Code and Theory occupies the space at Broadway and Prince Street in New York that was formerly inhabited by Interview, the publication Andy Warhol founded 45 years ago. There’s a certain serendipity to the fact that the thirteen-year-old creative agency that has redesigned the legendary magazine’s online presence—twice to date—has since taken over its physical one. In early 2012, the two companies agreeably swapped their SoHo offices, with Code and Theory now presiding over several of Interview’s Warhol silkscreens, including a series of Mao portraits, and a stately library filled with volumes of art and fashion books. Code and Theory is growing at such a pace that the 200-person interaction design and branding firm, with satellite offices in San Francisco, London and Manila, is looking for even more space in the building.
While publishers and media companies struggle to keep up, let alone innovate, in the face of rapid technological change, for Code and Theory’s nimble, creative-thinking brand strategists, storytellers, designers and developers—who’ve crafted editorial sites for The Daily Beast, Vogue and the Los Angeles Times and content-driven campaigns for brands such as Dr Pepper and Maybelline—it’s nothing but green lights. In early 2013, the company launched an industrial design division to move beyond just interfaces and into the design of the devices themselves. Code and Theory learned sooner than the rest of the world that publishers are brands, and brands are the new publishers. Both are now in the business of creating and distributing content, and Code and Theory has the means to serve them both.
The masterminds behind Code and Theory’s surging success are its co-founders, Brandon Ralph, creative director, and Dan Gardner, director of user experience, and its managing partners, Steve Baer, heading brand strategy, and Mike Treff, directing product development. “We’re different because we’re set up to do brand and product under one roof, and 40 percent of our company is engineers,” says Ralph. “We’re really thinking about how to solve creative problems for our clients, and we consider our engineers to be part of that discussion. They are involved in the first meetings and all the way through, which I think makes us very unique.”
Code and Theory’s foundation formed in the least tech-y of places: at sleepaway camp in Cold Spring, New York, where Gardner and Ralph met as bunkmates. Born in the same hospital just three days apart, the childhood friends might as well have known each other since birth, and they talk with the familiarity of brothers. “Really, we started our first company when we were seven,” jokes Gardner. “We just had to wait for computers,” adds Ralph.
Though they attended different high schools around Northport, Long Island, Ralph would skip his own to attend art classes at Gardner’s, where students had access to Macs and a digital camera. They both gravitated toward art and design in those early days of the web. When they graduated, in 1997, Flash had just come out, and the interactive software’s graphics and animation capabilities showed them what was possible when art and code merged. “That’s what launched us more into programming,” says Ralph.
Ralph studied briefly at New York University, but dropped out during his sophomore year to work full time as a web designer for a boutique agency. “I felt I could learn everything tactical myself—I just needed a job to put it all into practice,” he says. Gardner, by contrast, earned a BFA at the University at Buffalo. One of his roommates was a computer science major who inspired Gardner’s thinking about making visual things interesting through the use of programming and technology. At the start of 2001, Gardner and Ralph were reunited at Draft Worldwide, working together as two of the ad agency’s first hires for its fledgling interactive department. At Draft the pair crafted interactive campaigns for top brands such as American Express, Macy’s and Maserati, and by August of that year they were eager to go out on their own.
The first job that put Code and Theory on the map was a music site it created in 2003 for Sony VIP Classical that featured one of the first Flash video players. When macromedia.com (now adobe.com) spotlighted the work on its front page, requests poured in for custom video players from cable giant Comcast and streaming video software and hosting service Brightcove, among others. “That was when we got into the real business of bigger problem solving and innovation,” says Gardner.
One such problem-solving project was charlierose.com. Google Videos and Charlie Rose partnered with Code and Theory to present the PBS talk show host’s extensive archives online. From designing the custom content management system (CMS) to figuring out how to present 4,000 hours of free programming in digestible, searchable segments, Code and Theory earned accolades for its unprecedented work with such a massive video library. And because of what they had learned about “publishing a lot of content into a stream and differentiating that from brand to brand,” says Ralph, they later worked with just about every Viacom network, including launching VICE’s VBS.tv.
