In this week's episode of The Onlinification Pod, I sat down with Carl Wåhlander, art director here at Zooma, to talk design - we discussed how to think about brand design, why feedback is so important in the design process, and how everyone is secretly a creative. Enjoy!
We talk a lot about content creation and strategy in this podcast, but we've never covered a vital factor in digitalisation - good design! That's why we decided to bring Carl in for a conversation about design. He's been an art director at Zooma for almost three years, and has created designs for a really diverse spectrum of customers. It was interesting to find out his thought behind the design process, the challenges he faces in communicating complex ideas through good design, and which design trends he believe we're going to see in the near future.
I enjoyed recording it, and I hope you enjoy listening. If you like this episode, make sure to subscribe - either on Spotify, Soundcloud, or here on the blog - that way, you'll get an email when we release a new episode.
Alexander Evjenth: [00:00:00] So in today's episode, we have Carl Wåhlander, also known as Mr. Wåhlander, or what are you called?
Carl Wåhlander: [00:00:10] Yeah, I mean, um, I suppose some people call me that, um, you know, I'm 30 now, so it makes sense to have the 'Mr.' part before my last name.
AE: [00:00:22] Do you have any other nicknames you want to reveal here in the pod, or?
CW: [00:00:27] Well, I have two second names, uh, Leif and Måns. So but nobody ever uses those. But, you know, I've thought about maybe when I retire, I'll switch to Leif since it's such an old man's name.
AE: [00:00:40] That's good. And Doug is here as well.
Doug Bolton: [00:00:48] I am indeed, hello.
AE: [00:00:49] How are you, Doug?
DB: [00:00:50] I'm good. I'm good. It's unusual to be speaking this time, I feel I'm kind of like the fifth Beatle or something, like I'm present in all the podcasts, but I'm just kind of sat on mute watching the levels and making sure people's microphones don't disappear and stuff like that. So, yeah, I mean, stepping into the limelight,
CW: [00:01:11] That's the most important role after all.
AE: [00:01:15] So, uh, Carl could you do a minor introduction of yourself? What do you do at Zooma?
CW: [00:01:21] Yeah. So I'm an art director at Zooma, I've been here for almost three years, and I'd say I have a very broad role, at Zooma. I do everything from photography To animation, even did some sound stuff. Um, that's the best part of the job, I think, and what I enjoy the most, is like the diversity of the role and also the fact that I get to sort of have that responsibility to if I feel I can deliver something, I get to try it, since we don't really have any dedicated animators or sound design people and so on.
AE: [00:02:04] That's a good introduction, and we're going to go deeper into to what your day at Zooma looks like. What did you do before you joined Zooma?
CW: [00:02:18] Well, I, um, I've done some, well, my history as a designer sort of started on my own where I, I actually started using Photoshop and whatnot when I, I made like album covers for metal bands. Since I had my own metal band and you know, we needed a logo and a cover art for our releases. So that's how I got started actually. And so I did that for a few years. I even lived on that one summer.
AE: [00:02:52] On making album covers, or making the music?
CW: [00:02:56] No, you don't make money making music, but the album cover you do. I did like MySpace pages when that was a thing. And so that's sort of what got me into like HTML and CSS as well, or at least understanding it. I'm not doing any frontend coding as it is today, but, uh, it's a good experience because at least I can sort of understand the developers, uh, when they build the stuff, I design at Zooma.
AE: [00:03:28] Yeah, that's good. So this episode, we're going to talk more about the art direction. And you can also just shoot questions to Carl here.
DB: [00:03:39] Yeah, absolutely.
AE: [00:03:40] But first, first of all, like when you do work for a client of ours, what information do you need to have? Uh, what's the basic, like understanding of the brand, and so on?
CW: [00:03:58] So I think I think the main part for me or my strategy as a designer is to try to ask the stupid questions. And I think that's key to getting a proper understanding, because since we have such a diverse amount of clients, you end up working with stuff like tires all the way up to 5G so, you know, not being afraid of sounding stupid and just being like, OK, what is this? And I think that's also the part that I enjoy most where, you know, the knowledge sort of clicks. There's a lot of technologies that I simply don't understand at first glance. But then you have to basically research it as you design and then you sort of learn terminologies and technologies so that in the, um, projects that come up later, you sort of have that knowledge already. So that's what I try to do. And, you know, I'm very much a feedback-driven person, so I try to be transparent in my knowledge with clients.
AE: [00:05:14] And how does that research process look like, do you interview the clients or?
