An exclusive interview with the man who helped shape the look and image of KTM today.
Gerald Kiska is the 56 year old designer and company-owner responsible for colouring an increasing chunk of the motorcycle industry in orange. From the confines of his agency in Salzburg, which now houses a team of up to 140 creative specialists, Kiska, under the gaze of Stefan Pierer and the KTM board, has largely dictated the look, feel and aesthetic of KTM since the early 1990s. We grabbed the opportunity to speak with the Austrian to find out a bit more about his crucial role in the firm’s history and achievements.
KISKA is one of those big names just slightly in the background when it comes to the latest chapter of KTM’s history but you have played a pivotal role in the look and feel of the brand. How and when did it all start?
“I met Mr. Pierer in 1991 and he owned a Ski binding company at this time. He didn’t have anything to do with motorcycles. I was working for KTM because we had won a design contest that the old owner of KTM started amongst some studios. So, we were already in KTM for about a year before Mr. Pierer took over the reins. The entire thing evolved quite quickly from there and since then it has been an ongoing sprint! The brand has grown from 6,000 motorcycles in the first year to 115,000 after the third quarter (of 2014). Also the width of the portfolio has reached a different dimension. In the first couple of years it was mainly offroad and we had just one ‘street’ bike, which was the DUKE. When the two-cylinder came into the game we were able to do a bit more.”
So you had your own agency for the contest. What was your background?
“I was about thirty years old at the time. I studied design in Austria and spent a couple of years in Germany. I joined Porsche Design back in Austria in 1986, close to Salzburg, and by 1990 I decided to start my own business. I was lucky enough to get in touch with KTM almost at the beginning (of the company) and we were invited to participate in this design contest and fortunately we won. I think this was thanks to my knowledge of motorcycles because I had been riding since I had a license.”
What did you have to design for the competition?
“It was an LC4. It was quite a brave concept because it was the first time they (KTM) decided to build a lateral frame for an offroad bike, which actually failed during the testing period. It was an unusual concept for an offroad bike, but the task was to make it still look like an offroad bike! That was the challenge and I think we did it better than the others.”
Over the last 25 years how has your relationship developed with KTM? Did the workload fluctuate? Different roles came up?
“From the very beginning we had full responsibility for all the bikes. Initially there were only a couple of two-stroke motocross and enduro bikes, as well as the LC4. That was in ’92. Later on the collection became bigger. From the first days it was still tricky for a small team to handle but it was OK. Then the new engine platforms came in. The four-stroke for offroad, the V2 and then more! When these came around we were already doing a lot more for KTM because in the mid-90s we were moaning a lot about the advertising agency that they were working with and at some point Stefan Pierer turned around and said ‘stop moaning and show us that you can do it better’. We were challenged to create a new communications concept for the print brochures and adverts. We changed from showing the bike in a sterile showroom to showing them in action. So, it meant a lot of action photography and travelling around the globe to find the best settings in which to take the photos. Basically that was a dramatic change in the communications style for KTM. It was also demanding (for KISKA) as a lot needed to be created early in the season in order to make the same brochure year. It was tough logistically but we got used to it and it helped the company (KISKA) to grow substantially over the years. I would say about a third of KISKA, or maybe a bit more, is working just for KTM.”
There was the era of new technology and increased racing activity, then the crisis years and quickly afterwards this explosion of machinery and output from Mattighofen. Was it hard to keep up?
“Yep! But that’s a good thing about our set-up. Like I said, we can have up to 40% of our team working on KTM, and place the rest of our focus on all of our other clients. It balances the workload nicely.”
Was KTM a demanding client in the beginning? Were designs for bikes being thrown back at you?
“To be honest the trust that Stefan had in me from the very first moment was phenomenal. If there was anything that needed improvement, tweaking, or another look he always said ‘give it to Gerald’. Whatever is visible for KTM has more or less been done by us. Bike show stands, KTM dealership design, website design and Youtube video production; it developed over the years. Whenever there was an issue it eventually landed on our desk. The trust was amazing, but at the same time it is a certain burden because KTM is such a fast-acting company, you don’t have time to get it right the second time around. The first shot has to hit the spot.”
Was there a point when you had to expand the company very quickly as KTM grew?
“Clearly in the middle of the ‘90s. We had one graphic designer then and when Mr. Pierer decided we were the communications agency as well we had to find a team basically overnight. It was the same when he decided that all digital communications should come from our end as well. We had to run and grab people wherever we could find them! At the same time we are quite picky when it comes to staff because this [the people] is the capital of the company. Anybody can buy a computer, but the person sitting behind it makes the difference. To grow a team, a good and qualified team, under pressure, is super-demanding.”
