interview with designers hjalti karlsson and jan wilker
all images courtesy hjalti karlsson and jan wilker




karlssonwilker is a new york-based design studio founded by hjalti karlsson from iceland and jan wilker from germany. with clients ranging from local cultural institutions to global commercial enterprises, karlssonwilker has been responsible for a variety of projects including brand identities, signage and wayfinding, print, motion and web.


we spoke with hjalti karlsson and jan wilker about how they met and founded karlssonwilker, their design taboos, and the current fascinations feeding into their creative practice. 

identity and signage/wayfinding for museum of the moving image, queens, 2011




designboom: can you remember the first images or events that made you think about becoming a graphic designer?


jan wilker: I grew up in ulm, germany. it used to be home to the HFG, or ulm school (of design). it was already closed many years before I was born, but ulm had (and still has) some of the spirit from that school. I grew up thinking everything designed out there looked like what was done at the ulm school, and I wanted to do what they had done. 


hjalti karlsson: I grew up in reykjavik, iceland, and it wasn’t until I was about 20 years old, during my first year at art school, that I found out what graphic design really was. an older student at the school pretty much gave me the run down of what a graphic designer does for a living, and then the next day I applied for the graphic design department. 

identity and signage/wayfinding for museum of the moving image, queens, 2011




DB: how did you meet and what made you want to work together?


JW + HK: we met in 1999 while working in stefan sagmeister’s studio. stefan announced his fist sabbatical then, which gave us the needed kick-in-the-ass to start our own studio. by then hjalti and I had only known each other for 3 months, but it felt like the right thing to do. now, over a decade later we still get along well.

identity and signage/wayfinding for museum of the moving image, queens, 2011




DB: during the early days of karlssonwilker what were some of your goals – and have you achieved any of them yet?


JW + HK: back then, all we wanted was to do really good work. work that excited us, where we pushed ourselves and the people we worked with hard, and knew we did our best possible. and, fortunately or unfortunately, it’s a goal that has no end built in, ever ongoing. and while reshaped and added to over the years, it’s still what we try to do. we are still designers more than creative directors or business owners. 

campaign for MINI/BMW, 2012, merging fashion photography with 3D renderings, using the mini coupe’s CAD files




DB: how has the studio evolved over the years and what’s the biggest difference today compared to the early years?


JW + HK: we used to be more brash, direct, almost aggressive, and challenging, towards ourselves and the people we worked with. we are calmer, and more focused nowadays, less hectic and confused. we are saving a lot of our energy this way, trying to avoid unnecessary stress. also, we drink much less and make it a point to live healthily.

campaign for MINI/BMW, 2012, merging fashion photography with 3D renderings, using the mini coupe’s CAD files




DB: how do you describe what you do to people outside of the design industry?


JW + HK: that’s still difficult for us. we don’t ‘wow’ potential clients with our verbal skills and vocal salesmanship.


DB: what would be your ideal project at this stage of your careers?


JW: a smart client with a challenging project (for the client and for us), and an adequate budget.


HK: my one dream job would be to design the opening titles for the next james bond movie. after that project I will retire.

campaign for MINI/BMW, 2012, merging fashion photography with 3D renderings, using the mini coupe’s CAD files




DB: how do you go about showing them your work and design philosophy?


JW + HK: we need to meet in person to be able to make them see and understand who we are, what we do and our approaches—best understood through our work and backstories. and that takes a tiny bit of time. (our elevator pitch consists of a smile, coming from the realization that it’s not for us.) then it’s our turn, to listen closely to the client. usually we don’t know if the client and us are a good or bad fit to work together on the project at hand. we do have concrete feelings about liking them, or even wanting to spend more time with them, getting to know them. although the people involved play a major role, there is more to consider in a project. more often than not, the client makes the decision to continue or not. overall, things take time.

line of scarves for saga kakala, 2015




DB: how do your design skills and personal skills differ? 


JW: hjalti and I are designers, in that we enjoy creating things. designing comes more naturally to us than being creative directors and business owners, which we are by default and do try to get better at. while hjalti is more involved in ‘new business’ as well as financials like billing and quickbooks, I tend to spend my time on more creative things and working with, and running, our team. 


currently we are taking few weeks to look at how we can configure and adjust our responsibilities and workloads, and the stresses that are come with each. we are doing some house cleaning to have new and improved internal processes, since we had never set it all up properly—we just grew into what we are today from the both of us sitting at the same table in front of the same computer 15 years ago. right now this is quite exciting. and just like our office culture being informal and non-structured, our approach to projects is to this day flowing very organically. one or both start a project, depending who has time and/or the drive, the other takes over or joins in, and maybe ending on someone else’s computer. our egos need to be small enough to not be in our way.

line of scarves for saga kakala, 2015




DB: is there something you would like to get better at or a new skill you would like to learn?


JW + HK: the beauty of running one’s own studio is that every day is a reminder of one’s own shortcomings, opening a well of areas to spend time in and work on—from one’s own mental, or our social prowess, to of course technical skills. since we had always seen that tools (read: software, not pencils) play a big part in the outcome of our work, we always embraced it, like lightwave back in the day, or today, cinema 4D. exploring all the different alternatives to adobe CC is also quite gratifying and powerful, packed with surprises.

naming, identity, and interior signs for loksins bar at reykjavik airport. collaboration w/ haf architecture, iceland




DB: what are some of your work rituals or superstitions? are there any design taboos for you?


JW + HK: in regards to rituals, the opening of a blank illustrator document as the first action of a new project could be one. a very big taboo since our beginning was the use of serif typefaces. and just few weeks ago we broke this taboo. we felt the the time was ready to use a serif typeface for the first time—it was a much smaller deal than we would have expected.

naming, identity, and interior signs for loksins bar at reykjavik airport. collaboration w/ haf architecture, iceland




DB: what do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out? 


JW + HK: if we would have known in the beginning what we know now we might have not even started. quite many mistakes, few successes, lessons learned the hard way, and some the easy way, and we think that that was the whole idea. and the question implies that the path came to an end, a pause at least, or that we ‘arrived’, which is not what we feel at all. one observation is that we did become less dramatic and irritable over time.

key visuals for composer/musician john hollenbeck, 2001–ongoing




DB: what are you both passionate about and how is that passion feeding into the work you do?


JW: for example, I am passionate about food and cooking. the more I cook, the less time I spend in the studio. my passions outside of design take me away from it, not directly feeding into the work at all. they just make me live a fuller life. a passion directly feeding into the work — I wouldn’t know how that would work.

key visuals for composer/musician john hollenbeck, 2001–ongoing




DB: what’s the motto of karlssonwilker?


JW + HK: if anything, then ‘we know nothing’ thanks to socrates.

series of large scale installations for wolf-gordon, chicago, 2012-2015

art direction and design for skirl records, 2008–ongoing, 4 to 6 CDs/year

identity, packaging and music video for latest gusgus album release, 2014

rebranding of brennivin, the icelandic schnapps, 2014

hjalti and jan announcing launch of new karlssonwilker website