Publishing clients with their own complex content needs came calling, too. In 2008, Code and Theory launched The Daily Beast, an aggregated news platform by Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. That year the firm also completed the first of two redesigns for both interviewmagazine.com and vogue.com. Working with established titles such as Variety and Ebony and newer ones such as DuJour and Nautilus, Code and Theory has had a hand in the lion’s share of editorial media space, not only for magazines, but also for tech blogs with a magazine feel, such as Vox Media’s The Verge, Engadget and Mashable. It was only a matter of time before Code and Theory would take on the ultimate publishing challenge: redesigning the website of a newspaper.
The new, responsive latimes.com launched in May 2014, the result of eight months of research and UX and visual design by Code and Theory with additional months of back- and front-end development by the Los Angeles Times’ in-house engineers. Code and Theory embedded designers in more than 40 of the paper’s newsrooms to learn how stories get produced and to find ways to improve behind-the-scenes communication and operations. “The solutions we’re giving our clients really require them to rethink how they do their work,” says Treff. “We try to provide solutions where the annuity is in the system, so you don’t have to rip it out three years later and start over.”
In addition to being fully responsive, the latimes.com design is ever expansive. It’s analogous to swimming in a very long and deep pool: you can float to the top or touch the left wall for support (navigation), but there’s no floor or right wall to be found, just continuous streams of content large and small. “We call it a transporter,” says Gardner. “Say you come to an article page and it’s about business, so then you can move into the business section or into another article, if there’s a contextual relationship there. It’s a newspaper, so stories unfold. You want to create those connections to make it easier for a reader.”
It’s no surprise that the new design de-emphasizes the importance of the front-page experience—increasingly an article forms the reader’s first impression. The Los Angeles Times did raise eyebrows, however, by introducing bulleted “sharelines,” tweetable summaries positioned before the reader sees the lead. In response, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab blogged about it with the snarky headline: “The new L.A. Times redesign would like to write that tweet for you, thank you very much.” In many ways, it’s an acknowledgment that readers don’t necessarily read before they tweet. It also turns out there is a precedent for it. As the deputy managing editor pointed out in a tweet of her own (and with a scan from the archives to prove it), sharelines appeared in the newspaper as far back as January 1910, demonstrating that the desire for talking points long predates today’s social media.
“A lot of what we do [in editorial design] is influenced by print,” acknowledges Gardner. “Stuff like pull quotes, clean pages, don’t overload the design—these are just best practices that have been in the print world forever. We’ll take a digital perspective on it and add other interactions and animations that help foster meaning.”
Code and Theory also aims to have an impact behind the scenes, in ways that the user doesn’t see. “We want to really think through the system change of what design can do for an organization: from how they lay out their space to communicate with each other to how they publish things into a CMS, what engagement tools are there and how it affects the user at different times of day,” says Gardner.
And its brand clients? Code and Theory helps them become better storytellers and listeners—in other words, more like publishers. “We’ve had content strategists who worked on the Los Angeles Times also work on the content strategy for Maybelline’s CITY, which is a ‘blog-azine,’” says Baer, the brand design group director. “We’ll facilitate a 20-minute newsroom meeting every morning when we ask all the community managers, writers, strategists, data people, ‘What’s trending on BuzzFeed? Who’s on SNL in two weeks?’ And they throw ideas out. It’s this collaborative process.”
Brand atomization is the term Baer likes to use for how his teams approach content. “The ad agency will come up with this big ‘shouting from the rooftop’ message of what the brand is. And then we take that as a cue to build content across the ecosystem,” he explains. In the example of longtime client Dr Pepper, his team identified the soft drink’s fans on Reddit and built a quick campaign around the people who use Dr Pepper as a cooking ingredient.
“People who cook with Dr Pepper are a microcosm, but when they talk about it, they go freaking crazy,” Baer says. “So we did a show called ‘Cooking with Dr Pepper,’ this one-minute video of people cooking and showing you recipes. That’s such a micro insight within a micro group, but we can create this stuff quickly. We have people to make it and who make it beautifully, so that’s a big part of it, too. We’re not a social agency, but social is the baseline for everything we do.”
Code and Theory has proven it can help brands be better publishers and help publishers be better brands. As its industrial design group delves into bridging the physical and digital experiences, the company’s story is like the webpage transporter—no end in sight. “One of our mantras is, we only want to be limited by our own creativity,” says Ralph. “So much of what we do in this world is driven by technology and what is possible. We think anything is possible.” ca