TI Are there defining characteristics to L.A. design shops - even those working in different disciplines? Is there an L.A. look?
KF Imaginary Forces has offices in Hollywood and New York, but we try not to let geography dictate what work is done where. Obviously, being closer to some clients helps for mostly schedule issues - but we really like to think of ourselves and our creative vision in such a way that it really doesn't matter what office you're working out of, and we wouldn't want people to categorize the offices.
TI Obviously, the proximity to the entertainment industry is a big factor in L.A. How does the MO of entertainment companies differ from other clients in terms of working with design companies?
JB I think there are a lot of different things about entertainment companies compared to other kinds of clients. It seems like entertainment companies like to characterize you by an idea of your visual style, and when they need that style they'll call you; as opposed to looking at the breadth of work you've done and thinking, "Wow, they can actually do a lot of different kinds of work for us." We found it more challenging to have a steady account-style relationship with studios than with corporations.
TI What has the impact of current economic conditions been on the design community?
KF It can take more time for ideas to grow and evolve before they're actually committed to an animatic or a test. So in the end, you're just working faster and faster. All of us are probably lucky in that we have our hands in a lot of cookie jars. We're pretty diverse, so that when maybe advertising fell off a bit we had some architecture projects and some film work come in. In terms of the general economic climate, what we hope will change is that you would get a little more time to help develop an idea alongside your clients; where there's a trust level where you don't feel like you're always having to pitch something so complete all the time.
KA There are definitely time constraints; or clients have so much money for everything else and they have this much money for design. But in times of recession, I think since budgets are smaller there is more opportunity for design - in terms of broadcast - more opportunity for pure animation instead of doing a big shoot. It can work to your advantage. In print, I keep seeing more and more illustration.
KF I agree. I love illustration and comics and animation, and I remember thinking there wasn't as much of it eight years ago when I was starting, but now I feel there's much more embracing of illustration and mixed media. I'm not sure it's tied to the economy as much as just the pendulum of what's exciting and creative.
TI What about specialization vs. a multidisciplinary approach? Does one offer advantages over the other?
KA Motion Theory is a design company. We do everything related to motion design, print design and commercials production. We're not just concentrating on one side of the business now. Our latest example is Nike Presto in Japan [see p. 17]. We designed all the print for Asia, for six countries, and did all their TV commercials. We worked simultaneously with a print team and a broadcast team. It's not just making end tags or main titles - we do everything related to motion design. I think we can never separate one from the other - it's all about cohesive branding.
KF We try to keep as many doors open as possible at the same time, because we don't want to be categorized. Most people know bits of our work; we've done many high-profile projects for film, but we do a lot more experience design and a lot of commercials work and print work, too. Keeping all the doors open is a goal. There are plenty of designers who say, "I'm just going to do type faces," and they're wonderful at doing that. But just because of the way technology is and how it makes collaboration possible, and the fact that you can edit and animate on the desktop and put it on your own website - I think that people have a more fluid approach to what a company can do.
MH Our background is very much in print, but we're finding that we do more and more web work and a lot of book design. We do a lot of identity work - we stay away from the word branding as much as we can - we like to call it dealing with personalities of companies. I think that's what we're successful at; when someone comes to us, whether it's Quiksilver or an editing house, that somehow we manage to convey some aspect of the personality of that company.
KB I have a firm that's 20 years old this year. We came out of print, but about nine years ago started doing a lot of other media, too. I'd say if we have an area of specialization it tends to be focused around launching or relaunching products or services. Our specialty has really been about being able to integrate all aspects of a campaign - everything but advertising.
TI To what degree is a client looking for an integrated design approach vs. simply making something look good ?
KB In the last five to seven years, I've been careful about how we position our company and what we do - we talk about design, but we make it really clear that part of what we bring to the table is a kind of problem solving. So I feel the ability to attract clients is increasing, more so than if we just emphasized design. As designers, we are so oriented to the final product. But if you focus a lot on that as you talk to clients, they can miss the point of what it means to buy an integrated solution.
MH I would imagine that it's hard to leave behind the perception of what you are best known for and do different things. For a bigger company, it's more feasible in a client's mind maybe that they can do a range of products. I'm not really sure where we fall, but I think a lot of it has to do with how we market ourselves. That's really key to telling the story about what you do. I go back to when Clive and I started PhD in 1988; the reason behind the name was we were alluding to the fact that we did think about the work, and if you look at the work that was being done at that time there was a lot that was really just decorative. And to go back to the question of is there a California style, I'm not sure there is anymore, but there was - it was somewhat decorative and I think that the stronger design firms have always stood apart from that. But if you look at California graphics books, there is still a lot of work that's really decorative. I don't think people are actually problem solving; they're just doing what they think the client wants them to do - doing a nice bit of packaging, a nice bit of identity work, a nice bit of collateral.
JB We do such a breadth of work, it flows downhill from Margo's personal versatility, but it can make it more difficult to market the company. We've had some success getting large projects where we really get to do integrated things - but often we'll get just a piece of it. Someone will want us to do only a logo or some other thing. We're getting larger, more integrated kinds of work, but it's still not consistent. I hate to say it, but the phone still rings often with people who just want to make something look better. There is a strategic reason why it should look better, and that's what we try to address - but that's not really what they're calling about.
KB I feel lucky, I guess, in that a lot of our clients will call us about, basically, a storytelling opportunity. I think that's what bridges all the different disciplines. When you're doing a title for TV or for a movie, it leads into this bigger story - a story that sets a mood and communicates a certain aspect of the film. And that's exactly what we do for advertising as well. It seems like there are more opportunities for stories to be told - screens are getting much more sophisticated. We've done things for sports venues and for stadiums where the screens are getting better and better - spaces where you don't think stories might be told now have opportunity for narrative.
TI Is the idea of design companies as problem solvers a more recent positioning? How does this notion play with the kinds of people you're looking to work with?
KB I think every firm should reflect the people that are in it - what their curiosity is about. I'm phenomenally interested in design, but I'm also phenomenally interested in how businesses work and don't work. Particularly with smaller companies, what we find is that people who call in - they know they need something, but we'd get to the table and find that they were only so deep into what their business model was and hadn't really figured out things like distribution. And suddenly you find while you were originally there to solve a design problem, you're actually doing something larger. The good thing about design is that it tends to coalesce people's thinking and people's articulation, so suddenly we became the people that were driving their articulation. Then people then started calling us in to solve bigger problems than just what things looked like. It definitely affects our hiring - we're looking for people who can think in terms of branding; who can sort through huge amounts of complex information and boil it down.
KF I think that's an important idea - taking huge amounts of complex info and boiling it down. That, to me, is the definition of design. It's not necessarily the visual. And the more we have clients that think of design in that way, the better all of us will be and our clients will be. It's not often you get the client who understands that - and when you do, its a magical thing.