OP.™ – short for Office of Possibilities – is a multi-disciplinary design studio that creates objects and spaces based on well-informed strategic ideas. Their competences span architecture, art direction, exhibition design, industrial design, brand strategy, graphic design and innovation strategy.
I've been following them since they moved into their Gothenburg studio, in the same building where I was living at the time. Since then, they have built a formidable portfolio of projects involving brand identity, product design, architecture, exhibition design, and more; with clients such as Volvo, Ikea, H&M, Voi Scooters, and Elektron Music Machines.
For this conversation, I went back to my old neighborhood and sat down with co-founders Petter Hillinge and Caspar Andrén. We talked about their personal journeys that led to owning a design studio together; how they grew their company 100% during a pandemic (partly due to their experience in functioning as a remote, distributed team); how they communicate, sell, and execute truly multi-disciplinary work; the great designers that they have learned from; the tensions between business and creativity; and other topics that shed light on their practice of design.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity, brevity, and readability.
What exactly do you do here? How do you define the value that you create for your clients and for yourselves?
Caspar Andrén: First of all, we're part of the co-founders – we're two out of four. There's also Robert and Axel. We live in Gothenburg. Axel lives in Stockholm, and Robert down in Malmö.
We work with different aspects of design, and we represent different disciplines. I'm from an engineering background.
Petter Hillinge: I'm from a product design and industrial design background.
CA: Robert is an architect, and Axel is also an industrial designer.
We work with product design, and architecture, and graphic design. We think of design as a strategic tool for our clients.
It's very common to think of design as, "yeah, we need it in the end to style the thing, to sell it, or something like that..." We work with our clients with design as a strategic tool – as much as manufacturing or sales channels. It's part of the process of making something successful.
PH: We combine our fields of work. We don't see design as only one thing – we don't see graphic design as only graphic design. All of a sudden, a sign becomes a physical object – then it's a product. And then you walk into the sign – then it's a building. So we see it as one – we don't see it as different genres.
CA: We tried to define it on our web page, like most startups... What's our thing? We don't want our thing to be static. We want it to evolve. But we are now at the point where we think, we work with objects and spaces. It's from a physical standpoint.
PH: A physical a starting point.
CA: It could be a product, but it could also be a building or an environment. It's about creating impact for the client.
When we work with our clients, we like to challenge them. They think they want to make something, because they need a new product... And maybe they need a new product. But we want to challenge and understand, why they need a new product. In what context? How will you launch it? How will you package it?
PH: You need to really understand the whole picture. We want to be part of that whole picture – somehow be part of the whole journey.
CA: It all depends, of course, on the size of the client, and so on. Sometimes we can just be in one part of it. And in some cases, we can do the whole thing. But we want to make sure that, whatever we're engaged with, it's going to be as good as it can get. I mean, the name: Office of Possibilities... It's like, why not take the challenge? Why not make an effort and try it out? The worst thing that could happen is that you fail, and then you just try another one...
PH: And then you learn. And then you do it again. That's how you come forward.
I'm curious how you got to this point. What's your story? What's the story of the studio, and the stories of you two as individuals, who got involved in this kind of career, and created this company?
PH: I was more or less "forced" into this business, by a father who's an architect. My siblings are all architects and landscape architects. I became a product designer. I started studying product design in high school, and then in Lund. I then started working in Copenhagen as a product designer for a company called Kilo, which is now part of BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group). It's a small part of that, doing product design.
At that point, I also started doing, somewhat, architecture – like bus stops and train stops. I was doing products that became such big structures, they were more or less architecture...
At that point I also worked with Robert, one of our co-founders. He worked at BIG. We also studied together. So we were always discussing this: "in the future, if we had an office, we would never work like this, you know, we would never do that..." We had some ideas and thoughts about how to run a business, what to focus on... And what not to focus on as well.
After Copenhagen, I moved back to Gothenburg. I got a few clients here, and I opened up my own small freelance business. I did that for three years before...
CA: And you and Axel, you met in Lund, at industrial design? And also talked about starting...
PH: Absolutely. And we were all, at that time, somehow in a stage in life where we were urging to do something new – to elevate the possibilities of what we could do together. With Axel we had been discussing this since we studied, and Robert as well. And then we (Petter and Caspar) knew each other from from here, in Gothenburg...
CA: We ran in this running club together, and our girlfriends knew each other since childhood.
PH: So that's my end of the story.
CA: I'm from a background where my dad is an economist and my mother is an artist. It's like structure and creativity, so to speak. I've always been fascinated with sketching, since I could, during my whole life. We actually went to the same high school with this design angle, called Polhemsgymnasiet, here in Gothenburg. It's pretty famous in that kind of sense.
Then I studied engineering, because I always liked to pull things apart – but maybe not put them back together... I was fascinated with cars and stuff like that. So I went to Linköping University. I thought I was going to work with fighter jets, because I thought they were awesome. But I realized, that will not be the case – that seems really boring, you're just calculating all the time...
So I studied mechanical engineering there. Then I got a job at a branding agency, here in Gothenburg. I worked within a really cool team on product development, as a part of brand development. We looked into, if you are changing your brand, how could your products take that step as well? What should you do, from an innovation perspective?
