Marcos Weskamp: Interactive Architect
Web development tends to breed opposite types of achievers—technical problem solvers and design seers—but there are some people, like Marcos Weskamp, who seem to have synthesized both sides of that coin into something that might simply be called web architecture. Raised in Argentina, Weskamp got the call he says changed his life while studying architecture in college—a scholarship to study graphic design in Japan. He started learning Japanese, began studying graphic design and illustration and by the time he graduated he'd picked up basic web programming on his own at night. Soon after, he landed a job at a Dentsu web consultancy and when his company sent him to the 2001 Flashforward conference his career path was set. He'd fallen for Flash.
Weskamp still considers himself an architect, though in a far different medium. "The role of the architect has been more than indispensable in the history of civilizations," he says. "You have a person who understands design and engineering and whose main focus is building around the human being. He can do design and appeal to the creative, and he understands engineering well enough so that he can figure out everyday problems and, most importantly, talk to engineers." Weskamp's best projects transform the limitless data potential of the internet into digestible interfaces. His best-known work, "Newsmap," uses the Google News aggregator and assigns space in a window based on the prominence of stories, customizable by region and shaded in relation to the age of the reports. Spend a few minutes with "Newsmap," which was named a site of distinction in 2004 at the Austrian cyberarts competition Prix Ars Electronica, and you'll get a glimpse of the future of information display. Weskamp's personal favorite project is "Social Circles," an engine that maps mailing lists, and groups users according to their participation and dominance in the list, obviating the need for a user to lurk to figure out the group's hierarchy. " 'Social Circles' was magic the moment I first looked at it," he says. "I'd had that idea and that 'map' going around my head for a while, but after my first coding session, making it happen and watching the visualization for the very first time, it was amazing."
Bascule technical director Kampei Baba, who worked with Weskamp to author a book as part of the Flash OOP Japan study group, explains his colleague's passion: "Marcos is focusing, structuring and visualizing the relationship of data, and suggesting a new way of looking at and evaluating the world. I think his inspiration is based on his obsessive passion for the data structure itself." Weskamp recognizes the challenges of getting clients behind such experimental projects, and he often prefers to pursue them himself. "I've found that's the only way I can really innovate," he says. Weskamp is currently in Tokyo, working with interactive company Basement Factory Productions, which affords him the resources for innovation, he explains, without any of the business hassles associated with freelancing, so "I have more time to just do what I do best." Indeed, the project that presently occupies him sounds somewhat time-consuming: "socially mapping creativity." (NP)Marumushi.com
Joon Yong Park: Five Guys in One
Joon Yong Park of bicoastal design/technology agency Firstborn, appears to be a jack-of-all-trades, master of many. "Joon won't say this because he's too humble, but there are very few people who can do everything he does at such a high level," says Firstborn executive producer Dan LaCivita. "He comes up with ideas and he's a great designer, but he's also an extremely fluent programmer, 3-D modeler and sound designer—it's almost like he's a five-person team in one guy."
Park started working as a web designer in Korea when he was 18 and quickly established himself as a talent to be reckoned with at a number of Seoul-based design firms, including 2alice, Krbiz and Designexit. He had a short stint with Firstborn a few years ago, then returned to Korea as a freelancer. While there, the Samsung site he created with Seoul's Nutility, called "Samsung & Matrix Reloaded," won at the London International Awards in the Interactive Media/Electronics category in 2003. He's returning to Firstborn in New York this month as a creative director.
Regarding his reputation as a do-it-all, Park simply laughs and credits his workaholic hobbies. "I'm a designer but I really do like the technical stuff," he says. "My hobby is playing around with my computer. Although some people might consider it work, it definitely helps my other design work. I really like bringing the technical and creative together in my designs."
Two recent projects demonstrate his flair for both. Kia's New Carnival site is a 3-D-heavy interactive tour through a minivan's gaggle of capabilities. "I was still studying 3-D at the time," says Park. "Every step was a challenge but my team made it through and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of working with 3-D." Second is a video- and music-laden site for JBL that features bands like The Roots and The Hold Steady, with easily-navigated, tour-themed experiences to promote speakers and headphones.