The whole ‘READY TO RACE’ philosophy is quite famous now and has set a high level in the industry. Is there one project or concept you are particularly proud of?
“I think the campaign, or the whole movement, around the 1290 SUPER DUKE R [in 2013] is a top candidate. Starting from the prototype drawings to the videos, which have been seen more than two million times on Youtube, and we created a tremendous amount of hype. I think it was probably the best integrated activity we have done to date. Most of KISKA’s departments were involved and almost all of the departments in KTM as well, from R&D to marketing. Everybody. It was demanding to manage, but I think we did it quite well. The first DUKE is another one. That was the first time we used orange for KTM and it (the bike) was an idea that was born in the workshop and not necessarily from a strategic plan. For a long time it created a certain image for KTM on the street and gave an opportunity for the brand to grow into the street market with its own image and idea about motorcycles. What we see today is simply an evolution of the same philosophy and ingredients.”
What is your role now? Purely managerial, or do you get hands-on?
“I’m not doing things now… I’m criticising! I go through the company and give comments on this and that, especially with regards to KTM. I still see everything that we do and I point my finger at things that I feel need to be revised. I am still hands-on, but more in terms of judging the work that is being done. That is basically my job.”
Where do you find your inspiration?
“Firstly I think KISKA has less of an ‘ego’ than other design companies. We aspire to create a strong brand for our client, not necessarily for ourselves, which I think is sometimes the approach for other designers. What we have developed for KTM is tailor made for them. We would do it completely differently for another company. In my opinion, design shows what is ‘inside’ a company. For KTM it was clear markers of being orange: edginess, loud and noisy.”
What about offroad model design? It must be difficult to do it a little bit differently each ti?
“True, but believe it or not, it is possible to get a little bit cleverer with it year-on-year. There are things that work perfectly and then others that show a problem, or two, and you try to do them better. Overall, designing an offroad bike is very demanding. There is little freedom and the expectations for reliability are endless because basically you should be able to throw it out of a tenth floor window and it should survive! Weight and the environment are also issues. We invite riders to our studio to sit on the models and we ask them where they would make changes. I don’t know if this happens in other design agencies; the elite of motocross, rally and enduro coming to sit on clay models and providing feedback? We invite them at an early stage and these guys are super-picky. We basically design their ‘tool’. For them it is the medium for success and we listen to every little thing they say.”
There seems to have been a lot of reaction to the 1290 SUPER DUKE R. How long did it take you to come up with the look for something like that?
“The initial design phase and the sketch plan tends to be quick, maybe up to three months. It sounds like a long time, but you have to do a lot of sketching, from head to toe. The first outline or general proportions come quite fast; if you didn’t find a direction in the first six weeks then you will have trouble to keep to a schedule. Then we immediately start to shape the whole thing in CAD before we mill it in clay. After, we start to retouch the clay model by hand. Ergonomics come into play and all the details that looked good on the screen sometimes don’t come out so well in reality. This takes about three to four months. Then we do a rapid Proto (prototype) for the first riding activities and get feedback from the test riders on what they want to change, where we need to improve and what needs to be done differently. Overall, the design-development can be up to one, or one and a half years, before it gets frozen and moves onto engineering and production.”
It seems unreal to think you are working on things now that might not see light until 2017 or ’18?
“It depends on how many new ‘ingredients’ a new motorcycle has. If it is all new, engine and frame, then it take between four and five years.”
So what’s your bike of choice?
“Due to the time spent working with KTM my free time to get out on the bike is rather limited so this means riding remains very special to me! This year we were a bit unlucky with the weather (in Austria), so my days on the bike can be counted on both hands. Riding is still an adventure, literally, because in the garage I have the 1190 ADVENTURE which is absolute the perfect bike for me as you can do everything with it. It is as fast as a superbike from five years ago. It is super agile and allows you to go long distances, but also do a quick blast after work. I’m privileged where I live because the mountain roads are just two kilometres away and I have a place to play for an hour without seeing the same corner twice.”
MotoGP is coming up for KTM. Maybe it is like a chance to design an F1 car, so a big deal?
“Yep, but here the aerodynamics play a major role. To a certain extent, we were also involved in the development of racing motorcycles and in the Moto3 you can see some of our design elements. It is a challenge and sometimes a difficult design compromise to ensure aesthetics and function are in balance. It takes a lot of time and in the eyes of a designer the end product is the result of a compromise. All that being said however, I am really looking forward to it!”
Photos: KISKA, KTM