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BOVINE INSPIRATION; NOT ONES TO RUN WITH THE INTERACTIVE HERD, IN NO TIME AT ALL IT SEEMS THESE COWS ARE OUTSTANDING IN THEIR FIELD

By Published on .

A few years ago, when Art Center students Mateo Neri and Bryan Dorsey tried to explain interactive design to clients, confusing technical jargon always crept in. "Just say cow!" an exasperated Neri would shout, in an effort to pick an organic object that could simplify things.

And then one day as Dorsey played with blocks, he came up with the shape of a cow. "I thought, this is interactive, this is what 'cow' is all about, you can do anything with these blocks."

The name stuck like wet mud. Today, two years later, this Santa Monica-based interactive design firm, which morphed into a full-fledged business from one award-winning student project and went on to win the first Clio ever awarded for an interactive project, has built a client list that's nothing to moo at: Mercedes, Tetra Pak (makers of all those juice box containers) and Nike, to name a few. It has also completed a variety of interface design projects for Charles Schwab, Wells Fargo Bank, Isuzu and Iris Corp.

Wooden blocks playfully dance around on the Cow Web page (www.cow.com), assuming three different forms: Mister Man is on the letterhead, representing the human side; a rocket ship symbolizes technology; and the cow covers everything organic. "We're designers who thrive on organizing information," Dorsey says. "We try to hide the technology and make it more human."

With a staff of some dozen creatives and programmers-even an in-house composer and filmmaker-Cow has definite opinions about how technology should behave. At times interactive media is polite and gives you exactly what you want, Dorsey explains, and then it can be playful, like a "time-released" Mercedes CD-ROM that Cow created for The Designory, a Long Beach, Calif., design shop, that teased consumers by revealing crumbs of information about the new E-Class model each day until its launch date. "We like the idea of the computer having attitude and not giving you what you want when you want it," Dorsey, 27, says, half-joking. "Like a human," Neri, 32, adds.

Users could easily travel through Mercedes history and trivia, clicking their way through a timeline panel, which houses movie clips and images from the Benz archives, and over 180 pieces of audio and music scored to accompany the period footage or borrowed from the current ad campaign.

While prospective car buyers were the original target of the CD-ROM, which recently won a Gold Cindy at the International Association of Audio Visual Communicators awards, Dorsey says the car dealers are the ones who are really responding to it, playing it in showrooms as an entertaining sales tool.

Lannon Tanchum, executive creative director at The Designory, explains that Cow's ability to pull off the interactive production and be creative consultants was what earned them the project.

What first grabbed Tanchum's attention, as well as other clients, was Cow's debut project, an interactive kiosk for the Art Center College of Design called the Art Center Narrative Catalog. Created by Dorsey and Neri, along with fellow classmates Kent Campbell, Dina Temkin and John Grotting, who've since left the group, the piece is an alternative to a three-hour campus tour, and then some. Prospective students can explore the interactive catalog, tapping into a film noirish interface, where the work of famous alums and students, as well various departments in the school, are presented in mini profiles. Still installed as a kiosk in the visitor's centers of the school's Pasadena and Switzerland campuses, the catalog won a Silver Clio, praise from I.D. and Communication Arts and a writeup in Variety. It also launched the students on a publicity tour.

They needed business direction, though, which is why Dorsey and Neri recruited Errol Gerson, a longtime Art Center business teacher. While continuing a presence behind the lectern, Gerson joined the team as CEO/partner along with partners Dorsey and Neri and Brian Channell, who's in charge of production and operations.

While the barn continues to expand, most of that growth comes in CD-ROMs, diskettes and kiosks, including a CD-ROM product launch for Pioneer through Asatsu BBDO/Los Angeles, another for Citibank, as well as one for Kahlua's sales force, which is intended to turn a boring product demonstration into a game of blenders, fruit and tropical fantasies.

The lack of any Web work from Cow is noticeable, however; Dorsey says it's intentional. They're waiting until the technology for Web design catches up with and finally exceeds the interactive capabilities of CD-ROMs. Currently, Cow is conducting in-house tests with Intranet designs and setting up test Internet sites to calculate how they can influence and attract people to various sites. "It's very interesting what you can do to influence Web traffic," Dorsey says, noting that banners, 800-numbers and Web sites linked through noncommercial sites are all ways to lure prospective hits. "We're doing those things and sharing them with our clients," he says. Web pages built within the regular strictures of HTML, Dorsey complains, are "worse than an interactive brochure."

Spoiled by the design capabilities inherent in CD-ROMs, Cow clearly has a hard time skimping on things like music and video. For instance, the music that in-house composer Jann Castor scored for a Tetra Pak interactive piece was such a hit with customers that Cow released a CD sampler with the 10 original scores under the label Mega Moo Music. "I cannot imagine interactive communication without sound," Gerson says, "yet I see it all the time."

Recently Cow has joined forces on pitches with the local interactive company Digital Evolution, whose background in extensive database management and programming could be the key to executing Cow's ideas on the Internet. Explains Dorsey, "We're trying to do something that's simple and powerful enough to

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