Design Spotlight: The Transformative Journey of Spotify

Editor’s Note: This article is featured in HOW’s Winter 2015 Issue, Innovation from Within. Order a copy or subscribe today.

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Words by ALEX CENTER

Art provided by CHRISTIAN WILSSON

Over the past decade there hasn’t been a single industry that has been dismantled, transformed, remodeled, and rebuilt quite like the music industry. Just 14 years ago the music business was a completely different world. The iTunes store didn’t exist and the only reason people used computers was to make mixes for strange circular things called CDs. Since then, a myriad of companies have launched platforms that have changed the way we listen to music.

No industry has had the constant disruption like music. The music business has shown that to survive in the information age, you have to put the consumer first and use a mixture of design, technology, and data to better serve them. The battle to control the future of music has created and destroyed many companies. But one company is leading the fight. That company is Spotify.

At the heart of that company, at a desk in the middle of Stockholm, Sweden, is Christian “Kribba” Wilsson. Wilsson has been the design director for the past five years and has worked with the transformative music company in some capacity since its inception. I had a chance to talk to him about his journey, the benefits of strong in-house design, how Spotify is changing the way people live their lives, and of course the bold move to change the logo from green to, well, green.

WHERE ARE YOU FROM AND HOW YOU DID YOU GET THE NICKNAME “KRIBBA”?

I’m from a really small town in Sweden called Falköping, which is mostly known in Sweden for being the most boring city in the country. It’s also the city with the most cows per square meter. As for “Kribba,” it’s a nickname and there’s really no story behind it. Sorry! It’s just something that appeared from somewhere nine to 10 years back. Nowadays nobody at Spotify knows “Christian,” it’s all “Kribba.”

HOW DOES SWEDEN, YOUR HOMELAND, PLAY A ROLE IN YOUR WORK AS A DESIGNER?

Having lived and worked in Sweden my whole life, clean, minimalist design is what I always strive for. Keep it simple. Keep it clean. That’s what I like.

TODAY YOU WORK AS THE DESIGN DIRECTOR FOR SPOTIFY, THE STREAMING MUSIC SERVICE THAT WAS BORN IN SWEDEN AND HAS SINCE TAKEN OVER HERE IN THE US. HOW DID YOU GET THERE?

I’ve been full time at Spotify for about five years. This month is my anniversary. Before that I was actually helping them doing contract work like banner ads, websites, all that sort of stuff at an agency that I actually founded. Prior to that I was part of founding another company called Stardoll with Daniel Ek, who is now our CEO at Spotify. When he decided to leave Stardoll and launch Spotify, he needed someone to make a quick brand identity. So I did that.

spotify-logosSO YOU DID THE VERY FIRST LOGO FOR SPOTIFY? HOW HAS THE BRAND IDENTITY CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

What I did basically is give them the original wordmark more or less. The first version had an O jumping out with waves, if you remember. A couple of different versions, colors. I guess you can say I did the embryo but I wasn’t part of picking the original green.

BEFORE SPOTIFY, YOU WORKED AT AND RAN DESIGN AGENCIES. WHAT IS THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WORKING ON THE AGENCY SIDE AND WORKING AS AN IN-HOUSE DESIGNER?

When I was at an agency we would work on a project for a couple of months, then we would launch it, it would live for about two weeks and then that work was pretty much gone. We would send it off for some award, and hopefully it was nominated or awarded. The biggest difference for me is that in-house you’re able to follow the journey of a company. You’re really building something long term. That’s what I really like.

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF HAVING INTERNAL DESIGN CAPABILITIES VS. USING EXTERNAL AGENCIES?

I think the main thing about building an in-house team is that you own the knowledge of the people. You’re not just paying for their service when you need it for a short project. It also speeds up the work. You can solve things really quickly that would be a hassle with an outside agency. You would need to brief, they would need to learn our brand and how we work. This can be a really long process for something that can be a quick fix for our team here.

WOULD YOU ALSO SAY THAT IN-HOUSE PEOPLE ARE MORE PASSIONATE OR MORE CONNECTED TO THE BRANDS THEY WORK ON THAN THE EXTERNAL PEOPLE THAT MOVE ON AND WORK FROM PROJECT TO PROJECT?

Yeah, definitely. We are more invested in the product we’re building and also the work that we do. In Sweden when I ride the subway I see everyone listening to music and using Spotify and it makes me proud.

