Erik Jonsson is an art director and designer at the London office of Fantasy Interactive. Previously, he worked at other studios, including Your Majesty, Stinkdigital, Blast Radius and Elapse, and on personal projects. He has worked with major brands, as well as with freelancers on their own personal brand.
His experience is geared towards interactive advertising, interface design, photography and motion graphics.
You can find more of his work on his website but if you want to really get to know him, check out this interview from when we caught up with him in London.
Hi Erik. To start with, can you tell us about your role at Fantasy Interactive?
I'm the Art Director at F-I London. I'm one of two Art Directors in the company, also on the design team are the creative directors and junior/senior designers. In London there's only me doing design right now but Fi in stockholm has a big team. There's five junior's s and one senior designer there. We divide the duties amongst ourselves, and I'm in charge of overseeing Stockholm when they need me. I also have to shoot over to New York and do the design work and art direction there every now and then. So I'm currently the gun for hire in the company. I go where I need to be, basically since we work with clients allover the glove. The other Art Director works from the San Francisco office and he oversees the North American/West Coast direction, so he does the travelling there while I keep to the Atlantic bit! Or at least this is the plan.
So you have teams working together from different places?
There’s a difference between F-I and the companies I previously worked for. A typical team for me in another studio would be me and a couple of designers that I direct and work with to produce stuff. In F-I I'm more thurougly responsible for the concept top to bottom, and also in a way the User Experience and the overarching concept to everything on top of the design, so I need to be in all of these roles. A producer's involved, of course, but not in the same heavy sense that you would have an agency producer. I'm doing many of the client contacts myself, I need to do the planning and all the deliverables need to be sent to me. So usually the team is just me and a UX designer, who does the heavy UX, because F-I is a very UX heavy company. There are twice as many UX designers as there are regular designers in the company.
And do you find that that model works?
It's definitely been proven. F-I is one of the very few successful small studios that I've been with. When I say successful, I mean one of the few companies that actually make money. Generally people in this business work crazy hours and come out of it basically breaking even, and with F-I everything seems to go very well. It's a really nice company to work for in that sense. Whereas in other companies with more traditional models, everyone has been struggling and fighting for everything. The more senior you get within your position the more you appreciate having time for yourself to get total control of the projects. As a junior or intermediate designer you usually have to fight with other designers to get your design through, which I don't need to do as much with F-I.
So, how do you get inspiration if you have less contact with other people?
Since there's just me, there's a lot more responsibility and a lot more is expected of me in this position compared to previous jobs. Working at F-I, I had to step up a few notches with everything I do. In terms of how I deal with clients, actually doing the business part of the work. The presenting, the research, the strategy, everything has to be tighter. So I'm doing that, and I think everything else follows. The inspiration part, that used to be an important step of the process in the beginning of my career. You get to a certain point as a designer where you start realizing that you have to professionally draw inspiration from the client and the content, rather than 'what's the latest design trend out there on the web right now'. That would be dishonest in a way. I know a lot of designers work like that and you sort of have to, in a way, when you’re learning. But once you have all those things established within yourself you should be honest about it and draw inspiration from the client, and try to set yourself in their mind. That's why when people lose a pitch and they presented their favorite work, and they lost it and they don't know why, it's probably mostly because they couldn't get into the head of the client and see it the way the client sees it.
So would you say that you assimilate the latest things without needing to look for them?
Yeah. I mean initially, when I started out as a designer in design school, you look at all the other people's work, and what has won awards and stuff like that, but either way nothing has really changed in the past ten years in how people actually do stuff. So after a while, you get jaded and to look at other people's stuff and what won awards can be hurtful, even while it's beneficial for you, so I try to look elsewhere for design inspiration. I still blog a lot of stuff that I like, everybody has an inspirational blog or some visual archive of other people's work, but generally I try to draw inspiration from the challenge in the client work.
That’s especially true with F-I, since my previous work was mainly doing campaign sites for big brands. So, typically, I made campaign sites for car brands and beer brands and clothing brands. F-I concentrates on the dot com sites where you have to take a lot of other stuff into consideration. The research and the inspirational process, everything has to be a lot more thorough than just using a brand guideline and a client brief to the latest products. So the inspiration is second to performing an honest treatment of the client work and the business objectives become a major part, rather than trying to overshadow the last campaign site. I appreciate that difference in F-I's clients, compared to working with smaller campaign sites. I think this is where appropriating design overtakes inspiration and trends.
