Hyper about hyper

A digital school based in an old Swedish prison, Hyper Island has proved a liberating experience for alumni and employers alike, Kunal Dutta reports.

Hyper Island...digital school in old Swedish prison
Hyper Island...digital school in old Swedish prison

For all the praise heaped upon it by the digital industry, Hyper Island is an educational institution riddled with contradictions. The Swedish digital school aims to recreate the environment of an agency, yet its main site is inside a former military prison on a small island in the blustery Baltic Sea in South-East Sweden. Every year it produces some of the most sought-after digital talent, yet one tutor proudly asserts "we don't teach any coding at all". And its obsession with self-learning and personal development suggests it should be creating free-thinking digital idealists, but its students tend to arrive more equipped for the working world than many of their peers.

No wonder the 13-year-old interactive school has captured the imagination of agencies on either side of the digital divide. "There is something Hyper Island puts in its water," Derek Robson, the managing partner of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, says. "God knows what it is, but its graduates tend to have a fantastic attitude and are able to hit the ground running, which is particularly rare among newcomers to the business."

Most Hyper Island graduates leave in a powerful position. In contrast to the image of out-of-work creatives touting their portfolio round agencies, 90 per cent will have jobs confirmed before they even graduate (helped no doubt by the placements they complete during their time there), the school claims. And when they do, all have access to a tight international alumni network, with some students even returning later in life as tutors. Today there are more than 600 Hyper Island alumni dotted in agencies and companies all over the world.

The school is expanding. It recently opened a second site in Stockholm, and has forged partnerships with the Ipko Institute in Kosovo to offer a two-year management programme. Talks are under way in a number of countries, with London being eyed as a possible future site. In June, the school announced a partnership with the global digital collective Creative Social to launch a series of boot camps for UK-based digital juniors in 2009 and 2010.

Hyper Island is yet another Swedish success story, taking its place alongside agencies such as FarFar, Daddy and The North Kingdom as leaders of digital interactivity. But what is the digital school offering that others aren't? And how, where interactive creativity is concerned, does Sweden always seem to come up trumps?

Clues can be found by going back to the roots of Hyper Island. The school's founding ideas were created in the early 90s by Jonathan Briggs, the e-commerce professor at Kingston University, London, and the Swedish multimedia producers David Erixon and Lars Lundh. The three worked together on a CD-Rom project in 1993 and were in unanimous agreement on the need for a different type of digital education, more closely related to the way the media industry was evolving.

Rather than approach digital purely from a technical standpoint, all three had wider interests in the learning process. Technicalities weren't necessarily the problem; it was how these could be translated to the working environment. Their observations coincided with an education push by the Swedish government to offer grants for vocational projects, and the first school opened with public backing in 1995.

But it wasn't just government that had an interest in Hyper Island. The Swedish private sector was also aware that technology was moving quickly and that a skills shortage could be imminent. "There were a handful of companies that really understood the potential of the medium, what it could lead to and what kind of people you'd need in the future," Roger Sjogren, the director of the Stockholm site, explains. "There was a feeling that technology was on course to develop and there would be faster connections and more powerful computers."

Putting the digital demands of companies at its core, Hyper Island was different from the cottage-industry image of geeky coders building websites in their bedroom. Instead, the school fostered close links with companies from the outset. Many of whom - as exclusive partners - still invest in the school, consult on the curriculum and even set briefs to be completed by the students during their course. They include Ikea and the Swedish publisher Natur & Kultur.

The closeness to industry doesn't stop there. The school and its courses are designed to mirror working life as closely as possible. The school is open 24 hours a day, the interior is designed like an agency (there are no classrooms) and work starts at 9am each day, with a minimum 40-hour working week. "The school is literally so far removed from everything, that students are compelled to live and breathe their work," Simon Waterfall, the D&AD president and creative director of Poke, says. "But this isolation ultimately stands its students in fantastic stead and breathes an attitude of passion and difference that is quickly noticed within agencies."

The teaching structure is carefully considered. Tools and resources are readily available to help students master the software, but the school avoids a didactic approach. "Many schools will train in a theoretical way with a focus on content, but not in how to do things in a real-life situation," Sjogren says. "One of Hyper Island's founding principles was to support students as human beings but not to give them the answers. We are not teachers; we are facilitating the learning experience."

At the risk of sounding like the wishy-washy manifesto of a Rudolf Steiner school, Sjogren is quick to cite examples of how this might manifest itself in the course. "Midway through the project, the client might cut the budget, or a team member might quit. These are situations that are happening in real life and we try to recreate these inside Hyper Island so that students can learn to assess those decisions and adapt accordingly."

But there is a larger point to this than the simply practical. Sjogren believes that working with students on the interpersonal aspects of their character and self-insight can help them fulfil their potential, unlock new ideas and ultimately become more creative.