I had a really great boss – a true visionary. He had several companies before. It's like he can already see the idea, before you even understand the problem: "This is the solution!" It was a really fun time. We also started a separate company there, that I could be part of. We were scaling up the team, working more towards innovation, and so on.
But then, from my background, I mean, my dad is an entrepreneur, and my mom is an entrepreneur... They have their own businesses. So I was always thinking about, like, I also want to start my own business. And then we started to talk.
It all happened really fast. I think we started talking at a running session actually, in like October.
PH: A couple of weeks later, you were also part of the four-person group, where we decided that we're going to try this.
CA: And then we started the company in the beginning of January. So it was like, October, November, December, and then...
What is the state of play now? How many people do you have, size-wise, where are you at today?
PH: We're nine at the moment. Specifically, we're three architects, three designers, and two graphic designers...
CA: And that's really interesting, for us to be nine today. Last year we were five, and in the end we were six... Yeah, last year was pretty interesting. I mean, we learned a lot, of course. As a new business, you're like, "OK, so now there's a pandemic going on..." And how to cope with that...
You grew to almost twice the size during COVID!
CA: Exactly. We had a really chill first half of the year, and started to pick up speed towards the end. And then this year, it has just exploded for us... I mean, we're still a small company... But for us, being like four, and now we are nine, within three and a half years...
I remember when you set up. I was actually living in this building when you started. We didn't know each other back then, but I would go out of my apartment and see this going on in the corner... This was a solarium... Then you built this place, and it became a design studio. I was like, "wow, I should meet these guys!"
During this period of time, where you started the company and grew to twice the size, do you recall any particular actions or investments that gave you a disproportionate return, setting you up for success? And were there any actions or investments that went badly?
CA: This place. We started in the living room, in the first weeks. We had a contract with Volvo, and IKEA, and so on. We didn't need a space that much. Then we had a couple of seats at this co-working space in Gothenburg. But we figured out pretty early on, that was only temporary. You need your own space, where you can leave stuff and build models...
PH: It becomes a real company when you have your own space.
CA: Yeah, when you put your name onto a building – or as we have done, the window – it's like, "OK, so you exist."
PH: There's a physical place where you can actually visit.
CA: We can have a meeting at "our place." You get more confident. I think the clients also trust you even more. It seems stupid, but...
PH: It was a very scary investment for us. The normal case is that you lease for three years, and at the moment, we had only existed for a couple of months. Seeing three years in the future... It was scary, in a way....
CA: We didn't know if we could pay salary that month, when we signed the lease deal for three years... We were like, "fuck it! Let's do it!"
That's something you notice: you need to "gas" a bit. Whenever you put the gas pedal down, you get so much back. Of course, you can't be all YOLO and go nuts – you need a little bit of braking as well.
When you staff up, as well... "Should we, should we not, we're not sure, could we really pay the salary for this person..." Then you hire, and they are super creative, give more energy to the company, more things are happening... Suddenly you're like, "why didn't we do that earlier?"
So, I would say, this place... I don't know if it's the same today, with the landscape of digital meetings and everything. But back then, absolutely, for sure. And we're actually looking for a place in Stockholm.
PH: We want to have a similar studio in Stockholm, to have a physical place there.
CA: So we still believe in that: to have a physical space. It's not only for meeting customers and so on, but to have a place where you can go to work, and be creative with others...
That's important, when you're working with physical products or architectural prototypes. It really pays off to have your space. I do some product design work, and I work from my living room most of the time. It's really hard to maintain the aesthetic of the living room at the same time as being creative with products.
PH: We have a small workshop here, but my goal is to have a full floor of only machines, where we can build things. That would be amazing.
I'd love to have that myself.
You mentioned that you have many people on your team, living in different places. It seems like remote work has been a thing for you, for years. Do you have any interesting experiences? Because, now, everyone is doing it; but it seems like you guys have been doing it for a little bit longer.
CA: We knew it from the beginning... Axel lives in Stockholm. And Robert, then he lived in Malmö... We just had to deal with it. But we were fortunate to have a small apartment where they could stay, when they were here.
PH: They were here quite a lot, in the beginning.
CA: Yeah – two or three days a week, visiting... So they were sacrificing a lot, in that sense. But we also had most of the clients here. So it felt natural.
Do you have any habits, rituals, processes to keep you all in sync? Like, weekly meetings?
PH: We have daily meetings, every morning. At least us four, but also the full team. Every morning we have at least 15 to 30 minutes, just talking as the whole group. That's more or less the starting point of every day. It has been really good for us.
When COVID came, we didn't really know how to handle it... Before that, we would always meet a couple of times a week. You would have all this time, to discuss projects, and how things are going... This morning meeting has been very, very good for us.
CA: It's also been quite hard to find ways to collaborate creatively online. That's been a challenge. Having meetings with clients, do check-ups and discuss things – totally fine. Teams and all the programs, working fine for that. But to work creatively, solving a problem... We found some tools to do that, but there's still more to come, we feel, in that space. We feel a lot of energy to still meet and interact together, and solve a problem. I mean, seeing each other for a day or two – in Lund, or here, or Stockholm – will easily solve like a week's worth of work.
