If you tab through Bluecadet’s portfolio, certain themes strike you. There’s the Revolutionary War, Doctors Without Borders and a site about murals. The Battle of New Orleans, a charity for women and a site filled with photography. History, social justice, art. Again and again.
It’s no accident. Bluecadet may seem like a typical small digital shop. Its 2,000-square-foot office has ten employees, three dogs and yards of exposed brick and shiny aluminum ductwork. It lies in Philadelphia’s hip Northern Liberties neighborhood, which is described in Wikipedia as “a major enclave of young professionals, students, artists and design professionals.” You could say as much about half the firms in DUMBO, South of Market, Culver City—or Northern Liberties for that matter.
Their thematic focus, however, may mark the arrival of a new trend—the subject matter expert turned digital designer. Bluecadet partners Troy LaChance and Josh Goldblum were once, respectively, an aspiring historian and an artist and writer. Studio director Rebecca Sherman worked several years for social justice organizations. All are on their second careers.
“Everyone here has a liberal arts background,” says LaChance. “This influences the type of work we look for; we definitely gravitate toward projects where our backgrounds can help.”
Sherman typifies the team. After finishing a degree in sociology, she entered the nonprofit space, eventually finding a niche as a documentary photographer. She eventually took a year-long fellowship with an NGO working to relieve poverty in Mumbai, India. The experience offered a stark lesson in the grinding pace of change, and left her looking for projects that would have a more immediate impact. Back in Philadelphia, she ran into Goldblum. He convinced her to try her hand at learning Drupal, an open source, content management system. Something clicked.
LaChance, effectively the firm’s creative director, had an academic career that ended with a master’s degree in history at George Mason. After that, he found a job at the National Portrait Gallery, where his employers assigned him the task of getting the museum’s Civil War collection into HTML. He soon found himself in the world of design and typography, and he felt at home.
Founding principal Goldblum has a literary and illustration background and once aspired to be a political cartoonist. After school, he took a job at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where he ended up developing Web sites. He turned out to be rather good at it.
Goldblum later left the Smithsonian to become a freelance Web designer. Several years later, he moved back to his hometown of Philadelphia. Its lower cost of living and many art schools made it the perfect place for launching an agency focused on content creation for educational projects. That agency was Bluecadet.
The project that put the firm on the map was the simple yet gorgeous “Live Hope Love.” It was grounded in a straightforward idea; the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting had sent poet Kwame Dawes to Jamaica to travel, visit HIV patients and write about them. Bluecadet was tasked with making a site about the poems.
Many firms would have approached the project as content aggregators, finding stock imagery that would go with the written work. Instead, Goldblum convinced the client to let him bring photographer Joshua Cogan to Jamaica. They traveled together and photographed the subjects of the poems and the sources of Dawes’s inspiration. The resulting site offers a haunting harmony of visual and auditory content. Here’s a poem about a person suffering. Here’s a picture of that person. Here’s a poem about a man dreaming of becoming a famous singer before his disease destroys him. Here’s a clip of that man singing.
“Live Hope Love is just big, beautiful imagery and poetry,” says Goldblum. “We could have done some Papervision3D thing, but it's not what the content called for or what the audience would have engaged with.”
Creating content in this way is not cheap, and it compounds a disadvantage the firm has. Nonprofit budgets are nowhere near as high as those of a New York or West Coast digital agency, and yet they all compete for the same visitors.
To counter the competition, Bluecadet favors a guerrilla approach. It relies on its cheaper location (though Philadelphia is probably the most underrated digital city in the country). It embraces open source platforms, like Drupal. Its members define themselves as design “snobs,” which is a code word for spending hours looking for the right inspiration for any project. They try to develop ongoing relationships with clients to keep their work-rate high and their pitching costs low. And they look for ways to get things done inexpensively but right.
“I’ve always been inspired by the DC punk scene, the Fugazis and the whole DIY aesthetic,” says Goldblum. “We look at what the best of the best are doing, and we don’t look at their budget, because we always figure out a way to do it.”
It seems to be working. Bluecadet is busy serving a client list that ranges from local organizations like the National Museum of American Jewish History to national ones like the Smithsonian. Its sites typically involve a deep dive into the content of a project, some independent production work, superb typography and understated interfaces.
A good example is the Mural Explorer, a site that comes out of a longstanding relationship with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. That organization has decorated the city with thousands of massive, iconic murals, which are far from hasty graffiti. Often conceived by well-known artists, they show high levels of artistic skill and visual complexity.
“If you’re driving around Philly, you can’t help noticing them,” says LaChance. “The scale and detail in these things were screaming to be curated.”
Sherman had earlier worked with the organization and knew that behind the murals lay a treasure trove of information. For each one, Mural Arts had compiled video, interviews, time-lapse photography and much more. Huge hard drives of it, which the organization gladly dumped in Bluecadet’s lap.
Sifting through it was a big task for such a small firm, but the end result is elegant and simple. Load a mural and start clicking hotspots. The content does the rest. One of the best pieces highlights the Heart of Baltimore Avenue mural, by artist David Guinn. The artwork looks like a collage of the neighborhood, and when you select a hotspot, you learn that the people in it are all real and they all live there. In a memorable section, Lamont Steptoe, a National Book Award winner, looks over the shoulder of Benny the barber, who has been gabbing to customers on the street since the 1950s. (And in case you want to listen to him gab, you can. The site has an interview.) Overall, the stories are voyeuristic and fascinating in their detail; the design, restrained. It’s a site you simply get lost in.
“There are certain sites where the whole idea is, you’ll go once and when you’re done, you’ll buy a VW or not,” says Goldblum. “We wanted people to come back into it, without all the stuff that would detract from repeat visitors.”
From project to project, you see a similar approach: A site for Vital Voices, a women’s organization, hides a wealth of videos and other content behind a simple, photographic interface. An installation for the Chalmette Visitor’s Center in New Orleans offers 3-D interaction with War of 1812 weaponry. Assignment Afghanistan, a site for award-winning journalist Elliot D. Woods, allows him to upload photography and stories from the front lines. In other words, find the best content, create it if you have to, and then get out of the way.
Currently Bluecadet is riding a wave of success. Every Web project the firm produced in 2010 was recognized by the Webby Awards, as either an honoree or with a nomination. The phone rings a lot, and they’re always working. Even so, they tend to stick to their guns, seeking out projects where their backgrounds can add value.
“We like to stress the attention to detail we bring to every project,” says LaChance. “We craft everything we do. Every project we do is custom, and we try not to reuse ideas. We’re interested in giving a unique perspective to each project and taking a unique approach.”
Sorry, Bluecadet fans, that takes time. But the results are worth waiting for. ca