David Blecken
Feb 11, 2019

"Cosmetic change is not interesting": Kontrapunkt's Bo Linnemann

In Japan, the co-founder of the renowned Danish branding company discusses lessons from a life in design, why politicians struggle to connect with people, and whether Tokyo 2020's positioning is any good.

Bo Linnemann in Tokyo
Bo Linnemann in Tokyo

Danish branding and design firm Kontrapunkt is known for giving its home country’s various ministries their own brand identity, as well as for redesigning Lego’s identity for the digital age (the client hung the new logo on the wall for over a year before finally approving it).

Since co-founding the company in 1985, Bo Linnemann has been a frequent visitor to Japan. He led projects for the publisher DNP, as well as teaching at Musashino Art University, before opening an office in Tokyo nearly three years ago. Japanese clients have included Denso, Mitsubishi and Nissan. Campaign spoke to Linnemann on a recent trip about the opportunities he sees in the market, how he deals with inherent challenges in the design process, and what it would take for the Japanese government to undergo a branding exercise.

What is your philosophy as a designer?

Basically I am a craftsman… Type design is still really where my passion is and it’s my source. The mindset of being a craftsman I think is something that influences everything we do.

A challenge for any creative person is having too many people involved in a project. How do you deal with it?

I would say finding the right governance, a way of getting the right decision, is the most important part of the design process. You can’t just make a great design, show it and everyone is happy—that’s not how it works. You have to massage everything and accommodate the procedure to get everyone involved and aligned. It’s sort of a case of hammering things through.

A common complaint these days is that clients just don’t allow enough time to get things done properly. Is this a problem for you?

Having time to reflect is crucial. You can be really excited about something and think it’s so fascinating what you’re doing, but when you leave it and look at it a few weeks later, you realise it’s not that great after all. So time is really important in order to do something thoroughly. Having said that, a squeezed timeframe can also trigger your creativity because you’re under such pressure that it really makes you think more out of the box. Ten years ago we designed an experience around Noma [the restaurant] in the space of a week, and I think it’s maybe one of the most important pieces of work we’ve done. If you have all the time in the world, you can lost your focus.

What’s been the most difficult project you’ve worked on and what did you learn from it?

I know this sounds silly but I think always the job you’re working on right now is the most challenging. All assignments are challenging in one way or another and if the client doesn’t make it challenging, then we do. What I’ve realised over the time I started 40 years ago is how big an impact design can have on the company. Most of the organisations we work with are in a situation of change, of moving to a new stage, and a new design is proof to their audience that they mean it seriously. If a company claims to have become ‘green’ but still looks the same, people are unlikely to believe it, but when they change into a completely new identity, people understand it.

A more cynical person would say a lot of companies undergo visual change but don’t actually change.

Yes, that’s also true. If a company is only looking for cosmetic change, that’s not interesting for us. We try to understand what the reason is for them to reach out to us. We look on each project in terms of whether it fits with our strategy in terms of what we want to do and how we want to do it, and if it doesn’t, we say, OK, you should find someone else.

What opportunities do you see here in Japan as a Danish design company?

There’s a big group of companies here that work internationally but in their understanding are very Japanese. They have difficulty understanding the rest of the world and how to brand themselves outside Japan. I think we have a common understanding of design. In Denmark, our design legacy has been about taking Bauhaus theories and humanising them. These theories came from Japan in the first place because all the Bauhaus ‘masters’ were inspired by traditional Japanese architecture and in this way the way we’ve translated these theories I think resonates very well with the Japanese mindset.

What do you personally find inspiring in Japan?

Many things. First of all the concentration. We talked about getting squeezed earlier but I think here we have some circumstances that give us more time to reflect and develop things more thoroughly. You have the time to really get things right here more than you do elsewhere.

You branded the Danish government. It’s difficult to imagine the Japanese government ever undergoing a similar process. Why?

In Denmark the gap between citizen and state is very small. We have an open society and a relaxed way of looking at our governmental institutions. You might see the prime minister walking in the street or cycling. They’re not on a pedestal and that’s why they behave just like any other organisation, using the same tools. Fifteen years ago, we had a new government that closed a lot of institutions. Those that were closed down were those that were not able to express the value they gave to society. What we did was make these ministries different. The ministry of culture was very different to the ministry of education, or finance, so that each of these could express what they stand for.

I think in Japan it’s completely opposite. Government institutions see themselves as being beyond everything else, beyond society. I don’t think it’s struck them that they could make use of these methods of communication to be more social or to reach out. They are in the habit of building walls more than tearing them down. But I think they will realise one day.

What makes you think so, after all this time?

They will see that branding works. There’s a reason you brand yourself. It’s not just about how you look but a way of being understood in the right way by audiences.

What do you think of the way Tokyo 2020 has been branded?

I haven’t really spent much time digging into it. I just see a logo. When I close my eyes, I see a logo next to a logo that looks similar. To me it looks very Japanese. I do think an Olympic logo should reflect the national identity and if I didn’t know where it came from, I would say it’s definitely Japanese, not Brazilian or Australian or British.

Campaign Japan

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