It's not business, it's personal

An Interview with Malte Müller

by Charles Broskoski
Malte Müller at Haus der Kunst in Munich, visiting Nanda Vigo’s piece "Ambiente spaziale: Utopie." [Malte waving his hand in what looks like a big empty room. Everything is red and wavy, like there’s a filter over the frame.]

This is the second installment in the series It’s Not Business, It's Personal, which consists of interviews with people whose careers we find fascinating.

This time, we are joined by Malte Müller, who is the founder of WAF GMBH and a new friend. This is one of those friendships that has been simmering for a while. I’ve known about Malte and his work as a designer for years, and I’m a big fan of the way he articulates the concept of Web design as architecture.

The first time we talked on the phone, I knew that I wanted to have him do an interview for this series. It’s such a nice feeling when you find a person who thinks about things in a similar way, but different enough that your perspective of those ideas expand. 

We recorded this interview a few months ago, in May 2023, and it has since been edited and condensed for clarity.


Charles Broskoski: So like I said before, the idea is basically to trace your path from being a kid to doing what you do now, and to see how the things that you came into contact with along the way influenced your path. Are you ready? [laughs]

Malte Müller: I guess so. [laughs] The first part is easy to answer. I grew up in rural Germany, there was not a lot going on. The place was quite removed, both geographically and culturally, from anything relevant. I was into computers themselves — not really doing anything with them, but just making them work and hacking them and running the games I wanted to run. I got my first computer when I was 11 years old and I learned how it was put together — it was so simple back then.

The second thing that was important to me was physical activity. I picked up playing basketball when that became a thing in Germany in the early ’90s. I think these two things — the physical and the more cerebral part — I alternated between those as a kid.

Malte as a kid. [A very small Malte, standing in front of a shallow body of water with trees growing out of it. The image has that saturated, dreamy, film-print quality.]

Cab: When you were on your computer at 11, I guess you weren’t on the internet yet?

Malte: No, no. 

Cab: It was like, Windows 3, this kind of thing?

Malte: It was DOS. [laughs]

Cab: Oh wow.

Malte: My first computer was a 286 chipset and it would run DOS. I would play X-Wing, the Star Wars game. You had to modify your config.sys file to make it not load a ton of drivers, so it had enough RAM for the game. Of course, I fried the computer in the process numerous times. 

Cab: I remember the change directory command in DOS — is it CD? Learning that, I felt like I was hacking. Typing commands. [laughs] So was it the people that were playing basketball or who were into computers that became your friends?

Malte: Yeah. I mean, of course there's always your classmates, those were my closest friends. With computers, it grew from this whole Shareware thing, where you would have free software that you could share that would have a limited amount of functionality, and then you had to buy it. But to buy it you would have to have a credit card, which of course none of us had, or you could send like $20 bills to some post box in the U.S. to buy the full thing, which we never did. We only had the Shareware versions of everything. So we would exchange those, and that’s how you made friends, too, because you would hear about someone who had this particular game, you got in contact with them, and you would meet and copy the floppy disks, or play the game together. 

Cab: That’s making me think that like, the same thing is still happening now: people are meeting people through information. But the friction is removed. Going to get the disks and trading is so much more involved. You're more likely to figure out, is this a person I wanna be friends with?

Malte: Did you ever play Monkey Island? 

[A big white sun hung low in the sky, setting over a mountainous landscape with a sandy path in the foreground.]

Cab: No. I kind of know it though, from other people. 

Malte: Those games would come with this particular type of protection against illegal copying. In the box, there were two cardboard disks that were connected, that you had to spin against each other. Every time you run the game, you have to answer a particular question, which you could only answer if you had these cardboard discs that you would spin to reveal which pirate was on which tropical island. Of course, we pirated that pirate game. But to do that, you had to photocopy and build this cardboard thing that LucasArts issued with the original game. I vividly remember building a very high-end version of the physical thing, which was part of this software, you know, you couldn’t play the game without it. 

Cab: Yeah, that's very cool. When did you start getting on the internet then? 