PH: I think with digital tools, we've solved how we can find inspiration, find references – the starting point of the project. But it's still the fact of creating the concepts, like sitting next to each other, sketching... I'm looking at something you sketched, which looks like something, and in my mind it looks like something else, and then I sketch something... That kind of interaction is really hard to do.
CA: And you overhear someone talking about the problem, you can get input...
Are there any tools or ways of doing things that are your go-to favorites?
PH: Slack, in a way, revolutionized our way of communicating, in terms of having so many different projects running at the same time. And Miro was a huge help on having a good overview of what's happening – instead of looking through a lot of PDFs, you get a grasp of what's happening in a much freer tool.
CA: If your audience has any tips, we would like to have them.
PH: We're not done, set to those tools...
CA: For the daily work, it's like Rhino, and SolidWorks, and Adobe Suite, as for many studios. But also, we love our 3D printer, and prototypes in general... It's really important to make physical prototypes. It's so easy that you just stay within the screen... Whenever you get out from the screen, you learn a lot more.
PH: Just stupid prototypes... Just try the cardboard, or paper, or whatever you can find.
CA: Or just visit something, get new impressions... That's not news to anyone, but it strikes you every time...
I saw that on your Instagram (@op_update). Recently you went to this site... Was it a marble, or stone quarry? Do you do that often?
PH: We don't do it that often. We've done it before – we've done like a full tour of Småland to look at metal, aluminum casting, aluminum stamping, and so on.
This time, we took a summer trip with all the big group. We went to a stone artist called Pål Svensson, to see his work, and how he works with stone as a material. Then we went to a quarry, to look at how you actually get stone out of the mountain,
CA: I think the learning is that we should do it more often... It's mainly a question of time, to get like, "OK, now everyone should go here..."
PH: We also realize, that is real research. Instead of looking at the internet, finding someone else who has found something... That's like, two steps in between. In this case, it's direct. You touch and feel much more.
Was this part of a particular project or was it just general studio time?
PH: General studio fun time.
CA: But in projects as well, we try... If we develop a product design for a specific target group, we try to interview them, understand how they use existing products today. Or if we are going to do something with a building, definitely we want to go there and take a look. That's really important. It's so easy that you can be like, "I can just look at Google Maps, or get the drawings, or do some research, or get the brief," but...
PH: In a way, suppliers are a huge part of design. It's easy to come up with an idea, but to make it real, you need all the tools... And that's suppliers...
CA: That's not unique in any sense, but it's always important. You have to have this reminder for yourself: "OK, let's get real. Let's go out in real life, to understand the problem."
We want to make more physical models, and stuff like that, all the time. It's easier, it's much faster to work in the digital. But the learnings are greater, even with a simple model.
We've spoken about what you do, and I'm curious about how you actually do it. Maybe we can start with zooming out, at the administrative level.
According to your website, you are four co-founders, and you all have different job titles: CEO, industrial designer, design director, creative director... In the context of a design studio like yours, what is the meaning of these titles? Why do you call yourselves these things?
PH: It's more or less only to communicate to clients...
The difference, maybe, between a creative director and a design director is: the creative director looks at the bigger picture, and the design director looks at the small edge...
CA: It's an effort to make a structure, to be able to grow even more... Especially when the team is growing as well... It's both for the client to navigate easier – "OK, who should I call or get in contact with, for this question?" – but also when your team is growing... If you have like four chickens that are just wandering around, like, "who should I ask for this..." It's better to have, like, "OK, that's the design director, I will ask him."
It's not that we want to make this pyramid structure, but in some sense, to have a point towards something... That's what we are trying now. Maybe that's totally wrong – in the future, we will see. But we felt the need for it, so that's why we changed, from not having titles, to this.
From the project perspective, Petter is more responsible for the details. Robert is more like the holistic, visionary approach... I'm more from a strategic point of view, to understand the problem, to have the correct brief...
PH: Axel's role now is design management. He has the bigger role of controlling a creative process as well, which is a huge task.
Many people in our audience are design students or design educators, and younger design-related professionals who are still finding their way. For the benefit of those who are still trying to understand these terminologies and roles, if you don't mind, I'll ask about some operational details,
You mentioned that your work covers a lot of disciplines. There's architecture, product design, branding – depending on the strategic needs of the client and the project. You start with the strategy, not the tactical implementation of it, which theoretically sounds really cool.
In practice, I expect there are differences between how you execute these disciplines. For example, for a graphic design project, I would expect the cost to be on the order of thousands of dollars; for product design, tens of thousands; and for architecture, maybe hundreds of thousands...
How do you scope and plan these projects? Can you describe an encounter with a client, where you sit down and decide on the scope and size of a project, and which of these disciplines to execute on?
CA: It's always client-based. I mean – not that we have done – but to make the graphics for Lufthansa, I would say, would not cost thousands of dollars. It would be hundreds of thousands, or even more.
PH: It always depends on the impact that you have for the company. What will this impact do for the client?
CA: As we said earlier, we want to work with design as a strategic tool – to make it impactful. In that sense, we make value – not hours, as many charge their clients by. It depends on the size of the client, and the impact you can make, and the responsibilities or the freedom you get.
When we work with, as we talked about earlier, the coffee company... That's a one-man show. Then we get more freedom – that's what we see as value for ourselves, and what we can create for him. But he doesn't necessarily have the money. Then you work with the bigger clients. There you have more limitations, but the impact you will create within this limitation will be even greater. You can charge more for that.
