Fearless and wildly creative design duo Hjalti Karlsson and Jan Wilker—also known as karlssonwilker—are an independent and internationally-recognized creative force. When we met them, we were so charmed that we immediately wanted to introduce them to you, so we asked them to speak at Adobe MAX this year! Karlsson and Wilker’s topic, “Creativity, Technology, and karlssonwilker” speaks to their commitment, passion and creativity, as well as the equal importance they place on technology and play in their work.
Attend MAX. Attend their session. You’ll leave inspired. In the meantime, enjoy this candid Q&A (and their reinterpretation of the MAX logo) from these imaginative designers.
Adobe: You and Hjalti founded karlssonwilker in 2000, after working for Stefan Sagmeister, what was his advice to you when you told him you were opening your own studio?
karlssonwilker: There was no particular parting advice, although we surely asked him for advise many times, and still do from time to time. Back then it felt like a very natural transition. Stefan went on his sabbatical and so the two of us started, or were forced to start, our own “thing.” I remember the two of us showing Stefan the office space we were thinking about renting, and him saying it’s a great deal and that we should definitely take it. (We still are in the same space today.) The biggest thing, for me personally, was that he showed us—and everyone else—that a studio small in size could make hugely influential and relevant work, something quite uncommon back then.
As if opening a new studio during a recession wasn’t enough, you decided to write a book (tellmewhy: The First 24 Months of a New York Design Company) about those first two years in business. Why did you take that on at that time?
One part was frustration about our unpreparedness regarding the business side of our new enterprise. The other was the need we felt, at the time, for more honesty in the arena of shiny design monographs. The simple story of the humble beginnings of a studio should be told, not the idealized and romanticized look back on 20 years of a successful design career, where everyone seemed to be born a genius. That’s what we did and to this day we still get emails from around the world thanking us for doing this candid book and helping designers around the world not feel they are alone in being ill-prepared to properly run a studio right from the start. And of course Princeton Architectural Press deserves huge credit of course for working on it with us, as does Clare Jacobson for writing it so fantastically.
Your book offers a not-always-glamorous view of owning a design studio; do you think it’s important for students and young designers to know that the path to success is not always rosy?
Yes, of course. Its important to make clear that failing is part of the “fun” and an important part of the learning. Somehow this book led by example: if Hjalti and I can do it, anyone can. And that seemed to be empowering to many.
If tomorrow, you could no longer be a designer, what would you choose to do?
I would be a shoemaker. Hjalti would run a little store, or be “in real estate.”
Has Adobe’s Creative Cloud changed/altered your work and your process?
Adobe products have always had a huge influence on us and there are many examples in our work. One of our design approaches is rooted in play and experimentation; very early on we used Illustrator’s tools and filters to explore dense vector drawings, by spending lots of time with it to see where it would lead us (projects like Hattler, Skirl and, later, Mini/BMW). Also, the MAX key art we created for this year’s conference comes from formal experimentation with three or four different programs.
What do you most hope to be able to say about your work and your partnership 20 years from now?
Jan: That we constantly evolved, enjoyed life, and produced relevant work that inspired some to push harder.
Hjalti: That I’m still very proud of the work we did, that Jan and I are still on speaking terms and, who knows, that the company is still going strong in 20 years, with the two of us working two days a week and an army of people doing all the work.
You and Hjalti have both been design judges… Do you feel that the work submitted to design competitions encapsulates what’s going on in the industry at the time?
For me, that’s a clear no. It might have been that way many years ago, but nowadays competitions are indicators of who wants to appeal to the commercial mainstream. The design world is more colorful now, and only a small fraction wants or needs to be represented in design annuals. We ourselves stopped sending things in about eight years ago.
For your eleventh anniversary party you created a poster acknowledging all of the karlsssonwilker interns you’ve had over the years. How many were mentioned? And how many have been inspired, by working with you, to open their own studios?
We mentioned every single one of them—almost 40 interns have come through our little studio. About fifteen of them started their own studios more or less right after their time with us (I’m not sure that we inspired them to do that, I think they already came to us with that plan in mind).
Talent? Passion? Or education? Which is most important? Why?
Passion. For sure. A genuine interest in what you do is really all that matters.
We just saw your version of the new MAX logo on the MAX website. Was executing a logo redesign easier or harder than beginning from scratch?
We didn’t see it as logo redesign, but as a demonstration of “creativity,” with the MAX logo incorporated into it.
Be sure to come see karlssonwilker at Adobe MAX this year! Register at MAX.Adobe.com with promo code MXSM13 and save $300!