Two Nights of Techno Taught Me My Design Approach Was Wrong

Just after midnight last Saturday morning in Berlin, I got off the S-Bahn at Ostbanhof and walked through a dull neighborhood of apartment towers and warehouses to a giant former power plant which now houses Berghain, widely touted as the world’s best techno club.

Daybreak over Berghain.

Berghain’s reputation wasn’t built overnight. Berghain is legendary for its history and former incarnation as Ostgut Ton, one of Berlin’s foundational venues for the music and gay culture that centered around it. While Berghain does little to promote itself, it enjoys a powerful word-of-mouth reputation for its DJs, sound system, bathrooms, sex, drugs, and perhaps most notably, its inscrutable door policy.

Everyone I know in Berlin talks about this place. It’s an iconic part of the local post-wall lore. I’d heard about the difficulty of getting in and its most famous bouncer Sven Marquardt who unceremoniously dismisses a majority of visitors at busy times. This has led to a proliferation of websites providing advice on how to get in, and even the Berghain Trainer. I opted to consult my friend Lena who took one look at me and said “Ja, you are fine.” Really? Okay. I thought I looked distinctly California and boring: Black shorts, Vans Sk8 Hi sneakers, and a plain ochre t-shirt. Not the studied “Berlin look” of mostly black that is purported to be the unofficial dress code. P.S. don’t take that as advice for what you should wear.

A few minutes from the train, I arrived at an array of permanent stanchions arranged like a cattle pen and joined the end of a line of maybe 150 people. I went alone and admittedly felt nervous as I mentally reviewed all the hype I’d heard for months before coming here. I felt distinctly not cool. Up ahead under the yellow of a large sodium vapor light, I could see the doorman having a conversation with the next people in line every few minutes. He waved most of them off with a “Please, not tonight. You’re not getting in.” I estimated about one in seven were being admitted. The large majority walked quietly back through the dirt path to the train or a long line of waiting cabs rivaled only by Tegel Airport.

A very light line when I left at 11:30 a.m.

Behind me in line, a group of four Americans muttered and jockeyed about “being cool and staying cool” and discussed whether they were wearing the right things, and how quiet everyone was, and what German they knew. “You don’t get in unless you speak German.” I stayed quiet.

After slowly inching forward in line for about 45 minutes, I got to the front, prepared to get rejected and skulk back through the dirt to the train.

The bouncer held up one finger and nodded his head to ask if I’m alone.

“Ja.”

He then said quietly, “Enjoy your evening, Viel Spaß,” and motioned me past into a concrete room with more bouncers and a cashier desk.

OK, excited!

First check is the phone. I laid it on a stool in front of me and the friendly bouncer placed stickers on both camera lenses. I was then frisked. Then at the counter, I paid my €12, got a stamp, and headed through the dimly lit cavern of DDR-era utility to the dance floor.

The sticker.

I paused for a moment to see if my countrymen got in. They didn’t. I bought a beer. The music hadn’t started yet. People were surveying the room and one another, anticipating, and appreciating that this was the community who would engage in this shared experience. The music started, and I danced dumbly but blissfully until 7 the next morning when hunger and sleep finally wrested my body from the force of the sound system and sent me in search of daylight. I headed back down the stairs, catching glimpses of sunlight through the painted windows and headed to a bakery for something sweet and finally ambled back to my apartment for a few hours of sleep.

Berghain lived up to the hype. Absolutely. And I went back two weeks later at seven in the morning and did it again.

NO PHONES ON OUR DANCEFLOOR!!

As I reflect on these experiences, I wonder what makes this club earn its reputation as world’s greatest. Obviously, waiting in line in anticipation and getting in makes you feel special. We all secretly want that feeling of approval by something exclusive. But aside from the feeling of exclusivity, the sound, the DJs, and the building, there is something essential in what is purposely hidden. It’s ironic that most brands are doing everything they can to shout their existence while Berghain purposely stays inaccessible, obscured, and unsharable.

It also makes me think how often I’ve worked on a program at IDEO that championed “transparency” as a design principle. How often have I intuited that knowing something and having access and information is better than mystery because people feel lost and complain about not knowing things? (Plenty of people complain about Berghain too.) But is it always better? I’m guessing the people who were waved away that night would tell you they wished they’d known how to get in. But what about those who got in? The people who shared the moment and access?

Think of air travel. It’s nice to know where you are in line, and if you are a frequent traveler, whether you will get upgraded. Some airlines are very clear on their policies, others are more enigmatic. Maybe you’ve had the excitement of “winning” or seeing your name move up a list for no apparent reason. But it’d also be nice to know why. In both cases, the emotional engagement often leads people to tell that story — of how they were bumped or how they got the magic seat.

In the case of Berghain, no explanation is given or stated anywhere, though Sven Marquardt has been interviewed on the topic. It seems you have to look right, but also be right. And maybe secrecy actually keeps it great for everyone and those who didn’t get in, in spite of the FOMO, are better off for it.

Then there are the stickers on the phone lenses. Berghain will kick you out if your sticker is missing, and this is clearly explained in person and on the wrist stamp you get on your way in. All of this creates a very appealing sense of secrecy and safety: here is a place where you can be who you want to be, swallow drugs, have sex in a corner, and it won’t end up on your mom’s Facebook feed. The rule also emphasizes enjoying the experience in the moment rather than observing, objectifying, and documenting. (If you really want to see inside, here are some images collected on one site.)

Most brands these days are trying desperately to get people to share and would never think to mask your phone’s camera. How many brands out there are wishing for, paying for, or cynically creating valueless and ridiculous stunts specifically for “earned media?” How many social media wonks are giving advice on how to make an irritating message get shared? The truth is if it’s a great experience, it will get shared no matter how hard you try to shut it down — and maybe more so. That’s the lesson I take from Berghain.

It felt great to be there, let in on it. The likelihood of not getting in made it better. For me, it was just enough to be safe to dance badly and have a story to share… and to enjoy it as fully as possible until well after the sun rose. Berghain’s mix of a great experience, secrecy, and unsharability has, ironically, led to the kind of word of mouth many brands would kill for.

Berghain has also set me thinking about needs we all have that we might not always perceive so clearly in the rational design process. To enjoy an absence of selfie-taking. To enjoy not being shared and socially broadcast. To keep a secret. To disengage with transparency, predictability, and the many other conveniences of our lives that maybe, when we really think about it… are kind of boring.


This excellent essay by Luis Garcia helped me get some facts straight and jogged my memory.