You always get asked what your inspirational sources are, but I've gotten increasingly lazy in terms of looking at other peoples work, so for me the best thing is to go through Tumblr and talk to my peers and see what works for them. People I know. In essence, if you condense the process, we come up with an idea and then we go out in life and look at what the kids like now, the latest thing, whether it be a mobile game...and just try to apply that to the problem I have. I try not to keep doing the same thing I did in my last project. If I can do something that progresses a bit further from that, I'm happy with that.
You said you think getting awards can be detrimental. What do you mean by that?
I've had a lot of briefs, basically, starting with 'this project needs to win an award', and that goal grew increasingly common. Especially when you work with the larger agencies, who want to win a Lion for that stuff. It gets stigmatic in a way. Instead of innovating, we tend to go a safe route and do stuff that we know is going to win awards, but no-one is going to care anyway. So we win the award, we do the industry collective back-patting, and the person who's going to use the product loses out because it doesn't really mean anything to them, it just means something to us. We're in an industry bubble, so you tend to design for yourself. It's not really honest to the end-user. It's nice to get awards. Stink Digital won 16 Lions last year, which is some kind of record, and it's nice and it gives everybody that boost they need, but in the end it only gets you so far. In terms of realizing an honest client project it's not really enough for me. The way a lot of typical Oscar-winning movies come out in the fall, right before the Academy Awards, so they're on top of everybody's list in terms of awards. It's a confirmation that we did something right, but it can't become the main scenario. We have to set ourselves another objective beyond an award.
Could you mention any people or agencies who you think are doing things right, or that you admire?
Lately I've been doing a lot of media sites, and there you tend to look at magazine sites and news-media sites, and I think the people who did it best the past two years have been Code and Theory. They've been doing amazing work in redesigning Vogue properties and magazine sites, but also the harder sites that cater to a niche audience and present a lot of difficult challenges. To convey a vision and do a nice design and also work for a target group that is alien to yourself. To come out on top in that kind of scenario is amazing and they manage to do it every time. So Code and Theory is my only go-to inspiration for that kind of stuff, when I look at how to do things right. But that's also within my own bubble and sphere of interest. Just look at how the style from the redesign of interview.com a few years back inspired a host of new developments.
Apart from that, it's hard to pinpoint people because so many people have become so good and at the same time almost anonymous! I got my first job in Spring 2000, and then we had a few heroes who we looked up to, a select five or six people that everybody tried to copy and they were the ones doing all the talks at the shows. James Widegren and Jens Karlsson of Your Majesty (I think they were called something else back then) and Joshua Davis and Gmunk also stood out. Those kind of people were the main heroes back then. Everyone was constricted by the lack of internet, assets were not readily available to anybody, so you had to be able to do your own stuff, you had to be able to use 3D programs to create abstracts, you had to make your own fonts and photos. But now everything is readily available, so if you come out of school and you have talent you can pick up anything in a few weeks. So all the heroes sort of got lost in the crowd. Which is nice, because it's more democratic that way and things progress faster. But I sort of miss growing up as a designer with specific heroes to look up to. That's gone for me and it's kind of sad. We have to be our own designer heroes now.
You mentioned how you try to see a project from the client's perspective. Are your clients more demanding than they used to be?
Definitely. In the same sense that the internet is growing, technology and hardware platforms have made everything work, so you can do whatever you want. Back in the day you had to focus on one thing, and that maybe ran all right on one computer but another computer couldn't run it. But now everything works on most computers, and because you can do everything and everything is readily available, the demand to do everything is always there. So where five years ago a brief would mention one key technology and one key execution that we needed to do, so the site needs to have this kind of button and it needs to present this kind of work, now the RFP needs to cover everything from tech platforms to execution, to how advertising works and the collateral. I guess pitching has always been extremely hard and demanding and a dirty game, but we are expected to deliver so much more now, still within the same budgets and within the same small time frames. It's getting crazier and crazier, so you have to know what to focus on and know what ships you can burn to progress and know what technologies to skip or leave behind.
In this business you can never really relax and sit back and say 'I know this technology now', 'I know how to make a media website', 'I know how to make a campaign site'. Every time you get a new brief something's changed, you need to be on top of the game again and start over. You always have to reinvent the wheel. It makes us grow old fast, but at the same time it never really gets boring!
