Designer of the month Joosep Volk:  "It is important to learn something new from each new project."

On September 16, the honourable ADC*E Designer of the Year Award went to Joosep Volk. Over the years, he has stood out thanks to his impeccable work ethic, and dominated animation categories – this year was no different. With Tolm, he has won many awards both in Estonia and abroad, he worries about Estonian animation, and where possible, fights until his last breath.   

→ Let us start from the beginning – how was the young Joosep Volk bitten by the design bug?

We have to go back in time – more than seems necessary at first. I think that without my father, I would not be here giving this interview at all. Thanks to him, I had my first contact with computers in the beginning of the 90s. I played games, but also tried my hand at drawing on the computer. I think my dad still has my first pieces somewhere.

Playing games stimulated my interest in computers and their possibilities, and at the end of the 90s I first came across a 3D program. Dad had a bootleg CD he had bought from a St. Petersburg market. It had 3D Studio Max on it, and this was the wonderland mirror that I went through, never to get out again. At that point I was not thinking about a career in design, of course. I was just a teenager who saw an interesting opportunity and a good way to spend his time. Everything else came later.  

→ Where did you study design and how did you end up in the world of animation?

When I was a senior in high school, I did not know what to do next or what I should study, unlike many others – they wanted to go to the academy of arts or other schools. I was pretty apathetic in that regard, I did not prepare and relied – like many other times in my life – on my ability to adapt. I hoped fate would lead me in the right direction, and it did.

In January or February of 2000 I came across a Tartu Art School booklet, and as I was leafing through it, I saw the computer graphics specialty – that sounded interesting. “Cool,” I thought. “Now all I need to do is get in.” Summer came, I passed the tests and got in. That is where I studied.

Coming back to the question – for me, everything worked out in reverse. I did my first animation experiments in high school. My graduation work was something akin to an animated music video. I had great interest in moving pictures, and when I graduated from art school, I hoped my future job would have something to do with animation. In conclusion, I can say that animation is what led me to design. The fact that I could work with both in my first serious job was just a bonus.

→ What did you do before you started up Tolm? Did you work in any major agencies?

I did apply to a major agency once. In the summer of 2004 I looked in the mirror and what looked back were the dead eyes of unemployment. I saw a job ad in a newspaper, maybe Ekspress. Kontuur was looking for an AD, a designer and a copywriter. Out of youthful confidence I applied to all three positions. They interviewed me and that was the last I heard from them. Fortunately, I guess?

My old school – Tallinn Art High School – hired me as a computer graphics teacher. I taught the 10th and 12th grade twice a week. At the same time, I was also looking for a “real” job. My old class and band mate Tõnis told me that Markko Karu had his own studio that worked with moving images. So I applied for a job at the newly-established Velvet. I sent them an animated music video that I had made together with a course mate. Maybe that is what compelled them to reply? Anyway, my job interview on the terrace of Popular went well, and I met up with Mart and Markko. Markko had actually went to the same school as I had in Kopli, but he was quite a few years older and did not remember me from school.

I spent three and a half years at Velvet. I am thankful to Markko, Janno and Mart for that time. I learned a lot, and I saw first-hand how a small, but multifunctional design agency could grow and develop. But at a certain point I reached my potential. I wanted more, I wanted greater responsibilities. I also saw that moving graphics, the ADHD-suffering younger sibling of traditional graphic design, had grown up enough to be let out to play on its own. I left Velvet, having made great friends. I have not regretted my decision yet. 


→ Music and design both have an important place in your life, and animation brings those two halves together. What makes you feel more at home, though – an animation program or a drum kit? 

That is easy – I have been married to one for the past 12 years, plus around six years of dating. The other hobby I may have found at a younger age, but I have not dedicated every day to it. There have been periods where I have not touched drums for three years. More than two years have passed since I last practiced. I played drums until I liked it – and until I had the time. At some point I even abandoned my other hobbies in favour of drums. But not any more. To do it well you have to practice. To practice you need time. To find time you need motivation, first and foremost. But it is the latter that I had (and still have) difficulties with.

But animation is my job. I cannot allow myself to leave someone hanging one day because I had no motivation. There are many days when I would rather not hear about work, where I would rather not turn on the computer. But I have to, because other people depend on me, their time and work depends on me. My co-workers and the clients of Tolm. I cannot say that I am just not interested anymore.

Generally though, people have no trouble finding a new drummer.

→ How do you balance the roles of a leader and a creative manager at Tolm? 

When we started out, Martin took on the responsibilities of a manager. At the moment, Tolm is operating with Raino as the CEO, and he is doing a brilliant job. Of course, I have to find time every day to deal with the administrative issues Tolm has, but that was to be expected. My managerial responsibilities could not be any smaller than they are at the moment.

I think that what bothers me most is that I cannot animate as often as I would like. My responsibilities as the owner and creative manager take that time away. But luckily, I do get some jobs I can do every now and then.

→ Do you have any time to spend on your own creative work, pieces that have not been commissioned? 

I have always thought of unpublished work as crucial. Since my greatest hobby is also my job, I simply have to think of it as a hobby sometimes. But it is difficult to find the time for side projects that are just meant for me. I steal this time from my sleep, my family, my free time. The minimum that I have set for myself is one unpublished project a year, be it a music video or something else. Over the past few years, I have even managed to find the time to do more.  

→ In Estonia your main competition is yourself – how do you keep your fighting form, how do you develop yourselves?

I suppose you can make that bold generalisation when you look at the nominees in the animation category of the few past years’ design awards. But no one is paying us for awards. We are paid for our work and I cannot stand the idea of doing a job badly. It is important to learn something new from every new project. I hold myself to that standard and I expect that from others as well. Either you learn to do something more quickly, more efficiently. Or you learn to do something in a more complex manner than you usually have. As long as you learn and evolve, broaden your horizons, deconstruct everything you see and that interests you. The awards are a bonus, recognition of our performance and the sacrifices made.


→ What are the biggest or most important mistakes that you have made and learned from in your life and work?

- Respect and listen to your colleagues. Give your employees tasks that demand more responsibility – especially when they ask for it. Try to understand their dreams and wishes, both with regard to work and their private lives.

- Keep your promises. Do not tell lies. No one can say you have been unethical when you have been nothing but honest.

- Admit it when you have made a mistake, try to learn from it and rectify it.

- Do not be afraid of criticism, seek it out. Learn to handle it and make it work for you.

- Do not go into business with people you do not trust. No one wants to make you rich out of the goodness of their heart.

→ Recently, you took on another role in addition to the numerous ones you already had – tell us a bit about your place in the Estonian design team.

Until now, my job has been to listen and talk a little. I have not started work on anything tangible just yet. For me, this is an exciting new challenge. I have stepped outside my comfort zone into an environment that is new to me. The questions and solutions that we are dealing with at the moment are new to me, too. It is fun to hear from Janno or Kevin, from Alari or Kaupo or Jan or Tajo. It will be my turn when there is something to move. The time will come soon.  

→ What does the title of the Designer of the Year mean to you? 

For me, it means that hard work pays off if you do it right. That means that the effort to carry out each new project better than the last is the key to success. I do not see it as a personal award, it is recognition for the entire studio. This award is for everyone at the agency who has invested their time in projects and self-development. I would not have this title without Ingel, Maido, Raino, Madis, Karri and Martin. In short – this title is theirs as well. Tolm has earned this title.






animation, Designer of the Month, Design Awards, Tolm Stuudio