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What is it with the Swedes? It’s a question you often hear in discussions of elite digital firms. Not the big agencies with software engineers and analytics teams, but little twenty-person shops that cut such dashing figures at Cannes and SXSW (not that, as a general rule, Swedes dash anywhere). No country’s designers win more snazzy awards except for the United States and maybe Great Britain. Yet Sweden has only slightly more people than New York City.

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Plenty of theories exist. Sweden is a rich country that has more and faster broadband than anywhere else. Today, 99 percent of all Swedish homes have high-speed Internet connections, and the country has 10 million activated mobile phones for only 9 million people. Sweden also has long, dark winters that keep people indoors and supposedly foster an appreciation for design—and certainly give people plenty of time to work on it.

There are other possibilities. Many of the firms interviewed for this article got their start after the crash of 2002. They tend to work in small offices of less than 30 people. If a firm grows larger, it usually opens another office. They all speak English fluently (even if their websites sometimes mangle it). They emphasize a flat decision-making structure and openness to others’ ideas. This isn’t just talk either: An intern with no experience in interactive came up with the initial idea for North Kingdom’s adidas Teamgeist site.

Not least, the firms have a refreshing quality that is generally (or, let’s face it, almost completely) absent in the rest of the digital world. To describe it, you need to use a Swedish concept: jantelagen. Roughly translated, it means that you should never think you’re better than anyone else. In the book 55 Degrees North, Patrick Sundqvist of Perfect Fools identified this as one reason for the success of Scandinavian designers. And it makes sense. Not taking yourself seriously can help you stay grounded and focused during a high-profile project.

“At the end of the day,” says David Eriksson of North Kingdom, “It’s just advertising, and advertising is not the most important thing in the world.”

Whatever the secret of Swedish success, with the talent and creative infrastructure the country now has, it’s likely that its digital firms are here to stay. “When you have a bunch of people who are good at tennis,” notes Johan Belin of DinahMoe, “suddenly, everyone wants to play tennis.”

Gothenburg looks west over a harbor teeming with shipping. It is Sweden’s busiest port and a center of industry. Volvo is its biggest employer; it also has a shipyard and hosts the western terminus of a large natural-gas pipeline. But if you step into a renovated theater downtown, you’ll find a different kind of work going on: rows of computers, a full sound stage and a green screen studio. It’s the home of the curiously named Kokokaka.

The name comes from an exercise in reggae drumming, which makes it no surprise that founders Jimmy Herdberg and Markus Hasselblom are passionate musicians (Hasselblom is still the studio’s music producer). The two joined forces in 2001, when Herdberg left a collapsing technology firm and took an important client with him: ad agency Forsman & Bodenfors. Thanks to an inventive Dream Kitchen site for IKEA, Kokokaka soon acquired an international reputation, eventually becoming a go-to firm for fashion brands like Wrangler, Burberry and Louis Vuitton.

Given their strength in fashion, their in-house film capabilities should come as no surprise. “Shooting for interactive film is quite complicated, so having our own studio is great,” says Herdberg. “We can come up with an idea, go directly to the studio and have a prototype really fast.”

The Symphony site for Louis Vuitton offers a good introduction to their approach and commitment to craft. It allows you to explore small leather goods (wallets, key chains) while your actions create music in the background. The sounds come from a Flash engine specifically designed to imitate the arrangement of the instruments in an orchestra. So the violins are the left front, percussion right rear, and so on. The result is technically quite complex, but supports a simple and helpful experience.

“When we make an interactive production, we often combine ten or twenty different layers of sounds, music and effects and all these work together to make the user forget the transitions between different parts of the site.” —Johan Belin

“When the user looks at the sites we produce, we don’t want them to be complicated,” says senior art director Sooki Song Hörnestam. “We want you to have this feeling where you say, ‘Wow, this is interesting' and you’re enticed into seeing more.”

For the most part, says Johan Belin, the web has not been an emotional medium. The culprit? Sound. Movies and TV shows use music to create a mood, but with the web the whole navigation and loading thing gets in the way.

Enter DinahMoe. Launched in 2009, the firm bills itself as the world's first integrated music and sound production house. The foundation of its business lies in a software framework that enables it to create seamless sound for the web.

“When we make an interactive production,” Belin explains, “we often combine ten or twenty different layers of sounds, music and effects and all these work together to make the user forget the transitions between different parts of the site.”

A good place to start with their work is the dazzling experiment Plink, a multiplayer music game that works only on Google Chrome. It allows you and others to play music together—even if you have zero musical talent. To accomplish this, it puts a techno beat in the background and ensures that whatever “instrument” you and the others choose meld perfectly together.

When it’s not playing in its own lab, DinahMoe serves an A-list of clients including GE, IKEA, Toyota, Coca-Cola and even the Swedish Armed Forces—but Belin insists the best is yet to come. “The new Web Audio API in HTML5 is the best thing that has happened to the interactive music experience,” he says. “It’s a technology that takes care of everything you don’t want to care about.” Given the good results DinahMoe has already gotten, that’s great to hear.

Not far from the Arctic Circle you can find Skellefteå (pronounced “she left you”), a rugged forestry and mining town that numbers around 35,000. If you have no interest in digital, the biggest international news out of Skellefteå is about an on-again, off-again plan to build the world’s biggest moose. If you have pixels on the brain, it’s the home of North Kingdom, one of the most remote and highly-regarded digital firms in the industry.

“In the beginning, we tried to be a bit of a mystery,” admits managing partner Roger Stighäll about the firm’s reluctance to promote itself and its rare appearances at design confabs, “but the reality is that if we spent too much time out traveling and being evangelists, we’d stop focusing on what we’re good at.”

