Anna Kamjou Reuterswärd is a Swedish Persian design visionary and creative leader who has designed everything from a global pop icon vodka bottle to an oil-free cargo carrier ship.
Anna previously served as Global Director of Design Strategy for The Absolut Company for Absolut Vodka, Absolut Elyx, and other product brands. Today she continues her work with Absolut and others through the Stockholm consultancy firm Evolab.
By Jody Turner
It has been a few years since you left your full-time internal role. As a creative consultant, can you share with us your innovative starting point in addressing future-leaning design questions?
Effectively addressing a design challenge is about addressing the paradox of external and internal impulses. In order to be fully present with my design creativity, I need to be both open to the world, deeply seeing and sensing, in an empathic way AND have the capacity to go inwards. It is going inward that allows me to sense and articulate visions, ideas, and new connections that emerge from work challenges put forth.
To know the world’s hidden needs and desires I believe you must ‘know thyself’. To know the world today and to anticipate the world tomorrow requires intuiting and articulating your customers’ unarticulated ideas. Being present with your customer is about deeply sensing your customers’ needs, as well as capturing the essence of the new which you are bringing into being. It is this combination that both problem solves and excites the world.
Of course, one must diligently do their comprehensive research and homework for it all to work. But then for me, I must go inward and involve the process of synthesis and output. This requires not only years of experience but also great self-trust. There is no other option in being truly innovative… one must bring the inner and outer worlds together in a way that makes sense.
What drives you as a creative innovator?
I define purpose as one’s authentic role in the world and this drives many of us as creatives; the same can be true of a brand. Working with my creative purpose and the inner-purpose of Absolut brought the brand to a dynamic space in the work we did together.
Innovation comes down to having a diverse team of creative people around to envision strong new ideas, mixed with entrepreneurial talent, resources and the capability for execution.
Allowing diversity of ideas and processes may not be easy to manage, but discerning and immediately seeing which way is not right while remaining broad and open in approach has worked well for me.
Failure is important in the process. Loads of innovations fade and fail but some succeed and grow. It is important to allow this ebb and flow, versus creating a work culture of long, sustained process and tentative engagement out of fear of failure.
Please tell us a little more about your unique role and experience in creative design at innovative Absolut.
Absolut Vodka is one of the largest global brands with its production in one locale, a southern-Swedish village called Åhus. Global and local is at the source of its uniqueness, an overarching hallmark of innovation today. This is equally true in the larger, parent company, the French-owned Pernod Ricard group; whose individual brands’ authentic, local heritage and provenance is absolutely central to success.
The world wants deeper meaning, soul, style and spirit in its creative story. Happily, Absolut has creativity at the core of its DNA! Think early ’80s in New York City with Andy Warhol and the most progressive night clubs of the time.
With the re-design of the Absolut flavored vodkas portfolio, the history of the brand required we move beyond standard thinking – that a fruit-flavored vodka requires a picture of the fruit on the bottle.
We asked our design team to reach into the symbolism and myths tied to the ingredients, find each flavor’s core essence, then amplify that essence through art.
We looked anthropologically and historically at fruit and herbs for artistic inspiration. For instance, the peach in China symbolized romantic love. We brought that energy to life on the bottle within the design. Each designer stepped away from the computer and used sponges, brushes, pens, and paper to create the motif and we matched that to an art movement, style, technique or school of thought. We created the entire range of designs first by hand, then digitized and produced them for the global audience. Every bottle then is global and local, hand-made and high-tech in its production.
You are building character authenticity through the processes of art and creativity. Can you give us another example of this process and outcome?
Yes! Absolut Elyx is an innovative, handcrafted, luxury vodka that started out with a very small, diverse team holding an open brief. While it may be complex to remain open to different creative points of views, it is in order to harness different talents and competencies required to deliver something relevant and new like Elyx.
Elyx was experimental, it was prototyped over and over as we tried our way forward. It takes a bit of guts to prototype on this scale within the luxury category, but we define luxury differently, and are not too worried about a “perfect brand surface.”
We chose to work with creative muses and partners versus the known clichés of luxury branding. In a visually male-represented industry, we collaborated with strong female creative partners such as Chloë Sevigny and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The ads have integrity and grit with forged character, as does the award-winning vodka itself.
Experiential branding at its finest, with dynamic copper driven visuals!
Since Absolut Elyx is a hand crafted, single-batch vodka distilled in a small 1921 copper still, the bottle design needed to be a worthy vessel. This involved working with the trickster, the playful part of the creative Absolut personality. We took the original Swedish apothecary bottle proportions, disrupted and compressed into a square bottle design. This did the trick. The copper detailing both symbolizes copper pot distillation and the precious metal used for craft purposes, but not bling.
Working with you is a joy because “give-back” aspects as well as creative and innovative sustainability are at play. My favorite, important playground.
Important to me today and with every brand, is the inherent give-back aspect of a product innovation, service, and brand. Absolut Elyx is no exception and is working in partnership with Water for People which is featured in Conscious Magazine and in Crowdrise.
