As firm principal of Trollbäck Design, you’d think that I grew up wanting to be a designer. But, really, I became a designer by chance. My way into graphic design was totally unplanned and it feels like I was hardly paying attention to it as it happened. It’s still something that, after 15 years, seems like a completely accidental occupation to me.
When I was younger I had this vague idea that it would be cool to design. That was all. What attracted me the most to design were the designers themselves—they were ultra-cool. I wanted to be that cool. The only thing these ultra-cool people seemed to do was have a good time and make fun things. It seemed like a field where people were thinking and inventing and making things. I had been into that for a long time. Early on, I would go into my room next to the garage and wire just about everything. My crowning achievement was building a modular synthesizer. It never actually got fully assembled, but with a bunch of wires and patches, I could get some fat sounds out of it.
But there was another driving force as well. At the time I was a DJ in Stockholm, and I really, really wanted to move to New York. It was where everything happened. But in the ’90s, being a DJ was hardly glamorous and finding a gig in New York was extremely intimidating. I figured that I had a better shot as a designer, especially one with computer skills.
So, I began doing my own crash course in design, trying to learn everything I possibly could about it. I was in the process of trying to copy all the typography of Jan Tschichold when it became pretty clear to me what worked graphically and what didn’t. Then, I discovered the work of Joseph Müller-Brockmann, which revealed to me the most important ingredients for understanding design and motion: the art of rhythm, tension, charge and discharge. There are no real shortcuts to knowledge, experience or skill, but there can be some very enlightening moments. For me, I realized that I could translate my opinions about music into the language of design. That settled the deal. I made the move, and there I was in New York City.
Once here, I got a job working with motion graphics. I designed day and night, made some irrelevant work and a few nice things, too. Then one day the futility hit me. I realized that, if you let it, there can be a higher purpose for design.
That’s when I started to care about stories—what I detail in the print edition of the February issue. How can they be told in emotional and unexpected ways? It’s embarrassing to admit how long it took me to really understand that design in itself is nothing but a language to express things with.
To learn how to design isn’t very different from learning other skills. It all starts with repetition. You practice hard, you look at what people have done in the past, and begin to imitate them. What people rarely admit is that you just have to do this in order to learn. Still, as much as you can appreciate the classics, the future is brought to you by new generations. Any decent amateur guitar player can do both "Stairway To Heaven" and "Blackbird," but so what? Once you’ve mastered the technique, you’ve only just begun.
This is when the real hardship starts. If you’re totally happy doing the same as others, you can indeed become a good craftsman, but what attracted most of us to the field was the drive to be creative. Every time someone thinks that one of your projects resembles Bass, Rand or Thompson, you might be momentarily flattered, but you’ve no doubt failed: You want to have your own voice in every aspect of life. I’m not sure when I started to find this so important, but I know the reason; it started to get boring working only on the surface.
New designers are instrumental to the survival of the language. Young fresh ideas are making our communication vital and relevant, adding energy and force to the profession. Bob Dylan sings, "The present now will later be past." Any culture that doesn’t move is destined to die. Still, there must be a purpose, or it will all be in vain.
HOW February 2007