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Wake up, make coffee. While you’re waiting, view the weather, stocks and e-mail on Sony’s new personal Internet assistant, Dash. At work, settle into your new SAYL chair from Herman Miller. At lunch grab a grilled cheese sandwich from the trendiest new place on the block. While the line inches forward, take out your iPhone and practice your armchair conducting with Bravo Gustavo. The app from the Los Angeles Philharmonic lets you play along with Gustavo Dudamel, the new conductor as famous for his hair as his Handel.

Talk about consumer touchpoints. At every step along the way, you’ll be interacting in some manner with an experience brought to life by Hello Design, the interactive design agency based in Culver City, California. The thirteen-year-old company has created interactive experiences for museums, magazines, sporting goods companies and high-tech consumer product manufacturers. If there's a common thread uniting these projects, it’s gorgeous visuals, a highly burnished design sensibility and a technological “fit and finish” second to none in the industry.

As cofounder David Lai explains, “When we opened Hello, our philosophy was simple: Do good work and everything else will follow. And take on diverse work for diverse clients.” As a result Hello learned one very important thing: “You are what you do.”

“Our background is in design, but technology is in our DNA,” Lai says. He’s not kidding.

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As a young man growing up in Boston, Lai fell in love—with a Mac SE. As his love deepened, Lai taught himself MacPaint. “I wanted to create icons that were works of art measuring 32 x 32 pixels,” he remembers. To share that love, he wrote a book called Icons for the Masses. In the same vein, Lai offered a collection of icons to a software company in Silicon Valley that made a contact manager. His price? Free. It wasn’t long before Connectix, the company that made the first Webcam, called offering him a job working on the interface design for a new suite of software products called Connectix PowerBook Utilities (CPU). Was he interested?

“Sure!” came the response. “But I have to ask my parents first.” Only then did the people at Connectix learn that David was still in high school.

His parents did say yes (David was offered a room at the CEO’s house), and just like that, Lai found himself working as a designer at the epicenter of the computer revolution in Silicon Valley. Lai honed his design skills in the burgeoning field of new media and wrote the book Photoshop Type Magic, before moving on to teach Web design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Meanwhile, his soon-to-be partner Hiro Niwa was working with some recent graduates of Art Center at cow. interactive. It was Niwa’s work at cow. for the Mercedes E-Class that caught Lai’s eye (and won a ton of design awards as well as a Clio nomination). When the opportunity to work on a new Web site for the J. Paul Getty Museum came along, the two decided to join forces.

Their first project was a pitch to the Getty Museum for the launch of its Web site. The project came first, the name second and the business third.

As Lai explains, “We presented them with a non-traditional proposal. Instead of showing solutions we asked questions that would take advantage of the technology in interesting ways. Things like, ‘Have you thought about an itinerary customized by a gallery visitor?’ It was about ideas, not just visual design. It was about thinking.”

On the cover of the pitch book the two had written, "Hello, meet David & Hiro." As Lai recalls, "When Getty saw the word Hello, they thought that was the name of our company. We'd show up and they'd say, 'The guys from Hello are here.'"

Thirteen years later the name is still Hello. “We decided to keep the name,” Lai explains. “It’s friendly, it’s about communication and ultimately it’s about having a relationship. That’s what we do, build relationships with people.”

With the Getty pitch awarded, Lai says, “We decided to form a business together that would extend beyond just one project. We were ready to rent space, buy equipment and not pay ourselves for five months. I had nothing to lose.”

When Getty saw the word Hello, they thought that was the name of our company. We'd show up and they'd say, 'The guys from Hello are here.'"

Niwa said, “Just because you are a talented designer doesn't mean you'll get work.”

Lai had a slightly more optimistic approach. “I invested everything I had, which wasn’t much,” he says. “Worst case, I’d have to go get a job. Best worst case, at least I’ll have learned something from the experience.”

Hello moved into their current office in Culver City in 2002. The renovated storefront has a spare, loft-like feel, thanks to its raw concrete floors, plywood partitions, and ranks of employees working face to face with each other across a long row of desks in a style called “benching.” At the time, the neighborhood was still recovering from the Northridge earthquake; Hello was able to take advantage of the low rents in the newly designated “redevelopment zone.”

They weren’t exactly welcomed. “The night before we moved in,” Lai recalls, “someone kicked in the front door.” The area was known for its vacant lots, gang activity and random shootings. There were no restaurants in the area, no cafés, no place to grab a latte and hang.

