The tiny city of Skellefteå, in the extreme north of Sweden is an unlikely place to find one of the world's foremost web design agencies, and yet it is the spiritual home for the award-winning North Kingdom. Joe Russ goes on an Arctic expedition to investigate.
Sweden has long been a big exporter of good design. Whether it is applied to furniture, architecture or visual communication, the Scandinavian aesthetic is characterised as being simple and uncomplicated with an emphasis on functionality. Design agency North Kingdom has been applying these principles (along with a bit of its own magic) to the world of websites and interactive media since 2003.
Because of its innovative approach to interactive design – which involves combining 3D, live action and good art direction – North Kingdom has become recognised as one of the world’s leading interactive design agencies, winning numerous awards at the Cannes CyberLions, One Shows Interactive and the Favourite Website Awards (FWA).
Bucking the usual trend for design agencies to be based in major cities or central locations, North Kingdom are based in Skellefteå, a small city in the extreme north of Sweden, hence the company name. Working at such an extreme latitude makes for a unique working environment.
“We’re practically in the Arctic circle,” says David Eriksson, North Kingdom’s CEO. “In the winter it’s dark for 23 hours and then we have dusk and dawn. Everyone gets a little depressed and tired, but it has its advantages. You can really focus on your work. But then in the summer you have 24 hours of daylight and can’t sleep at all.”
The company was established in 2003, when art director Robert Lindström and account director Roger Stighäll left their day jobs at agency Paregos Multimedia to start a company to develop their individual talents.
For the first six months of its existence North Kingdom stayed small, employing only Lindström, Stighäll and one other designer. The remote location was a limiting factor, making it hard to attract the big clients and find good designers, but things changed when they were commissioned to work on the Vodafone Future Vision website.
The aim of the Future Vision site was to visualise the impact of mobile technology in the near future (five to ten years ahead). Rather than focusing too heavily on the technological aspects, North Kingdom chose to look at the effect that these technologies may have on our everyday lives, with themes like Entertain, Working, Caring and Belonging. The blend of a strong concept, stylish art-direction and the use of high quality media would establish the benchmark for North Kingdom’s future sites.
Future Vision was lauded by both consumers and the industry alike, resulting in an increase in traffic to Vodafone’s site and earning North Kingdom gold awards at the Cannes Cyber Lions and the One Show awards. It also won both Site of the Year and People’s Choice Award at the FWA.
The success of the Future Vision site enabled North Kingdom to expand and grow its creative team as well as establishing offices in Stockholm and the southern regional centre of Växjö.
For Roger and Robert, though, it meant lightening the workload, and also relinquishing some control. “When we were doing Future Vision we were just three people and I was doing so many things – client relations, helping out with the photo shoots, and so on,” says Stighäll. “As you become a larger company, you need to become more specialised and focused in your role. It can be tough because you’re used to doing everything. It’s like having a baby and you want to be so close to it and you have to say ‘Here you go, why don’t you hold it for a while’.”
With a team now consisting of 18 members and a reputation cemented by the success of Future Vision and other projects, North Kingdom is able to take on the biggest competitors, whether they’re in Europe or the US.
“We live in a really small town, we never really see ourselves as competitors to big names, but we are competing,” says CEO David Eriksson. “From our perspective it seems quite absurd. The good thing about digital is that it doesn’t matter if you’re in Skellefteå or Stockholm, it’s still the same distance in Europe; it doesn’t really matter.”
Despite this, North Kingdom’s addition of offices in Stockholm and Vaxjo was a vital part of businesses expansion, enabling the company to pick the cream of the crop in terms of both clients and employees.
One of the things North Kingdom prides itself on is focusing on developing the talent of its team rather than just worrying about the bottom line. “The biggest difference between here and the US is that we want to take care of employees,” says Eriksson. “We don’t let them kill themselves on the project. We have a different culture here, which is about security.
“It’s not about money, it’s about exploring where the boundaries are. We need to develop ourselves as individuals, and in that way North Kingdom will always develop.”
A different work ethic
It’s a work ethic that seems to be working, with each new project seemingly more ambitious than the last. The Vodafone Journey site, for example, used a lot of TV and film production techniques such as chromakeying and virtual sets, while the recent Get the Glass web game combined a real-life model with cinematic CGI.
“In the last couple of years with motion graphics, you see there’s not much difference between web and TV production,” says Lindström. “What we have discovered is that it all comes together with web production. The Toyota Aygo advert, for example, was designed for online, but it was used as the basis for a TV advert which was shown on Swedish television.”
The Toyota Aygo advert is one of North Kingdom’s recent successes, not just from a technical standpoint but as evidence of North Kingdom’s ability to push the boundaries of graphic communication too. The Toyota Aygo is unusual in that rather than being sold outright, drivers ‘subscribe’ to the car in Sweden much like a magazine or a newspaper. The image of the car coming through the letterbox conveys this message succinctly and works online, in broadcast and in print.
The ability to create designs that can be used in a variety of media is one part of the equation, according to Stighäll: the real creativity will come in how these media can be used together. “I think in the future we need to be looking at one step further than the online stuff,” he says. “Thinking more about mobile, TV and integration between them. We need to think about digital channels as being about more than just websites.”