Malte: My uncle had a job at a university and we would visit them once or twice a year. Every time we'd go to his office, we could get on the internet. I was probably 12 or 13, and it was unimaginable to me. I couldn’t fathom that this thing could exist. I would get these little windows of time where I could sit down in front of a computer and access the internet for an hour, maybe. That was magical to me. I always thought about it for a long time afterwards, and I’d be looking forward to the next time I could visit. I would think for months about what I would look up or try, the next time I had access to it. Because it was a cable connection, it was super fast for the time.

When I was 14, we got internet access at our home, which was not as fast. It was a dial up connection, it was like a 10th of the speed, which was very disappointing. 

Cab: What sorts of things did you want to look up?

[A mountainous landscape, craggy cliffs, a deep blue sky.]

Malte: Basketball stuff, mostly. As I got older, I got into music and hip-hop. I would find sneaker forums, all about Air Jordans and that type of thing. I would visit these and try to gather as much information as I could. It was a way for me to get to North America-driven culture.

Those were the main topics I was into, but I also wanted to take apart the internet. I wanted to understand, how does this work? And I was able to program a little, to write some simple computer programming. I wanted to disassemble how websites are built, deconstruct it, and of course, make my own website, which is probably the natural inclination for anyone who sees the internet. 

Cab: Especially around that time, because it felt like the distance between a person and making the thing was pretty short, you know? I remember being in a chat room — I mean, saying chat room is generous, it was like a browser-based chat, basically a form field with a text input. People would just put HTML in the thing and images and stuff — a rainbow GIF or something. [laughs] And I was like, how is this happening? How do you do that? Someone told me about the view source thing, and I still have this notebook where I had written down the image tag, like, pen on paper, you know?

Malte: I can totally relate to what you’re describing. If you wanted to make something public before that, you had to get it into the newspaper or onto TV or something, which was unattainable. So that action of putting something out there and then seeing it there, and being mesmerized by it, I can totally relate to it. And wanting to know, how does it work? It was a profound moment, you could sense that something had changed.

Cab: The way that you're saying that makes me really thankful to have lived in the period of time that was a cusp between one point and another, and to be able to compare the before and after. I can see why there’s so much, like, meta culture around this time. It's fascinating to live in this moment when there was no access to a “public” for a normal person. There was no making things public. And then suddenly there was. 

[An image of the sky with gradients of blue, baby blue, cerulean. There’s a reflection of light, like the sky is being seen out of a window, possibly a plane window?]

Malte: Yeah. It’s immediate, you know, you can just do it and then see what happens. At least for me, I didn't care if anyone was listening. I didn't think what I had to say was important, but I still did it because, I don't know, it made it exist more. 

There were also things that you would do, like hang out in bulletin boards or build websites about weird topics and then rebuild them every two weeks or whatever — all of that led into this whole scene where it became really cool to associate yourself with, or do research around, media theory. Or to try to parse this or relate that to pop culture. You would start to make these things part of your identity construction. 

Cab: Thinking about rebuilding websites every two weeks is like — it's not triggering, it’s the opposite of triggering. [laughs] I'm thinking about that impulse, because I was definitely one of those people just making a website and having a different idea of what the website should be for. No one was visiting it or anything. You know what I mean? 

Malte: I think because it comes from inside of you, and you realize, oh, I can express myself in this way. If just one person or 10 people come across it and they're fascinated by it, if it puts them on a different trajectory, then it’s worth it. I am still the most happy on the internet when I find people's personal environments and they are idiosyncratic. 

Cab: Yeah, definitely. So wait, media theory was your area of study in college, right? 

Malte: Yeah, kind of. In German, it's called Kommunikationswissenschaft, which literally means communication science. The particular university I studied at had a very theoretical take on it. So it was media theory, but there was also a linguistics part wrapped into it. It's the least applicable version of this you could ever imagine. [laughs] It was really not a good way of starting a career, but it was probably one of the most relevant fields anyone could have studied at the time, because this type of meta knowledge or meta understanding helps me greatly with everything I do. If you understand communication well, if you understand how social structures work, that’s a skill that’s helpful for a lot of things. I became a designer at some point, but I still design through understanding communication and shaping communication — or sometimes also hacking communication, circumventing it, or doing things to it that serve my goals. 

But that wasn’t the reason I picked it. I picked it because I was thinking I would become a journalist. I wanted to become a writer in the cultural fields, get hired by some newspaper. That was the plan. 

Cab: What was your dream writing gig at that time?

