Materializing on the screen before you for a face chat is you. Or, at least, the image of yourself that you put out into the digital universe on social media. Over the course of your chat on Digital Me, this digital version of yourself may inform you, “I change my profile picture a lot—I’m obsessed with my self-image!” or “I’m really interested in nothing in particular…” or “I have more than an average number of friends.” These are just some of the deep truths you might see illuminated by the Digital Me chat, hosted by the BBC on its Taster website, where the United Kingdom’s public broadcaster posts new ideas and concepts for audience testing.
Digital Me was built by Helios Design Labs, a studio headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, but with a principal who relocated to Berlin. Using a webcam, facial recognition analysis and data mining tools, it turns the otherwise mundane format of an online chat into a reflective exercise after users agree to share their Facebook or Twitter information. “Digital Me has had [an] impact in terms of our approach to public responsibility around data gathering,” says innovation producer Jenny Chapman, who researches new technology and social behaviors at the BBC and commissions independent creative companies to produce tools, prototypes and demonstrators. “Data gathering tends to be seen only as a marketing tool, but Digital Me expresses the idea that it can also be seen as a tool for self-reflection.” By holding up a digital mirror, it asks users whether they recognize—and are comfortable with—the person they see represented back at them.
At the time of its release, Digital Me contrasted with other online projects that explored the dark and scary side of Internet privacy and security. The website Take This Lollipop, for example, embedded people’s images and personal information from Facebook into a video of a creepy man stalking them. But Digital Me explored web identity from a much more philosophical and introspective vantage.
Such digital experimentation and web innovation is typical fare for Helios, which prefers the open web to apps and interfaces that require additional hardware, like 3-D headsets.
Recently, in another innovative project, the studio constructed a site for the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra that enables people to deconstruct a piece of classical music and then take part in putting it back together. Helios is now developing the experience for schools in Denmark. And this year, on its home turf, the studio was hired by the Canadian government to help it celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. Helios created a 3-D mobile web experience that lets Canadians discover their identity via a Sasquatch that becomes personalized to them based on how they answer a series of questions. (Another self-reflection exercise!)
The ahead-of-its-time feel of some of Helios’s work makes you think this is a next-generation agency—and it is—but Helios has been on the Toronto design scene for more than 25 years. How has it arrived at doing ambitious, challenging and experimental work? By going one way when everyone else goes another.
MASTERS OF REINVENTION
Helios’s identity can be hard to define because its website boasts an archive of work that reflects its various iterations throughout the decades. It has made websites for TV shows, consumer brands and universities; it has created logos, labels and packaging for a streetwear designer; and it has done hand-drawn illustration and animation work for the likes of Blackberry, the Dairy Farmers of Canada and Stella Artois.
The studio started when Alex Wittholz, now partner and creative director, graduated from OCAD (formerly the Ontario College of Art and Design), Toronto’s prestigious art school, and found himself staring straight into the 1989 recession. He was joined by his younger brother, Felix, a budding art director who was looking for a gig after earning a general BA from the University of Toronto.
Bored with commercial work, they strummed over to the music industry. “We sort of talked our way into doing album art,” says Alex. But they weren’t exactly fans of the mostly Canadian indie artists they were collaborating with or of the low pay. “The thing that made us quit was having to retouch an Anne Murray cover,” he says.
The brothers reinvented their firm yet again when they met Mike Robbins—former guitarist with the Canadian alternative rock band The Ikons, now based in Berlin for Helios. This was in the late 1990s, when computing was increasingly becoming a part of daily life and access to the Internet was expanding.
Robbins started doing websites for production companies, including Universal Pictures, and for future superstar directors, such as Quentin Tarantino. It proved easy work for Helios to get, despite its being headquartered in Toronto. “Back then, it was, whoever could do it was hired,” says Felix. “People sought you out just for being at the forefront of tech, rather than you having to go out and get clients. That became very interesting for us because we had a hand in defining the language, and not everything had been supercodified yet.”
There were more shifts to come. Long before HTML was the buzzword of the day, when it had finally progressed to the point where the agency could start doing really interesting things with it, Helios began to tackle more interactive and multimedia storytelling work. That included Highrise, a multiyear, multimedia documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada that explores vertical living in global suburbs. The project won a 2011 International Digital Emmy for nonfiction.
More clients followed. Alabama filmmaker Andrew Beck Grace hired Helios after landing funding to produce After the Storm, an interactive documentary about a massive tornado that ripped through the city where he lived. “I was new to the interactive doc world,” he recalls. “So I just started voraciously consuming different interactive projects to try and figure out how they worked, what I liked, what I didn’t. And a couple of projects that caught my attention were produced by the same firm—called Helios.”
Beck Grace says he was impressed with the studio’s ability to collaborate remotely. He was in Alabama. The project’s composer and sound designer was in New Orleans.
“We met virtually about once a week during the main part of the production process, and we shared a robust set of files on Google Docs; the master document was basically a spreadsheet of the project’s entire layout,” he says. “To look at it now is to see how the project was essentially built and to see the entire story devoid of bells and whistles and pacing that we ultimately crafted.
“It’s important to note that we never met in person until the project was released at South by Southwest in 2015,” Beck Grace adds. “We had worked collaboratively entirely online for [more than] a year at that point.” And when they finally did meet? “It was as though we were already close, intimate friends,” he says.
SMALL SIZE, BIG AMBITION
One thing that hasn’t changed about Helios in its 26 years in business: it has never employed more than eleven people. The staff currently numbers seven, and the brothers swear they never want to be larger than ten. Today, its two-floor studio is located west, well removed from the deal making of Toronto’s so-called innovation hub of digital, design and ad agencies focused around the King and Spadina intersection.
Helios’s neighborhood, in Ossington Village, is better known for the influx of medical marijuana dispensaries that have opened in recent years. And the quaint coffee shop next to it is independently owned—there isn’t a Starbucks in sight. The Helios office is a clean white, but is littered with a mishmash of paraphernalia, from toy robots to Star Wars figures and a small record collection—“spoils of ten years living next to Goodwill” at the studio’s last location, says Alex.
By keeping a low overhead and staff count, the brothers say, they’ve been able to seek out and do the kind of work they want to do, rather than having to follow the money trail. “We know we’ve been all over the place, but I think it speaks to our approach to things,” says Felix. “We try to do something other than the new, shiny thing. We say, ‘If everyone is doing this, then we should do something completely different because it will stand out.’”
And Helios only wants to do work that is meaningful and imparts knowledge or new points of view to the end user in some way. For instance, Don’t Tell Me to Smile is its second collaboration with the BBC, an experiment in digital storytelling that curates content posted by women—often about how they’re portrayed in media.
“Don’t get me wrong—we’ve worked with Nike, and we’ve worked with Coca-Cola, but we’ve just gotten to a place where more of our work is socially conscious,” says Felix. “I am looking for the right word that doesn’t make me sound pretentious, but work that hopes to make a difference, not just based on style or flashy visuals. It isn’t about selling crap that people don’t need. It is not work that will make us rich—but then, that was never the point.” ca