Motion graphics designer Jakob Trollbäck started out as a DJ and translator in Stockholm. Sarah Verdone traces his somewhat unusual, self-taught path to a heading a thriving New York studio with a top-name client list
Jakob Trollbäck doesn’t watch TV. ‘I don’t like the commercials and most of the programming is crap,’ confides the 48-year-old Swedish-born designer. But he usually doesn’t tell his clients this. This is a wise strategy, considering that Trollbäck & Company does a brisk business in all things related to the ‘boob tube’ (as it’s often called in the US). ‘It’s really ironic. My ultimate nightmare would be if I turned on the TV and saw a movie we did the credits for, then a commercial we worked on, and then our identity for a network,’ he says.
Nonetheless, Trollbäck’s lack of viewing pleasure doesn’t seem to have hurt his motion graphics and design business. With the help of British creative director Joe Wright and a Euro-heavy roster of 15 designers (Portuguese, Swiss, Japanese, Turkish and, of course, a few Americans), the New York City studio lands projects with major networks like HBO, CNN and CBS, and shoots ads for heavy-hitters like Nike, Target and Jaguar. It’s also got its fair share of silver-screen credits, from the spare typewriter-style graphics for the Oscar-winning Capote, to the typeface feature Helvetica, to the playfully illustrated titles of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding.
Last year, Trollbäck & Company got to see its work on a really big screen – the 35m x 3m high-resolution video wall in Frank Gehry’s new glass building for media company IAC. Taxi drivers cruising the West Side Highway can spot giant flowers blooming (an ode to the dating service Match.com), silhouettes of shoes and other household items (IAC owns Home Shopping Network as well as several e-retailers), and concert info (for Ticketmaster.com).
Whether it’s motion graphics, live action or branding, it is all based on storytelling, Trollbäck and Wright agree. ‘I don’t care if we’re telling it on a cell phone or in the Frank Gehry building,’ says Wright, ‘It all comes down to problem-solving.’ This is something they excel at. Take, for example, the spot they created for sports network Espnews HD. Instead of the usual montages of instant replays and bright green Astroturf, the athletes seem to play in some cooler, faster universe. They zoom across a darkened screen, footballs and basketballs leaving neon vapour trails. Statistics stream and explode around them. A remix by the rapper MIA pulsates hypnotically. By the end of the 35-second supersonic adrenaline rush, you’re pumped – ready to suit up and play anything or, at least, go clubbing.
Which brings us to Trollbäck’s unorthodox design roots. He didn’t just get into motion graphics on the ground floor, he got in on the dance floor. In a rented movie theatre in Stockholm, Trollbäck DJ’d using one set of speakers for music and the other for sound effects. ‘I’d play something really funky along with big-city traffic noises and then Sergio Mendes with sounds from the rainforest. You can get a dimensionality in space with your sound design that way.’ He made his own promo posters with Letraset letters and clippings from 1960s pin-up magazines. And then Apple came to Sweden. Adept at English, Trollbäck worked translating Apple manuals into Swedish, and ‘of course,’ had to get a computer himself. Cue the watershed moment – ‘I thought, “OK, I’m going to be a designer”,’ he says. While Swedish firms frowned on his homegrown skills, Trollbäck reinvented himself in New York, training higher-ups in publishing in how to use their new Macs. ‘My mum said, ‘If you’re so interested in this, why don’t you go to school and learn how to do it?’ I’d say, ‘But Mum, I’m actually teaching them,’ he says.
After acting as a creative director at R/Greenberg Associates for seven years, Trollbäck and his wife, Lisa, opened Trollbäck & Company in 1999, so he could ‘do what the hell I wanted without asking permission’. British designer, director and photographer Wright joined in 2002, blending in perfectly with the group’s European vibe. While Wright tends to be ‘very hands-on’, directing, designing boards and heading a small spin-off company for live action called Bloke, Trollbäck digs into strategy. ‘Jakob acts more as a curator,’ Wright says, ‘He’s good at seeing things fresh and knowing why something portrays a message well.’
Still, it’s hard to make the message stick in a medium that keeps moving. Trollbäck, a master at metaphor, adds, ‘Most brands are like that guy at the party who’s so desperate to find friends. He says, “Yeah, I love that show.” Then he’ll go to someone else and say,”No, I don’t watch TV at all.” He keeps changing personalities. And let’s face it, he’s not going to have any friends at the end of the day. Sometimes you need someone to say, “We’re doing it my way.”‘
‘Challenging projects, that’s what we’re looking for,’ says Wright. ‘Yeah, we want things to be f***ing hard,’ adds Trollbäck.