How did you first become interested in digital design and learn the necessary skills? I was studying advertising in college when Flash was just starting to emerge. All of a sudden, these innovative and experimental experiences created by shops like Hi-ReS!, Kioken and Firstborn started popping up across the web. Intrigued, I started dabbling in code, taking a class in Director and learning Lingo as my first programming language. Unfortunately, Flash was not offered as a course at my school, so I did an independent study for a few credits, bought a bunch of books and started to learn it by myself. I graduated in 2002, and when my job at a pharmaceutical ad agency fell through, I moved home, bought a computer and fully dedicated my time to mastering Flash. I started doing freelance work and submitted my portfolio more than half a dozen times to Firstborn before scoring an interview.
What lessons can web designers take away from the death of Flash? Very few things are forever.
What should designers keep in mind when working on AR apps, like the one Firstborn recently created for Halloween? As a designer, you need to start by thinking outside of the phone. AR enables interaction between the physical world and digital content, so you have to fully embrace and take advantage of the environment around the user. This means taking into consideration the fact that you won’t be able to control the user’s real-world environment, so elements like tracking, lighting and shading can really make or break an experience. At the same time, you have to design for a field of view that is actually a pretty small “window” into the world of your AR content. To find the right balance, user testing is key, so getting to a prototype as quickly as possible is absolutely essential.
How do you ensure that a client’s branding is consistent across diverse platforms? Traditionally, when you think about branding, you often think about a logo or a visual identity system. But with the explosion of digital, branding is more than a visual expression now—it’s the actual product, service and experience a consumer walks away with after engaging with your company. To make sure your branding is consistent, you have to understand that consumers experience your brand as an integrated system. It’s the collective value of all the touchpoints that shapes the consumer’s understanding of your brand.
It is important to have consistent visuals and tone of voice across a brand’s different platforms, but with new brands, there’s a very high chance that a consumer will experience that brand for the first time in a digital channel. So we think about what that brand experience should be, with a digital-first mentality. When you think about Spotify and Alexa, their logos probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. It is that product experience, which is what you fall in love with, that becomes the actual brand.
Today, you’re the chief executive officer of Firstborn. How have you seen the world of digital design change since you first started there? Where do I even start? The experiences we make today are very different than the more “advertising-centric” work we created thirteen, fifteen or 20 years ago. They no longer provide solely entertainment and engagement to consumers; today, we are able to create products and experiences that deliver even more value for people. With digital, the world of design has evolved into a more strategic business solution. We’re now creating new digital business lines and revenue streams for our clients by placing emphasis on design innovation, unmet consumer needs and emerging opportunities in technology. We’re still delivering engagement, but we’re no longer creating a digital experience that simply drives the consumer somewhere else. We’re making experiences and products that are more value driven and consumer-centric.
What’s the strangest request you’ve received in your career? Many years ago, I was asked to help out on a larger holding company pitch. On the day of the final presentation, the person running the pitch pulled me aside and asked if I would remove my earrings before the presentation since the client was a bank with a very corporate culture. Unfortunately, my earrings were actually giant lobe-stretching gauges that I normally needed pliers to remove. I spent the thirty minutes before the meeting frantically ripping them out of my ears.
How does your passion for close-up magic feed the work you do as head of a design and innovation company? A magic trick is broken into two elements: the effect, which is what the audience experiences, and the method, which is how the magician achieves the effect. If you are a good magician, the method should be completely invisible.
I believe that the most impressive magicians will think about the effect first—“What is the most amazing thing I can do to surprise and delight my audience?”—and then work backwards to define the method. This puts the audience at the center of the creative process, which is what we try do for our clients on behalf of their consumers. Instead of thinking about the platform, technology or technique, we can create the most effective experiences when we put the consumer at the center of the creative process. By asking ourselves, “What is the best experience we can create for the user?” and then working backwards, we can achieve the best final result.