LBB’s Paul Monan goes inside the pioneering global experience design company founded in the Swedish Arctic
Sitting just on the perimeter of the Arctic Circle, in the town of Skellefteå, is Sweden’s most highly decorated independent design agency.
With a whole host of Cannes Lions to its name, including both a Titanium Grand Prix and an Integrated Grand Prix, as well as a number of D&AD Pencils, One Show Interactive Prizes, FWAs, LIAs, Webbys (so many that we could go on for a very long time), North Kingdom has been quietly creating some of the world’s most creative and awarded design projects for over a decade.
But, up until now, the agency – which has outposts in Stockholm and LA, too – has been acting in stealth mode, flying modestly under the world’s radar with its stories of success, of which there are many, largely untold.
The agency’s principles, which it’s stuck to since Roger Stighäll, Rob Lindström and David Eriksson founded it in 2003, have undoubtedly played a part in its continued success. North Kingdom was set up as a place where personal passions could be pursued and fulfilled, in opposition to the increasingly corporate holding company approach that was sweeping the agency world at the time.
“The thinking then was, ‘what if we were to create a place that would enable creatives to grow and how could we harness that growth as a platform for personal development?’” explains Martin Johnson, North Kingdom’s CEO. “So that was the founding principal; we aren’t going to play the agency game. Let’s create a place, we’ll call it North Kingdom and that place will enable creatives to pursue their own learning journeys and their own personal development journeys. Let’s use that as the starting point for the culture so that passion informs projects, which then inform quality, which then informs passion and then projects and so on - the circle that goes round and round and round.”
The agency’s first project took place in a digital environment a million miles away from where we are today; a world of dial up modems, Netscape browsers and CD-ROMs.
In 2003, they teamed up with Vodafone to devise Futurevision, working closely with the Swedish behavioural institute KTH to better understand the ‘futurevision’ of mobile from a user perspective. It was the first insight driven flash site all about understanding what customer expectations could be like in the future for a given product.
Futurevision for Vodafone, one of the company's first big successes.
It went on to win everything, from Cannes to the Clios, and set the blueprint for who North Kingdom would become. “Nobody was doing it before we did it,” claims Martin, “this tiny little town in the north of Sweden invented what you all experience today.”
Since Futurevision, North Kingdom has reeled off a number of firsts. The agency created the first web experience to use interactive game mechanics; first ever use of Web GL inside a Chrome Experience (and the first interactive music video for a browser); first use of three realtime browser technologies for a google browser; first digital product builder inside a web browser: first large scale browser experience for an iconic movie franchise: fan first digital service created for an iconic movie franchise; first VR experience created to support a real time broadcast (Simpsons 600th Episode VR Experience); first digital product designed together with an in house engineering team to drive new value for a business; first VR & Mixed reality experience developed for multiple participants; first digital product developed from the ground up for the worlds most powerful brand.
North Kingdom built the VR experience for the 600th episode of The Simpsons
A key contributor to North Kingdom’s success is team continuity, with familiar faces finding solace in the company culture and sticking with the agency for prolonged periods of time. “Our core talent pool has remained intact since 2003 meaning that no other digital innovation shop has consistently been at the top of its game for this long,” explains Martin.
Today, the team is spread between spread between Skellefteå and Stockholm with a focused footprint in L.A, working fluidly across locations and time zones to offer a near-on 24-hour service. Yet, despite a decade of protracted success, the company isn’t resting on its laurels and has come up with a new vision; that by 2020 it will have helped changed what design means.
“We’ve spent the last year forensically analysing our own company, disputing and disrupting our offering so that we can provide the best possible service to our clients. Part of that change is driven by client need, as they’re looking to change the way they’ve historically approached design. This has led us to create Enclave, a specialist AR unit, and Lab Royale, a very entrepreneurial ecosystem for product development,” says Martin.
The small studio founded in the land of the midnight sun has accumulated knowledge that continues to lead what’s possible as specialist pioneers in the field of digital design. The information age is over and North Kingdom is perfectly positioned, albeit it from the Arctic Circle, to be the agency for the experience age.