you’ve waited LONG ENOUGH!!!!

stefan_lynn

Finally, here is the much anticipated interview I conducted with Mr. Stefán Kjartansson, the Partner and Creative Director at Armchair Media in Atlanta, GA. As was expected, he gave great insight into the world of interactive media and even has some words of wisdom for people still in school or who are looking to get into the world of multimedia when the graduate. So take a few moments and enjoy my interview with Stefán!

Lynn: Well good afternoon Stefán, thank you so much for taking time out of your BUSY schedule to come meet with me and share your story! Why don’t wee just start out with general information. Tell me about your background… how you got involved in this industry.

Stefán: Well, I am originally from Iceland and a graphic designer by trade… um you know just before there were computers or the internet, I graduated in 93 and my first Macintosh experience was for my final project at school, and it was kind of hard to wing it and try to learn Illustrator and Photoshop and try to piece everything together. And this is like back when you couldn’t really print and the gradients were all dry and things kind of looked a little wonky, so that was my first real introduction to the computer. So it wasn’t until a couple of years later when I started working that the technology kind of caught up with what we needed, so we started using the computer for everything we did. And then there was a show like 60 minutes or something talking about this new thing called the internet (I chuckle, remembering THOSE days) and I’m just like “WOW, this is great!!!” So I got a dialup connection and started surfing people’s personal websites like all over the world and I was just blown away that there were people who could publish something on the internet and someone like me in Iceland could be looking at information on someone in Zimbabwe or Switzerland and the world all of a sudden was kind of in your living room. After that I just became obsessed with the Internet, like trying to figure out what could we do with this medium to make it better and make it look better. You know back in those days you had basic boxes, blue links, maybe a low resolution jpeg and maybe even a beveled button if you were lucky, and that was kind of the landscape when I went there the first time. But on a larger scale, I think I just realized how open the world became… and maybe it was me being somebody in a small country or small island in the middle of nowhere, but all of a sudden there are no borders, there was no Atlantic in between me and the rest of the world.

Lynn: So now what do you find to be the major differences of design in Iceland and America?

Stefán: Capitalism is the difference. Iceland is smaller so people take more risks… there is not the fear of failure, or financial failure that you have here in the US. I mean it’s smaller, companies are smaller, and so you eliminate the middle managers most of the time and deal with the people that run the companies. People tend to be gutsier than the typical middle manager in corporate America. I don’t know if you’ve had the experience with clients that have to run it by their boss before they can tell you if they like the blue or the pink that you’re laying down and before you know it, everything just kind of turns in to a big “scumbug” (I thinks that’s the term he said ☺). But like all of the finer pieces of the meat are all ground down into just garbage and this consensus of mediocre opinions gets mixed into what you want to do, and you end up with just kind of average stuff… just like clip art. You know people just tend to play it safer in the US, which can be good and bad, but I feel that if you take more risks, while you might flop, it’s more fun in a lot of ways. I think in the US you have the best and worst of things, so you kind of have to go for the lowest common denominator, but even with that, somehow I’m still here doing this work, so there’s a lot of it that I still like. I mean in the US, there is a bigger market so there are bigger companies, bigger brands. I mean I get to work with Coca-Cola and CNN and in terms of having creative freedom, sometimes it depends on whom you deal with at those brands. The top guy at Coca-Cola is different to deal with than middle manager “Bob” at Coca-Cola. You get nowhere with middle manager Bob, but the top guy at Coca-Cola will do some extraordinary things with you, if you feel like it.

Lynn: Interesting… So when did you move over to the US?

Stefán: I’ve been here for 12 years… I came here in 95.

Lynn: So what brought you over here?

Stefán: Well, I had a job opportunity. So going back to the internet opening the world for me… it was somebody who ran across my website, I did a website for myself back in 93/94, and there was somebody who had a business in Atlanta who called me and I ended up helping him with his branding and his logo, and that led up to him wanting to get me over here. So I just said you know, fuck it, this is an opportunity for me to work on the Internet, I’m going to take it. And in Iceland, we didn’t really have the Internet infrastructure, companies hadn’t really picked up on it, but in the US there were at least a few companies that were starting to make the Internet an integral part of their business. So I came to Atlanta and worked at CNN for about 5 years.

Lynn: So what do you think is the difference in the design community within Iceland and the US?

