A Global Nomad on a Mission
The story of the visual ethnographer Jacob Langvad Nilsson, a man who travels the world for a living, photographing and consulting for a multitude of global brands.
We caught up with Mr Langvad – for a chat about photography, ethnography, product development, innovation and tales of the booming land of Brazil – a place he’s worked and lived in for the last three years.
JACOB, WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING?
I help international brands develop products and services for consumers in emerging markets like Brazil, India, and China, based on ethnographic studies.
My main focus in on discovering new trends, frugal innovations, potential gaps in a market, and identifying patterns and insights into the lives of real people. When I work on a research project I always try to get as deep into the lives of the people I observe as possible. Knowing what motivates them and what they aspire to makes the difference between designing a good product or service, and a great one.
HOW DID YOU END UP IN BRAZIL?
After graduating from the Danish School of Journalism with a BA in Photojournalism, I received a one-year scholarship to FABRICA, Benetton’s Communication Research Centre in Italy, where I refined my documentary photography skills as an artist in residence.
At FABRICA I started working for COLORS Magazine and the art director was a Brazilian guy named Helder. We became really good friends and a couple of years later he invited me to Brazil to help start a new design studio in São Paulo.
You co-founded and worked at the Sao Paulo agency BOX1824 for more than three years. What has been the highlight of this experience?
One of the blessings of my work in Brazil has been being able to get really close to and sometimes even live with Brazilian people with various socio-economic backgrounds. We do field research that takes us from one extremity to another – from visiting a favela (slum) in the morning to an exclusive, gated community for the rich in the afternoon – and being able to experience such diversity first hand has been phenomenal. This is essential when trying to uncover dreams, understand the choices and desires of another culture and gain a more holistic understanding of the human condition. The Brazilian culture is certainly very different from my own Danish background – the optimism, how people struggle to succeed in their dreams and the diversity has been very enlightening.
When you do research for a brand like Nike, what do they hope to achieve?
We founded the company upon the appreciation of a world undergoing a fundamental shift in economic power away from the established economies to the dynamic, uncharted and rapidly growing emerging markets. We help brands like Nike not only enter untapped markets, but also offer invaluable insights to develop products and services that are relevant to consumers. What is appealingto a young football player in Brazil may not be the same as his peer in the United States and it takes rigorous research to determine that. We did a major research project for Nike in Brazil, Mexico and Portugal focusing on young boys (18-24) who lived and breathed for football to determine how Nike should present themselves in these markets and what products to produce.
How does documenting research and statistics through photographs differ from using words and figures?
Visual ethnography creates tangible stories and allows the client to delve into the lives of the customer and design socially conscious products, something I find more important than ever before. We’ve had executives from an American multinational company visit young men from low-income families in a favela in Rio de Janeiro to see with their own eyes how they shave in the morning. I some how believe that we help create a better and more real understanding of the relationship between consumers and brands by bringing them closer together.
What inspires you to do what you do?
I have always aspired to travel, discover and tell stories about people. I recently went on a vacation with three friends to Belgrade, Serbia (the first time I have travelled as a tourist in a long while) and I caught myself on several occasions almost interviewing the people we met! It’s interesting to observe how my work is shaping me as a person too…
A lot of my work takes place in traditionally poor countries with economic growth. I’m definitely inspired by the optimism I’ve met, the high work ethics and the extreme wish to change and shape new societies. It’s easy to take things like free education and universal healthcare as we have in Denmark for granted.
Why do you think travelling became such an important part of your life? Did you always dream of combining your work and travelling?
Combining work with travelling is a perfect way of experiencing a foreign country. Rather than treading the beaten path of tourist sightseeing and beaches I get to see more of a country. I talk to people and learn about their country from their perspective. For me it’s a richer experience. Not that I have anything against a beach resort. It can be fit for a purpose, but you don’t get to see much of a country from the vantage point of a private beach.
Are you a man on a mission?
I guess I am, maybe not James Bond style, but I want to push the boundaries of human-centred design research to tell stories about globalization, cultural shifts, and the aspirations and desires of people living in a changing world.
Besides being a visual ethnographer you also consider yourself an entrepreneur…What do you consider to be your greatest achievement so far?
Through my research, I often get ideas for products or services I would like to build myself. One new project is a digital wallet for people without access to banking services. I’m also dreaming of creating a start-up incubator that links entrepreneurs in emerging markets. I’ve started around 10 companies and products to date. Some failed, some succeeded. In start-up circles it doesn’t hurt to fail, as long as you do it fast, and you learn something from it.
In the coming months, I’ll be travelling around the world for client projects. Right now I’m in India, then off to Ethiopia, Chongqing, and end in the Philippines by December.