No matter how complex the subject, this Swedish design agency makes it easy to swallow. Sarah Shearman interviews the brains behind the multimedia problem-solver.
For a relatively small agency, Sweden's Vitamin is taking giant leaps in the world of design. In the space of seven years, it has expanded from producing shorts and commercials to become a trailblazer in mobile and interactive design, racking up an impressive client list, including Sony Ericsson and Swedish National Television along the way.
But what ensures Vitamin is master of many disciplines and jack of none is the ability to tell a good story. "Storytelling in our campaigns boils down to communicating on an emotional level and selling something that's more than a physical product," explains Johannes Amilon, Vitamin's founder and CEO. "Even though you don't use the same tools for mobile design and film production, there's a crossover between the two because they both still involve storytelling."
That's where Martin Larsson, the other co-founder and project manager, comes into the equation. Unlike Amilon, who has experience in e-learning and multimedia design, Larsson doesn't have a conventional design background. A scriptwriter by trade, he was writing shorts for Swedish National Television when the duo set up Vitamin in Malm in the south of Sweden. This means they each maintain a clearly defined role within the team. "Martin breaks down what we need to communicate and I then work on the technical side," explains Amilon.
This approach is a successful formula for Vitamin, as shown by the contract they recently won to design multimedia content for the Sony Ericsson C901. Larsson began the pitching process by heading-up team brainstorming sessions and writing a story based on imagination and memories. He then posted it on the internal wiki for inspiration, encouraging the team to add notes. At this stage Amilon took over, leading the design for the content, including wallpapers, themes, clipart, images, ringtones and a web campaign using this pool of ideas for inspiration. As Larsson explains, this is a great way of triggering the imagination: "We keep the creative floodgates open in the early stages of concept development. Quite often the final concept presented is arrived at through a series of random thoughts that trigger each other."
This diverse experience extends to the team that Larsson and Amilon hope to expand. Vitamin's 11 staff comprises of six designers and include computer engineers, 3D artists and a music composer. Amilon, who has a law degree, says, "Having diverse backgrounds means we can be a sort of think tank, knock our heads around a problem and solve it through creative communication."
Problem-solving and communication are the crux of Vitamin's output. Its science and e-learning clients such as SBL Vaccines and Lund University require complex technical information delivered in the most user-friendly way possible. This also extends to mobile design - in the Sony Ericsson C905 promotional video it used footage edited in CS4 and 3D animation created in Maya 3D to bridge the gap between the product and consumer. "In the video we have people using the product in a context. This helps to convey [that] it's not all hard, technical subject matter," explains Amilon.
But coming up with solutions to the most perplexing design problems is Vitamin's bread and butter. "We find pleasure in solving technical problems such as designing multi-lingually. It's natural for us because, being Swedish, we have such a small language that needs to reach big parts of the world."
These challenges are particularly commonplace when designing for mobile, a field Amilon says is much less advanced than web design: "It's very hard to create a single solution that rules them all. Like designing for the iPhone, which is touch and multitouch, is very different from working with cell phones that have only two soft keys at the bottom of the screen."
If the team encounters problems when designing, they make sure they come up with solutions quickly. "We're very careful about being transparent," says Amilon. "Errors will always occur, but we explain if we run into issues. We also expect customers to communicate back to us, so we can quickly iron out any defects that exist. "Doing this is the foundation of business and I don't think it would work without it - the customers certainly appreciate it," explains Amilon. Vitamin makes sure it keeps a dialogue open throughout the design process, and this close collaboration with clients is one of the things that keeps them coming back.
Professionalism underpins Vitamin's business and the team feels that keeping their operations well managed by no means hinders creativity. "Our business isn't built on doing everything the last day and night before the deadline, so we try to start work on a new project immediately. We also attempt to balance between bringing in new business and the project by not taking on too much," says Amilon.
But it's not all work and no play for Vitamin. As well as managing to squeeze a cheeky game on the office PlayStation 3 into the day, the vitamin folks make time to pursue their own ideas. "We have an 'internal playground' for our personal projects, helping us stay at the forefront of technology. I think that's what drives people here," says Amilon. "We bring the same passion to the table whether it's a professional project or not. But personal ones are less structured and let us think outside the box."
Vitamin's website is an example of a personal project that its team is passionate about. "As a design agency, it's important to keep your shop front tidy by having a good website," explains Amilon proudly. "We think ours represents us well."
Indeed it does. The interactive Flash interface is a fantasy island offering a colourful imaginative experience, and is complemented by simple navigation with a sleek, professional look. It characterises the point of the agency particularly well, showing how, for Vitamin, telling stories is a serious business.