Park also points to the increased web knowledge of clients for presenting the opportunities to push and expand his repertoire. "Clients are a lot more web educated about what they want, or at least in providing examples of what they like on the web," he says. "Before, they didn't really know what a website could do and who it was for."
Though he's been able to use a bevy of skills in his work, Park believes that just because you can apply all sorts of techniques and technology to the web it doesn't mean you always should. "It's not about the cool website or how technical the site is," he says. "It's all about what it does for the user and the client. Some designers only want to design the coolest thing or use the most technical technique, but what really matters is what the audience gets and what the idea behind the website is." (JB)FirstBornMultimedia.com
Despite a reputation for detail-oriented and technologically impressive work, the goals behind London's Unit9 aren't all that complicated. "Simply put, it's about interactive fun," says managing partner and creative director Piero Frescobaldi. "We feel a sense for things being well crafted with a sort of handmade quality to them. So we try to inject a little bit of that into everything we do." And though he points to the "Creative Mind" site, created for Adobe, with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, as one of the company's most challenging projects, its triple play of quirky planets, space-dream soundtrack and bouncing navigator monkey perfectly illustrates the company's ethos of creative simplicity.
Founded a decade ago, Unit9 has 20 full-time employees, but international freelancers brings that operating number up to 40. The company has been acclaimed in the U.K. for its recent Tourism Ireland site, which combines video segments, interactive maps and an abundance of detailed, easily accessed information. "We felt we needed a creative link between the films and the actual tourist information," says Frescobaldi. "That's what makes the web so useful. It's the difference between a TV program and something online. It's about thinking of the user experience and finding a way to introduce the information that's natural and not forced."
Frescobaldi believes brands shouldn't foist unnecessary online innovation on themselves. "Everyone is desperate to use online to all of a sudden get millions of users, but the reality is it can work with some brands but not all," he says. "The more you're honest about what you communicate, the more people will be receptive." The balance for Unit9 is in creating functionally smooth, creative online experiences that know what they're communicating. "Utility is absolutely key, but our job is to inject effectiveness and creativity," says Frescobaldi. "That's the challenge—we always subtly try to draw people in. We're not very interested in the 'wow' factor; we're more in grabbing the user with the enjoyment of every detail and every click." (JB)Unit9.com
When your shop is really small, it's never hard to lay down everyone's responsibilities. Michelangelo Capraro describes himself as "person who does everything one" and his partner, Chris Brown, as "person who does everything two." It's not as simple as that, though, for the two San Franciscans, who have completed several stunning projects under the baneautiful motion graphics person, and I tend to fall a little more on the technical side," says Capraro of the partnership, in which both work out of their home offices. Brown agrees. "We attack the project at the same level, start off concepting and go through the disciplines. When things move into production, Michelangelo is leading the technical."
The duo has been working together for five years, after meeting at S.F. design innovation hub Evolution Bureau, where Brown was an early employee and Capraro was brought on to help for a massive project for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, "The Eagle F1 Experience." Completed in 2002, it was a four-month haul that Adobe continues to tout as a cabbage patch of project innovation. After a bit longer working with EVB, as Evolution Bureau was renamed, they broke out. Number 9's first solo job was the "Adaptive Enterprise" microsite for Hewlett-Packard, which spoke to chief technology officers and featured constantly evolving content continuing for over a year. Strange challenges arose with different language sets—Brown and Capraro suddenly had to rethink things when faced with Chinese characters, for instance, because the type size they had been using was no longer legible. "The content was dry, but it was encased in a beautiful framework," says Brown.
The duo has just finished work on Toyota's "Highway to the Future," with L.A.'s Creativengine, creative- and technical-directing a promotion for Toyota's synergy drive. Besides the usual website, two 18-wheelers unfold into information centers with interactive touchscreen demonstrations. Working at programming 50-inch displays is a different challenge, user interface-wise, than the web, but Capraro says he and Brown enjoyed it. "We dabbled in touchscreen stuff before, but there is a lot of new stuff to play with in this project." (NP)HighwaytotheFuture.comNumber-9.com
Joshua Davis: The Wizard of Mineola
"I probably don't make as much money as people think," Joshua Davis confesses. "But, at the same time, I have control over what my studio produces." Davis—who has been working at the intersection of programming, fine art and design since dropping out of Pratt more than a decade ago—works out of a converted barn a few steps from his Long Island home. He takes on three or four corporate jobs a year and spends the rest of his time doing research—finding out what can be done.