Speaking of technologies, do you still work with Flash?
I think there was a period one or two years ago when HTML5 came out, and people expected it to do what Flash could do right off the bat. But it really couldn't, because the performance in Flash is so much greater than HTML5. We had to convince so many clients, and we lost a few projects along the way, because making something in HTML is not going to work as good. It's going to be three times as complicated to execute, so it's going to be much more expensive on our production side to build for them, and it's not going to do what they essentially want it to do. But in the end, that goes back to the same sort of brief: 'This project needs to win a Cannes Lion'. For a while they were saying the same thing about HTML5: 'We have this project, and we want it to be built in HTML5' and there was no need for it in the projects they wanted to make. So for a while during the early years of HTML5 we had to fight back on a lot of briefs like that.
Then as the technology matured and people started learning it, I'd say we've stopped using Flash. Developers actually know how to make HTML5 stuff now that works as well as Flash and eventually people realised they are not even supposed to compete or do the same things. Especially at F-I where things are very tablet-orientated and we have to make responsive websites. Every brief mentions responsive design now, so we have to make sure that it works on multiple platforms and Flash simply can't do that, especially not for mobile and tablets. We tend to use Flash for video players because it's so much better. I think that's about it, it's definitely being phased out really quickly, a lot quicker than people anticipated. In the beginning they thought Flash was going to go out the door in a month, and then it didn't, it stuck around for another two years. But now it's definitely, at least for the niche in the market we're doing right now, it's completely obsolete.
But then again, that's me as a designer speaking. I'm not really a developer so I don't really have to take responsibility for performance issues and cross-platform problems. Flash is an amazing tool for animation, and it's always going to be better than most other tools for making these sort of tweens and motions, but it simply isn't keeping up with the times.
What would you say is the level of maturity of HTML5 at the moment, when it comes to projects with more advanced interactive and visual requirements?
It's not anywhere near where Flash was. We used Flash for ten years, so that was a safe, very very cultivated technology. HTML5 will get there but it's going to be another year or two before it's economically as efficient. But then again, when HTML5 came out we thought we would translate typical Flash experiences to HTML5 and do the same thing on the new platform, but that's not how it ended up. We ended up creating new ways of animating and presenting content that were more tailored for the new technology. So in the end, that made Flash obsolete, that we just shifted our focus to a new way of doing websites.
Did that bring any changes to your team?
I think just like when ActionScript 3 came out, some of the ActionScript 2 people were really backwards and didn't want to adapt and change and learn a new language, but then again everybody has to. I think a lot of people were tired of using the same old ActionScript, so many people I worked with jumped on it and really tried to get with the times and try to force in an HTML5 solution, even though we didn't have to.
I think people are appreciating that there are new things and new libraries coming out that allow them to do stuff more easily. Like the new stuff they do for Chrome, where you don't have to check boxes to allow the webcam to work and the microphone to work, it just works right off the bat. To remove obstacles for the user to interact, and I think that's nice. I'm all for it. I think if you're not willing to adapt in this business you go out the door pretty fast. In this business you have to be happy to change. If you don't, you're screwed basically.
You mentioned that everyone's asking for responsive design.
Yeah, responsive design is the new thing. Every brief we get is asking us to do responsive design. Which they should, because six months down the road, if your website can't scale down to a mobile platform you're in trouble. That's becoming really important.
Do you do much work that's exclusively mobile-orientated?
F-I is doing a lot of apps, and a lot of iPad apps specifically. But generally the ambition is to let the experience scale seamlessly from mobile to desktop, so ideally if someone asks us for that we would probably suggest something scalable. F-I tends to amplify things and make websites work and look a bit like iPad apps in terms of navigation and utility layers, to sit somewhere in between the desktop and mobile.
So there is inspiration coming from apps when it comes to designing websites?
Yeah, and that materializes in the attention we bring to icons, for example. There's a lot of work going into crafting icons at F-I which I really like, and attention to detail and navigation. Making all these campaign sites in the last few years, you always try to put a theme on it, but when you make apps you have to let the content speak for itself and make an interface that's utilitarian and very useful. Usability takes precedence over branding, which I really like because it's more honest design.
What technologies are you using at F-I for mobile app development?
