We’re at the precipice of a big change around many industries. The idea of big companies to rule them all, and the means in which we achieve that, are all coming under question.
It’s not to say that big businesses don’t serve a purpose, but in the age of digitally-enabled agility and entrepreneurship, the story is no longer about “how big can I grow this,” but rather how can my size and agility allow me to “create the best work?”
Norgram is comprised of Sebastian Gram & Mathias Høst Normark. The agency’s name is a derivation of both of their last names… not unlike the publication you’re reading right now.
Despite being a small and nimble two-man operation, Norgram has quickly built-up an enviable list of clients, including Scandanavian homewares brand Muuto, Ikea, and Ikea’s experimental research and design lab, Space10.
We spoke with Mathias over a crisp spring day in Copenhagen as he spoke about the development of digital design through traditional print, the influence of Danish design on the Norgram philosophy, the, of course, challenges of running a small, two-man studio.
Mathias Høst Normark
Mathias Normark: My name’s Mathias, and ultimately I’m a designer, but I also run a company called Norgram with my partner Sebastian.
Essentially what we do is design, but we’re primarily focused on the intersection of brand identity and digital work. What does that mean? We do brand identity and assess how it touches digital interfaces and platforms.
Eugene Kan: Is that an intersection you guys stumbled into, or is it something that has always existed since the beginning of the internet?
Mathias: We came upon this idea maybe ten years ago? Sebastian and I were working at a digital agency that was very focused on the execution and production of digital campaigns.
We would quite often receive brand identity work from extremely good but classic design agencies or studios. I’m also trained as a traditional graphic designer in print, and when you have these identity agencies doing really beautiful, well-crafted work, they’re not capable of executing on the digital side.
So these digital companies, often founded by people from the tech side, would come in and execute, but in the process, you’d lose some of the nice aspects of graphic design.
That was ten years ago, and I’d say the gap has closed a lot. But there’s still a lag between digital designers including self-taught digital designers who miss the craft of classic Danish or Swiss design. The people who are focused on digital design maybe don’t get the crafting right. You could say we’re very picky, but it’s something we care a lot about.
Eugene: Do you think a bit of art is lost when design is introduced into the digital realm, and we’ve distilled everything down, or quite closely anyways, to the lowest common denominator? Are we missing out on a lot of details and nuances?
“Before starting, I was in the mindset of ‘is this even possible?’ It can be scary even if you know the agency set-up and going about this with two people isn’t some super crazy journey if you have experience. But my main worry was simply, can we get projects? ”
— Mathias, on launching his new agency.
Mathias: Print goes at a certain pace, and it’s going to be as it is. The internet, you can change it all the time. Most companies work with data, so they try to do A/B tests, and sometimes the craft and the aesthetics of design don’t necessarily get put at the highest positioning because they’ll change it again depending on what works.
If you have modules and components, the craft also gets lost as the client starts to use the design themselves, and it’s no longer the designer controlling them.
Another thing if you do print, you get a designer to craft something, and then you print it. When you go through a digital process, you not only craft and design the visual aspects, you also have a full journey and interaction patterns you need to think about. Then the client needs to be involved on the technical side alongside the testing site, accounting for browser limitations, and so on. There are so many levels and processes that intentions can get lost.
Eugene: One thing you mentioned earlier was a sense of regional identity, whether it be Danish or Scandinavian-inspired.
Mathias: It’s a really interesting conversation, and I haven’t really reflected on it that much in terms of who we are. What we do is digital-based, and you could say that Scandinavian and Danish design is not known for digital design. In terms of design consciousness, most people think of architecture, product design, and industrial design.
People do think about digital design, but it’s not in the same lane of physical. What I do think is a good thing, is that the culture that we’re brought up within means we’re surrounded by 1960s Danish furniture, the work of famous architects, and many who helped make Scandanavian design popular.
