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article imageDigital Journal Mavericks: The Daring Digital Designer

By David Silverberg     Jun 1, 2008 in Technology
He’s a digital media trailblazer, a rebranding specialist, a pioneering artist and the go-to leader in motion graphics. Jakob Trollbäck divulges what gets him excited about advertising and why he wants to reinvent the music video.
Digital Journal — If you watch TV shows or films, you’ve probably seen Jakob Trollbäck’s handiwork. As the founder of New York-based Trollbäck + Company, a leading branding and design studio, this self-taught designer from Sweden has brought his digital brushstroke to the opening credits of the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards 2007, Volvo commercials, HBO and CBS rebranding campaigns, Nike spots and print ads for the New York Times. Also, Trollbäck’s firm has created opening film titles sequences for Capote, Vanity Fair and Elizabeth I.
He’s the most popular graphic designer you’ve never heard of, but Trollbäck is quietly earning a reputation for creating stunning visuals for various media. Directors and producers turn to him for stylish opening titles, TV networks sign deals with him for graphic-heavy ad spots and tech conferences want him to add a splash of creativity to their online intros. He won three awards at the 2007 HOW International Design Awards and was recently nominated for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's 2008 National Design Awards.
He is also responsible for one of the world’s highest resolution video walls, found in the lobby of the Frank Gehry-designed IAC headquarters in New York. Graphic bars and type scroll across the wall, displaying advertising from IAC’s various products. When flowers bloom across the screens to represent IAC’s dating sites, for instance, the wall almost takes on a graceful quality, resembling a stunning aquarium of flowing imagery.
The video wall at IAC s building in New York
Trollback + Company designed one of the largest video walls in the world for IAC's New York headquarters.
Courtesy Trollback + Company
Since it began in 1999, Trollbäck + Company has worked with hundreds of clients but it isn’t just the big-name deals that fulfill Trollbäck. At a 2007 TED conference, Trollbäck revealed his next big idea: give music videos an extreme makeover. He wondered how a music video would look like is it was directed solely by the music’s rhythm and beat, instead of a filmmaker’s concept. His first experiment took a track by David Byrne and Brian Eno, and manually “rotoscoped” musical notes with AfterEffects. Trollbäck said he created a more organic look to a music video — “midway into this song there are pieces of letters synched to vocal fragments. Software couldn't do this interpretation. This creative connection between sound and image is 100 per cent human.”
(see below for video of Trollback's talk)
So a woman’s voice slicing into the song is represented by a silvery streak shimmering through the video’s black background. A bass is symbolized by a rectangle, and a drum’s cymbal is visualized with a red dot, appearing intermittently. This is a bold departure from the usual ho-hum music videos commonplace on the Web and TV, and it’s only fitting Trollbäck is leading the charge: he doesn’t like drawing inside the lines. If there’s anyone who could reinvent an age-old medium, it’s Trollbäck.
From his New York office, Trollbäck spoke to about his music video mission, how he brought symbolism to film credits, and why fonts matter in graphic design…and why they don’t. Are these unique music videos going to be your new focus?
Jakob Trollbäck
: The Brian Eno song was our first experiment in this area, and we’re still trying to figure out how to work with music and imagery and push the envelope. I look at this as more of a sound sculpture than a music video. We didn’t want to show off with this video, because we wanted the graphics to just explain what the music does.
We haven’t done as many music videos as we want to do because we get too busy with other things. We did Eno and a Blondie video, and we are working on two or three others. It’s great that these cost so cheap to make, because we like doing jobs with no budget. In your advertising and rebranding spots, what is your intention? To sell the consumer on the client or is there something deeper?
Trollbäck: Early on, I wanted to find my voice and gain recognition. Now I’m going through a different phase, and I’m currently obsessed with making an emotional impact on people. We all feel bombarded with so much media from all sides and we become very good at closing things off and shutting down our input sensors. That’s a huge challenge for a firm like ours because we try to open those channels. To convey a powerful branding message, people have to stop what they’re doing and take in what you’re saying.
Trollback s ESPN News rebranding
Trollback worked on rebranding ESPN News as the leader in sports data. It features prominent displays of stats floating from an athlete's mind
Courtesy Trollback + Company And I admire the branding message you convey in your work with ESPN News, where you created a CGI-rich spot featuring floating stats and athletic sequences. What message did you want to send to viewers with that spot?
Trollbäck: ESPN’s driving force is it has more info, more knowledge, more understanding and insight into sports than anyone else. And they look at information in terms of stats. We went with an approach that translated an athlete’s ideas of sports by pairing them with data imagery. We wanted to create a bridge between the brand and the athlete. Your work with movie opening titles is interesting, especially since your ideas seem to be simple at first glance but also layered.
Trollbäck: It was like that with Vanity Fair. We sat around, thought about the film and started writing down some keywords relating to the story. We wrote “innocence,” “beauty” and “power.” Then we wondered about replacing the words with images. So each image stood for something – a flower represented beauty, a man putting jewelry in a woman’s hand stood for corruption, and so on. Sometimes, with title sequences like these, the viewer only understands the symbolism after they’ve seen the movie.
: Graphic designers often say the importance of typography is under-recognized. Do you agree?
Trollbäck: I think fonts matters. And they don’t as well. Put it this way: If you go to a restaurant and know a lot about food and really care about what goes in each dish, you’ll identify the spices used, whether the chef used fennel or nutmeg. But too many people, all they care about is if the food tastes good. Same with graphic design – fonts are important but often only to the insiders.
Back in the day, I was obsessed with typography. I wanted to play with every single font and study how it looked. But now I’m less obsessed. As long as the design works, and the font fits the spot, it’s fine by me.
Trollback's talk at TED: Rethinking the Music Video

Mavericks Series

This is the ninth profile in a 10-part series on Mavericks of 2008, focusing on trailblazers in various fields, from Internet to photography to music. Every day, read about a new industry maverick. Tomorrow, we conclude the Mavericks series with a look at a creative website founder bringing new innovations to his product.
Other Mavericks:
- Ron Deibert, creator of Psiphon software: Psiphon is a censorship-fighting tool, allowing those in oppressive regimes to access any website.
- Jayant Agarwalla, the inventor of the Scrabulous game: Scrabulous riffs off the classic Scrabble board game, and it's become the center of a controversial lawsuit launched by Hasbro and Mattel.
- Nikki Yanofsky, a 14-year-old jazz singer: Yanofsky is a teenage jazz prodigy who's already played Carnegie Hall and jazz festivals, giving audiences a taste of the talent brewing in her golden voice.
- Phil Borges, a photographer capturing the forgotten cultures of indigenous tribes: Passionate about foreign ways of life, Seattle-based Phil Borges wants to let the West know about endangered tribes and villages through his impacting photographs.
- Ben Popken, editor of blog The Consumerist: Few blogs fight for consumer rights as well as The Consumerist, which criticizes corporate scams big and small.
- Ausma Khan, editor of Muslim Girl magazine: Targeting an oft-misaligned demographic, Muslim Girl gives Islamic teens role models and advice on modern Muslim-American living.
- Patrice Desilets, creative director of gaming company Ubisoft: Game publisher Ubisoft is experimenting with new technologies and stretching its lineup past its Tom Clancy series.
- Pattie Maes, the woman creating human-tech relationships: As founder of MIT's Ambient Intelligence Group, Maes is bringing wildly inventive gadgets to our digital future.
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