Back in the 80s, Jakob Trollbäck was having fun as a DJ and music shop worker in Stockholm. A chance job translating early Apple manuals combined with a need to promote his club nights meant that, before long Trollbäck found himself as a self-taught early pioneer of the digital design revolution. Now his company, Trollbäck, has so many awards they’ve had to pack them away in storage and he’s on the board of directors for the ADC, and an advisor for the World Science Festival and Brooklyn Academy of Music. LBB's editor, Gabrielle Lott spent five minutes with Jakob to pick his brains.
LBB> As a creative studio you focus on creating ideas and communicating with audiences over multiple platforms. Could you elaborate that? What is it that makes you so successful and unique?
JT> I would say that there are a number of building blocks. The first one is that before I did this, I was a DJ. When you’re working as a DJ you’re really trying to communicate with people and move them. When you’re good at DJ-ing, it’s actually not about you. When you start being a creative or a designer, the first thing you try to do is to express yourself. That’s how people develop their style, their unique identity. When it comes to actually connecting with people, you have to turn the creative process around and you have to think about the people you’re communicating with, understand who they are and what delights them. There are lots of things happening in the design field that are really disconnected from any kind of insight into how people work and function emotionally.
LBB> So when it comes to a brief, it’s about thinking what the audience wants rather than the brand -do your clients allow you that kind of creative freedom?
JT> I think the truth is that the projects that we’re known for are projects where the clients have thought ‘let’s trust these people’. You also have to work on products that you like. Of course, sometimes it can be quite a journey to come to a point where you think ‘ok maybe this product is making the world a little bit better, it’s ok to spend my time working on it’. I’m not going to be hypocritical. There are clients that come to you with a product that does no ‘good’ in the world but definitely doesn’t do any bad. If it’s a cool project or TV show or whatever and the client is willing to let us do something a little bit different I’m OK with it.
LBB> You’re a self-taught designer. How did you get into design in the first place?
JT> I began making the flyers for the party nights we had when I was a DJ. I learned to use the computer. It was the summer, I had nothing to do, and a friend said you’re good with computers and English, do you want to help translate these computer manuals. They were the first Apple manuals. I really got into design and I started to get all the books I could from the library. I started to consult with publishers and I realised that I had something I could sell in New York.
There are a number of reasons I moved to New York. Twenty years ago in Sweden there was a prevalent feeling of ‘don’t think that you’re anything special, be a little designer, have some fun’. No one really gave you a chance. All of the design studios and agencies were hung up on your education and I didn’t have one.
I thought I just want to do something really fucking hard, something that I really, really want to do. I want to sell everything I have and move to New York and struggle and get to where I want to go. I came to New York and got a job in 3 weeks.
LBB> You’re regarded as one of the earliest people to really understand digital media and its cultural effects. Now when you’re here years later, is the medium where you want it to be?
JT> When I started at RGA they had just gotten their first computer in the design department but no one had a clue how to use it. I was the first computer-literate designer so I took over and computerised the whole thing. I was creative director at RGA Interactive and we made a lot of the first brand websites – we made Levi’s first website for example.
The interesting thing is when I started my own company a few years later in ‘99 I decided to not do anything online. I thought “where is this money coming from? How is this possible? No one is making money!” I earned so many enemies then because I said I didn’t think it was going to last. But on the upside I sailed through when the bubble burst. We started to work with TV networks instead. In a way it was random, we were just asked by Nickelodeon. We didn’t win the pitch, but everyone at Viacom loved it – they’re a client now.
LBB> I’m really intrigued by the Video Wall you did for Frank Gehry’s IAC building in New York. How did that project come about?
JT> Barry Diller, who owns the building, hired Bruce Mau to work on all of the branding in the building so Bruce came up with idea of having a big video wall. Since it was a public space we realised we couldn’t make advertising as that would be very tacky, so we had to think about making something that encapsulated the different businesses that used the building in an interesting way that would look great on a big screen. Unfortunately the projectors burned through bulbs so quickly – if it’s on all the time they have to change them every month, so most of the time they have LED screen savers. We’re talking to them again as they’re going to upgrade the system.
LBB> You’ve won many awards in your time. How much importance do you place on awards and winning them?
JT> We’ve won enough, so it’s really rare that we submit these days. We used to submit a lot. There are some that are good – we still enter those that potential clients would care about. We have so many awards and they’re in storage now, apart from the Emmy [Outstanding Main Title Design, 2003, for HBO's Hysterical Blindness] which is in the conference room but everything else we’ve just got rid of. Before we put them into storage we told everyone who works for the company to just take an award home if they wanted one.
LBB> How do you select talent for the company?
JT> That is really hard. I know how many brilliant people there are out there, particularly young brilliant people. But when we put out an ad we get 200, 300 applications and there’s no way to go through them all. We run internships but we don’t have a programme. Someone will just call up if they have a really talented pupil.
I used to feel like I didn’t want to grow the company that much but now I feel there’s so much crap being made so I need to build a real artillery to make good stuff. To do that I need great people – not only great young people, but also great leaders. We’re also opening an office in Zurich because Christina, a creative director who has worked with me in New York for five years moved back to Zurich.
LBB> Has there been any work in the last 12 months that has really resonated and that you’ve really enjoyed?
JT> The titles we did for the TED conference in Edinburgh was really great stuff. We also did a job for Swedish TV, which I would never have got if I hadn’t been Swedish. It’s for SVT (Swedish Public TV). We’ve completely re-done everything and it’s much more friendly, happy, beautiful and simple than what they’ve ever been. For me it’s like closing a 20 year loop. I’ve gotten such great response for what I’m doing. When I was starting out no one believed in me there. There is nothing much more visible than SVT in Sweden. Though it wasn’t done in the spirit of ‘oh I’m gonna show you’ – it was done with real love.