You grow up in a way where function is treated as an extremely important ingredient in design and sometimes, maybe more than the aesthetical part. I think what’s interesting and reflects well who we are is this focus on functionality. You strip away a lot of things, and the aesthetic that comes out of that tends to be something that’s quite minimal, quite sophisticated, but also understandable, relatable, and something you can quickly grasp.
Again, I think that’s something we’re brought up with, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect everything about us at the studio.
Norgram’s office in Copenhagen.
Eugene: How would you then explain what you guys do?
Mathias: Essential. I’m not sure I can put that into one word, the aesthetics of it, but it’s focused on the core. From a brand side, it would mean telling authentic stories, and if it’s from an app side, it would probably be focused on one thing. For us, we believe that if we can make something essential, it becomes usable and understandable and the type of design we like to enjoy and surround ourselves with.
Eugene: You guys have an international array of clients. How do you guys balance the sort of personal identity you guys have, growing up in a culture with a strong design heritage, while understanding the goals of global companies?
Mathias: We rarely work on projects that are focused on only being launched in Scandinavia. So that means that even though the company we work for might be in Scandinavia or the US, it’s an international mindset. Sometimes it brings up some challenges. I would say the majority of the time it works quite well, especially with American clients, because I think for them, they quickly see a clear picture and what we do in ways that they maybe haven’t seen before. That’s a pro.
Then we have some challenges on how to define the essentials. From a cultural side, in Scandinavia, things are often black and white (in color), and more melancholic. In America, Asia, and even within say China and Japan, they’re all used to different things.
It’s about how clients perceive things as well as the people who will interact with these projects. There are times where it’s figuring out how close we stay to our DNA on a scale and how far we move to accommodate the range of people who will use the product.
“When you start your own company you need to find business and there aren’t many requests in the beginning. You can’t say ‘no’ to everything and so there’s the balance of learning to say no but also figuring out the potential in a project. Is it going to teach us something about business or a new type of subject. It opens us up to new perspectives.”
Eugene: Are the projects that you got excited about at the formation of Norgram, the same types of projects you’re excited about now, or has that changed?
Mathias: It changes all the time, actually. As I was talking about it before, ten years ago, and before starting Norgram, it was primarily just web, with websites. That was before you would even do mobile sites or responsive experiences. Then apps appeared, and all of a sudden, everybody wanted to have an app, but they didn’t know why they wanted an app and what to use it for. It’s like that with new technology.
It’s the same with AR, but what’s the use case, right? What’s interesting is throughout our careers, there’s a general shift, not only in our focus and who we are and what we’re good at, but especially around how digital design has developed into a way bigger role as not only in the creative industry, but you see it in financial sectors, like Goldman Sachs hiring designers.
It used to be that everything was so focused on an end product, like a website or an app, whereas now I would say 70% of the work we do in our studio might never come out. It might never result in us having like a case study on our website, or it might not even hit an end consumer. I think partly because what we are extremely good at is defining a direction and finding the DNA and again, what is ‘essential.’ It means figuring out the forms and language. With what’s happening in the industry, it has pulled us towards projects that are way more focused on innovation.
Eugene: What does that look like from a workflow perspective?
Mathias: Since we’re very intent on being a two-person agency, it means that we work very closely with, let’s say Ikea’s innovation lab, Space10, where we become the design partner and plug ourselves into their team.
Often strategy or a core concept has been developed. After a lot of decks, documentation, and writing, we’re pulled in to actually challenge it. It means figuring out the actual ideas and hindrances of the concept.
Here, design then becomes a tool for testing the strategy and provides new questions and also answers as to how you move forward. That’s where I think design has increasingly become a strong use case. By making something visual, we can all relate to it rather than just words that we understand in different ways.
Obviously, we can interpret design in different ways, but being able to see and visualize a scenario, be it a brand or a digital product, it gives us more commonalities and things to talk about.
“By making something visual, we can all relate to it rather than just words that we understand in different ways. Obviously we can interpret design in different ways, but being able to see and visualize a scenario be it a brand or a digital product, it gives us more commonalities and things to talk about.”