Nils Kajander: “Design is one of the best things to be passionate about!”

Last week all the marketing and sales experts and enthusiasts gathered in Tartu for Sales&Marketing, an official side event of sTARTUp Day. After three practical and no-nonsense workshops, the stage was conquered by Nils Kajander – the Head of Branding & Storytelling and Partner at BOND Agency. We sat down with him to discuss ethical design, trendsetting and storytelling.

This interview was written by Rene Rumberg, a member of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.

As a branding and design professional, would you agree with my thought if I said that we have used design to create a better product-related (Netflix, Spotify, etc.) user experience for end-users, meanwhile some of the features and functions have backfired on us by suppressing our cognitive functions? We're not required to remember critical pieces of information that we once kept in our heads. While it's good to have such a feature, then it seems that we've moved storage from our brains to our phones or tablets.

This phenomenon you described is absolutely true. Even in my case, I notice that I quite often remember where I could find important pieces of information rather than remembering the information itself. But I'm not sure if it's the question of ethics when it comes to design. Design is just a tool to do different things, whether it's UX design or communication design. It comes down to the bigger question of how all developments bring good and bad with them. One could argue that the invention of TV was a great thing or that it was a horrible thing. Instead of walking in the woods, people started sitting on the sofa and watching TV.
I think that many things we consider problematic, social media, for example, and how the youth spends so much time playing video games, it's part of how the world evolves. 
It's also connected to this ethical question that people tend to try to make money out of everything. This concept of stickiness, when it comes to social media, of course, it sounds nasty, horrible, and problematic, that there are people who try to come up with products or digital services that aim to create an addiction. But then again, there's nothing new about that. I think that every simple TV series, for example, has always aimed to be sticky or addictive. Humans and technology change and develop and allow us to be more clever if you look at things from not an end-user point of view but from the design/product innovation perspective.

What are your thoughts about ethical design? Would you say that design is a tool that can be used by any means necessary to achieve results that have been set for the company? Let's say that Netflix management sets the goal that the average time spent on the site by users has to grow by 50%. They then design the video player to trap you in for more hours by starting the new episode automatically and giving you perks and achievements. Is it ethical or not?

It isn't a question of ethics in design, but rather just an ethical question. It comes down to the question of whether it is ethical to set that sort of a goal and make a profit out of creating addiction. There is good and evil in everything. But I'd say, my point of view is that every designer should have their ethical code in place. When something feels problematic for you, then you don't work on that project.

It is very difficult to say categorically that only this or that is unethical. Of course, some designs could be very obviously unethical. For example, if you're a product designer that designs easily concealable firearms, then maybe most people would say it's unethical, but in this case, I think it's a personal thing. Someone finds online gambling very problematic and doesn't want to do anything related to it. Still, someone else feels that some other issue is more challenging ethically.

So I think designers must know what is ethical or unethical for him or her. If you say Netflix is unethical when coming up with features, then you have to rule out million other unethical things, but I agree, that it's a bit questionable. Maybe it's also a generation thing. I'm a bit shocked by this sort of thing, but I think it wasn't unethical about TV. Then again, if the earlier generations would analyze whether TV's introduction was only a blessing or were ethical problems there…

It depends on the person's perspective and experiences.

There are, of course, some universal ethical guidelines, but at the end of the day, every person defines it in their own way. 

You've worked in the design industry already for 25 years, so you've seen many trends appear from nowhere and be adapted by the industry. What's the secret sauce to understand if something is going to be a trend in the future? Do you analyze it by using a specific framework, follow your gut feeling, or something else?

I have to say that I'm even not very interested in trends professionally. We never try to do anything trendy. "What is trendy now? Let's do something trendy!" – this is never the goal. We just try to come up with creative solutions that work and deliver whatever they need to deliver.

Rather than following trends, I want to think that we're in the business of creating trends or being a few steps ahead. Still, of course, as you said, trends come from somewhere, and usually, it means there are different people or designers around the world who think the same way. And even if I said we don't follow trends and so on, then certain things are subconscious.

For example, we have one designer who seems to have this, almost like a paranormal ability to predict colors that will be super trendy in half a year or one year. But of course, it's not that he knows consciously what will be trendy in the future. It's about him following the scene so closely, so he's picking up silent signals without even realizing it, and it guides his design processes. When it comes to technology or such things, this is the only field where we follow trends, but other than that, we're not interested in trends.