"I try to spend about 50 percent of my time doing work for clients, and the other half of the time I try to work on personal stuff and experiment." This experimentation is, in turn, why clients come knocking. He recently appeared in "The Creative Mind," an online campaign for Adobe out of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, describing how he uses Adobe's products to do what he does.
Which is what, exactly? Lately he's been experimenting with "dynamic abstraction," a process by which he feeds computers sets of rules and pieces of artwork, then lets the computers make their own art. "Ninety-nine percent of the time it's stuff you can't use, but there's that 1 percent where you're like, 'This is amazing,' " he says. Some of that 1 percent appears on one of Davis' personal sites, Once-Upon-a-Forest.com, as well as at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's National Design Triennial. Meanwhile, "dynamic abstraction" is at the center of a site Davis recently created for Motorola. Based on his own process, the site allows users to select images and define rules to create kaleidoscopic wallpaper for their cellphones.
On the subject of abstraction, Davis cites painters Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat as influences but it's Jackson Pollock who looms largest. While he doesn't much care for Pollock's paintings, oddly enough, he does admire his process. "I identified with him as being a painter, although a lot of the time his brush would never actually hit the canvas," he says. "I like the idea of that disconnect, of not using a brush or a tool in the traditional way. That's really what I'm trying to do—use products like they're not supposed to be used."
The results have made Davis sought after, not only by clients like Diesel and Chanel—who know he'll deliver "really risky things and really progressive things for their brands," he says—but also as a lecturer and instructor. "Sometimes I'll get e-mails from people who ask, 'How do you get to do all this cool stuff?' Then I'll look at their website and it's very normal. I tell my students all the time: The type of work you make is the type of work people will hire you to do. If you do really crazy shit, people are going to hire you to do really crazy shit. It's that simple." (Jim Hanas) JoshuaDavis.com
Sweden's North Kingdom, which has won a remarkable four Gold Cyber Lions at Cannes in three years, opened in 2003 in the tiny city of Skellefteå. The company was founded by art director Robert Lindström and account director Roger Stighäll, who were joined in 2005 by CEO/CD David Eriksson—all three had earlier worked together at an interactive firm called Paregos. But the trio has far more in common than that—the 33-year-olds not only went to high school together but they all played on the Swedish Junior Championship soccer team in 1990.
They appear to be having a similar success at North Kingdom, which has grown to 17 employees and additional offices in Stockholm and Växjö. The company got off to a running start in its first year with Vodafone Group's "Future Vision" site, illustrating the promise of future technologies. This project, a double Cannes Gold winner and the most awarded interactive campaign of 2004, according to Creativity, led to acclaimed work like the "Got Milk?" alien comedy extravaganza, "Brittlelactica: Planet in Need," a collaboration with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which was a double Cannes saw a second Vodafone project, the acclaimed "The Vodafone Journey," which features extensive video and a friendly spokeswoman who takes "users on a journey through the different parts of the company, with the idea that they get a feeling for what Vodafone is, not just what it offers," says Eriksson. "It's a brave move for Vodafone to represent itself in this way," adds Lindström. "It's not traditional, but it leaves visitors with a guaranteed good feeling."