I haven't had the opportunity to work on any specific apps with f-i yet. Just response design executions for mobile platforms so I couldn't really say much about that. I could say though that the ambition is that we'd much rather make a web experience that is scalable and stays with the original concept on an iPhone and works the same way on a desktop than make a specific app, I guess. There was a time when people were making apps for everything, a one-time use app for pushing a button that did one thing. Hopefully we're moving away from that. It's our responsibility as a high-value production house to push back on client briefs where they're lost, in the sense that they want an app that they don't really need, and we can repurpose that ambition and make something more suitable for them. We owe it to them to steer them right. It's typical for a brief, at a certain point in time time, that they always ask for an app, and you shouldn't. That's what your website's for. Sure, we can put up the code, but you don't need an app. Don't do it, it's too expensive. The website should scale so the experience matches the platform. Of course, the mobile version of the website should be the crystallized brand message and the crystallized utility of the website, so the most important core of the idea is left. I think that's an elegant way of doing it.
So we've talked about HTML5 and the need to adapt. How easy is it to find people who can work with these technologies to the standard that you need?
It's really hard. It's always hard to find developers, because since the Startup scene is expanding so rapidly, and tends to have venture capital funding, salaries have gone up to incredible levels for developers, especially in North America, in Startup country like San Francisco. So I'm not saying we're losing people to the Startup scene, but it's definitely harder to track down key talent because they get paid incredible sums just to do Startup work.
People pick up the technology but it's really hard to keep them in the advertising sphere, in the same way that small studios struggle to keep people when there are agencies pulling them, because they can pay more. So it's always a fight for developers. It seems like everybody can design but not everybody can get into the mindset to develop or program. You pick up coding and it's easy to do front-end work, but you reach this threshold where you really have to step up and learn a lot of web technologies to become a real developer. HTML5 is easy for everybody, it's nice, but it ramps up pretty quickly and that's when it gets really hard to find people who have sat and learned everything and didn't just move on to a better paying industry.
F-I employs people from a lot of different places. How do you go about looking for talent?
We have 2 persons just looking for talent, actually. It's such a key part of any industry. As people move around a fair bit, you always need to be two steps ahead in recruiting and as a company, portray yourself as an attractive company for people to work with. You're proactively always looking for people. When I got to some sort of director level in my portfolio and CV, you get so many job offers. Not really based on the quality of your work, but just the fact that you have experience and you're a designer. I get approached 3 or 4 times a week by other agencies around the world trying to headhunt. That is something that started happening 6 or 7 months ago. Every studio worth its name has a dedicated talent scout, it's becoming like professional football! And it drives up salaries, which is good for me, but it's also very weird because you know that these talent scouts aren't really interested in you as a person, they're just trying to be proactive and fill a space in an agency that lost someone. We're seen as assets rather than people.
So what was it that attracted you to F-I?
The fact that I'd spent the past 4 years working for studios that were stuck in the campaign site segment, making small-budget, quick sites. F-I has a lot more longevity to its projects. Like I said, instead of working with campaign sites for a brand, they work with the brand's dot com site, the main property, and it gives us a lot more power to actually execute the design mission rather than just applying a brands design guideline to a concept and some wires. So that is really appealing, and the fact that F-I has a very different process. The teams are smaller, but the projects they take on are usually in the segment where medium-size agencies like Huge work. So they are our new competitors, whereas I used to pitch against North Kingdom and B-Reel, the more typical small size agencies. So it's another fish bowl for me to explore, and a whole new process.
How much are you concerned with Standards-based design, cross-platform, cross-browser...Is it a priority?
There are two sides to it. I always want to progress and do new things and try something else every time, but at the same time to be professional you need to realise that standardization in interface, for example, is a really good way of making users feel comfortable and maintaining usability. And at the same time, as a designer, you don't want to make everything look the same because that goes against the basic rules of designing, at least if you want to develop as a person. So it's a bit of both, it's always a struggle to keep it standardized and useful and at the same time bring something new. You have to find your areas to improve. If you want to be an honest designer, you have to put the user first and think about usability. Everything is second to usability, really, unless you're working with brands that rely on mood and aesthetics rather than being utilitarian brands. That's also a difference between making campaign sites and making dot coms, where the dot coms have to be really solid and thought-through, whereas a campaign site leans on moods and feelings where there's much more space for you to elaborate on that. They're two different challenges, but it's really important to standardize interface. It has to work for as many people as possible.
Your website says "F-I isn't a job, it's a culture". How do you feel about that?