I have done projects with various sizes of companies... The bigger the company you deal with, the bigger administrative work that you have to do, and the longer time it takes... So the costs, the hours that you have to put in, actually increase based on the size of the client...
CA: Exactly. That's also part of the challenge.
A lot of our clients are maybe not that familiar with buying creativity. So that's part of the challenge: to talk the same language. Maybe they come from a budget perspective, or a project lead perspective where they have the timeline... They need to fit in this creative space and process, to make impact with the project. So it's important to educate each other, to be able to fulfill whatever they need. But they need to understand our way of working as well. There are two languages, I would say .
PH: There's a lot more communication, not only design. The bigger the client, the more you have to talk to different parts of that company, and somehow convince more people. The smaller the company, the straighter the process.
I was talking to a young designer a couple of weeks ago. He used to be one of our students. Now he has graduated, he's looking at different jobs... I told him, "if you want to really move forward and take control of your career, you have to study and learn the language of business. You have to learn about accounting, marketing, how companies are structured – the language and concepts of business."
Even if you just want to do design... When you sit down with the client, and you look at this person from this company... If you're able to see what's behind this one person – the internal structure, the internal goals, how value and purpose flows inside the company – then you will make progress with that client, and subsequently with your career...
CA: That approaches our next challenge: artistic freedom. You're a creative – you want to be an artist, in some sense. Adapting too much towards budgets, and time plans, and structures, and business language is not necessarily creative. And that's a frustration. We are on the search for how we can we combine that in the best way possible, so we can feel that we have the creative freedom.
PH: Creative time – to react, and do it again, and learn...
CA: But still...
CA: Deliver for our clients. That would be the greatest of impacts: if we don't kill the creativity with all the limits, but we don't kill the possibilities of realizing the project because of the creative freedom.
That's a balance that we are still searching for – and I guess, will search, for many years to come. But we think it's very important, and we talk about it a lot. Sometimes we could get really frustrated, because we feel there are a lot of limits.
The constellation that we had from the beginning, of different disciplines... We bring in different relations, clients, and projects into the company. I mean, I haven't worked with architecture before, but now I do, which is really cool. I don't call myself an architect, but I could be a part of the process, and bring some insights, or questions, or knowledge to the table, which is really interesting. That's what we like...
Working with small and big companies, you get this mix, which is really nice: for both the creativity – we can also find synergies between big and small companies and projects – but also the rhythm. When you work with the bigger clients, they move forward as fast as they can, but it's never as fast as we can move forward. Then you work with the really small clients, and we are the bigger one, maybe not moving forward as fast as they want.
PH: The limits from the client are quite important. At some point, you also need the boundary, for creativity. You have to have a wall, to bounce around. And I think, having those clear lines from the beginning always makes a good project. Having a really good brief is what sets the possibility for the for the project. If it's totally free, then you can go on forever.
CA: With some clients, we have a super-clear brief. In some cases, we don't. Then it's up to us, we think, to understand the problem better – to ask a lot of questions to the client, to maybe do some research, and visit customers that will use this product or experience... To understand and create a better brief for ourselves, so we know: What is the goal of this project? In that case, when we do it ourselves, it's really fun – maybe we can find an angle for how "we" would like to do this.
You mentioned the brief. In the world of design, we all know what a brief looks like, and we also know what the end products look like...
CA: Do we? I would love to have that recipe.
I mean, everyone has something that they imagine when they talk about a brief, it's not like they have nothing... But it is different. Do you have a format for your brief, or does it change from client to client?
CA: It changes. It all depends on the client. Some are super-specific: "We want to have this product. We want to make it this, we need to fulfill this..."
PH: "It's going to be new, in these kind of senses; but this needs to be kept the same way as before..."
CA: "We want to make an exhibition about this. It's going to be between these two dates. We have this budget." And so on.
But it can also be like, "We want to explore this. We want to target a new group of customers. We want to make an exhibition of what will come in the future, and we don't know yet – we want you to find out!" So that's also a mixture.
PH: But when they're good, they're well thought out – both from the customer, and we've been able to debrief them, so that we've been able to question the brief a couple of times. That's usually when they become good.
Usually, the really loose ones – where there's nothing really to grasp onto – those are really hard.
So, a couple of iterations on the brief, to make it into something that's actionable...
CA: You don't want to get too standardized either. If we have this format, we always work on this, follow the process, and so on... Then you just become a machine. And how creative is that? So you want something that can adapt. You listen, you ask questions, you understand. You challenge the questions, or the brief... You try to find that creative high that you want.
Because if you're like, "yeah, first we do these steps, and that, and that..." It may be super smart from a business perspective, just to have this standardized product: "Oh, you want a new product? It will take this long, and cost this amount of money..." And you're like, "OK, perfect, thanks!" And then another one, and we say the same thing... But how fun is that for us? I mean, then we just become this big machinery.
This word, "creative" – it's very rich in different meanings, feelings, and associations for everyone... Can you give examples of one project where it was, from a perspective of being creative, very successful and very satisfying? And compare that to a project that didn't live up to what you want to have in your life?
