Interview with Petter Johansson at Stockholm Design Week

02.24.14 | By
Interview with Petter Johansson at Stockholm Design Week

A couple of days before Stockholm Design Week, I was still hoping to find some new designers to meet and interview. Then a book called ‘PJADAD, Selected Work 2008 – 2013‘ landed on my doormat. I had a quick flick through and 48 hours later I was sitting in PJADAD’s studio in Stockholm, having a fascinating conversation with founder Petter Johansson. We talked about the importance of experimentation, respecting knowledge and saying no…

What’s the most important thing to know about PJDAD?

I think I would use the words ‘multidisciplinary studio.’ We try to never look at design from a media perspective. If someone briefs us for something in a particular medium, then it’s not a job for us. We need to develop design from a content perspective, not an aesthetic perspective. Then of course we love the aesthetics and that’s often what people react to, but the content behind the aesthetics really needs to be a concept or something worth talking about.


So what sort of briefs do you get?

We don’t really get briefs. We always create our own briefs. Our work tends to come about through coincidences. We have a discussion with clients about how they might approach a problem and then we put together some thoughts about how we approach the problem and if they fit together then it’s pretty easy to start working. You don’t come to us if you don’t have a problem. Sometimes we just need to create an update of a design programme because it doesn’t work, and sometimes we need to find a small invention in the life of a brand.


Why is it important to you to experiment and challenge business norms rather than just creating something beautiful?

Because I don’t see any point in doing what has been done. To be honest, the concept of the logotype has already been invented, so I don’t see the point in creating another logotype – the world doesn’t need another logotype. Of course, I have to design the logotype as well, but I’m trying to get it to become something more important for people, something they can use. For example we’re tying to make design entities that become tools. Atelier Food is an experimental pop-up restaurant. Every time someone creates something new they write their name, tick the relevant boxes, sign it and it becomes a tool to record the process. They can’t afford letterhead, comp slips, etc, so they have an ink stamp that works as a tool. It’s a tool more than a brand identity, but still it works as a very beautiful identity. The point of design is to help people.


What are you inspired by?

I’m really inspired by Rem Koolhaas, who was always trying to develop. I think he was broke five times in his life, but still he was trying to look at architecture from a new perspective every day and I really like that. That’s the way I would love to approach design, because it would make sense for me to try something new every day. It’s not working like that in real life, but I’m trying. You have to make some money sometimes and failing doesn’t really make you much money. But I think it’s about trying to be in constant development of life and of design. It’s harder, but it’s worth it.


How does your process work?

First is that initial meeting with the client where we decide we both think in the same sort of way, and that’s probably the hardest part because you’ve got to be true to yourself and so you have to say no sometimes. It’s horrible to say no because you want to help people.

So after that, we work mostly with prototypes. We sketch as part of the process with paper and pen and notes and stuff, but pretty quickly we get into prototypes to solve the problem. In the perfect way of working, we’d have a totally transparent process where we show the client how things develop, and be completely media neutral.


How do you stay fresh, how to you keep the ability to keep coming up with new things?

It’s super difficult, and I don’t think I do, I go back to old ideas all the time. I’m doing a lot of lecturing and I get a lot of inspiration from the students – they’re very naïve, excited, fresh… Everything is possible all the time. I never tear them down, I encourage them to be free, it’s about thinking as much as it is about what you do. It’s so easy when you work 8AM to 5PM to stop thinking and just do design. You get comfortable with your salary every month – if you get a full time job here, you’re very safe, and that’s a very good thing when it comes to most things, but it can stifle creativity.


The rest of the world has Scandinavian design up on a pedestal – how does that sit with this idea of safety and conservatism?

Scandinavian design is good, but it’s safe. You don’t find so much experimental design. It’s beautiful and understated and I of course love it, if you look at my home, it is beautiful and full of Scandinavian design. I can’t be around things that I think are ugly, but I don’t see that as a starting point for good design, just for me being relaxed at home. This sounds contradictory, but what I mean is we do very symmetric design in Scandinavia because we are very safe. In England you are more free, you have been liberal for a long time. In this country everything is very middle class and very rigid. We went to Brighton for three days to create the book. That was very good for us.


Do you think it’s important to get away from where you work to get a different perspective?

Yes, I think that’s important. Definitely. I try to travel as much as I can. I’m trying to go to Boston and New York. I go to exhibitions here, but I think they’re super boring. I don’t really believe in art. I believe in artists, I enjoy having a drink with an artist discussing art, but to look at art as a spectator doesn’t give me anything anymore. It used to, it used to inspire wild thinking, but now, I just think it’s another picture on the wall. I love artists, but I hate art. I don’t hate art, the result could be interesting, but the process is about trying to create the impossible. To anyone else it’s impossible to save the world, but you should try to start the process, because hopefully you’ll end up with something that makes a little bit of difference to somebody, so that’s my philosophy – try to create the impossible over and over again.


What do you enjoy most?

Taking the knowledge of being a graphic design and making something 3D, architecture, products, exhibitions, taking it further on. I would love to get a million identity works, but there’s only so far you can take it. There’s a lot more I could do in graphic design, but I don’t see it as an adventure any more, so I want to reach over into physical stuff. But I’m still a graphic designer – I want to be an art director and a designer, I don’t want to be an architect.


What are you most proud of?

Hopefully in the future Atelier Slice, which is the studio I’m setting up. I really believe in it. The goal is freedom, creative freedom. To work on self-initiated projects like Atelier Food. I’m working with a curator and art producer and an architect. It’s much more intellectual. I will always keep PJADAD – that will go on for the rest of my life. But I want to work with people much smarter than me, because I want to challenge myself a lot more than the design world is open to. I think Atelier Slice will give me that.


What advice would you give to an aspiring designer?

I think it should be if you’re going to become a great designer, you need to understand how to be awake and work 18 hours every day for the first three years. Then you need to take a step back and analyse what you’ve done for a year, and then you can probably become a good designer. Work really hard, work out what you did, then start again. If you look at architects, the ones who become super-big architects, they need to go to OMA or somewhere like that and work really hard. They need to expose themselves to that, to learn from the greats. You have to respect knowledge, the day you don’t respect knowledge, you are just stupid. Then of course you can challenge it.

Katie Treggiden is a purpose-driven journalist, author and, podcaster championing a circular approach to design – because Planet Earth needs better stories. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a program and membership community for designer-makers who want to join the circular economy. With 20 years' experience in the creative industries, she regularly contributes to publications such as The Guardian, Crafts Magazine and Monocle24 – as well as being Editor at Large for Design Milk. She is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden.