Back in college in the mid-'90s, Aaron Rutledge decided to make the decision to double-major in computer science and design. Can you imagine? Well, of course you can because circa 2009 the two are inextricably intertwined, but at the time, the founding partner and innovation director of Poke, N.Y.'s professors said, "Computers have nothing to do with design! It's all about the network and design is about painting and drawing." Fortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case.
What led you to this line of work?
I started designing and maintaining ISP systems in 1996, building big ISPs, big 5000-user based web service, dial-up nonsense and [then] I started making websites. I always have collaborated with creative teams to take an idea, push it across the board and make it real, but I certainly come from the computer science background. That's why there's a tech slant to everything I do.
How do you see the digital agency evolving?
A special role that technology is beginning to play in this industry is the ability to wrap your head around an idea and get it up and running as soon as possible. It's about people who can listen to a challenge then go and make something in a matter of days or weeks that shows the idea coming to life. It's something that ties directly to the business because, especially in the last year, budgets are down and people are forced to do more with less. Everyone is much more eager to take a shot in the dark, try something simple and inexpensive and if it gets a lot of attention, then put some weight behind it.
How do you see digital agency talent evolving?
The agency space is really interesting. For someone who is a purely academic programmer, it would drive them bananas because you always have multiple clients and multiple deadlines. I thrive on that, but I know plenty of people who would go nuts (working like that) so they go to Lockheed Martin, IBM, Microsoft or somewhere like that.
Has the increased digital innovation in marketing and advertising encouraged more of the hardcore talent to join this industry?
Yeah, definitely. It's tricky because the schools that pump out serious computer scientists keep themselves in a very academic sphere. Where I'm seeing a lot of really versatile programmers and other very impressive junior people coming from are the multi-disciplinary programs. There are a few schools that are breeding some really engaging, energetic people–Georgia Tech, RISD and Savannah College of Art & Design, for example. A lot of things coming out of MIT Media Lab are really focused, not just on the academics of making a system work but much more about the human take-away from using that system.
How do you ensure that all available technology is supporting and enabling ideas?
A great example of that is the iPhone apps. For the first year, we saw tons of apps that used the aspects of the iPhone, simply because they were [there]. That really diluted the value and overall the apps store was full of a lot of junk. Now, the user base has gotten much bigger, there's a lot more money to be made and more mature ideas are coming to the forefront. So in the past eight months we've seen this second era, with apps that have really compelling uses and improve a user's life. I see a parallel with the agency world. You have to come up with what you need to make, then grab the nearest piece of technology that your team thinks is the best way to make that idea a reality.