try out ideas that first have nothing to do with bits and pixels. We don't feel any time or success pressures and we enjoy doing it." TOCA ME wants you to take that thought and run with it, straight towards them.