Interview with Art and Creative Director Mikael Kangas

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The View magazine hooked up with art and creative director Mikael Kangas, who works on editorials and campaigns for brands including Herve Leger and H&M. We talk about his first dips in creativity, the creative process, and what an image needs to be great.

TV: Hi Mikael, how are you? Tell us a bit about yourself.

MK: Hi, I’m great, thanks. The last two years I’ve been dividing my time between New York and Los Angeles, so I’m looking forward to spend two weeks at home in Sweden this summer. I grew up in the north part of Sweden where the winters are long and dark, and the sun never sets in the summer. Like I mentioned I’m now spending most of my time in Los Angeles where I work as a photography art director and creative director for fashion advertising.

TV: How did you got in touch with creativity for the first time? Was this already a defining moment?

MK: Growing up, my family always spent part of the summer in our cabin close to where my dad grew up. One of the neighbors there was an artist. She made water-colored paintings inspired by the nature around that area. I loved watching her paint and it inspired me to paint as well. I never learned her craft but it fueled my creativity. For me art directing a picture goes back to painting, though I’m now using tools different from a canvas or a brush.

TV: Then you decided to do something graphically in fashion, how did this came about?

MK: At first I studied interaction design. After my bachelor degree I took a break and worked at a design/ad agency in Stockholm that focused on fashion clients. After a year there I decided to go back to school and take my masters in graphic design with the idea to work somewhere in the fashion industry.

TV: Tell us what you actually do? If someone looks at a campaign image or editorial image, what was your contribution in it?

MK: Everything and nothing I usually say. From concept all the way to the final product. I concept the creative vision together with the client. I then work closely with the photographer, the other creatives in the project to make sure we achieve a great collective vision.

TV: Which characteristics should a campaign or editorial image have, for it to be considered a strong, impactful, meaningful and beautiful image?

MK: It should draw the viewer in and sell the product without making you aware that you are being sold something. I love the post-production process but the raw image should have something compelling about it when the photo is taken, it is something that can’t be created in post with effects and filters. It’s about storytelling through images. For an editorial the storytelling is easier since you have more images to tell it with, for a campaign each image has to be strong on its own.

TV: Take us through the creative process.

MK: Every project is different. For fashion it always starts with the brand values and the current collection. I usually get sketches or inspiration from the designers showing me what the season will look like. Once I have a clear understanding of the story they want to tell, I start pulling inspiration from different sources – from classic paintings to trending editorials. I try to look at what’s being done at the moment to get an idea of what’s coming next. Once a direction is set I start to build out a story with what we want to convey. I build out different mood boards for photography, set-design, model poses, hair and makeup. Once that is done I make suggestions on the talent to use for all these different aspects. On the shoot I make sure everyone is working towards that same goal. Though something unique should be created on set with everyone brining their expertise, I also need to make sure we stay true to our vision. After the shoot I sit down with the photographer to select what will potentially become the end result of the shoot. I then oversee all the post production including layout, retouching and digital assets.

TV: Like with any role in this business, there are many art directors. What differentiates you from everyone else?

MK: That’s for others to say, I usually just try to produce something unexpected but still on target for the client.

TV: How do you keep yourself developed, educated, and up to date? Do you follow trends, or actually counter trends? In fact, are there things like art direction trends?

MK: I usually stay up to date by always looking at new advertising coming out but also more importantly editorial content that’s constantly being released. Commercial clients usually gravitate towards working within trends that are currently set, with differs from the more adventurus clients seeking to set the new ones in place. Following trends can be tricky since by the time your project launches it might already feel old.

TV: Sometimes people will say “I don’t need an art director, how hard can it be to put my logo or name on my image?”, do you consider this as a commonly made misconception? How do you handle this?

MK: Haha, well you can usually tell when brands take on that mentality. It’s not about placing a logo or cropping images, though that’s crucial to how ads read. The role of the art director is to create images that tell the story of a brand through time. Think of Christy, Kate and Laura for Calvin Klein, though decades apart that strong timeless DNA is in everyone of those campaigns. They could have been taken 20 years ago, yesterday or come out next year, yet always current and iconic to the Calvin Klein brand.

TV: Like many creatives, you surely must have a wall full of inspiring stuff, such as images and crazy or weird things?

MK: I’m a bit OCD organized with my inspiration. Would not survive without my computer where I have tens of thousands of inspiration images sorted by brand or editorial direction. And then for physical inspiration I have a desk where my favorite books or magazines at the moment lie waiting to be flipped through as soon as I feel stuck in the creative process. Today I got a small book in the mail from the photographer Thomas Lohr with close-ups of bird feathers and wings, so currently that’s at the top of my inspiration pile.

TV: Your favorite way to spent free time?

MK: Going out to dinner or catching a movie with my friends. Now that I am in LA I am usually at the beach with my old dog Leos. Growing up in cold Sweden it really feels like a blessing to walk along the beach any time of the year.

TV: Thanks Mikael!

Interview minimally edited to keep authenticity.

Images are copyright to their respective owners.