Photo: Calle Huth

Snøhetta is not one for labels. The architecture-meets-graphic design-meets interior design-meets landscaping firm out of Norway has them, of course. But it wears them with a fluidity that is uncommon. For the last 10 years, Snøhetta has been nurturing a graphic design and branding practice out of its Oslo studio, where the team of 18 designers has produced plenty of visible projects (remember those Norwegian bank notes from a few years ago?), including a big new rebrand for Norwegian State Railways, now rebranded as Vy.

Architecture and graphic design have long been natural bedfellows, and Snøhetta takes it to another level by forming teams purpose-built with people from different disciplines. On any given architecture project, you’ll find at least one graphic designer on the team; for a graphics project, an architect often weighs in to bring a new perspective. We caught up with Martin Gran, design director at Snøhetta to talk about the studio’s growing branding arm, their newest project, and how graphics and architecture are really just two sides of the same coin.

Norwegian bank notes. Photo: Calle Huth

To start, tell me how did Snøhetta end up with a graphics practice? What was your pitch?

I approached Snøhetta 10 years ago to try to enhance Snøhetta’s conceptual way of thinking into a fourth discipline of graphic design. I wanted to adapt the architectural tools and way of working with solid concepts into more graphic and branding perspective. Snøhetta had, for a long time, been more concerned about what the architecture, the landscape, and the material was conveying or communicating more than the design in itself. They’ve always always been more concerned about what the Opera communicates more than the marble and the glass and the oak itself. The design is not so interesting; it’s more about the conceptual thinking behind it that is interesting.

This gets at the way that Snøhetta describes its work as attitudes rather than designs.” What does that mean exactly?

What we try to strive for is creating projects that are giving added value. We think that making things aesthetically, making design, is something a lot of people can do all over the world. Obviously we are an architecture and design office, but we strive to find meaning and the reason why we want to design. Why do we want to change something? And sometimes we even ask, why do we need design? Do we need a redesign? Do we need more, or can it just stay as it is? There’s enough of design in the world already. How can we make something more profound, more sustainable, more long lasting.

There’s enough design in the world already.

How does this relate specifically to graphic design?

For graphic design and branding, we believe that we have to try to make design as a craft. It has to be a tools for business objectives. And then it has to be tools for making a change in the world on some kind of level. That’s what we search for when we’re doing graphic design projects, and really projects for any discipline at Snøhetta.

Vy branding in the wild.

So you’re saying it’s not just about aesthetics?

Of course the things has to be aesthetically interesting and beautiful, but if it doesn’t have a deeper meaning or if it doesn’t have a thought behind it then it’s a superficial surface wrapping, and we don’t like that. It’s like changing a facade and thinking that it’s going to change something inside the building, which is rarely does.

Can you give me an example? What about with the Norwegian State Railway redesign, which seems like a straightforward branding project?

The organization behind the brand has changed a lot. It’s not only a company with people. They don’t own their trains, they don’t own their tracks; all of it has been put out in the market. So you could say that the company has gone from hardware to software. They only have human capital. They only govern the people who are driving the trains and driving the buses. So we had to make something that’s conveying the softness of a railway company. Which lead us to the name Vy, which is a very phonetically soft word. It created a design domain to make these motion graphics that created exactly that. We are now about humans. We are now soft. We’re not hard anymore. And that gives reason back to the organization that this can be tools for communicating who they are, not only what they want to be perceived as.

With a project like Vy, it’s a distinctly graphic design problem. Where does the process start at Snøhetta when you have so many different disciplines and offer so many different services?

We see more companies and organizations and institutions that think holistically. And you have to think holistically in any project because people are receiving it holistically. You can’t separate the architecture away from a landscape because the building is always on the ground. The building is connected with the interior, and the interior is connected with the graphics through wayfinding and how you are perceiving what’s happening inside the building, but also how you communicate that from the inside out. So all of these different disciplines are in connection to the projects in the category of architecture and design. Not that you want to make things identical, but they have to be built upon the same sort of thinking so that there is a connection between them.

To put it a little bluntly, some people just need a house, and some needs just the logo

Photo: Calle Huth / Studio Illegal

It is a holistic approach to design, but it’s also an incredibly savvy business model.

We get requests from the world where they want to have more than one singular discipline. That’s an emerging trend in the market, and we’re happy to see it. But, of course, people come to Snøhetta for architecture and they come here for graphic design. And to put it little bluntly, some people just need a house, and some needs just the logo. But we, when we start to talk to them they tend to grow into the idea of engaging more and more disciplines. For instance, when the Norwegian bank came here, they wanted a visual identity and only the visual identity. But they ended up with architecture where we did five brand stores for them and engaged three interior architects who were working with them for one year. So this synergy through the discipline when we start to talk to them, if we start to get to know them, and since we are such a multidisciplinary firm and everyone is sort of in the same room, we get people to grow into a more holistic thinking. Graphic design clients come to us and they end up with a building; that’s like a complete sort of a circle going there non-logical way.

Tell me about the concept of Transpositioning, which sounds like a religious experience.

Transpositioning is a term that we made many years ago. It’s sort of a made up word. We take the idea of a multidisciplinary team one step further where we change roles. We change roles in order to try to leave the responsibility of your position behind. So when the architects becomes a graphic designer and the graphic designer becomes the architect, we believe that your responsibility for your discipline is taken away from the discussion. When you’ve been working in graphic design for 30 years, you say things that a graphic designer is supposed to say. You have a responsibility not for yourself but also the also the whole industry. But if an architect becomes a graphic designer, that person doesn’t have those bonds and will probably come up with ideas that the graphic design never would have dreamt of even putting on the table. When the graphic designers are in an architectural concept development, he or she can say things that eventually would made the building fall down, which an architect would never do. And what we know is that we make many more mistakes this way, and when we make mistakes people are more creative and the innovation grade goes up.

How does this work practically?

When we start off with a project, we always strive to have two or more disciplines in the ideation process. So graphic designers I invite into architectural competitions or jobs, and vice versa. We do curate that so that so that we have different thoughts around the table. We think that makes for stronger ideas and concepts. With transpositioning, we don’t say “one, two, three…transposition.” It’s more an ideology, a philosophy, a way to let people know we want them to participate even if they don’t know anything about a subject.