CW: [00:05:22] Well, you know, I, I try to read a lot. I mean, I've read like technical PDFs on stuff that normally doesn't actually, I wouldn't say it's not relevant, but, you know, like working with something like a company that does tires, I mean, I don't even have a driver's license, but it's still funny to get that get that knowledge because, you know, I'm very much into history and trivia stuff. So I think that plays to my favour.
AE: [00:06:00] So when you when you started designing albums, that's a very like direct to consumer design. Now you work more with the business to business. Is there any difference there?
CW: [00:06:21] Yeah. I mean back then I guess I had like a lot of freedom to just do whatever I felt was good and especially, you know, within the metal scene it was a lot of burning cities and, you know, corpses and whatnot. So it was kind of a niche industry, you could say. Yeah, but now yeah, as I said, you know, you have to understand what it is that the company wants in order to you know, you need to work within the limitations of what you're provided with, which is also like a really good part of the challenge, because I feel that sometimes like restrictions can be actually quite you know, creative when you need to like, OK, so I can't do this, so what can I do with the limits that I have? And so, you know, it's like almost like stepping out of your comfort zone, but staying in the stretch zone to, like, try to stretch it as long as possible or as big as possible in order to find something unique that still fits with the company brand.
AE: [00:07:38] So how do you set up your, what's your personal goals when you design something for a client? You mentioned that the project has goals, but do you set up your own goals and objectives?
CW: [00:08:00] I think my goal is always to be satisfied myself. And as I said, like with the limits, you have to push them as far as you can to make sure it's good for the client, but also that you yourself also find, you know, some satisfaction in how it ended up. You know, it's it's about challenging them and, you know, giving a good reason to challenge them, because that's what we want to do, you know, like make things better, not just make them satisfied and, you know, in order to evolve their brand and whatever it is they are doing.
AE: [00:08:41] And is there like a set of principles that you work with, independent of what customer it is, like, do you work according to a process?
CW: [00:08:58] You know, it's quite simple I think, it's you know, the more fun I have, the better result, I think. At least I hope so, because, you know, like having made something that, you know, it's "wow, that's cool," usually means that the end result is better.
AE: [00:09:18] I know that you've written an article about feedback loops. Could you just explain a bit what that is and if you use it?
CW: [00:09:29] Yeah. I mean I try to, I try to push because I think I think that everyone is basically a creative. I think that it's sort of sad notion when people say that, you know, oh no, I can't give my opinion because I'm not a designer. But I think that, you know, if you ask a client or a coworker, I think that obviously they are the ones who will look at the design and, you know, use it the most probably then it makes sense that, you know, they should have a strong opinion. And, you know, even though I might have some thoughts, like design-based thoughts, it's always good to hear, you know, someone who's not, like, blinded by design thinking to give their opinion. And so. I tried to make it, I try to make it clear that, you know, please tell me what you think and I try to, it goes back to wanting to ask the stupid questions, which also includes, being like, "oh, so what do you think about this?" And even if they say, "well, I'm not a designer", it's like, well, "I think your your opinion is equally important in that way." We all grow from from the process, like they might realize that they have an eye for design as well, because, as I said, I think everyone does to some extent. And I also you know, I also grow from that.
DB: [00:11:13] I think it's quite interesting that, like, you know, I'm not a designer by any means. But, you know, I think if you showed me or, you know, kind of anyone else at Zooma, for that matter, kind of like two websites, for example, with no new product images, like company names or anything, but, you know, just the kind of bare design, and you said, "OK, one produces industrial machinery and the other sells, I don't know, like makeup directly to consumers", you know, you, I mean, I guess if the designer did a good job, you know, you would quite easily be able to see which was which, but it's just kind of, as a non-designer, you know, being able to say what it is that gives you that feeling. You know, is it like this color or this font or something? You know, it's everything comes together to a whole and kind of gives a certain feeling. I think it's very interesting, really.
CW: [00:12:07] Yeah. I mean, in the end, I mean, there are of course there are like design principles. You shouldn't you shouldn't put like white text on a light gray background, right, but in the end it's a lot about like the gut feeling. And that's, I think that's like something universal we all experience. And I think like being a designer is a lot about trying to understand that feeling and how you can, to what extent you should trust it. Because sometimes you need to do something daring. And like everything that's like, if there's something that really sticks out, then it might not actually be bad. It's just that you might not be used to seeing that, if you see what I mean.
