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Designers and developers—even within the most collaborative studio environments, there’s often an invisible divide between the two. One’s got the creative vision, the other has the technical know-how to execute those ideas, but when either party doesn’t understand the other’s perspective, workflows slow down, deadlines pile up and nobody wins. This isn’t the case for Los Angeles–based creative digital production studio Active Theory, whose cofounders have managed to bridge that creative gap with their combined knowledge of interactive design and software development.

From left to right: Cofounders Andy Thelander,
Michael Anthony and Nick Mountford.

 

Known for its ability to marry imagination and whimsy with technical precision and speed, Active Theory has been making a name for itself internationally and at home on Silicon Beach. Its work ranges from interactive games for the Google I/O conference to web-based narrative experiences like Pottermore’s 3-D tour of Hogwarts. Whether it’s working with corporate clients or designing experimental, artful virtual reality (VR) stories, Active Theory is constantly working to stay ahead of the technological curve while producing content that is both engaging and relatable to end users on a deeply human level.

Established in the summer of 2012, Active Theory’s origin story begins a world away from California, with two thirds of its founders hailing from Australia. Interactive director Michael Anthony and creative director Andy Thelander were fans of each other’s work online before they ever worked together IRL, and they say that the timing was just right for them to move on from their respective agency jobs and form a studio together.

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“I think my long-term plan was to move to Sydney and sort of go from there,” Thelander says, “but Michael, who’s from the US and was already living in California, found me online, and we started talking about these wild animated websites he was building just using HTML and JavaScript, which I’d never seen before. I was working at agencies and not really liking having to choose between being a designer or being a developer; I wanted to do both. That doesn’t really exist in the agency world; you have to choose one or the other. So when Michael suggested that we start working together, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” Thelander explains that everything happened pretty quickly. He sold his belongings, got married and moved to the United States, all in a period of about a month. Nick Mountford, the managing director and third founding member, joined Active Theory more recently but comes from Australia as well. “I met Michael and Andy after I’d already moved to the US, and I was just immediately impressed by the quality and the speed of their work,” Mountford says.

The newly formed team sought to fill a gap in the industry when Flash-based interactive content was prominent online but no longer functional across the market’s rapidly expanding range of mobile platforms and Apple devices. “It was a very transitional time when we opened our doors,” Anthony says. “We said to each other, ‘Let’s do the things people are doing with Flash, but without Flash. Let’s make it work in the places where our would-be competitors wouldn’t be able to go.’” Since larger interactive studios were struggling to adapt to the new tech landscape, this enabled the young team, with its combined skill set of both design and development, to start producing work that generated a lot of interest within the industry.

One of Active Theory’s first big breaks came when Google Creative Lab tasked the agency with creating a multiplayer experience built for mobile browsers where users could race cars seamlessly across screens on up to five devices. “Getting the timing right was essential,” Mountford says. “We worked for three days straight building the prototype. It was a ton of work, but we knew we could do it. And it was a huge success.” The Racer game was later demoed and used as an interactive installation at Google’s I/O conference in 2013. “Our speed for designing and developing has always been our secret weapon, but what we learned from that project is that you can win work with prototypes. Especially when you’re a young studio just starting out,” Thelander says.

We’re always trying with every project to find that little thing that hasn’t really been seen before.”

Active Theory’s success with Racer has fostered an ongoing relationship with Google, and the agency has created interactive openings to welcome the audience at subsequent I/O conferences. But these aren’t just passive graphics for viewing; they’re gamified experiences that encourage attendees to engage with the technology and with each other through play. In 2016, Active Theory created an interactive game where conference goers could create paper airplanes using their phone’s web browser and launch the animation onto the main conference screen and out into the internet, where other players from around the world could receive the virtual planes, stamped with their location of origin. Launched publicly on Peace Day 2016, Paper Planes is still available on the web at paperplanes.world. “With users participating from more than 180 countries, the reception has been humbling. Extending an age-old pastime like paper plane throwing to connect people from all over the world through a simple gesture was an amazing feeling,” the team says.

Though its work has evolved over time, Active Theory’s core philosophy has always been about making complex technology seem simple. “We’re always trying with every project to find that little thing that hasn’t really been seen before,” Anthony says. “We’re passionate about solving the technical challenges of fast loading speeds and easy user interfaces in order to create these magical experiences for clients or fans, like flying around Hogwarts castle on your phone.” Active Theory’s office culture also feels collaborative and anything but corporate. Situated just blocks from the Venice Beach Boardwalk, now a thriving tech hub for Southern California, the two-story loft-style studio follows the laid-back vibe of its surroundings. “We all dedicate so much time here we wanted it to be comfortable and cozy,” Thelander says. “We have rooftop barbecues and love just looking out at the beach life all around us.”

Active Theory divides its portfolio into client work and lab work, which allows it to dedicate time to experimental projects that keep it on the cutting edge of technology. Strategist Eddie Benson (also an Aussie) says, “Having the lab section has been a great way to help educate clients by really breaking down what it is that we do. It gives them a better understanding of our process and what we’re capable of providing for them.”

One of Active Theory’s favorite lab experiments is World Brush, an augmented reality (AR) app that enables users to draw in space; find drawings that others have made, whether locally or somewhere else in the world; and explore a globally accessible map that shows where the greatest concentrations of drawings are located. Thelander says, “We liked the idea of creating digital graffiti out in the real world, with the ability to save the physical location for other people to discover what you’d drawn. It’s like this hidden world of digital content.” And the app isn’t just for fun; the Active Theory team says it’s become an unexpected teaching tool for educators who want to get kids interested in AR and coding.

We wanted to empower designers by giving them the tools to do more with less code, making it more about collaborating with developers and less about instruction.”

When the team isn’t working with clients or creating experiments for the lab, they’ve been working on an in-house toolset to revolutionize the workflow for designers working in 3-D. Anthony explains, “We’ve been evolving from creating 2-D to 3-D experiences, and for a long time, we were just creating new objects or effects by coding everything from scratch every time. So, last year, we decided to build a toolset interface to allow our entire team to work across building these 3-D experiences very quickly.” Essentially, it’s like Unity meets Photoshop, where a designer can create a 3-D model as a layer and then easily export it, rather than coding anything. The team’s philosophy is that the more you can do in less time, the better the project will be because this allows for more time to improve and iterate upon the details.

Anthony says, “I think in our industry, almost every studio that I can think of, the designers design, and then they hand it off to the coders and hope for the best. And the developers have to do the best they can with the notes and direction they’ve been provided. We wanted to empower designers by giving them the tools to do more with less code, making it more about collaborating with developers and less about instruction.”

Currently, Active Theory is in the process of opening a second office, in Amsterdam, to create a more fluid communication flow with clients in Europe. As for future projects, the team is looking forward to creating more engaging experiences, as well as testing the limits of what’s possible with other emerging tech platforms. “When we first started, no one was really doing true software development in the advertising industry,” Thelander says. “We’re really proud of the niche we’ve created and are constantly immersing ourselves in the latest tech. AR and VR are very interesting to us. New technologies where you’re able to create these almost tangible yet virtual worlds, like Magic Leap, is what gets us excited. It’s a totally new outlet for us to test creatively and apply to our future projects and collaborations.” ca

Margaret Andersen is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist specializing in design, technology and digital culture. Her writing has appeared in WIRED, Bitch, Gusher and AIGA Eye on Design.

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