Kristin Eva Olafsdottir


In recent years, the Berlin School Executive MBA has become home to more and more diverse designers, working on everything from products, brands and buildings, to exhibitions, city-planning and even the way we interact with societal issues. As trends and mediums meld and morph, design and user experience remains crucial across all industries. One module into her Executive MBA, we spoke to Kristín Eva Ólafsdóttir, Art Director and Partner at Gagarín, about the industry in Iceland, about designing for ‘attention’ in the era of bite-sized content and how to unlock strong client collaboration.  



Tell us about your career so far. What prompted your passion for design…

I have always had a passion for design, but because I am a terrible illustrator, I thought I would never be accepted into a design school – which was a great misunderstanding. After high school, I started studying business at university, but soon, I realized that I needed more creativity in my life. To figure out what to do next, I started working in a computer store. My role was answering the phone, welcoming the customers, and once in a while, doing the layout for price-tags and offerings on Microsoft Word. Soon the CEO spotted some talents in my MS Word-design and asked if I could make a website for the company – the first one. The year was 1999, and somehow, with the help of colleagues and the internet, I managed to do that. After that, the road was pretty clear and I had found my path.

The year after, I started working for Gagarin interactive studio ( and became a partner after the boom in 2001. Later, I graduated as a graphic designer from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts. As a part of my studies, I completed one semester as an exchange student at the Design Academy Eindhoven, which was a great experience.

In 20 years of my career, I have gained extensive experience working in a multitude of designs fields; exhibition, media, interfaces and marketing. In every project, my primary objective is to create intuitive solutions, focusing first and foremost on the story being told and the experience it creates in an accessible and understandable way. Working on exhibitions and interactive installations is probably one of the most diverse jobs I can imagine. The reindeer museum, oil museum, glacier exhibition, renewable energy exhibition, lava centre, and moss exhibition are among the projects we have been working on, and each and every project requires deep diving into the subject. Besides that, you need to be constantly updated about trends, well-informed about technological innovations, and fully researched on the latest user-centred designs.

I am continually looking for new challenges and opportunities. Since last year I have become Chairman at Icelandic Graphic Design Association (FÍT), the first woman ever in Iceland and board member at the Art Directors Club of Europe. Now I am ready to leave the island, go back to school, prepared to face new challenges, interact with different people, and step out of my comfort zone. 


How do you describe the design industry in Iceland?

The design industry in Iceland is very young. The Iceland Academy of the Arts has since 1998 been providing higher education in fine arts, theatre, dance, music, design, architecture and art. In 2008, the Iceland Design Centre was established and in recent years, the industry has been rapidly blossoming. The Iceland Design Centre has been a key player in raising general awareness and understanding of design and promoted the field locally as well as abroad.

Iceland Design Centre hosts DesignMarch, Iceland’s annual design festival in March every year, where the most northerly capital in the world is transformed into one big venue for design. The continually expanding festival opens with DesignTalks, a day of lectures by internationally acclaimed designers and leading local design thinkers.

The lack of tradition has probably given us an unrestricted advantage, freedom, and eradicated the inferiority due to our size of the market, which counts 348,450 inhabitants. But the size has its disadvantages. When working in such a small market, it is necessary to look for opportunities abroad. Among the challenges that Icelandic designers are facing is the currency (Icelandic krona), which has a lifelong story of being very volatile. This outside factor is exceptionally challenging when taking part in international design competitions with price offers in different currencies which puts all the risk on the designer. I sincerely hope we see changes regarding that matter soon.


What kinds of challenges are your clients facing at Gagarín?

Our clients, who are first and foremost museums and institutions, are dealing with a wide range of challenges because they play a vital role in society in contributing to a better understanding of where we come from and where we are heading. Their main problems are usually to get people’s attention, especially young people in competition with the incredibly strong, diverse, and technical media environment and social media. It is a massive challenge for our customers to get through such intense competition for people’s attention.

When a visitor’s attention is reached, they need to create interest and curiosity about a subject so that they want to gain further knowledge after their visit. If we succeed in that, we know we have done an excellent job.


As an Art Director, what is the key to opening up your client’s perspective to new creative solutions? How do unlock this process?

Opening up our client’s perspective, at the beginning of a new project, can vary depending on the needs and how open the client is to participate in the process. It is always good if the client is involved in the process from an early stage and willing to join in our brainstorming sessions. Close collaboration creates trust, and trust is the keyword.

With our long-term experience and a track record of quality, originality, and timeless design, we have gained trust from our clients to develop ideas serving them the best. We play with different ideas and on different scales to give our clients an option to choose. We focus on originality, from simple installations to more complex and never-been-seen solutions. We try to make our clients feel special because they certainly are.


What is the role of story-telling in developing creative installations?

Every new project requires that you explore the subject in detail because without insight, you cannot portray the topic entirely. The story our client wishes to tell is of paramount importance. Therefore, the goal must be to fully understand it, decide what must be told (and not told), and how to best serve a compelling narrative. With this in mind, you have to carefully consider how to immerse and engage the visitor in an inspiring experience - with a great story!


What advice do you have for young designers?

With creative thinking, it is possible to affect our society and take part in changing the world. It takes courage to stand up and reject a project on ethical grounds, and it shows incredible strength, in my opinion. We do not live in a perfect world and we will not always hear every aspect of all matters, but those of us working in the world of communication design should respect a certain responsibility, and we should, in every task, follow our ethics and intuition in every project.


Tell us one thing that has surprised you in your first module at the Berlin School…

Thanks to the Berlin School staff, amazing world-class professors, and my talented classmates, I had the most inspiring two weeks I have ever experienced. The structure of the program is excellent; we go entirely out of our daily situation, so we have full focus on the study. I discovered many new things that I look forward to explore and apply to my work. And the best thing is that I still have four modules left to do.

I learned a lot from my sixteen multi-cultural classmates and it surprised me that wherever we are located on this planet, we are pretty much dealing with similar challenges. I also learned that one person’s voice matters, thanks to a wonderful environmentalist in our class —we all decreased plastic consumption and completely stopped using straws.



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