DB: [00:12:59] Yeah, exactly. I think it's kind of a similar challenge to what you and me, Alex, have in our role, you know, because we do a lot of writing and not so much like visual stuff. And, you know, like if you're trying to write an article for a very particular target group about potentially a very technical topic that we don't really know about, you know, it's easy to get, like, stuck in the exact wording or structure or whatever, how you're trying to show this information, and then you're happy with it and then you show it to someone else who's seeing it for the first time, and then, you know, they usually have a bunch of comments about how you could change it and make it 10 times clearer and more effective and that kind of thing.
AE: [00:13:42] Yeah, yeah. And I think that's super important to have those short recurring feedback and iterate on creating stuff. It's so easy to get stuck.
CW: [00:13:57] Yeah. I mean, I think in all professions you are prone to get like tunnel vision, right. So any, any feedback is it's like I mean I've, I've tried to explain what I do to my mom, but she always says, "oh, I don't understand it." But even so, if she has an opinion that could still open like an avenue of new thought within me. And I think that goes for everyone. So, yeah.
AE: [00:14:32] And Carl, say, for example, you're about to design a new website, you know, could you just briefly walk us through the process? How does the project start for you?
CW: [00:14:48] Well, you know, first off, of course, you'll need to look at what their website is like now to understand what they're about. And then, of course, as I said, like ask the stupid questions. And then usually I, I actually go and look at, like competitors and, you know, trends and whatnot and then try to, you know, because usually we don't like, do stuff from scratch, or rather it's usually the case of like a redesign rather than a whole new design from scratch. And I think that's the challenge as well, like trying to find like, "OK, so they still have this logotype and they still have these colors." And so then you try to, you know, "how can I adapt this to like a new modern feel?"
AE: [00:15:46] And how do you work when you adapt that? Do you look for inspiration, any design inspiration?
CW: [00:15:56] Yeah, I mean I usually spend like an hour on like Behance usually before I even start working because there's always like exciting new stuff there.
AE: [00:16:08] Behance, what's that?
CW: [00:16:10] Behance is Adobe's graphical or like product showcase web page where you'll find everything from UX to illustration to animation to photography and whatnot, so you can basically find anything there. And you know, it's it's all about like piecing together the puzzle that is the design elements, right. I don't know if you've heard the term "everything is a remix." So it's all about like finding ways to piece together stuff that normally wouldn't fit together in a nice way. It's like if you've heard the word serendipity where it's like an unplanned, fortunate discovery, which is like the terminology on Wikipedia, where you sort of take this thing and that thing and you mash them together and perhaps it ends up with something that you're like, oh, I never thought about that.
AE: [00:17:15] Yeah.
CW: [00:17:16] So I guess that's the feeling I try to chase when designing stuff.
AE: [00:17:22] Yeah, I think it was Picasso or Steve Jobs or whoever said like, "good artists copy, great artists steal."
DB: [00:17:29] Picasso or Steve Jobs?
CW: [00:17:35] One of them.
AE: [00:17:36] And so for you, like what, what is a good design?
CW: [00:17:49] That's a tough question, because in the end, it's kind of subjective, and I suppose you could answer this question in a lot of different angles. For one, it could be like it's accessible and easy to use. But then again, it could also be that a good design as it's memorable or just plain good looking, right. So, you know, it's almost like a 3-D spectrum where you need to find the sweet spot between those parts, I'd say.
AE: [00:18:22] Yeah, that's a very good answer.
CW: [00:18:25] Tack.
DB: [00:18:26] Alex, I checked and it was Picasso, not Steve Jobs. Or Jeff Bezos, for that matter, he's usually the guy we namedrop in these podcasts.
AE: [00:18:38] But we can take some some some last thoughts here with you, Carl. Do you see any trend recently in design and online design?
CW: [00:18:51] Uh, well, uh, it's kind of funny, you know, with like, um. It's almost like, designer heresy, this, but, you know, I wasn't an Apple user until I started at Zooma. So I've always been like a fan of Android. And they actually they actually went back to like, uh, because they had their material design, which was like very like strong colors and whatnot. But now they launched like the new Android operations system. And it's actually pastel, which is, which I haven't seen in a couple of years, I think. I think that will have a major impact on design as a whole because, you know, everything's been like really black and white and strong colors and now it might go back to a bit more subtle. So we'll see. I'm excited about that.
DB: [00:19:48] Maybe they copied from Zooma? We should look into that.
CW: [00:19:51] Yeah, I mean, we did launch that like a year before they went to pastel.
DB: [00:19:57] Well there you go.
CW: [00:19:58] So that just makes sense, right, it's all a big conspiracy.
AE: [00:20:04] Carl, thank you very much for participating today.