PH: I think we've done very successful exhibitions... In the sense that they have both, for us, had the right type of creative level where we feel like we've achieved a greater kind of aesthetic feel and experience; but also we have heard that people had a really good time, visiting the spot.
CA: I would also say, the restaurant in Stockholm, Deglabbet. When we came up with ideas, they just executed them. They were opening a pizzeria in Stockholm – in a part of Stockholm called Vasastan, which is a really saturated market for a pizza place.
We looked at the problem: "OK, how could we create impact?" I mean, it's lovely that they want to open another pizza place, but how will they actually not be bankrupt in a day? Because there are too many! So we created this brand that was bright and yellow. All the pizza boxes were yellow, so you could spot them from a mile away.
They are really sharp guys, running this place. There was, of course, location, and their impact on social media... But that case became like, really... We gave them input on how we would like to do this creatively. And they were just, "yeah, we trust you!" That became a super success. I think they sold like 300% more pizza, within the first two weeks, than they had expected... That's more of from a business perspective. But they gave us the total freedom, like, "OK, really cool, we trust you."
With exhibitions, it's really fun... They want the creative heights, because it's an exhibition – so there should be more artistry.
And a really bad case...
PH: There's also, like, levels of bad...
CA: We don't do bad cases!
PH: That's the goal.
Sometimes they're not bad in the sense of ideas... But if the company is not able to execute the ideas, it doesn't help that there's a good idea. Our level of ideas has to match the level of competence in the company. Otherwise, it takes too long time to launch things, or production-wise it's going to cost too much – which can make the product too expensive in the end, or the service too expensive....
Those levels, you learn all your life. You won't ever be fully learned – you can always learn that, "ah, this time, it was actually a little bit too complex, pushing the limits of what that company could achieve..." I have several experiences like that, where I felt like either I should push more or push less.
CA: And maybe done some more research... Maybe find out a bit more about the budget, more about the organization, and how you manage decisions, and so on...
We get so fired up within a project. We're like, "OK, this is a great idea," and we just push – and maybe we had the brief, from the beginning, to push – but we didn't know about the limits within we could push.
And then we are fired up, and we present this idea, and they are like, "yeah, this is great!" So we get even more energy and we continue to work on that. And then they're like, the next time we meet, "we won't have the budget for this!" Then it's back to the drawing board, or scaling down.
That's actually a complaint I hear frequently, from people who work with designers. I have an acquaintance who makes gadgets out of plastic, for example... He commissions a lot of things to industrial designers, different objects, different shapes... He complains that he can't manufacture their designs on his machines! They require another complicated machine, or a complicated dye or mold that will cost them another hundred thousand dollars... So it pays off to do research into the capabilities of your clients, in terms of what they can manufacture, what they can execute.
But speaking of bad experiences... We avoid speaking about those a lot of the time, but I find it extremely productive. And from both a career standpoint and a personal happiness standpoint, I find it very productive to know what you're not going to do; to be clear about it – saying "no," to put it in a general form. Have you had any experiences where you've said "no" to particular clients or particular projects?
PH: It's like a relationship. When you realize that this relationship will never work – it will never become a good project, in this relationship with the client... Then you have to say "stop," because it becomes draining on your energy and your creativity.
What we are looking for is when we can somehow excel, and become even better at what we do. And the clients are really important in that.
CA: Yeah, and that's also part of growing and maturing as a company. In the beginning, you don't say no, for several reasons... It's like the last year or so, we've been saying no, because now we know more of what we want to do. And we have learned more, about maybe not saying "yes" to all the projects. We try to get more information before we make a decision.
But it's also that energy, like, "OK, yeah, we got a new assignment, new client! Yes, let's do this. It's going to be amazing!"
You had mentioned reputation, putting your signature on things... I was recently reading David Ogilvy, the legendary advertising writer. He was saying in his book that copywriters should sign their ads: there should be the name of the agency on the corner of the magazine page. When you do that, it increases the quality, and the results, by very significant degrees.
CA: I remember, when I was younger... At the bus stops, you always had these ads, and there was always the name of the agency. So you could read like, oh, Forsman & Bodenfors...
PH: That has been a typical, traditional way of doing it – you always put the name of the designer on the product or architecture. It's an old fashioned way, you write it on the building. Then you know that people will really take care of how it's going to look, and become, and feel, and the experience...
Yeah, you know it's a fancy building when it has, like, a plate at the entrance, with the name of the architect. That's how you know you're in a good building!
PH: Like, just having that on the lower side of a stool... You can find out who did it, who put the stamp, the mark on it.
CA: You're really showing that you're proud of your work, and you stand behind it. Like I meet you in the street, and look you in the eyes, and I'm like, "yeah, we have done this building, and we're proud of it!"
But nowadays, it feels like just another building or just another product...
We're proud of what we're doing, even if the end result is not always the way we wanted – for a lot of different reasons. But we want to take pride...
We went to Helsingborg the other week, for a project with Ikea. We walk down the street and saw this building, with this sign in stone: "automobiles and carriages". It's been there since horses and carriages! I mean, then you know, like, "OK, we're going to be here for a while," when you put your sign into stone. And now it was like a hairdressing salon or something, but the sign was still there! And that would be really cool, to have that... I would like to see more pride in the longer term, than just some likes on social media.