A LOT OF COMPANIES ARE MOVING TOWARD THIS MODEL AND INVESTING IN DESIGN. WHAT DO YOU THINK IS PROMPTING THIS COMMITMENT FROM BIG BUSINESSES?

I think more and more companies are using design as something that differentiates them from competition. Also they are trying to attain the best designers out there. By creating CDO’s (chief design officers) they are shining a light on the fact that they really care about design. They are also showing that design has a seat at the table. It’s an important part of modern companies.

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WHAT DO YOU THINK IS CHANGING THAT PERCEPTION OF PEOPLE WHO WORK IN-HOUSE?

I think it’s attached to the rise of product design. Companies care more about the whole process and care less about the individual pieces. This is a powerful shift. If you want to make a great product you need to come work in-house.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE TRANSITION GOING FROM A SMALL STARTUP TO BECOMING A GLOBAL COMPANY? WHAT HAS THE JOURNEY BEEN LIKE? WHAT HAS CHANGED?

When I started at Spotify there were only three of us. There was a project manager, a product designer, and me. We took care of all the design needs. We kept that for about eight months. Then we started to scale up. We also created two teams. One is the Communications Design Team, that I lead. And the other is the Product Design Team, which is way bigger. All in all, we are more than 50 people. We are located both in Stockholm and in New York.

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WHAT PROMPTED YOUR JOURNEY TO CREATE A NEW VISUAL IDENTITY SYSTEM FOR SPOTIFY?

We did a brand audit. We had a logo, a green color, black, white, a typeface (the most bought one of the year), and a gradient. We didn’t have enough to scale and build a great identity. It was an amazing project. It was a great collaboration. The great thing was working with Collins, a New York City brand consultancy that brought in a fresh pair of eyes. They have a great knowledge of how to build brands. It was a really good learning journey and extremely inspiring as well. The result is the best work we’ve done at Spotify in a long time.

WILSSON’S JOURNEY FROM FOUNDING HIS OWN DESIGN AGENCY TO WORKING IN-HOUSE IS A MICROCOSM OF A BIGGER SHIFT THAT’S HAPPENING ALL AROUND THE GLOBE.

CAN WE TALK ABOUT THE GREEN TO GREEN CHANGE IN THE SPOTIFY LOGO THAT CAME OUT OF THAT NEW BRAND SYSTEM AND THE RESPONSE PEOPLE GAVE TO YOU BOTH ON THE INTERNET AND IN REAL LIFE?

The transition from old green to new green was something that personally took a little while to get used to. Even for me. So I can definitely understand why people responded the way they did. What was interesting to see was that people were so passionate about the brand. They were so invested emotionally in the green color on the app that they have on their screen. So it was surprising and delightful.

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IT SEEMS LIKE SPOTIFY IS MOVING AWAY FROM A PRODUCT COMPANY TO A LIFESTYLE COMPANY THAT REPRESENTS THE WAY THAT MUSIC PLAYS A ROLE IN THEIR LIVES.

Totally, we are trying to build the world’s biggest music brand.

WHICH LEADS ME TO MY MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION: WHAT TYPE OF MUSIC IS ON YOUR SPOTIFY PLAYLIST?

Electronic. Rock. Phantogram. Jazz. Calvin Harris. It’s pretty much all over the place.


Wilsson’s journey from founding his own design agency to working in-house is a microcosm of a bigger shift that’s happening all around the globe. What was once a place where designers would only go to provide a very narrow service for a business, in-house is now a place to go and change the world we live in. This shift in the way that companies are approaching design is allowing us to not just solve the complex problems of 2015, but lead the way to our most innovative ideas. Spotify is a great case study for how to best use design to adjust and react to our rapidly changing environment. They are leading the way in the music industry by using design to build new products and platforms, helping us to discover and listen to the music we love. Now, if they could only find a way to prevent our headphones from getting tangled in our pockets, we’d be all set.

Learn more in HOW’s Winter 2015 Issue, Innovation from Within.


Y1292_newAuthored by legendary designers Tom Geismar, Ivan Chermayeff, and Sagi Haviv, Identify is the ultimate authoritative examination of the process, approach, and principles that result, time and time again, in identity design with the potential to become iconic, and thus succeed in representing a brand in the mind of the public for generations.

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