So you're the trendsetters.

I'd rather like to believe that, yes.

In your opinion, how important is storytelling in the context of creating a successful company culture? Do leaders, who want their company to flourish, need to be great storytellers, or can you lead successfully without being charming and good with words?

I think you don't need to be a great storyteller to lead a successful company, but then I'd say that this is part of the story. The story is important, but the story doesn't have to mean that everything is polished, and everyone is a perfect presenter or talented with words. When we're talking about Finns or Estonians, who tend to be a bit socially awkward or not as smooth as American CEO's, this is quite often part of the charm and the reason why Finnish companies can be very attractive, exotic, and exciting to foreigners. Because it's so different, and people are so honest and frank, and awkward to some extent. That is why you would say that Finnishness is a big part of the story of that particular brand.
Even when it comes to country branding, it's more and more that countries are celebrating their awkwardness or handicaps, and people realize that this is a strength, and you can be proud of that. 
A funny example. Finns tend to have this accent that we call a rally driver accent when speaking English. People used to be very ashamed of that, and because of that, they believed we're not great presenters. But nowadays, many people think that it's how things are, and it's their charm. People tend to know English very well and it is the same thing with Estonians. It's ridiculous how many Estonians are shy to speak in English, even if they have a fantastic vocabulary, but they may think, "it isn't my language, and maybe I sound funny". The story is important, but the story can partly be that the management is not that flashy American kind of an amazing bunch of speakers.

Author: Sigrid Mölder

Is design more emotional or a practical subject for you? Why?

I think it's equal. Design is not good design if it doesn't work or if it's not practical, but of course, ideally, the expectation towards design is that it somehow touches you, and then it's an emotional thing. And even if I take this from a very professional perspective, even then it's the same thing. It's business, it's practical. But at the same time, I wouldn't do this if I wasn't generally passionate about design. For this reason, I could never be an accountant because I don't have a passion for numbers. And I think design is one of the best things to be passionate about because even people who don't understand anything about design can be passionate about certain design issues – for example, "I don't like this building because I don't like orange!"

What has been the most inspiring/powerful lesson or a realization that design taught you over those years?

I would say that one of these lessons has been this cool realization about these things we're working with every day, week in and out, any design challenges, that's something universal. Even if we do not do million euro projects here in Estonia and rebrand Netflix, then it doesn't mean the work done here, in Estonia, is somehow less meaningful or less important compared to what's happening somewhere else. But then, you talk with people who work somewhere else in the design industry, and you exchange thoughts and expressions, you realize it's the same everywhere.
It doesn't matter if you work in Estonia, Argentina, Dubai, or London – it's ultimately still about the same thing. 
That is why I also think BOND (agency) has been successful and able to scale up the business. We started in Helsinki, but now we have studios in San Francisco and Dubai. If you do what you do super well and deliver world-class quality, then there's no reason why let's say, Estonian designers wouldn't reach the global top level.

Who are your favorite clients or projects?

I'm not even lying when I say that we at BOND only have super nice clients. The most important thing is that I've never considered a client who is always saying, "Yes, it's okay!" a perfect or good client. Instead, I enjoy working most with sharp clients who understand their business and understand what we do and why our work is valuable for them or what they could achieve with us. It's a genuine collaboration. This is why we're called Bond. It's not because of James Bond, but a bond between the client and us.
I really enjoy bonding with the clients and doing things together and when the client dares to speak their mind and have their opinions. 
When we argue about why they should do one thing or another, even if it's something on the gut feeling level, and they don't see the point or the beauty of the solution that we're suggesting, but they're still willing to trust us.

There's one funny example of a relatively recent project in Helsinki. During the project, our client was convinced that we need to change the color scheme. We spent a lot of time arguing that no, this would be the wrong decision for multiple reasons, and in the end, the design was kept as it was. Eventually, we finished the project and presented this new identity to their management board, and the one thing that was praised the most by the board members was exactly the thing we fought over for – the color scheme. The client then, our primary contact, he came to me and openly said: "You were right from the beginning. Thank you for standing up and explaining to us!". This is why I enjoyed it, and I'd also like to think that the client enjoyed the collaboration.

sTARTUp Sales&Marketing is the official side-event of sTARTUp Day 2021. The event was organized by sTARTUp Day, grit. and Messente. Find information about upcoming events at and on the sTARTUp Talks Facebook.
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