And also, I'd like that things are genuine. We talk about that a lot. If you make something in plastic, make it look like plastic, and use the nice ways you can use plastic. Don't make it look like wood, if it is plastic. Use wood when it's wood, and stone when it's stone, and all those genuine materials...
PH: When the clients have the same philosophy, in that sense, as we do, that's when it's a good client. And if we feel that it's not, that they are not triggering any of what we like, that's when we should stop.
Speaking of signs, and philosophy, and materials, I think this is a perfect segue into another thing I wanted to ask you: What is your design philosophy? For example, if you could scale your studio to infinity – infinite people working for you, all the projects in the world... So you can design the whole world: all of the architecture, all of the products, all of the graphics in the world... What would the world look like? What are some words that would describe our world designed by OP.™?
CA: There would be big statues of us, all over the globe...
We're fighting ugliness with good ideas... What we mean with good ideas is like, as we talked about, optimizing materials for what they're good at. And finding good ideas instead of "styling" things afterwards. Trying to make things real, so they feel real, and what you experience of the product or space is real.
Creating more fun spaces to live in, to socialize in... Products that are more fun...
CA: It's about seeing what it is for what it is. If it's temporary, or single-use, or whatever – make it in that sense, then.
Nowadays, a lot of effort is going in to create something, but you know that within a year, you will launch the next product. So you don't give it that love...
PH: Minimizing the artificial world, at the same time, maximizing the colorful world; so that it's a colorful experience...
CA: We don't have any principles that we would use if we should take over the world. Maybe we need that! We're working on it.
I think it was Steve Jobs who said, "the dots connect looking backwards" – to connect the dots, you need the dots in the first place. You can't know how your philosophy is going to turn out before you actually do things. But it's very easy to look back and extract a philosophy from from a collection of work that you've done already.
In practical terms, let's say that I'm a younger designer, maybe I'm a student.. And I want to learn by copying the masters. So I will copy the work of OP.™ to learn how things are done. What are some aesthetic elements – colors, materials, typefaces, anything – that we find in every OP.™ project, things you like to use, and some things you avoid?
PH: Maximizing an impression, and maximizing the total experience... Cleaning out all the fuss, so that the message becomes as clear as possible. And with "fuss" we mean, like, styling...
Getting rid of as much as possible, but still keeping a sense of a strong aesthetic feel... Those are the hardest things to combine... We try to always minimize weird aesthetic things, and try to keep it simple.
We like geometric shapes. We like strong colors. But it all depends on what it should do, in the end.
CA: Maybe in a couple of years or so, you can look back and see some kind of red thread through the whole thing. But it's also about being creative. You need to explore. It could be that you have really strict limits, and you be creative within those limits. But we want more to combine different knowledge, and educations, and ways of thinking, and be more creative in that sense... Then we cannot be that strict, with a typeface, three colors, and so on. We want to explore as well.
I can see that here, when I look around in your studio. There are various objects that you designed, different prototypes... I can see that there's no patterns, lines, shapes... It's just the material, and it's very honest. It's like steel, wood, plastic.... But there is still playfulness. There are interesting, curious elements in all of them...
PH: When you when you have a good idea, you have to design less.
If you have a bad idea, you have to design more, and it becomes harder to design. The better, the cleaner, the simpler, the more impactful the idea is, the simpler it is to design.
Regardless if it's a graphical project, or product design, or architecture... We always want to have good ideas, so that instead of talking about the design, you talk about the good functions and ideas that the design has done.
Are there any people, or other companies, or movements that you look up to – any influences?
PH: We look both into what's happening around us, but also what has... Some of our biggest influences are those designers from the past who were able to do the bigger picture, a big scope – architecture, product, graphics... But they were also really good at executing those big ideas.
CA: We're also really interested in, how did they become... Of course, aesthetically they're really pleasing, their designs and everything. But also, how did they manage to go through with those kind of things?
We also look up to other agencies, within different fields: How did they manage to grow their business and build? Not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also how they have navigated through the landscape.
We've visited Louisiana many times. Also just from a building perspective...
We've talked about Forsman & Bodenfors, of course, because here in Gothenburg... They're also from here. And they have navigated through that jungle of agencies in a really good way, and become like legends.... We don't know yet, but we would like to have a chat – how did they manage that? That's also interesting.
PH: In Finland, you had Alvar Aalto... His company, they were able to do all of it...
In the US you had Ray and Charles Eames, who were able to do chairs, architecture, graphics... And they could really execute on it. There's a lot of companies who try, but they don't have all the crafts and learnings to do it... Seeing design as one, basically... Because we believe it is one. They all interact.
That's one of the premises of Design Disciplin as well: they all interact, and they all have something to learn from each other. But speaking of influences, I really love books... I wonder if there is a book or any resource – an article, a YouTube channel, a website... – that you recommend frequently to people that you work with?
CA: A book I read recently was Sprint. I think it was interesting... Pushing the boundaries of how fast you can make a design sprint.
I've been listening to a podcast and YouTube channel called The Futur. I mean, it's really American – maybe feels a bit awkward, as a Swedish person... But from a business perspective, an educational perspective of starting your own business, it's really interesting.
PH: There should be more of these.
CA: I'm really missing the transparency within the business. Knowing the backgrounds, not only hearing about the success... Yeah, sometimes it's like shit, and we learn this, and then we could pivot, or make changes, that may give us this opportunity... I think there's a window for that in the podcast or YouTube market.