The firm’s founders Stighäll, Robert Lindström and David Eriksson are unusually close. Born weeks apart, they have been friends since childhood. When they were teenagers, they won Sweden’s Junior Football Championship. (Those of you in South Florida might remember Stighäll as a standout player for Lynn University.)   
The three founded the firm in 2003. In 2004, they won an open bid for the Vodafone Future Vision site, which ended up being one of the most recognized sites that year. Overnight North Kingdom went from being an obscure studio at the edge of the world to fielding calls from interested clients in Japan. And they continued strong, expanding to Stockholm in 2006, while creating a seemingly endless stream of award-winning sites like 2007's Get the Glass, 2009’s Battle of Cheetos and 2010’s adidas Teamgeist.

If you want to start somewhere fun with their work, try out the Rome Project, an interactive music video produced for Google Creative Lab. The site features one of the most ambitious uses of the WebGL platform, which allows for real-time, video game-like 3-D rendering on the web. Technology aside, the experience is beautiful. You listen to a great song, while controlling your movement through a dazzling series of dream sequences in a dystopian American landscape.

“People hadn’t done a lot with WebGL before,” says Eriksson. “It was just cubes and stuff, and we were happy with how far we succeeded in pushing the technology.”

The most recent news for the firm is that it may be coming out of its shell. It even made it to SXSW for the first time this year.

If you know one digital firm from Sweden, it’s probably B-Reel. One reason is that they have offices in New York, London and Los Angeles, as well as Stockholm. Another might be that they’ve won AdAge’s production company of the year for two years running. A third might be that you have seen the name somewhere else. B-Reel is actually two companies: a digital firm and a film production house. The film side was good enough to produce a Super Bowl commercial this year.

“Because we have a film production company and a digital production company, we’ll take care of both sides,” explains CEO Anders Wahlquist. “That takes away any built-in conflict between production companies and you can have a tonality that’s completely the same throughout a campaign.”

“One day we decided that digital is just technology, and if we’re going to be experts we have to be very interested in and exploring technology.”—Tony Högqvist

All of this started in 1999 in a back-alley office in Stockholm. Founders Wahlquist, Petter Westlund, Pelle Nilsson and Fredrik Heinig decided on a name that reflects a central passion of theirs (they were all very interested in film and what it can do on screens both large and small).

“Getting emotions is what we strive for,” says Westlund, the chief creative officer. “When you really can get the emotional reaction, that’s great.”

And emotions they do get. Their Hotel 626 for Doritos is arguably the scariest website ever produced. A project for Intel called The Inside Experience was a similarly eerie interactive movie in which a woman trapped in a room has to use social media to try to escape.

Still, pigeonholing B-Reel is not easy. The firm does everything from traditional Flash websites to real-world/Internet hybrids. A recent project for Ariel detergent, for example, invited people to use a Facebook app to shoot a robotic squirt gun loaded with yucky things at designer clothes in Stockholm’s Grand Central Station. The clothes were then washed onsite using Ariel Actilift and sent to the shooter.

Asked about the future, they had a novel answer for a digital firm: products. That’s right, the company recently unveiled a research-and-development unit called B-Reel Products that will allow it to develop applications, platforms and more with no client other than themselves.

“Normally we get a brief, and there are a lot of ideas that can’t fit anywhere,” says Wahlquist. “We want to be able to take those ideas and market them, both to make money and for the pleasure of seeing ideas come to life.”

The magical viral moment for Perfect Fools came in the form of The Canvas Experiment. Launched in early 2011, it featured a “screen” of 480 Converse All-Star shoes, each of which was a “pixel” with the option of being red, white or blue. Thanks to a Flash controller, you could use the wall to play games, watch animations, make patterns with gestures and music and just about anything else. Within six weeks, it had 800,000 fans on Facebook.

As original as the Experiment was, it was also no surprise coming from the technology-obsessed Perfect Fools. With offices in Amsterdam and Stockholm, the firm had long had a reputation for making the Big Flash website. Their very first site, their own, featured a page-turn interface that immediately got the attention of ad agencies and launched a seemingly endless series of assignments for everyone from Coca-Cola to Saab. But it wasn’t enough.

“One day we decided that digital is just technology,” says creative director Tony Högqvist, “and if we’re going to be experts we have to be very interested in and exploring technology.”

So the firm reached out and started bringing in different kinds of talent, like 3-D artists, software developers and engineers. That forced them to think more about the backend and to create and sell work beyond interfaces and online stories.

The results are now in, and they’re good. While Perfect Fools still launch their share of large Flash sites, they’ve also done a “Twitter race” with Euro RSCG Amsterdam for Citroën as well as an interactive café called Kauko. The latter project came about when Helsinki, Finland, was selected as the World Design Capital. To spread the word, the city enlisted the aid of hasan & partners and Perfect Fools, who came up with the idea of a café that showcased awful design. Users of the Kauko site and app could control the heights of chairs and tables, making it perilous for those trying to enjoy a hot cup of coffee inside.

While it’s always hard to say where firms like Perfect Fools are headed, one hopes this kind of mingling of the physical and connected worlds is part of it. “It’s really fun when we can change the physical world using the digital world and vice versa,” says technical director Björn Kummeneje. “Campaigns that connect the two are definitely a place we’d like to go.” ca

Author’s note: Joe Shepter would like to thank Ulf Sandberg of Stockholm-based branding firm Grow for helping him navigate the Swedish creative landscape.

Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.

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