Malte: That's a good question. Probably at that point, at 17 or 18 years old, I could have imagined a lot of different things. I would’ve wanted a writing gig where I got to wear some old brown, ’70s leather jacket and hang out at art shows and write very heady takes on culture. [laughs] The reality was that I worked for the local newspaper and I wrote articles about concerts mostly, but the feeling was alright.

Cab: Were you blogging too?

Malte: I started blogging in 2004, when I started university. I think in the U.S., Kottke and all these people had had their moment already. In Europe, this was just taking off a couple years later. Everyone had personal blogs; that was our form of social media. We had comments under our posts. It was logical for me because I knew how to make a website. You didn't need anyone to commission you, you could pick your own topics. I would just write about music or whatever interested me. And I basically never stopped doing that.

Cab: I had something similar — it wasn't a blog, but a skateboard website. I'm pretty sure the only people who visited it were the people who were involved. It was just my friends. I'm curious about your conception of an audience for your blog, or if that was important.

Malte: The core audience was our friends. But in Germany at the time there weren't so many people blogging in earnest. It was so small that we mostly all knew each other. We'd go to these conferences and you would get linked from other blogs or one of your articles would get posted in some forum. There was some traffic and there was some audience building, but it was very unclear to all of us who our visitors were. 

Sometimes I would meet people, and they would say, “Hey, I know your blog, I read this and that.” And then I would get quite embarrassed. [laughs] Just because at that point, I would realize that these things are internal monologues, but people are reading them because they're public, which is why you publish them, you idiot. [laughs] But on the other hand, it was also nice because it was very candid and it was nice to know there's a connection. Then you would realize that you had read something they had written. It was another way to create connections. Some of the people from that time are still among my best friends.

[A landscape scene at dusk. A city is lit up in the distance along the horizon. Bushes of orange flowers are lit up by moonlight in the foreground.]

Cab: The reason I ask about perceived audience is because I was reading something on the WAF website, and it made me think about the role of honesty in your practice, especially as it relates to the internet. In order for someone to be honest online, the framing has to be right, you know, the context has to be right. Maybe it was a little bit easier during that time because it was so unclear who the audience was. Like you said, you could write those things thinking that it's an internal monologue and almost trick yourself into believing it, because the audience was so abstract.

Malte: I think there’s multiple angles to this. At that time, in 2005 or even in 2010, I would argue that the pressure of all those eyeballs or the potential attention — and also the consequences of this attention — was a lot less daunting. I think now, you can't ignore the weight of attention. Of course, everyone is vying for attention in the attention economy, but at the same time, if you get attention, it can also be a very disconcerting experience. So that is one very practical thing. 

I think it greatly depends on how you approach your work. You call it context, but I would say that it's more about from what direction you reach your expression — whether you’re putting out design work or writing, or whatever it is. The last time we talked, I brought up this quote that I'm really fond of: “do what only you can, don't call it art.” That is still a thing that is very important to me, in both my professional work, and also when I publish as a private person, on Are.na or wherever. I don't really care who sees it, I don't envision an audience. I do it for myself mostly. I'm super selfish — I don't want to explain it at all, I don’t want to optimize it to work well in a certain environment or get a lot of eyeballs or get a lot of feedback. I'm not looking for any of these things. I think that leads to a certain coded style; for some people, it's very hard to parse and they go away immediately, but for others, that’s where they start to be intrigued. I really like encoding and decoding things, and when I find someone who has a very particular style of writing, or a very particular style of designing a website, I get intrigued. That is something that is very important to how I approach any type of publishing online. I have weird hangups and I have weird interests, and I just want to express them as I can. 

All of these things, they sound like artistic practice. That sounds like something an artist would say. But I don’t consider myself an artist. Even if you’re not an artist, and you’re just trying to express yourself, you owe it to yourself to make it as much about the idea as you can. And you have to ignore whether it is understood or not. I think for my work as a designer, or my company’s work, that’s also something we do: We try to find a solution to a problem. And it has to be a good solution, it has to work, but we don't necessarily care about the preconceptions of how the problem should be solved. Basically, we ignore best practices on purpose because that’s the only way to create something that might be more interesting than just optimizing for conversion. I think that comes from a mindset of thinking from within, thinking inductively, rather than thinking from the outside, if that makes any sense. 