Do you have a favorite failure in your career that later set you up for success?
CA: That can be like, you start a project with a client, and you have this budget and this time frame... And then you work your ass off, like three times as much... And then you're like, "maybe that wasn't the best of choices."
As we talked about, you get fired up – you think you will revolutionize the world with this coffee mug... And then you don't have the opportunities, later on in the project, to succeed.
PH: I did a "tent" for car once. That was a huge failure. The client, the car company, wanted us to do that. But it was somehow impossible. It didn't work.
The learning is that... Your stomach before starting the project was like, "this will never work..." Then, after doing the project, it didn't work. Sometimes you should listen to your stomach from the beginning.
In a sense, you don't want just one chance. You want to fail forward. You want to have a client who wants to do something, but then they don't want to stop with only that thing. You want to do it again, and improve it even more, and then do a new one, and improve... So, having clients who are not interested in making one-hit wonders. We want to make constant hits, all the time.
CA: We always walk into this relation for a long time. That could sometimes be a failure – if we break up, much earlier than we thought...
To me, that's the essence of design: iteration. Trying things, failing, and doing things more than once. Doing it three or four or five times. Each time, increasing in terms of the investment, and the effort, and the definition of the thing; then eventually arriving somewhere. Not just, "OK, I made this. This is it." That's not design. Maybe it's engineering, it might even be an artistic piece... But to me, the meaning of design is iteration.
I'm wondering if there is anything about design that is obvious to you, but not to a lot of other people?
PH: The failures, you can really see when someone has not done all the ideas... Just taking a quick one... Like a coffee cup where you can't fit your finger into... Things that are not smart become ugly in a way... We can see quite quickly.
CA: That was my point: that we put in a bit more time, and try to understand. As you say, if you have a good idea, it's not hard to design.
PH: It's like, survival of the fittest idea.
PH: Evolution somehow makes things look good. A lot of things in nature look good. It has a pure idea and meaning, why they look like they do.
So: evolution... Studying, copying things, to understand the intuition of why things look good...
PH: Never copy, but learn. We don't want to make copies.
I meant as an exercise... As a learning experience, copying is very, very valuable. Not when you make it – not when you deliver it to the client. But, you know... I had to make some graphic designs for Design Disciplin – like social media, YouTube thumbnails... I'm not actually educated in graphic design, so sat down and studied.
The most valuable learning experience that I had was, when I took Grid Systems and Graphic Design, the famous book by Josef Müller-Brockman... I put it in front of my keyboard, I turned to the pages where he has these examples of his work, and I started copying all of them. I did like 20 of them in Figma, exactly replicating the layout, and I was like, "oh, so that has to be proportional, with your line height and your margin, because it fits this way..."
We talked about contextual awareness, awareness of use – like if your finger fits in the coffee cup... When we teach design, we talk a lot about research methods. We have things like these design sprints, user-centered design, design thinking... There's different recipes that you can follow. When you do what you call research, what does that involve? What is the process?
CA: It depends on the project, and the client... The scope, and the timeframe...
If we get a clear picture in the beginning, and it's a tight timeframe; or maybe we get ideas earlier in the discussions... We may start working on that directly.
If, somehow, the research is already done on some level...
CA: Exactly. It could be. And then, maybe, we get stuck. Then we do some research.
But in some cases, we need to do a lot of research, like interviewing people. And it's always good to meet someone that will be using, or living, or experiencing the thing you're designing.
We've been up with truck drivers, like five in the morning, just interviewing them when they're driving, about some products. And we've been interviewing organizations on how their future offices will look..
PH: People who actually experience this every day.... And we realized that, if we have a certain amount of those meetings, we get a lot of knowledge in a short time...
CA: You don't need that many meetings. I mean, it's like, maximum ten, I would say. After like, five, you have almost 80% of the findings.
Yeah, even in academic research, where the expectation is that you have to be rigorous, you have to cover everything... If you're doing interviews that are very "deep" – talking to someone for two or three hours – then you do ten of them. You don't do 20 or 30.
PH: And observing – like only observing. Having time to observe how a person uses a space or an object, without them knowing that you are looking at them...
CA: With the truck drivers, for instance... They had these crane operating trucks, so they could hoist windows up to buildings... We spent some time with them, when they were driving, interviewed them. And then we went to this site where they did their work – just walking around, looking at how they were doing things... And then, maybe ask some more questions: "OK, so you talked about safety. That's really important... You should never walk under your load, that you're hoisting – but you just did that!" And they're like, "oh, OK, wow, did I do that?" "Why is that?" "Oh, because I had to do blah blah..."
Then you pick up those small details, and you get insights too: "OK, so, if we could get the guy to not die when he's working, that's like a super benefit for this product!"
As I said, many people in our audience are design students and design educators. For a student who's in school today, with one or two years left in their education, to just study things, and experiment... What would be some really valuable skills or topics they could invest in, if they would like to work at a place like this, or start a studio like this?
CA: As you mentioned in the question: to explore and try out new things. That's really important. It's really easy today that you educate yourself to this degree, and then you're like, "yeah, I'm going to do this, I'm going to work on that at this company that specializes in that..." Maybe explore, and try, and don't be afraid.