Innovation does not need to be complex in idea and yet may have huge impact and reach. For instance, the Absolut iconographic bottle is now re-designed (for the first time in 30 years) in a lighter glass weight bottle for sustainability benefits. Small adjustments can have profound impact in our world.
You have done work with other companies, please share with us your favorite innovation project outside of Absolut.
When we carry products, such as brand-new cars from factory to market, around the world on container ships spanning multiple oceans and ecosystems, the exchange of ballast water in balancing the ship with large cargoes of oil is destructive. Between different ocean waters we may mix microbial bacteria that kills multiple species.
In this project and as designers we asked a naïve question: do we need ballast water to balance the ship? When you remove it, you remove the biggest threats to the ocean environment.
It was a truly collaborative design process including marine architects, marketing communicators, engineers, stakeholders from the company, owners/board members, and our industrial designers. We designed it together using a Design approach inspired by the future concept cars that the automotive industry creates to drive innovation and future design. Why can’t a future state-of-the-art environmentally sound cargo carrier ship be created in the same way to lead future design? It was a sincere design that we could call insane for many reasons, but surprisingly enough, through the intense collaboration with the chief marine architect, long-standing technical expert in ship building, and the engineering team. It will become feasible within the timeframe of 2025.
This is unbelievably complex and yet so vital. How did you carry this off?
Design is the only process I know that is this useful in making tough decisions quickly on the spot. The design process helped us harness, mix, synthesize and produce holistically rather quickly. We were able to facilitate this at top speed, and design it in less than a business quarter. To us, the whole ecosystem of global ocean transportation, from the customer (for example car manufacturer), to the end consumer, needs to be the entire value chain including the planet and global oceans as an important, long-standing resources.
Using the obvious and available resources of sun, wind, and the sea itself we created a sailing ship with solar and wave power, entirely without oil for fuel. Unique features were achieved through the study of creatures of the sea, including a whale tail which is the most energy efficient way of moving in water. This huge and heavy mammal with its fin interacts with waves efficiently. Why can’t a ship have fins? The sails and the solar panels are critical, but the fins could help generate energy in fuel cells.
This concept cargo ship is technically feasible in approximately ten years, and faces many challenges including global port designs onward. It is currently useful as a teaching tool and model in designing complex large-scale sustainability solutions, and has inspired a global sustainability fund for the industry. This ship has been exhibited around the world, winning several environmental and design awards.
Do you have any personal innovation projects you have worked on or are working on?
Coming out of the corporate world was liberating; I was hungry to just do and create on my own. I had an idea for an innovative handbag for some time, which I started to work on independently. Handbag design is important in human evolution. Invented while we were all nomads in Africa, handbags helped early human tribes carry tools and food to neighboring tribes which led to greater collaboration, trade, and romantic relationships. This is equivalent to an exponential jump in the evolution of humans. My project “Creature,” a range of sustainable, co-couture handbags, is designed to help humanity evolve today. I was initially inspired by writer and documentary film maker Lasse Berg, a Swede, who has lived extensively in Africa studying indigenous people’s cultures. He writes about the handbag in his book “Gryning över Kalahari—Hur människan blev människa” (2005), or in English “Dawn over the Kalahari—How humans became human.”
The first humans were gatherers. They ate roots, nuts, and fruits they picked during long walks across vast areas. As long as they could only carry what they themselves could eat. They hardly cooperated with other groups. The difference between two roots in your mouth and five in your hand (or 20 kilos in a bag) meant everything and led to collaborative barter. Once we were walking upright on two legs, our only chance for survival in the wild was collaboration. Ten people could defend themselves from a raging lion, one loner had no chance. Human evolution took a great leap forward with collaborative sharing and the handbag is the key. Without it the human race would not have evolved as it has.
So, you began working on the next evolutionary handbag, called Creature.
What would we humans need today to help us evolve to the next level of consciousness? I have done my research, made a first design, and my current step is learning leather craft to produce my first sustainable lifecycle prototype. Built into the design and the economy of The Creature is YOU making your bag, in whole or in part.
The handbag Creature tells life stories of the maker through design in visual cues to share with the world. A secret compartment is designed by you, for you, to build in the health and well-being of your life in motion. Couture Craftsmanship + Co-creation = CO-COUTURE. The Creature is here to help us remember who we are while raising our conscious level of living and consuming. If you are a part of creating your own bag it will encourage you to maintain it for life. This makes quick consuming and discarding less alluring, for the more you define yourself as a creator, the less you define yourself as a consumer.
A Creature is for life, a living thing that requires daily care. It reminds you of your best self, never allowing you to forget who you are, and what your bigger dreams beyond daily consumption are.
The book Living in the Creative Zone, Transforming the World One Idea at a Time is a collection of interviews with international figures driving innovation and change forward through their day-to-day work. For the next year these interviews will publish on the impactmania platform, the complete e-book will be available upcoming.