In a similar vein, North Kingdom's Toyota work, created with the client's Swedish ad agency, SWE, includes "On Toyota's Mind." One of the Kingdom's most recent projects, it features extensive Flash animation and a floating brain of clickable elements. "What's different about this car site is it doesn't try to sell the product—it's more about understanding what Toyota is all about, the softer side of what they do," says Stighäll, who believes it's a certain passionate persistence that has led to his shop's success. "I think what it all comes down to is we won't let go of a project until every detail is in place. 'The details will betray you,' is what we say in-house." (TK)NorthKingdom.com
Erik Natzke: He Plays in Peoria
There is a certain reverence among tech heads when web discussions turn to the work of Erik Natzke, whose Natzke Design is located in very down-to-earth Peoria, Ill. "Flash guru" and "master" are tossed around freely in his honor, but Natzke prefers to see himself as an artist who chooses to use the computer as his canvas; he doesn't view proficiency in various programs and applications as a goal, but simply the means to an artistic end. Which makes sense for a graphic design graduate from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
"For the most part, all the things I've learned on the computer have been on my own," he says. "I just wanted to control things, and learning the technology side has been more 'as needed.' " Natzke eschewed print work for the digital domain because he was tired of seeing his work remain static. "I like the idea of someone else being able to control the elements that I put on the stage," he says. "I want the user to have the ability to interact and play with it. Those were the things I was interested—a whimsical nature toward creating things that were more toylike and fun to play with."
Nowhere are these goals more evident than in the pliable puppetry of Comcast's Comcastic.com, created with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. The project stands as Natzke's favorite and his most challenging work in recent memory. "I was very satisfied it came out so well, but I was worried, anxious and angered along the way," he says. "We went through a lot of different ways to make that happen and a lot of them failed. But ultimately, I was really happy with the result because it actually feels like you're playing with a wooden puppet online."
For Natzke, successful work like the "Comcastic" site isn't just dependent on design and development skills but also on a client's willingness to take risks. "Those projects are the most rewarding," he says. "There were probably 20 ways I could've done the puppets, but I chose the five ways that seemed impossible, because I wanted it to look completely different than anything else. That's why the companies I work with have come to me. I want to make it as good as they do. So it's just a matter of getting the client who's willing to take the risk." (JB)NatzkeDesign.comNatzke.com
Tokyo's Bascule made its global name last year when its homepage, an epic piece of Flash loaded with psychedelic whimsy, won a D&AD Yellow Pencil. Even for users who can't read Japanese, Bascule's identity is rife with tiny details that will reveal themselves to the curious. Founded by producer and chief creative director Masayoshi Boku in 1998, Bascule now employs some 30 people. "We always think about how to give people a fun experience," says Kampei Baba, a technical director.
Recent projects include a combo Pencil-catcher installation/website, sponsored by the 2006 One Show, where users manipulated a toy-snaring crane in the lobby of Dentsu/Tokyo, a frequent Bascule collaborator, to pick up a coveted award. While people played, users on the web could shout encouragement and watch. If no one was playing the physical machine, web users could give it a try. For a project with Yahoo, Bascule created an online tour of the 10-year history of Pokemon—forcing people to have a realtime experience on the web by making an appointment and hanging out in a virtual waiting room until their turn. Even more ambitious was the "Nine-hour Gesture" banner for MSN Japan, where the Bascule staff played charades online, as users interacted with live video on the homepage, guessing what employees were acting out and getting clues. Thanks to these successes, "We're becoming more and more involved with the creation of ideas, designing user experiences from the beginning," says Baba. (NP)Bascule.co.jp
Small is beautiful, indeed. Tim Barber, David Bliss and Jacquie Moss sold their small web development company, Circumstance, to an internet services biggie in 1999, but little more than a year later they returned to their roots, founding San Francisco's Odopod. The firm touts the balance of story and utility in its work, and the accomplishments of a modest-sized staff, with an impressive portfolio for clients like Nike, MTV, Yahoo and Red Bull.
Barber points to recent interactive work done for Red Bull sporting ventures like Air Race and Supermoto as an embodiment of balancing both ends of that spectrum. "The idea was to bring people closer to some of the events by going further than simply allowing users to watch it online," he says. "It's a combination of educating someone about the sport, who the athletes are, the equipment used, then putting them inside the experience so they can get a feeling for the action."
As for the company's size, Odopod operates essentially as a studio, with all its 20 or so employees in one space, and Barber points to that close proximity and their allergy to middle management as keys to success. Diffusion and bureaucracy "can destroy the flow of communication that's important in doing great work," he says. But at the same time, there's a pressure for the company to grow, and Barber admits it's an ongoing discussion. "We now believe it's possible to be big and produce great work. But we're just taking it one step at a time." (JB)Odopod.com