As you said, you're not a graphic designer, but of course you can do graphic design without an education. You just need to try it out, learn something, and maybe you're like, "ah, this is not my thing..." Don't be afraid, in that sense, as a beginning...
PH: Definitely learn tools – learn many tools – to do design, so that the tool doesn't become what limits your potential. I remember that as a common thing: people didn't learn certain tools... Then you only create certain objects, or ideas, or spaces; because of you not being able to execute, basically.
If you have time to be a student, you should really learn the craft of how to design...
CA: And then take the skills, and make it physical. Make it physical! I mean, graphic design is also physical. You can just print it. Then you get the feel of it. I think that's really interesting and educational.
From from our perspective, now that we've been a company for a while, time to time we get applications for internships or a job... It's always interesting to see the ones that have done their prototypes – it's not just a sketch or a rendering, it's also physical model. Even if it's from cardboard, it's like, "OK, they have done this, and learned something."
It's really important to learn the tools, so they don't become a limitation. It's also really important to just make it in the physical space, so you can interact with it.
PH: And I think, still, even though there's all of these digital tools... One of the absolute best tools is a pen and paper... There's no faster way of communicating an idea. I don't see how that will change. Even though it may become a digital pen, it won't change. Having the speed – to be able to do, you know, the survival of the fittest idea... To be able to do many ideas, and iterate. Having that tool is the greatest...
CA: And explore! Try out the internship at the agency that does, like graphic design, and learn. Like you have six months, where you can learn so much about graphic design, and get the experience in real projects... And then maybe you go to product design...
PH: Learn the trade.
CA: Exactly... If you educate yourself, just be ready to work... Learn to practice design in the workspace.
PH: And don't decide that you are fully learned. You will never be fully learned. There's a saying that, when you're around 80, that's when you're the best designer.
What I see at the university is that most teachers refrain from teaching the tools. They they try not to talk about the tools – Figma, Photoshop... They don't teach exactly how to implement, but they always talk about principles and theories. But I agree that it really pays off to learn the tools. Because once you learn one of them, it's very easy to transfer that skill – from Figma to Photoshop, from Photoshop to Illustrator, from that to whatever people will invent in next year...
If you never do that, you can learn all the theory you want, but you will never produce design without actually using the tools. Whatever tools exist in a moment in time, it's very worthwhile to to learn those things.
PH: You become a really good asset too, when you come to a company, if you know the tools. You can help from day one.
What are you excited about these days? What's next for OP.™?
CA: We have challenges, both for the company and for us, privately...
PH: The four founders also becoming fathers.
Wow, all at the same time?
CA: During this this autumn. So that's a new challenge.
Yeah, we're growing... The OP.™ family is now nine people. And hopefully, we're getting a bit bigger during the year and onwards. And then also, of course, the Stockholm thing – with opening up an office... We need to find one first! But that's always fun... We'll see what that could mean for us, and how we could expand a bit there...
PH: We have a fun partnership with a company called Skewed... It's kind of a creative collective. We do a lot of projects together with them as well.
CA: And with them, we're starting up an office in London as well. They are mainly the driving force for that, of course, but we're part of the collective. That's also interesting, to see what we can do... Being more present abroad... Going international is also a dream, of course.
Is there anything that you'd like to add, that we haven't covered so far? Maybe a question that you wish I have asked? A piece of advice or request to our audience?
PH: Don't do crap.
CA: Don't design ugliness!
Don't be afraid to fail, I would say. Fail forward. Just try it out.
PH: Fail and learn. Do it again.
CA: A question, or an interesting topic, would be: "How do we work creatively in this digital era?" We have had Skype and so on, for many years, but now because of the pandemic, it really took off... There are a lot of companies thinking about how they could create products and so on, that could help us who are working within the creative field.
Now that there are a lot of students in your community, it could be interesting to see their point of view: How are they thinking about the future of working? What are their expectations, within the field and the workplace? As we go so much faster now, into a digital era, it would be interesting to see if there are any good ideas and reflections on that... I think we're in this exploration phase, as the whole industry...
I'm observing that video is really becoming a thing. Like TikTok, which is the rising platform these days... The way that people produce video... It has really reached the masses. Ten or twenty years ago, if you wanted to make a video for whatever reason, you had to fire up your computer, import from your camera, do your editing... Today it's on your phone – in ten seconds, your video is done.
But speaking of... Where can we find you on the internet?
PH: You can reach us on our website: op-web.se
You also have officeofpossibilities.se?
CA: Yeah. But that's not the easiest way!
And then we have @op_update on Instagram.
This was so much fun, thank you so much. This has been an absolute pleasure. I hope that I will see you again, on camera and off camera as well.
PH: You're more than welcome.
Books, Links, and Resources*
- Alvar Aalto on Wikipedia
- BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group)
- Charles and Ray Eames on Wikipedia
- Forsman & Bodenfors
- Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockmann
- Gunnar Asplund on Wikipedia
- Josef Müller-Brockman on Wikipedia
- Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
- Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
- Pål Svensson
- Sigurd Lewerentz on Wikipedia
- Sprint by Jake Knapp
- The Futur
*: May contain affiliate links – at no extra cost to you, we earn a commission if you purchase from these links.