Gavin Gordon-Rogers, the executive creative director of Agency Republic, believes this is partly what makes Hyper Island students so well equipped for the digital age. "Traditionally, you had a copywriter and art director generating ideas that were then outsourced. But that dynamic is changing and agencies are having to make the work up in-house. After talent, we're constantly asking 'what are they like to work with?' and 'will they work as a team?' Nowadays it's a lot harder to be a stroppy wanker."

Hyper Island offers three main courses: Business Management; Digital Media (90 weeks each); and Interactive Art Director (45 weeks). A number of specialist courses in Rich Media and Motion Graphics and Creative Flash are set for later this year.

All this comes at a price: up to £16,230 for a 90-week course. Also, the sterling reputation of Hyper Island is not entirely generated by its students. Behind the scenes, there is plenty of awareness of the importance of image - and the intimate connections between alumni, partners and industry can make it feel like a cult. The school fosters very close relationships with the creative directors of some of the top agencies worldwide; students are carefully selected and their placement companies closely inspected.

In the words of one managing partner: "Students aren't just selected from anywhere. Hyper Island is almost the interactive equivalent of Oxbridge and is extremely judicious about the type of company it keeps. The faculty is very protective of the brand. It's not often you find that a school will fly representatives out to where their students are interning."

Meanwhile, for all the talk of "reflective learning", Hyper Island is still extremely specialised in digital, something that separates it from other advertising schools. Robson says even the top US schools, such as Miami Ad School and Virginia Commonwealth University, which have bespoke interactive programmes, do not display such a religious commitment to the digital medium.

Which begs the question: is Hyper Island missing a trick by being too digitally specialised? Tony Cullingham, the head of creative at West Herts College, says: "Britain tends to look at the big idea from an entirely media- neutral point of view, and leaves the technicalities of it until that has been established. Plus in the UK, you have many students going in with great ideas, whereas the technical craft is delivered by the agency. Hyper Island is quite the opposite, but all schools should be mindful about becoming too specialist - we're already seeing television making a comeback."

Fundamentally, it boils down to whether the future of advertising is going to be determined by the strength of interactivity or purely ideas. It is a question that Hyper Island will no doubt be debating with its partners as it looks towards new markets. For now though, if the school were to open a London branch as a digital alternative to advertising colleges, it's unlikely that the reception would be frosty.


Henrik Rosander - Interactive art director intern at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners:

I think that Sweden's ability to make good creatives mainly depends on two things: education and scale. Sweden has a history of brilliant art and design schools and they're still around: Beckmans School of Design, Berghs, Konstfack, Forsbergs, Hyper Island.

Also, in recent years, the government has worked hard to make Sweden a leading design nation and exporter of design. I think these facts push Swedish students and give them the confidence to stand out in the business. Since Sweden is a small country with only about nine million people, the budgets for projects are normally small.

Working for a big client in the US enables you to have several creative teams on the same brief. This gives you the possibility to choose from a big variety of ideas to present to the client. But working on a tight budget doesn't necessarily make the end product less interesting, it might in fact be the other way around. When you have a budget for only one team, that team alone has to deliver good ideas in order to make the client happy. This fact, I think, really pushes you to come up with something smart and creative.

Crille Lampa - Interactive art director intern at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners

Being at Hyper Island was one of the greatest experiences of my life. To me, it stands out, for several reasons.

First of all, there are no teachers and there are no schoolbooks. It's all assignments from companies and the course is built from these so-called modules, with one or more companies responsible for each module.

For example, one of the modules, eight weeks in length, I think, was held by North Kingdom. We were given a brief, then divided into groups and we started working. All during this time we had smaller individual assignments given to us by North Kingdom and companies like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. If I needed to learn how to build a Flash player, instead of just listening to a teacher, I watched loads of tutorials, read blogs filled with tips and tricks, and asked friends how to build a freakin' Flash player. And since we were working so closely with the industry, we ended up knowing a lot more about what to expect when we got out there.

Second, "Understanding Group and Leadership". This course in group dynamics was created by the Swedish military, based on studies from the US Marines. You learn how people perceive you and why. You learn how to give and take feedback, and all of the stages of group dynamics. This was the most helpful and important thing for me; it helps me every day and I truly think I've become a better person after my UGL. Everyone at Hyper is required to take this one-week course. After every project, we sit down in our group and talk about how we worked as a group, what we were good and bad at, what we could have done better and give individual feedback to everyone.

Third and lastly, the culture. Hyper Island is no ordinary school, it's more a place to be: you learn, you meet friends, you meet the industry. During my time at Hyper Island, I was more often in the school building than at home. I hung out in our studio during the weekends, playing SimCity, watching movies and trying some new stuff in After Effects. After eight weeks, I suddenly realised I knew After Effects without taking a single lesson in the programme. I was a part of Hyper Island, not just attending it.