Stefán: It’s smaller in Iceland, so things tend to get more homogeneous. You know one person does something and before you know it everybody is doing the same thing. But I’m not really a big part of the design community, even here. I’m not a community type or team player per se… you know I don’t feel like I belong in a only certain part of that world. I mean I kind of have the people I respect and those people can be all over the world and I stick to those people. I’m not a big networker… I’m not a big “kissing babies” or “shaking hands” kind of a guy…

Lynn: Do you think that’s hurt your career in any way or do you think it doesn’t really matter?

Stefán: I don’t know, I don’t even know if I have a career, I don’t look at it that way. I’m only as good as my last project! I live in constant fear and anxiety…(heh heh – Dr. Evil laugh)

Lynn: And you like that?

Stefán: I do. I’m very impulsive… I like what I do. I just get just wrapped up in projects and that’s it. I mean I’m sure there’s a career somewhere in this, but I don’t like to climb the corporate ladder and I just get so much more out of projects that are challenging. I mean I get to come up with something that I feel is unique or something original you know. But I don’t think it’s hurt my career… or maybe it has, but there is a big difference between designers and business people and I’m more of a designer than I am a businessperson. Plus I surround myself with people that go out and network, so I still get good projects that come my way in the end ☺.

Lynn: Now who were the people that influenced you and inspired you to get into design?

Stefán: Well I was always just drawing as a kid so it kind of came naturally. So when I was 8 years old, like I didn’t know what it was or what it was called, but I knew I wanted to be a designer. And then I started working at an ad agency when I was like 16 or 17. I had actually won this competition for high school students and one of the judges was an ad agency owner and she picked me up for and internship, so I was working for them while I was going to school and then this whole (internet) world opened up for me and I started realizing this is not just about spraying on walls or drawing cartoons, this is about something beyond that. It’s about communication, it’s about systems, and it’s so much beyond you know drawing funny characters and stuff like that. And inspirations? I don’t know… Malcolm Garrett was a big inspiration when he came to Iceland and taught us. He’s one of the British designers that worked with Neville Brody on Duran Duran album covers, some of that new romantic stuff that came after punk rock in Britain. And he was kind of an eye opener for me when I was in school because he was doing really radical stuff at the time; he was kind of the rock star of design. So when he came in you had this expectation like he was going to be just like crazy, but he was actually very classical and very kind of conservative in how he approached design and he ended up being just like really cool. So I realized that design was not just about being silly, it was about discipline, and certain rules applied. So that kind of opened my eyes and I started taking this stuff seriously.

Lynn: Ok, little bit of a new direction here… tell me about a typical day at work… or is there such a thing as a typical day at work?

Stefán: No no no! I mean typically there is a lot going on since we are a small team. There is a mix of different projects at various stages, so we have anything from brainstorming on a new idea to production on something that’s about to launch, or maintenance on something that has already been launched, you know if the project needs to be tweaked or adjusted or changed.

Lynn: Now, how many people are at your firm again?

Stefán: We are about at 11 right now, but we have a few positions open so we’re kind of fluctuating right now. So our total size is about 13 or 14 people, but we are looking to fill a few positions.

Lynn: How did you all get started?

Stefán: Well we got started in 2001. The core of the team used to work at CNN. So back then, the core team actually started cnn.com and that’s how we started working together. Then at some point we decided we were going to take this into the real world and take a risk to see if we would work out as a company doing what we do… you know, kind of using our training that we received at CNN. So right now, we are comprised of 5 people who own company and while we are all different people, we all come together for the common cause.

Lynn: So do you feel that you all have been pretty successful?

Stefán: I don’t know… what is success? I mean I’m never happy… ☺

Lynn: Well do you ever measure yourself against other firms or do you just focus on what you do?

Stefán: Well in that sense, I really don’t see competitors…I see future collaborators. You know it’s like people, you worst enemy today can be your best friend tomorrow; you never know. So why not just look past that. I mean people that you work with at your biggest competitor; you might be working with them tomorrow at a different company. But I look at people that I respect or who have positive influences on me. I love to work with people that are doing things that are interesting to me, so I seek them out and hopefully if the timing is right and we have something we want to work on, we do it. So whether it’s working on a typeface with somebody or collaborating on a poster, or just doing something we can have fun with, that’s how I look at it. I mean as I said before, I’m more of a designer than a businessperson. So as long as my company pays the bills, I’m happy, and if I get to do close to what I want to do, then I’m happy. But I know a lot of agencies in Atlanta that could be considered competition, but sometimes, I don’t know, you collaborate. I mean it’s good to know people at IQ Interactive; it’s good to know people at Razorfish because one day you might meet them or work with them. And another thing, I don’t really look at myself as “being in Atlanta.” Maybe it’s the nature of the Internet being that it’s so open. I mean I can be anywhere in the world, so I think things have changed. We’re not just a company in one geographical area, but we could be working with a company in Sweden or a company in LA and that’s all pretty much seamless.

