Carved spectacularly into the side of a mountain, the Stad Ship Tunnel entrance leads to a fjord-hopping 1.7 kilometers long channel. Meanwhile, the Rovdefjordbrua is a causeway that seems to defy logic, spiraling under the ocean. The group responsible for these engineering feats are Snøhetta, the darlings of Scandinavian architecture, who are equally comfortable engineering monolithic structures as they are dipping their toes in the waters of brand identity.

In 2010, after 40 years of experience in spatial design (interiors, landscape and architecture), Snøhetta added a fourth discipline to their roster, graphic design. “You could say we used the tools of architecture to build graphic design,” explains Martin Gran, Partner and Managing Director for Brand Design at Snøhetta. “First of all it’s about creating concepts to find a term that can explain projects in a simple way. Rather than create clutter we want to create meaning.”

For Snøhetta, concept comes above all other considerations, and always at the start of the process. “We don’t even have projects that are non-conceptual,” Gran explains. They aim to deliver “meaning, not form,” where meaning dictates the design, and adding elements diminishes meaning. “You must explain everything you’ve drawn with meaning—even colors, pattern or typography has to have a story behind it… Being beautiful is not enough, it has to be strategic. And our way of doing that is to create strong concepts.”

Snøhetta, Norway Bank Notes
Snøhetta, Norway Bank Notes
Snøhetta, Norway Bank Notes

With a legacy of world-class buildings, it’s no surprise that the Snøhetta approach to graphics comes from an architectural standpoint. But what often shocks new clients is their application of these processes to branding too. Eschewing traditional mood boards or presentations, clients walk in to Snøhetta’s on-site model shop in New York or Oslo to find a 3-D printed version of their concept. For Gran there’s a simple human truth at the root of it; “We know people relate more to objects than to pictures.”

A “large programmable manufacturing robot” rapidly prints 3-D prototypes, and it’s a sight to behold. Gran believes the response from clients is so much improved by this experience. “Something happens when objects are born in time and space. Clients and designers can touch and feel the design.” The process means feedback becomes more effective and collaborative.

Gran points to the visual identity for Norway’s largest bank, DNB, to exemplify their methods. Early conceptual sketches were rendered in 3-D in wood and plaster. Looking at the resulting branding, there’s a sense of texture, scale, and precision that directly results from this process. Likewise, their most well-known graphic design work saw them harness the organic forms of coastlines as the inspiration behind Norway’s new bank note designs.

Snøhetta, DNB Bank identity
Snøhetta, DNB Bank identity

The reason Snøhetta’s designers are able to work in such discipline-agnostic projects comes down to ‘trans-positioning’, their much-admired strategy of alternating job roles between employees with different expertise; a graphic designer might find themselves in the shoes of a landscape designer, or vice-versa. This interdisciplinary approach is key to creating a bold creative culture, as well as the consistently genre-busting work with which the agency is synonymous. Snøhetta believe this technique frees individuals from habitual thinking, and builds empathy—Gran compares the technique to that of an orchestra in which musicians rehearse on each other’s instruments before a performance. He likes to think of the skill set as that of “architectural designers, rather than graphic designers.” 

Trans-positioning is enhanced by the company policy of frequently rotating seating in the office, and a non-hierarchical seating structure. Everyone sits together in a room teeming with fresh interactions and inter-disciplinary collaboration. The shared lunch table becomes the social hub of the office, and meals are a crucial time to swap ideas and experience.

Pushed to define the Snøhetta aesthetic, Gran nods to traditionally Nordic visual sensibilities, where emphasis is placed on natural materials and minimalism. But the true common theme found in their output is not visual but social; all of Snøhetta’s work contains emphasis on meeting, and sharing space. This is true as much of the graphic design work as with the architectural or spatial. Works are deliberately created to spark discussion, spaces are carefully restrained, so visual design motifs take a secondary position to function and meaning.

One wonders if this working environment is for everyone. It sounds equally exciting and terrifying for staff and clients alike. But judging by the results it seems to be working. It’s reassuring to think that graphic design can subtly impact major infrastructure projects—worth considering next time you cross a fjord by bridge, or tunnel through a mountain on a boat. 

Snøhetta, Stad Ship Tunnel