It's definitely a very different place compared to other places I've worked. Most of the people here, the senior staff, have been with the company for 5 or 6 years, or even longer, and the founder is still very much involved in the daily work. He's still reviewing stuff creatively and has input, and works on the floor with us. It's sort of a family business for many of them. And compared to an agency where people move on every two years, well if you've been at the same place for three years you've been there a long time by industry standards.
I've ended up in this place where people have grown with the company and are very attached to the company. It's kind of hard to come in, but at the same time I appreciate the process that's in place, where many agencies struggle to keep a process, where they switch out a lot of talent, and new people come in with new processes and old people leave. F-I has that very much intact, which makes it a refreshing place to work because there's so much infrastructure in place that works really well for them and has been proven. So it's a really smooth machinery and I appreciate that, though I sometimes miss a more chaotic atmosphere! F-I definitely is a culture. Speaking to some of the directors there, you know two minutes into the discussion that they have something going on, there's something special about them.
You said you try not to focus on trends in the industry...
I think you have to when it comes to certain key elements, like typography. That's always one of the first things people see. I would be lying if I said I didn't follow typography trends because I do, there are always a few fonts that people use, and in a way that works as standardization. It's almost as important to keep people comfortable as to keep people excited. It's easy to say you need to create something new every time, but maybe you don't always need to. Some trends are good and some trends are bad and sometimes you don't know until you've tried it out.
And what trends can you see coming, in either of those categories?
I think the biggest one, which has been going on for the past years and was cultivated by Dribbble, is Americana, hand-crafted typography where you basically customize everything. Probably sprung out of recent trend of making and reinventing heritage brands. It spilled over into everything, so its all bespoke now. So I think customized designs for everything have been really important, and that's definitely going to continue. Look at the bigger brands, like Domino's Pizza just brought out a new box with typical Americana, customized fonts for everything.
I like that because it goes back to where advertising was 30 years ago, when they'd hire a specific illustrator to set a style for things. That's always been the case, but it hasn't been as important for the past 20 years when things went into a more abstract, Photoshop style. So illustrators are becoming increasingly important for us again when we need to set a specific custom style for a client, a very bespoke thing, and I like that. So I think customization in design. Not the interface, the interface is going to be standardized, platforms are going to be standardized, but the way we deal with branding and the way it's customized is probably the thing to focus on. The problem is just, you never know. So many people have been trying to predict trends. Whatever we do now is going to be so lame in 6 months anyway, so we're just trying to keep up!
What about in terms of technologies? What do you think we’re going to see emerge there?
I think the fact that so many platforms have come out, and so many tablets - Microsoft is bringing out the fourth addition to the tablet scene - it's just underlining the fact that we can't really design for a specific platform anymore. We can't make an app for only the iPhone, everything has to work across platforms, which makes the core concept of the idea so much more important because it has to shine through. It's really hard to answer that question.
Where do you see F-I in five years' time?
That is a really hard question, but I think the trend now is we are increasingly getting approached to do more important work, work that is usually cut out for a bigger agency. There are only 40 or 50 of us, but we still deliver the kind of work that a bigger agency would do. I think there's a magic marker around 30 people in an agency and once you pass that marker you're never going to be able to sustain the same company culture. So, I've only been with the company for so long, but I think it's going to end up somewhere around a mid-sized agency of 200 people in five years, probably.
The work we do is definitely up there. I think what F-I really wants to do is to keep the storytelling as the hero in every project. F-I is famous for making case studies, really elaborate case studies where there's a story from top to bottom, and process, and background research and execution. I think they're putting a lot of effort into making really interesting case studies, because they really want to do more of that work. I think they want to get into the app scene with apps that tell long stories, actual narrations, rather than just making typical websites. They're really good at telling stories. That's also a personal ambition for me, I would like to get into that because making stuff for kids and for education is so hard, because you suddenly have to be honest, which goes against everything you learned in advertising.
How close do you feel to the advertising world?
I've always kept to studios. I've had some freelance forays into places like Blast Radius and BBH and bigger places. But since I'm a more hands-on designer, and I tend to do all the work myself rather than direct a team of designers, I stick to the shops, design studios and production houses over advertising agencies. Even though the pay's much better, the stuff I've done for them has been so heartless in terms of personal responsibility at a hands-on level, so I much prefer to work in studios.