Lynn: Now when you’re looking at applicants coming out of design school, what are you looking for, or what catches your eye in their portfolio or like when you’re interviewing them.

Stefán: Communicating ideas.

Lynn: Ok, so you’re more interested in the process it took for them to get to the final concept or product?

Stefán: No not really, everybody has a different process. Obviously, I like seeing consistency in work… you know it kind of freaks me out if one project is brilliant and then another project is lousy, then I just get nervous about the person, so you want to see consistency. And preferably I’d like to see high level, high quality work. But it’s just like with artists, like with Picasso’s development from the Blue Period to the Red Period, you want to see a progression happening. So when I see someone that comes in for an interview, you look for things like that. And personality is big too… is this person going to fit in or are they going to bite my head off when we come under pressure? I mean is this person going to show up with a gun one day??? You have to look for things like that you know! But seriously, I think a big part of it is fearlessness, not being afraid to try new things and not being bound by current style. You know if everybody is wearing pink polos today, why should I? I mean it’s good to know where you belong, where culture is right now, but you have to take risks, you have to be able to project what the future is, what the next steps are going to be. Maybe it’s purple or green polos, maybe that’s the style of tomorrow, but you have to have the guts to explore that. And you know there’s always a place for being safe and client friendly and doing the type of work that masses are going to understand, but I’m always looking for people who are looking outside of that and people that are very passionate.

Lynn: What do you like most about your job or the field that you’re in?

Stefán: I like the fact that it always changes, I mean what’s an answer today is going to be a question tomorrow. And I like that because it keeps me on my toes. You know, it’s not print where you know what the size of the paper is going to be or the smell of it when it comes from the printer, or like using the grid… I mean this stuff has been done since the 15th Century, since like Guttenberg you know. It’s like at this point I can kind of be another generation of that or with the Internet, I’m the first generation… I mean, which one would you pick? With traditional media, my fathers and forefathers have done it before and they are going to tell me how to do it, but with the Internet, it’s mine, I own it.

Lynn: So do you think that print will be extinct at some point?

Stefán: Oh no! Nothing will become extinct. But the masses will always migrate to a new technology… I mean these days, people are reading their newspaper while checking their MySpace, and so they are doing the same things that we used print and TV for yesterday, but they are just using this new medium to do it today. So I don’t think anything is going to go away, but it’s just not going to be the prevalent medium in the future. You won’t be sitting there reading your paper like you used to although there may be some people that kind of like reading the newspaper with a bowl of cereal and cup of coffee in the morning, and they are not going to change that. But our generation and future generations are going to be thinking why look at a print newspaper when I can just check out Google news?

Lynn: Gotcha… So what is your balance like with work and family?

Stefán: I don’t know, I’m not really good with that. I blur the lines… work and play is all the same to me. I mean I love what I do and I’m always doing it. It’s not work for me. I mean it’s only work if it’s a chore or I’m working on a project I don’t like, or it’s like production work. I mean it’s certain aspects of my work that I don’t like and it’s a job at that point.

Lynn: What are those things you don’t like?

Stefán: Production. Also, working with clients that are kind of narrow-minded or afraid. Working with clients that don’t have the final say on things… that can kill a project. So it’s like a project can become a lame duck at some point where you have exhausted all of your big ideas and they have been watered down into nothing, and then my life is not so much fun. But you kind of have to do the best with it, or do the best you can to resurrect it somehow. But that’s my least favorite, and production, like having to organize myself and make lists and doing quality control, that stuff drives me crazy. I like brainstorming and coming up with ideas, kind of doing the broad strokes, but a lot of the detailed stuff, I’m not a fan of.

Lynn: Ok, so if you had to choose another career, what would it be?

Stefán: Nothing. I can’t do anything else; I’d be horrible at pretty much anything else. Um, maybe I’d be a barista or like a sushi chef ☺.

Lynn: Funny… So where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?