So Lai and his wife started one in the space that Hello was planning on using to house their growing business. That is, until the dot-com implosion put a stop to everyone's expansion plans. Lai remembers, “We made a conscious effort not to get big during the boom. But the space next door was empty, and since we had filled up most of our desks here, we leased the space next door. We did a simple build-out and we kept it for years. When our lease came up, we could return it or find a better use for it.”

Lai’s wife Mayuko, a Japanese native, suggested opening a tea-shop and café. He admits, “We might have been a little naïve, but we had the space.” Today teaforest serves 50 different kinds of specialty teas, as well as lattes, espressos and gourmet sandwiches. The place is a hipster magnet. At lunch on a recent weekday, every table at teaforest was occupied by someone working on a Mac laptop. Hello’s sensibility is evident in the cool, minimalist design, complemented by the floor-to-ceiling mural created by Philip Lumbang, an assistant to artist Shepherd Fairey. Scattered around the café are several Eames rockers adorned with illustrations made by local artists—a byproduct of a recent project for Herman Miller.

With an extensive track record of projects, including e-commerce, chair configurators and blog launches for Herman Miller, Hello turned to helping their client explore social media.

That begins with an understanding of what's appropriate—for Herman Miller, for its audience and for the technology. “We wanted to make a firm commitment to the space,” explains Lai. “But first we had to discover the thread that would connect Herman Miller to Twitter and Facebook. We had to understand Herman Miller and its audience, then build the kind of connection that would tie the audience to the brand.”

What Hello discovered was that Herman Miller attracted a diverse following, drawing its audience from the design community, architects and interior designers, office managers and space planners who specified office furniture for businesses, as well as people wanting to access Herman Miller’s research on ergonomics.

Our background is in design, but technology is in our DNA."

How does a campaign for a company that makes office cubicles reach out to a consumer audience using social media? Hello built a campaign called “Design for You.” Relying on the mechanics of game design to drive audience participation, the contest exploited the Groupon phenomenon to leverage the power of the collective. Each week a new Herman Miller prize was offered. As more people played, the prize was “unlocked.” As the weeks progressed, the prizes grew more valuable, but required increasing numbers of people to play in order to unlock them. The grand prize was one of five Eames Rockers that were transformed into one-of-kind pieces of functional art by five contemporary artists. To be successful, the game relied on people to tell their friends and colleagues. The contest built in rewards for those who got the most people to participate, by automatically enrolling them in a drawing to win an Aeron chair.

According to Lai, “The project took about eight weeks from start to finish. We used HD-SLR video cameras to film the artists customizing the chairs. We got them all in a room to tell their story. Then we seeded the content on design blogs with a link back to the contest site so we could drive traffic back to it. We put as much effort into working with design blogs as we did on traditional site design.”

A gauge at the bottom of the screen indicated the threshold to unlock the prize as well as how many people were participating. Hello anticipated 10,000 people would play the game. The final tally: Close to 20,000 people signed up and entered the contest. Perhaps even better for Herman Miller, 96 percent were new sign-ups.

How to work for a cheese company without seeming, well, cheesy? Put on your boots and watch where you step. In keeping with their philosophy of doing diverse work for diverse clients, Hello recently launched a Web site redesign for Tillamook Cheese, a farmer’s cooperative in Oregon.

“We invest time in our clients,” Lai says. “We went to the farms, we met the cows, met the dairy farmers who own the factory that buys the milk that makes the cheese. We concentrated on what people use Tillamook for the most—cheese sandwiches. So we have grilled cheese recipes. This is comfort food. We keep it real.

The site includes the Tillamook Kitchen, which, in addition to recipes, features video profiles shot by Hello on restaurants including The American Grilled Cheese Factory in San Francisco, Bunk Bar in Portland and the Grilled Cheese Truck in Los Angeles.

What’s next for Hello? They can’t talk about it. The strategic projects they are working on are all heavily non-disclosed. However they can say the engagements involve research and development and user interface for Sony, Samsung and Kyocera under an umbrella term they call “future innovation.”

It’s a challenge to bring fresh ideas to the table, especially when, as Lai explains, “all our clients have seen Minority Report. A gestural interface isn’t good enough anymore.” Instead, Lai predicts the next big innovations will come from figuring out how technologies work together. “It’s about product, interface and services working holistically. We have to understand where technology fits within an ecosystem. To do that we’re storyboarding things that don’t exist. An interface may infer the experience, but it isn’t the end goal. To be innovative, you literally have to live in the future. What we see today was the future a year ago.”

Say hello to the future. Say hello to Hello. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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