Crazy Cat lady OR make things happen lady! Jenny Theolin, both an educator and an owner of Studio Theolin really knows how to bring ideas to life! Getting things going with LOLCat Teh Exhibishun in 2013, to diving in the deep end of Sweden's design community and recently an initiative called The Green Light List which highlights the companies treating interns and the junior workforce fairly—we're super fans!
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started?
I fell in love with design through sheer inspiration and awe of others. Classic imposter syndrome. It was when I broke out of my shell (laptop), and started to work and collaborate with other amazing people that I could see the potential of design.
How did I get started? My first real connection with design was through drawing. I studied under the late Turkish comics creator, publisher and caricaturist Galip Tekin for a year at Istanbul Bosphorus University. He did not speak a word of English and I didn’t speak Turkish, but we communicated eloquently through the pencil. I think you learn a lot when you work with somebody from a different country. Their own culture adds a unique perspective to their art, while the general aesthetics are universally similar. After that, I just went gung-ho at my BA and totally obsessed over designing.
I loved learning, and my love for design has just grown with every project, meeting and experience.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?
After my Foundation year in Istanbul, I moved to London and graduated with a First Class Hons. BA in Design Studies at London Metropolitan University(which was at the time called London Guildhall University). The degree was a broad educational experience including graphic design, design management, design history, moving image, 3D modelling, product design, photography and a dissertation (I wrote mine on the evolution of typography). A really good all-round education.
After that I did an Illustration Course at Central St. Martins, but to be honest, most of my true learnings have come from doing. In software and tech I am pretty much all self taught.
I started my journey as a Graduate Designer at Interbrand. I have always loved brand identity and branding work as a whole, and this job really got me stuck in it. The following 9 years I worked myself up from graduate to senior designer at various London agencies. The longest time served agency-side was at Clinic as a Senior Designer & Art Director. I was there for 3.5 years, until one day I got sick.
My body had had enough. It was 2010 and I got severe Repetitive Strain Injury from basically killing it on the computer. After 9 months on sick-leave with Work-Related Upper Limb Disorder (yep, that’s what it’s called), I had to pivot! I jumped over to the advertising side and tried Art and Creative Direction on for size. Around this time CGI was hot, and I really enjoyed working across more graphic and visual disciplines!
My entrepreneurial journey actually started in parallel (in 2009) with the launch of a not-for-profit company called Soapbox Events, in 2012 I went full-time and moved it into the profit sector under the name Soapbox & Sons. During that time, I was mostly known as the crazy cat-lady, as I created the world’s first LOLCat Exhibition.
15 exhibitions later, my business once again got a lick of paint, and is now the Stockholm-based company Studio Theolin.
Give us your elevator pitch on what you do.
I lead and connect people and ideas.
I know that sounds fluffy, but hear me out. On one end I curate teams and lead them from start to finish. And on the other, I also connect ideas from an innovation point of view. Have you seen the TED talk When Ideas Have Sex with Matt Ridley? Just like that. Couldn’t explain it better myself.
I wear two hats. One: Studio Owner, the other Educator. I believe to deliver the best work, you work with the best people. So, with Studio Theolin I collaborate with the highest skilled creatives, copywriters, designers, change agents, production managers, illustrators, animators, producers, film-makers, artists, event managers, PR professionals, and other magicians solving problems creatively for my clients.
In our modern economy almost any job in the creative industries can be done at a digital distance.I embrace technology, but I also help my clients work with humans. I move from leader to teammate in a moments notice. I make things happen. I am a triber running a studio with a difference.
At Hyper Island it’s not too dissimilar. I run a part-time MA in Digital Management. Here, I deliver the curriculum framework, facilitate the process and design learning experiences. I work very closely with industry leaders to develop innovative and challenging projects for students.
I also spend a lot of time identifying interesting speakers and workshop leaders from the creative and digital community, and work with businesses and organisations to develop student briefs and challenges.
What’s your take on internships?
I am lucky to have never worked for free, nor did I have to do any unpaid internships during my education. My university actually gave us real clients instead! Anyway, I am now surrounded by students as I work with Hyper Island and Berghs School of Communication, so I am constantly in earshot of the horror stories they share. So, a couple months ago, I basically had enough, so together with +rehabstudio, I have started an initiative and website to support all the companies who treat the junior workforce fairly. We call it The Green Light List. The aim is to promote the good companies to set standards.
If I can change the conditions for one intern or junior, I consider this project a success.
Where do you think design is heading in the next five years, and how will you adapt?
BIG question. What is design? Well, design as a whole (including visual, digital, design thinking, learning design, service design, business design and organisational design, the list goes on… ) is infiltrating the big corporates. Design & Innovation agencies are being acquired left, right and centre. The effect of this is blurry at most. Will design become more of a commodity than it already is? If everyone is doing it, how is it even a discipline anymore? For the same reason I believe digital is a moribund word, the word design is getting there too.
I also believe branding is a a bit of a misdemeanour. On one hand, branding has never been more important than now, on the other, consumers don’t trust brands. Companies are in a transparent playing field now, so I believe the ones who are honest and ethical will win the day.
Humans are what matters most to me. I hope my projects show that we can have fun being creative! If you live in Sweden, you may have heard of my Studio Dogs project Byråhundar, an exhibition project documenting Sweden’s office dogs. Together with a illustrator Persikamy, we have successfully put doggy treats on our work expenses. If that’s not a business success, I don’t know what is!
How will I adapt? Change is what I know best. I will just go with the flow and pivot when I have to.
What is the design landscape like in your city and why? Where do you fit in?
Stockholm’s design history is very rich and very long. Currently known as a startup mecca, the innovation and tech scenes are the ones thriving the most in my eyes. However, we’re also known for product, fashion and furniture design; as well as digital (like Spotify), and gaming (e.g. King).
I have only lived in Sweden for three years, and since then I’ve made it my mission to infiltrated the industry. The biggest steps include tweeting on behalf of @Sweden, Curators of Sweden, for a week, I was elected Vice Chairman of Design Sweden, I’ve judged various competitions and awards, and have written a bunch of contributions to books and magazines – including the Introduction to the entrepreneurial book Startup Guide Stockholm.
From what I have experienced so far, the design industry is healthy and varied. From design studios, like Kurppa Hosk and Super Tuesday, to big brand agencies like Essen International and Stockholm Design Lab, advertising agencies like Forsman Bodenfors, production companies like B-REEL, and design & innovation agencies like Doberman and Fjord, the industry is definitely thriving.
The biggest thing in recent news are all the acquisitions. Forsman Bodenfors bought by MDC Partners, Fjord by Accenture, Acne Studios by Deloitte Digital, four other agencies including Transformator and Daytona joining the new supergroup Acando, Veryday bought by McKinsey, and the list goes on…
What would really help me in answering this question, is if you work in/with design in Sweden, put yourselves on our Map of Design Sweden!
And where do I fit in? I think my background and perspectives can play a bigger part in being the glue between designers, business and schools; if that fails, why would I want to fit in anyway? That’s what robots are for.
Salt Lake City
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