In the Stockholm offices of design consultancy No Picnic, client director Sebastian Sabouné is showing me one of the company’s latest products. We’re seated comfortably in a nook under the pitched roof of a spacious mezzanine. All white, with blond wood flooring, the former military stable was recently modernized by architecture firm Elding Oscarson, to stunning effect. One dramatic feature is a full-height mirrored wall that cuts through the main floor.
From sophisticated packaging, Sabouné pulls out an L‑shaped device with a black, rubberized texture, coloured bars, chunky knobs, and a red base that recalls the heel of a Louboutin stiletto. I’m not sure what I’m looking at, but it’s definitely a thing of beauty. He explains that the small black box is called Balance, a recorder created for music software developer Propellerhead. The input device – which enables a musician to plug in a guitar, a microphone and headphones, record a piece of music and sync it with the software – was conceived just down the hall, inside one of five access-controlled rooms sheathed in glass.
While most of the 35-strong staff work at individual desks in an open space beyond the reception area, the real action takes place up a spiral staircase and inside the five tightly secured meeting rooms. With a client list that includes such international corporations as Sony, Research in Motion and Absolut Vodka, No Picnic is privy to top secret information that can make or break a company’s competitive edge. Hence, team members carry unique NFC tags to enter these enclaves, and when the curtains drop they will do everything from “idea injection” (reacting to market changes, new tech needs, and unmet consumer desires) to full project visualization while posing the question, what could your brand be in 10 years?
Over the phone, client director Dan McCormick tells me that No Picnic, led by CEOs Sam Peters and Gunilla Lyth Waters, is constantly immersed in thinking about the future. “We’re often surprised that things aren’t actually what they are in our world,” he says. “We ask, ‘Doesn’t this already exist? No? Oh, in two years?’ ” Perhaps the most light-years-ahead creation they’ve developed to date is a timepiece for the relaunch of revered Swedish watchmaker Halda, featuring interchangeable analog and digital faces. The mechanics of the former, designed with Svend Andersen (a rock star among watch enthusiasts) are meticulously handcrafted; the latter, programmed with input from Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang, includes such features as countdown, mission lapse time and G‑force. Encased in Tecamex, the watch was worn in space by Fuglesang. Only 128 have sold to earthlings.
Rarer still is the credit No Picnic receives for its award-winning pack-aging design. The few clients and products noted on its website represent only a tiny fraction of the firm’s output. Since 1993, when five industrial design students from Konstfack formed the consultancy, it has quietly worked behind the scenes to develop hundreds of products: smart phones, home theatre electronics, watches, even beverage packages. Millions of us have used them without even knowing who designed them. No Picnic’s anonymity is essential. Unlike Yves Béhar or Jonathan Ive, both product designers who are brands unto themselves, the studio stays under the radar so as not to dilute the brands it works with, and to stimulate creativity within each client’s internal design team. It not only helps blue-chip companies devise sleeker versions of existing products; it is also one of the rare firms to invent product categories from scratch. A few years back, Swedish entrepreneur Jonas Norberg approached No Picnic with an idea for creating a DJ booth – two turntables and a mix table – that fits in your hand. “Do you have the technology?” McCormick recalls asking Norberg. “He said no. Do you have money? No. So we did a mock-up and raised $10 million from venture capitalists. We assembled a team of engineers, but they said it was impossible, that it needed to be bigger.”
In the end, Pacemaker debuted in 2008, only slightly larger than the mock-up, packing a round colour LCD screen, trackpad control, and a cross fader into one small, elegant and unabashedly fun and funny gadget. (“You can finally say there’s a party in your pants and everyone’s invited – and mean it,” the website Gizmodo quipped at the time.) Earlier this year, No Picnic helped to adapt Pacemaker into an app for BlackBerry’s PlayBook tablet. Meanwhile, for Propellerhead it did the opposite, generating a hardware device based on the developer’s virtual recording studios for musicians. The simple yet beautiful interface won a gold IDEA award, a Red Dot Best of the Best, a gold iF and rave reviews from musicians.
Not that the studio is resting on its laurels. Several Japanese brands that want to tap the European market have been calling. “We know the European market, in terms of behaviour and home style,” says McCormick, noting that Sweden is a leader in streaming music and television, the kind of future services the consultancy will work to integrate into consumer electronics for its new Japanese clients.
While Apple’s influence might have led to an endless array of slim, seamless smart phones and tablets, No Picnic and its clients are setting new standards for the future. “When it comes to consumer products, what all companies are fighting with is what you see: a black front surface,” explains Jonas Bergfeldt. “How do you differentiate your product from others?” The answer will be key for Sony, which has discontinued its Sony Ericsson line and, after a long hiatus, is re-entering the smart phone market with the new Sony Mobile brand. McCormick notes that their client will compete by creating a hybrid between its personal devices and its home entertainment products. The test of No Picnic and Sony Mobile’s success will be a smart phone with true staying power. “I want to find ways to make a product that will last more than five months,” says Bergfeldt. “It’s a problem for all companies, the feeling that we’re releasing something no one wants after a few months.” If No Picnic can change the here today, gone tomorrow attitude of early adopters, it might just become famous despite itself.