Our latest addition to the Design Around the World series is a fun one: Serbia.
I'll be honest. Before this interview, what I knew about Serbia was limited mostly to the fashion world and random stories I'd see in the news. I certainly had no grasp on the design scene there, which is why I set out to do this series in the first place.
After talking here with Mirko Zarkovic, a Serbian designer (who also happens to use Semplice.com for his portfolio), I got a taste of the delightfully weird, vibrant and unexpected voice of Serbia and Serbian design. Mirko's words here have as much style as his designs, and it made for an enlightening and entertaining look into design in Serbia.
Hey Mirko, thanks for talking with us. First, tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into design and what kind of work do you do?
I'm a 39-year-old interdisciplinary designer from Novi Sad, Serbia. I like how the word interdisciplinary sums me up. My professional experience spans video editing, visual effects, motion graphics, CGI, web design and extended reality. It was heavily influenced by the music I used to listen to and now, the data I browse. This all flows and combines through my career, but, the most important update I go for daily is from the field of visual communications and the relevant technologies. It is a chain reaction guided by instinct, constant questioning and exploration to clear the clutter that piles up around us on every level of our lives.
This might sound like a careless life, but It was difficult and it still is. Every project must be better than the previous and on top of that, socially and environmentally responsible.
Mirko at LOKAL, the creative space he founded in Novi Sad. Image by Marija Mandic.
I’ve heard Belgrade has become a stylish, creative city, especially when it comes to art. What is the design scene like in Novi Sad and Serbia overall? Is there energy and conversation about design happening among your community?
There’s a difference between Belgrade and Novi Sad. The mentality is different. Throughout history, Novi Sad was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 100 years ago, and Belgrade was part of the Ottoman Empire. This is really embedded into the culture and that’s something you can feel as soon as you step in.
Novi Sad is going to be a European Capital of Culture for 2021, which is nice but there’s something stuck here on the educational level. There’s no link between students and the market. As a designer, it’s really up to how self-thought and mature you are to overcome this gap and aim further for international projects and collaborations.
On the other side, if you scratch the surface you’ll find many brilliant small initiatives scattered across Novi Sad that are popping up in a stealthy manner. They connect like-minded creatives and breed in content and narratives to some new and rediscovered places.
"I see it as a small dose of Eastern European awareness, mixed with Balkan trumpet bass music while driving your German car in an Armani tight-shirt going out tonight."
Part of the web shop Mirko designed for Revolver Pullover.
I know you run LOKAL for your creative community. Can you tell us a bit more about what this is and the response you’ve seen from local designers?
Lokal is a small creative initiative that fits into 30sqm. It’s a ground-level commercial space that sits where four small streets intersect. Rarely someone passes by into this easy-to-get-lost area called Almaški Kraj, and it’s still five minutes by foot away from the city center.
The space itself is inviting and it really takes just a click kind of initiative, and it happens. Almost without any effort. No financial plan, no clue what’s next, just pure responsibility to pull up values that are around us and combine them in order to get and feel something whole and different. When you create a wave, it triggers other waves around and then you get this creative social stimulus that results in something tangible through real human connections and creative output. That’s what matters the most.
A film Mirko animated for ANIMANIMA, an international animation festival.
Besides LOKAL, do many platforms and events exist in Novi Sad / Serbia that connect you with other designers?
Part of Mirko's brand identity for PicPic Clothing.
How would you describe the design you see coming from Serbia today? Is it influenced by your culture/history/environment in any way?
I see it as a small dose of Eastern European awareness, mixed with Balkan trumpet bass music while driving your German car in an Armani tight-shirt going out tonight.
Art yes. But, design no.
"It’s really amazing how you can wrap up your portfolio and send it to someone as one-liner within a second. This way I become a part of a global environment."
An image of Mirko's past "workstation" from his About page (one of the best About pages I've seen). mirkozarkovic.com
Considering Serbia’s recent history of conflict, I’ve read that design tends to look forward rather than back. “People here abolish history. They want the new.” Do you agree and see this to be true for Serbian design?
It’s really interesting now to see how we’re accepting our cyrilic alphabet. It’s a pity because it’s still mainly seen as something related to Eastern Orthodox Church and its ideology, but that’s something we should definitely overcome. Nowadays, since we have a strong street fashion influence coming from world known Eastern Bloc designers, I see more and more good use of cyrillics that’s mainly coming from young designers' new perspectives. Again we need this self-reflection coming from around us in order to become aware.
Some might argue the internet has homogenized design, with everyone looking outward for inspiration. How do you feel about globalization and its effect on Serbia’s design identity?
I see only good here, and I hope it will always be like this. Because in the end, it is just up to us.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Basically no impact at all. I rarely share my work on social media. In a way, I like to act from the backstage and send my work straight to the desired locations. It’s really amazing how you can wrap up your portfolio and send it to someone as one-liner within a second. This way I become a part of a global environment and only this way I can become relevant and bring more to the local community.
Mirko's portfolio homepage.
What is design education currently like in Serbia? Are many designers choosing to study or are most self-taught?
I’d like to mention the Department of Digital Art on Media and Communications Faculty (I hope that’s how it translates) in Belgrade as a great starting point for young creatives.
Most designers in Serbia are self-taught. Design classes are limited to a small number of students and to be honest, I feel that in order to become a good one, you need to be self-taught and enter this world from a different background to bring something unique and multidimensional.
On the other hand, I feel that we can’t just jump into design education without learning and practicing creative approaches for problem-solving. That’s a missing piece that is my major concern.
"In Serbia, there’s this feeling that somehow everything works. Like there is an invisible force that just works."
Behind the scenes of Mirko's PicPic Clothing project
What does good design mean to you, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole? Do you think it can solve larger issues Serbia faces?
Good design is invisible. It just works. In Serbia, there’s this feeling that somehow everything works. Like there is an invisible force that just works.
Do Serbian clients, generally speaking, appreciate good design and understand what it takes?
Unfortunately, generally no. Aesthetics are not embedded in our DNA and the amount of visual junk around us is defines clients' expectations while completely demolishing their potential to distinguish between good and bad. Lower offers win the pitch.
You’ve worked more than a decade in this field. How have you seen it change over the last 10 years? What do you expect or hope for your community in the next 10 years?
Design trends are morphing and recycling but we’re still stuck into our screens. We need to break this tight, two dimensional, non-tangible surface and start thinking about how to reinvent the way we are, what we do and how we relate.
UX & UI for 3deluxe, a transdisciplinary design studio based in Wiesbaden & Hamburg, Germany.
In your opinion, what are the top 5-10 design studios from Serbia that everyone who might be not familiar with the Serbian design community should know?
And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Serbian design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow? Good question. Let’s co-create something about it.