[Mountains and clouds from above, as seen from an airplane.]

Cab: A lot of that resonates with me. It’s not a force that’s coming from the world. It’s not just something that wants to smooth everything out and remove tension and friction. I think it's interesting that you frame it in terms of selfishness, because the parts of a person that are really fascinating tend to be the ones that are kind of orthogonal to the rest of the world — that have these little weird shapes that don't quite fit. Being able to express those things…. [laughs] maybe I’m forcing this, but I find that generous. Like you said, it’s something that’s very specific to a single person. That feels like a gift.

Malte: I really want everyone to be themselves as much as they can, all the time. I want that from everyone because, in my mind, like you say, that's the interesting part of the person. Expressing your inner self is sometimes confusing or might not fit certain preconceptions, so I really root for people to do it. Maybe that’s the extrovert in me talking — it might be a very daunting thought for people who are not comfortable with it. But I just desperately want to understand what your position is. To me that has a lot to do with being honest. 

I think it also relates a bit to Are.na, too. When we had our little event in Hamburg, I was talking to Meg about how people are always saying, “Are.na is so fascinating,” but then the critique is that it doesn't have a particularly smooth onboarding process. It doesn't reward me for getting there. It’s not like other platforms where there's a lot of suggestions, or it pushes you to follow people, or whatever. For me, Are.na is particularly exciting because you can use it however you want to use it. Seeing all these people use it in all these different ways, that is what makes it so exciting for me. The web and interfaces and devices have gotten so good that you can't be bothered to do anything that makes you think for a while, or is a bit harder to start out. It has to all be there immediately, that’s become the expectation. I really like subverting that, and I think Are.na subverts that to a degree.

Cab: I agree with you about wanting to subvert that. I hear from people all the time who say, “I signed up for Are.na and didn't know what to do, and then a year later it kind of clicked and I got into it.” 

I don’t know, it’s like 0.01% of people working in technology would tell you, “you should probably leave some friction there.” Literally no one would say that; I probably wouldn't even say it. But the thing I like about you using the word honesty is that those kinds of impulses aren’t always rational decisions. 

Another example is, we’re rebuilding the web part of Are.na, and we have to pick all of these weird things that we’ve done over the years to translate easily [to this new system]. Looking at it from an outside perspective, being generous to a person who uses Are.na is not always the thing that you think it is. The easiest thing in the world to do is to eat fast food. It doesn't mean it's good for you. It's just easy.

Malte: Maybe I’ve gotten cynical with age, but I don’t really trust something if it’s too slick. I’m cautious. And speaking of generosity, I think that you also just have to come to grips with the fact that there’s some things that will just happen to you because of the shape of your personality. So maybe that’s also true for Are.na: your team is building it, and that will make it take a certain shape.

Cab: Yeah but one has to be able to know themselves to some degree. Like, oh, this is one of my weird things.

Malte:  There’s another quote, this one I got from Devine Lu Linvega, a programmer, musician, and a general polymath. He once stated “everything I touch turns into me.”

[Moss on a rock wall, maybe, or otherwise just a pleasingly abstract image of beiges and greens.]

Cab: That's really good. [laughs]

Malte: And I think it’s true for them that whatever program they build, you can immediately tell that it’s by them. There’s so much personality in it that it’s immediately recognizable without credit. Rick Owens is like that, too. Anything Rick Owens does, you know immediately it’s Rick Owens. If he writes a text or designs a garment, or if he does a piece of furniture — it’s so coherent.

Cab: That’s also making me think of Chris Sherron, who’s the designer for Are.na, who said, “there's no art without the artist,” when all of this AI stuff started popping up. It’s almost so obvious, but when you really start thinking about it, the thing that we’re looking for is not some platonic output. It’s a person’s relationship to it, it’s everything that’s coming before and after, and, like you said, the clarity in which someone’s personality is expressed through a work and all their experiences.

Malte: It’s a viewpoint, it’s a perspective. It’s a way of describing the world, basically. It’s just saying something about the world or making a proposal for the world, or for a button on a website, or a garment or a house or whatever. All of these things are proposals about how we should live and how a life should be led. It’s a statement about how a particular part of society should work. You could call the person who creates that an artist, but anyone can do that. 

