Content may be king, but it’s not necessarily well defined. The word is largely a capitulation, a grab-bag term for the incredible proliferation of communication formats that have come online in the last fteen years, from video sharing and podcasts to virtual environments and fake news. Everyone claims to do content, but few do it as seriously and elegantly as Upstatement.
The roughly 45-person, Boston-based digital studio was founded by Syracuse University grads Mike Swartz, Jared Novack and Tito Bottitta. After working together at the university’s independent student newspaper, they each spent at least a few years at publications like the Boston Globe, the San Jose Mercury News and the New York Times—primarily in editorial design, interactive graphics and data visualization.
In 2008, interactive designer David Small helped them land a job designing and building a website for an integrated exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The project was a success and led to one with the MIT Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte for his nonprofit initiative One Laptop per Child, in which the firm built a website based on a high-level design from Pentagram.
With the recognition gained from these projects, Upstatement quickly became a go-to digital firm for Boston’s many universities and news publications, before winning international recognition in 2011 for helping to create the world’s first large-scale, fully responsive website, for the Boston Globe. Upstatement’s role on the multifaceted project was to establish the creative and visual direction of a design that adapts to different devices.
“We had no idea that would be the project that caught everyone’s attention,” says Swartz, “but at the same time, we had to be strategic. We wanted to be careful not to get pigeonholed as a company that does responsive design and keep doing a wider variety of projects.”
A SINGULAR VISION
Given Upstatement’s nontraditional background, it shouldn’t be surprising that it is unlike most other digital studios. Among other things, the firm requires its designers to able to code at a reasonable level. More visibly, in an industry that struggles to recruit a diverse workforce, Upstatement has rough parity between men and women in senior roles, and half of its engineering team are women.
“We intentionally hire for diversity at Upstatement,” says creative director Holly Copeland. “It’s not a policy, but we hire very slowly and a lot of it is word of mouth; we might have an engineer who knows someone else who might want to work here, and that’s how a lot of our growth has happened.”
Maybe the most interesting difference is that the studio practices something it calls “single threading.” This is a workflow in which a small team focuses almost entirely on one project for its duration. According to Vivian Shibata, director of digital products at nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety, an Upstatement client, single threading gives the team a much higher level of insight and responsiveness.
“It’s very different from other agencies,” she says. “All their time is spent on one thing, and they really get to know you. They understand exactly what we’re doing, and suggest ways we can improve it or rethink it. It works really well.”
Finally, there’s the way that Upstatement approaches content. You would be hard-pressed to find an agency that doesnot claim to do content today, but relatively few are built around the idea of doing editorial content. In addition to designing news sites, Upstatement creates publishing systems and even advises on processes and team building.
“Content isn’t just about tools and strategy,” says Bottitta. “It’s about how the organization is set up to handle it. I feel we have a real practical streak, so we always try to find the doable path to something.”
TITO’S HANDMADE VODKA
A good example of the firm’s approach is the website for Tito’s Handmade Vodka (titosvodka.com). Tito’s is an unusual brand in its strong dedication to charity, especially rescuing dogs. Everything is geared towards philanthropy, with little waste. As a result, the brand makes do with an extremely small marketing staff, even though it is the best-selling vodka in the United States.
The inspiration for the project came from a visit to the ramshackle building in Austin, Texas, where founder Tito Beveridge distilled his first batch of vodka. The team noticed it was filled with all sorts of curious objects, and this set off their reportorial instincts. They found themselves wanting to tell the story of this strange brand and its random nature.
With an irregular grid and expressive typography, including the typeface Suti by Mika Melvas, which evokes the friendly, casual lettering of sign painters, the resulting website focuses more on exploration than linear storytelling. It’s not a site where visitors can instantly access every bit of content, but that’s not the point.
“It’s about tripping over something,” says Scott Dasse, one of Upstatement’s principals. “There are always things that pop out in the corners, and the idea is to give people something that pulls them in one step closer and converts them into fans. People come for a recipe but suddenly realize how passionate the brand is about rescuing dogs.”
MOMS DEMAND ACTION
Tito’s Handmade Vodka is unusual for Upstatement with its nontraditional layout and typography. For a contrast, when the studio designed and built the website for Moms Demand Action (momsdemandaction.org), it strove for a clean, straightforward look with a hopeful, welcoming feel. The organization, which sprang up in response to the Sandy Hook shooting, is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country. With nearly six million supporters, it focuses on local, state and national action to bring about large-scale change.
When researching for the project, Upstatement again put on their journalism hats. Rather than working from a brief, they conducted extensive interviews with volunteers to understand what motivates them.
“Our insight was that when you’re working on something that’s never ending, and it’s hard to make progress, you don’t always feel like you’re winning,” says Bottitta. “What keeps you going is a community, so we tried to make the website about connecting with others and showcasing the progress that’s being made.” Among other things, the site features uplifting messages (“Winning against the gun lobby,” says one), images of engaged and happy-looking women, and a scrollable timeline that lays out the achievements of the group thus far.
Upstatement also built a companion app designed to make it easy for supporters to take action. Suggested actions, such as sending a message to a senator, are listed in a tab that makes it easy for members to keep track of and complete tasks, which should eventually increase the speed and volume at which the organization responds to events.
PBS DATA VISUALIZATIONS
For all its digital chops, Upstatement does not merely create online homes for brands (it designed Northeastern University’s identity in 2019, including everything from the custom logotype and color scheme all the way to the Husky mascot). But its longest-running and most notable offline achievement is its data visualization work for the PBS NewsHour (the work also appears online). NewsHour is a respected public news program known for its thoughtful, in-depth news coverage. Upstatement’s task has been to help it make sense of US elections, which can be confusing even to citizens of the country.
For example, it’s common to find electoral maps of the United States where it seems like the entire country is Republican. This is misleading because much of the United States is sparsely populated, and rural areas tend to vote that way. To give a truer picture, Upstatement created visualizations with circles that represent population, rather than just showing geographical regions colored red or blue. Knowing that NewsHour staff would be busy during the 2020 election season, the firm ensured that the graphics would be populated with the latest data in real time and made it easy for editors and producers to copy code snippets to use the graphics on different websites.
“Everyone experiences elections through maps and data visualizations,” says Bottitta. “We came up with a bunch of novel ways of looking at the data. These are complex projects in that you don’t merely have strategy and design, but engineering and real-time data that have to be incorporated.”
ONE TO WATCH
Taken as a whole, it’s hard not to smile when looking at Upstatement’s work. Quirky yet charming, its team members live in a highly competitive and high-pressure world but have managed to carve out a well-balanced and quiet niche. While, like everyone, they now must navigate an uncertain environment, Upstatement is the kind of well-run business that tends to come through crises intact. That’s why it’s a good idea to start thinking of it not as an anomaly, but as a leader and a model moving forward. ca