Stefán: I see myself doing what I love.

Lynn: Do you ever see yourself getting into more of a mentoring position or do you see yourself always being a working designer?

Stefán: I see myself as always being a designer. I mean as far as mentoring, I’m more of an apprentice type of person than a teacher for like a classroom. I feel like if I can concentrate with one person, we can make more headway than with me trying to talk over 20 people that may or may not be hung-over from the night before you know! So I like working with people moreso on a one on one level and getting things done.

Lynn: So like most people when they get older, they retire from their job, do you feel like designers do that or they just keep going?

Stefán: Well it depends on what your mindset is. I mean when I was in school, there was a teacher that kind of influenced me more than anyone else because he was just so bad. I mean he was an illustrator, and he had been a great illustrator back in the 70s and he became successful in the 70s, he developed a certain style in the 70s. And when I was in school in the 90s, he was doing the same thing, but everything else in the culture had changed and no one was interested in what he was doing anymore. So there were lessons we learned from that. And I became paranoid about stagnating because once you become comfortable with something then the future is going to walk all over you. The next generation is going to come and take away what you thought you had. So that’s why I’ve always tried to distance myself from style, I try not to be known for a certain thing because once you can pin me to something, I become part of something that is going to date. Of course sometimes that doesn’t work out, sometimes you go back to what you know… like you use that orange with that gray… and you don’t realize you’re dating yourself. So that’s part of what drives me is trying to stay fresh and a lot of that is making sure that ideas come from within. You know, don’t copy other people, and don’t copy culture too much, use it as a reference because you still want people to understand what you’re doing. Like if you’re making music and you’re just like tweaking a synthesizer to squeal, you’re like “oh I’m so original”, but everybody is going to hate it. But you have to use a certain sound that is familiar to people to deliver your message. There is a balance between being totally avant garde and being original.

Lynn: Now you’re astrological sign is a Cancer, which is considered to be an emotional sign… Would you consider yourself to be an emotional designer?

Stefán: Hmm, I don’t know what that means, what is an emotional designer?

Lynn: I don’t know, I guess it’s along the line of everything in your design coming from within or like you always applying your personal story to your work.

Stefán: Yeah, well when I say from within, it’s not exactly from within me, but moreso within the challenge. So if I’m doing a project that involves this phone, then there are things within this phone that can become the design. You break it down, like what is it that goes into this phone stylistically, maybe there’s nothing, maybe it’s just a technical box. But maybe there is a style that can come out of that you know. So if you can kind of extract from the subject, what is this, what is this all about, to whom, when, why… then there is a style that emerges from it somehow and that way you can always kind of stay fresh, you’re always relevant to the task. It’s not about you; it’s about the subject.

Lynn: Are there ever any projects that you turn down because you feel they won’t be interesting or challenging enough?

Stefán: Oh yeah, all the time. I mean smaller projects or if it’s the wrong client. I mean you get a feel for it early on what kind of client it’s going to be. I like to work with people who are kind of like-minded and willing to do something kind of different; willing to take risks. And then there are various reasons things don’t work out like with small budgets, or people who expect something for free. I mean I’ll do something for free, but you have to also give me 100% creative control. Sometimes you get something you don’t want to do, but there’s a big price tag and they are paying you a lot of money so you go ahead and do the project even though that comes with making more compromises.

Lynn: Ok, let’s switch gears again, here are some random questions… What is your favorite day of the week?

Stefán: I guess Friday. It’s kind of like you’re exhausted and you get to sleep in the next day. It’s a good intersection of working and resting.

Lynn: So do you work on the weekends?

Stefán: Oh yeah, but mostly on my stuff. I try to keep the office projects kind of separate from what I do for myself. I mean I usually try not to take on too many freelance projects unless it’s for a friend or something. But I’m always exploring, it’s like I’m sketching ideas all the time, and I’m also working on typefaces. So when I have a typeface going, every piece of downtime I have goes to that. Like I’m working on a typeface right now that is officially done today which should be launched in a couple of weeks.

Lynn: So how many typefaces have you done?

Stefán: How many have I done? I think I’ve done like three, at least three typefaces that have been officially released. And then I have some smaller ones that haven’t been released or published or finished.

Lynn: So what’s the timeline usually for going through that process?

