"How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul"
By Adrian Shaughnessy
Magnus Voll Mathiassen was a co-founder of the uber-hip Norwegian graphic design studio Grandpeople. The studio became widely celebrated for their highly distinctive, illustration-based style of graphic expression. The company worked for leading youth brands and record labels, and were extensively written about in the international design press. In 2009, Voll Mathiassen quit Grandpeople and set up MVM, a new solo venture. He is based in Drammen in Norway, and continues to work for a wide range of international clients.
MVM: With the ZZ Top record Afterburner. I was six years old and it gave me an instant urge to draw. I didn’t know what graphic design was until I started at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts and Design, when I was aged twenty-one.
How did you come to form Grandpeople?
We were three guys who met at the Bergen Academy. We discovered the possibilities of graphic design and all the limitations and control set by the profession itself. We were young, and this gave us the typical DIY spirit and energy that formed us as a group. We got a moniker to work under and continued the collaboration after graduation.
What was the biggest obstacle you encountered in getting Grandpeople started?
Money. We didn’t have any start-up loan to float on and we didn’t have enough well-paid jobs. It was hard, but we had the mentality to go with it. Some might say the stupidity to do it.
Was getting Grandpeople off the ground more or less difficult than you imagined?
I have nothing to compare it with. It gradually got better and better. The first two years were the hardest, and I told myself that if this doesn’t work out financially by the third year, then I’m out. But it started getting better. On a creative level it was always good, and we learned a lot, especially in the first years.
You got some good press coverage early on; did this open doors?
We were flabbergasted when Grafik magazine wanted to do a ten-page profile on us just months after opening the studio. It still makes me wonder how that happened. We thought this was our ticket to international clients and some money. But it definitely wasn’t. I think potential clients want to see a progression in a studio’s portfolio before deciding to work with them. The people who got in touch were students, and after a while different magazines and publishing houses wanted us to contribute to various publications. It took more than one or two years before we got contacted by real clients as a result of the publicity. Fame is mostly talk. You need to convince people over time that you can do real and strong work.
What were the main issues relating to being part of an equal partnership? Would it have been easier if it had been just you and a couple of assistants, or were there advantages in being a group?
Being close friends and starting up together has been the recipe for both success and failure. We knew everything about each other’s preferences and so easily worked out a conceptual and aesthetic foundation for Grandpeople. The disadvantage was that we found it difficult to be frank with each other when we had disagreements. With friends working together, starting young and becoming older, you grow apart on many levels. In the long run it would have been easier to work in another constellation.
What were the main objectives behind Grandpeople? Creative freedom? Financial reward? Respect from other designers?
Creative freedom, and a refusal to work behind regular office walls or in an established design studio. We wanted to see if our ideas would fit into the world of graphic design and our surroundings.
At a key point, you moved out of the Grandpeople studio and into your own studio, but continued to work as part of Grandpeople. Why did you do this?
There are many reasons. One of them was that the city the studio was located in was too rainy for me. Rain all year around. But the main reason is internal issues of running the studio and the history we have had together. I needed to get away to be able to work with my colleagues and friends. And this became the beginning of the end of my part in Grandpeople.
You have now made a clean break and are working solo under a new studio name – MVM. Can you talk about your thinking?
It’sa fresh start–my own work, my own hours, total control over every aspect of running a business. I am a person with strong opinions – which is both a good and a bad thing. And now knowing that I can execute things in a specific way gives me a feeling of freedom again. Saying that, I need to feel that what I do is a direct consequence of my own actions. I am a focused person, and working on my own, I need to always be on the tip of my toes, which is essential to attract the clients I will click with. It’s the feeling of being an eternal student that keeps this profession interesting. No one knows anything, even if you have your opinions and your gold awards or such things. MVM will be my university with no possibility to graduate.
It doesn’t sound as if you will ever employ other designers. Is that the case?
Over time, MVM may evolve into being a studio with employees. I am open to that, but for now I will only use freelance artists or collaborate with people, as well as doing projects solo. I like working with people and exploring all the creative forces around. Digital communication makes this very easy, even if you are situated in an unknown small city of Norway, as I am.
Would you do anything differently if you could start all over again?
With the knowledge I’ve gained over the past years I would never have adopted the approach we took with Grandpeople. But it has been a very valuable experience, with many ups and a few downs.
Starting with friends is a risky business, and the design business is a risky business itself, so make sure you have total confidence in the people you will be working with. Be honest and don’t dwell on any conflicting issues you might have. You will just end up sour as an apple.
What will you do differently (if anything) with your new venture?
With MVM there is a proper direction from the beginning. I know what is ahead and I know my preferences. If MVM gets recognized as a provider of distinctive work, rather than a distinctive aesthetic, then two thumbs up.
If you could give someone starting up a new studio one piece of advice, what would that be?
Be patient and eat healthily.