I think that is also a function of the internet, to make this notion understandable and applicable to a lot of people. And this is also why I think that I’m very critical about the fact that the tools that we use have become increasingly more like cable TV. TikTok is more like cable TV than a web platform. The danger is that we’re wasting the potential of the internet. 

Cab: The definition of creativity now is so different. It}s really so much about output and not about this process that one has to go through. 

Malte: We have almost reached a point where output is separated from the process. There’s Instagram accounts or Behance profiles that are full of designs, but they’re not solving a problem, they’re creating visuals that are made to be liked or to look good or be featured. They’re disconnected from the actual practice.

Of course, you have to have output to be visible. If you stop posting, if you stop playing the algorithmic game, it's hard to keep up the level of attention. So the output and the practice are getting separated. For WAF GMBH, somehow we have arrived at this thing where the graphic design is a side effect almost of something entirely different. 

I don’t know, I also think the discipline has changed so much that it’s really hard to use these old concepts that come from the art world. They’re increasingly not applicable anymore to the disciplines we work in.

Cab: Design doesn’t even really… it’s not really a fair definition for what you do. When you meet your parents’ friends or something, and they ask you what you do, what do you say?

Malte: I usually say that I’m a web designer. That’s enough, most of the time. If someone’s curious, of course, I can always explain why it’s not so simple anymore because there are a lot more facets to it. That’s the context for web design is architecture, because like architecture, web design now has to reflect many more disciplines. Ultimately it’s the preeminent social space of our time. So you have to understand how society works and how social systems work and so forth. All these things were traditionally associated with architecture. People usually get it when you explain it like that. 

I’m happy to explain, of course, if they’re interested, but I never try to set the record straight or anything. I am much more interested in hearing how they perceive the web. How do they do things? How they deal with this, and how they navigate that.This is much more interesting than explaining what a server is and how the stack works.

Web design as architecture website. [Screenshot with text in red and white. It reads, “1. Websites are places 2. Websites are inherently public.”]

Cab: What is the impulse to position the web as architecture?

Malte: Architecture has always been the most inspiring discipline for me. I’m fascinated in general by the built environment, because of the permanence of buildings, the atmosphere that a well-made architectural situation can create. With web design, there are always these gaps where someone would make a mockup and then some developer would get handed that mockup to implement it. That’s the same problem space as in architecture, where you have someone who makes a design proposal, and then it has to be implemented by someone with a very different skill set and a very different type of knowledge. It takes a lot of communication.

A lot of people would argue that web design is more like product design. For apps, that is a good analogy. But to me, architecture makes more sense because of the scale and the social and cultural implications of web design. I also really like how the field of architecture discusses problems that are beyond how to build houses. There’s a healthy ecosystem around its discourse. 

I always thought that it’s a pity that web design is so limited in that regard. For the longest time it was always about how you can make use of this particular CSS technique, or what websites look cool. I always wished for a discourse that was wider. We have to ask questions that are more interesting than just how to make the site load faster. That’s what I’m calling for.

Cab: Yeah those things are tactics. Lately I keep putting things on a spectrum where one side is productivity and the other is, I don’t know, maybe spirit? The CSS advice or the web design showcase, all this stuff is really about some kind of notion of productivity. In the web design discourse, that's like, Joe Rogan life hacking. You should do ice baths every day, that kind of thing. And the other side —

Malte: It’s more like a liberal arts or humanities approach to web design. Rather than a trade school, engineering focus. You know, all these super complex systems that we are all bound to and that we’re entangled in, you have to take them seriously if you want to design anything.

I think that’s all part of the practice. At WAF GMBH, we have this inclination of doing everything from scratch. So if we build something, we try to use as few pre-built components as we can. We don’t do it for any efficiency reason or for any good technological reasoning. There’s no reason really other than we just really want to do it ourselves in the particular way we want to do it. You can see that oh, this is this type of lightbox that everyone uses, and it works really well, but I don’t want everyone's lightbox. I want to design my own lightbox, and I want to make my own weird mistakes. It’s because we want to figure out how the thing works and why, even if doing it that way makes the thing slightly less “good” than the established version.

Cab: Yeah, “I want to make my own weird mistakes.”  Maybe that’s a perfect place to leave it, actually. 

Charles Broskoski is one of the many co-founders of Are.na.