Stefán: I don’t know, it’s probably a good three months to come up with a good, solid typeface. It depends on the size of the family. I mean I’ve actually spent three years on a typeface, so it’s anywhere from like three months to three years depending on how much time you put into it. And the three years one was like the first time, so I was just making all of my mistakes, and going through things you have to think about like kerning. I mean if your typeface is not designed right then you have to spend more time on kerning so that will soak up a year very fast.

Lynn: Gotcha… What’s your favorite movie?

Stefán: Um, favorite movie, I don’t know. Mulholland Drive by David Lynch. It’s one of his latest movies, but it’s like his first movie that you can actually make sense of. Most of his movies have kind of a hidden thread through it that doesn’t make sense, but this one is not just a visual feast like the others. But I don’t know though, I actually don’t watch many movies.

Lynn: What about your favorite TV shows?

Stefán: Infomercials ☺

Lynn: Favorite color?

Stefán: I don’t have a favorite color. I suck with color… I mean I suck so bad with color, that I’m almost good! I mean I think in contrast, I don’t think in color. I’m always kind of surprised when I come up with colors that I like. But I put a lot of work into color because I’m not comfortable with it and sometimes I tend to find a couple of colors I really like and invert them into its opposite just to see what happens. I don’t know, I like ugly colors!

Lynn: Ideal vacation?

Stefán: Working in front of a computer

Lynn: Favorite cereal?

Stefán: Cocoa Puffs (YESS!!!!)

Lynn: Proudest accomplishment?

Stefán: Having Thor, my kid.

Lynn: Any regrets?

Stefán: I’m going to say no because I’m not going to allow myself to have any regrets or negative thoughts. I prefer not to have those types of feelings. Everything is a learning experience and mistakes are made for a reason, so you can use it in what you do and it makes you who you are.

Lynn: Any words of wisdom?

Stefán: Be yourself; don’t listen to anybody. Find the right inspiration. Associate yourself with the kind of people that you achieve to be and study people that have done this before. Study Paul Rand, study Josef Müller-Brockmann, because those guys have done it all before and for you to follow in their footsteps, there is nothing you’re going to do that hasn’t been referenced by what they have done before. Or study Herb Lubalin. Everything that you do will have some sort of reference to them. Every logo that you do will be by somebody compared to something Lubalin did before, so make sure you study them and don’t be afraid to just copy them. But also go with your gut. If you feel strongly about something then there is a reason for that. It’s almost like Improv in acting you know, you have to trust yourself and trust the people that you work around. If your gut tells you something to do, then do it. There are so many things, so many words of wisdom I can give, it just depends on the situation.

Lynn: What about advice for people coming out of school?

Stefán: Start your own business. I know you have student loans, but you have to find your own voice and you’re not going to find your own voice working for another agency. They are going to mold you into a specific style and if that’s what you want then that’s fine. But if not, then start small… design CD covers for bands, design flyers. That’s how some of the most distinguished designers started off. You know like Designers Republic they started with just creating flyers, but that was just the freedom they needed to find their own voice. Once you become known for your style then people come to you based on your own merit and that’s the ideal position that you want to be in. You want people to come to you for you, you don’t want to have them come to you and have them tell you what to do because then you’re just a tool. I mean you will have to make some major sacrifices; there are definitely financial sacrifices you have to make, but then do it when you’re young. Once you have kids and a family you’re not going to be able to afford doing it. And it’s tough; I realize it’s tough. We are in a society where you need to make money to make a living and pay your rent and your bills, so it might not be for everyone, but if you are really passionate about what you’re doing you can do it. I mean if I had it to do all over again, I would have gone straight and done my own thing, just would have been braver than I was. But you can’t spend the rest of your life trying to make up for it. And I don’t discount my early experiences because there was a lot that I learned at CNN. Dealing with people, dealing with processes and politics, but as far as design, no there was not a lot of challenge… it was mainly editorial work so there was not much room for creative freedom. But there was a lot I learned from working on the internet that early on and being able to participate in shaping the internet or shaping how we behave on the internet today like with navigation in certain places. I mean when I started out there were no protocols, like there was no navigation bar on the left or right or horizontal navigation bar, nothing had been done before for that on the web so it was good to be a part of that.

… and Stefán, we all are so glad that you that you have and continue to be such a major part of developing this vehicle we have for a worldwide connection! Thank you again for your time, expertise and advice and I look forward to seeing what great work you and your company will do in the future!

Here are some samples of Stefán’s great work and if you would like to see more, check out this site!

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