Spectra Visual Newsreader
Early Morning - November
It was an early morning in late November and we’d already been up practically 24 hours. The “guaranteed” hotel reservations for Matthew Ferrin and Samuel Mazur were anything but, so as our luggage sat behind the front desk, we sat by the strange continental breakfast gazing out the window at an endless flow of commuters on their bicycles.
Since we couldn’t shower the residue of a transatlantic flight off our bodies, we did what was the next best thing and doused our synapses with caffeine instead. It wasn’t long before our host, a tall Dutchman named Remon Tijssen, came to collect us to resume the never-ending day.
Two months earlier and about 4,000 miles west in downtown New York, things were a bit livelier in the “Woodstock” conference room of SS+K. Our msnbc.com client, Catherine Captain, had come in from the Microsoft campus to officially kick off a second year of our “A Fuller Spectrum of News” campaign. While much of the sophomore campaign was still to be determined, it looked like we had resurrected an idea for a branded, infographic alternate navigation minisite for msnbc.com.
We’d already created TV commercials, 39 weekly magazine ads, online display ads, an RSS-fed web game, a screensaver and the world’s first cinema crowd game, but the “Alt Nav” had magnum opus potential, and Woodstock was a fitting place to set a psychedelic, news visualization experiment in motion.
South of Amsterdam
An hour and a half south of Amsterdam is the charming city of Tilburg. Next to a drag of bars, an underground bicycle garage and the requisite cathedral sits the Hotel Mercure. To get there we had already taken a train, subways, a car service, a plane, two more trains and finally a cab, so it was very nice to hear that the Fluid office would be within walking distance.
The building had been a music school and was converted into a government-sponsored ghetto of sorts for creative entrepreneurs. There was no receptionist, you needed your own key to get in and many of the tenants ate lunch together in a small café area each day. It was sort of like a college dorm for grown-ups.
But as Samuel L. Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, “It’s the little differences.” At the far end of the first floor was a funky, single room office suite, about half the size of the conference room we had sold the project in.
It would be our daytime home for the next three days and we relished the fact that if we had a big, bad client at a big, bad agency they probably never would have gone for it. But there we were, as if by fate…
Finding the right partner
Of every hue in the visual spectrum, our favorite color is Traffic Light Green. But we just couldn’t quite get out of first gear when it came to finding the right partner to build what was in essence a “concept car” for msnbc.com.
So after weeks of fruitless Google searches, friend recommendations and a couple of emails to semi-famous info graphic artists, we banged a U-turn to a place we had passed through only briefly, TheFWA.
This time we rolled up our sleeves. First we hit the top Profiles tab and sorted by the Awards column. By looking at two wins or more, we had instantly divided more than 2,000 winning sites to the roughly 400 companies most responsible for the work. We divvied up the pile alphabetically and now had a fairly manageable task at hand.
We probably couldn’t have gone wrong with any of them, but we focused a lens on infographic design, transitions, behaviors, a mastery of short loading times and pure gut feel. We also eliminated other agencies and tried to avoid big shops since our budget was small and we didn’t want to get swallowed up.
The process was by no means a science, but it sure beat random searching.
Shortlisting the FWA
We got the entire FWA down to a shortlist of about a dozen companies — most of them in non-English speaking countries. Did the language barrier cause an evolutionary response to their visualization faculties?
All we knew is we would have considered the Galapagos if it would get us a better result. And besides, outsourcing is the American way after all. We broke the list down to three tiers and passed the buck to our account executive Katie O’Kane to figure out all those international exchange codes. With Catherine’s blessing, we hired our top choice, Fluid. [They had four wins.]
Like in America, Christmas was already in the air when we got to Tilburg. But instead of Frosty and Rudolph, they had Black Pete (Zwarte Piet), the servant/mascot for the Dutch Feast of St. Nicholas. Many stores hung blackface dolls and signs in their windows and walls, and on the main shopping night, groups of Black Peters with red-painted mouths and brown-painted faces would take to the streets passing out small ginger snap cookies to the children.
Wonder what Samuel L. Jackson would have said about that.
Cultural differences aside
With this one cringe-inducing cultural difference aside, Tilburg was a perfect creative retreat. Each day Marco Chistis [a.k.a. Blixem], Fluid’s big-brained programmer, would pop down from Amsterdam to put some of his own influence on the project, as well the authentic Dutch experience we at least thought we were having.
Whether it was the chemistry, the comfortable environment or the flow of (surprisingly good) Nescafé instant coffee, things really just clicked from start to finish. Remon and Marco didn’t always get our slang and sayings, but we always stayed on the same page with the work.
There wasn’t any “No” or “That can’t be done.” If an idea was good, it would be entertained until budget, technology or the RSS feeds indicated otherwise. We were always conscious that we weren’t just making a branding tool or a design piece.
We were architecting a new way to experience news in a playful way, but with substance. If we pulled it off, we would create a bridge for new readers to msnbc.com, and existing readers to a place outside their two-dimensional news comfort zone.
Three days later
After three days in Tilburg, the “Alt Nav” didn’t have a line of code, but it was now real in our minds. And after three nights, the culture of a little known place near the Belgian border was now forever in our memories.
Matt and I would get to spend one “relaxing” day in Amsterdam, and then returned to SS+K to begin the third act of the project. Naming it would be one of the last things we’d do.
Going full circle
On May 16, 2008, in a server room in the U.K., Spectra Visual Newsreader would come full circle when TheFWA named it Site of the Day.
Two weeks later Spectra received something none of us imagined, Site of the Month. We are extremely grateful for the accolades [and the traffic], but mostly we are grateful that TheFWA so easily tapped us into the kind of talent we needed to make our vision possible.
If Spectra was the spawn, TheFWA was the matchmaker. And we didn’t even need to pay a finder’s fee. And so for helping us make our project a successful endeavor, TheFWA will always remain a favorite website of ours.
In Order of Appearance:
HOTEL MERCURE TILBURG CENTRUM
Tilburg, The Netherlands
New York, New York, USA
Redmond, Washington, USA
Tilburg, The Netherlands
Hertfordshire, England, UK
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
About the Editors, Sam Mazur and Matt Ferrin
Sam Mazur and Matt Ferrin are an award-winning creative duo, together since 2005. They specialize in not being just specialists and enjoy trying to break new ground in all media new or old. Sam can beat Matt in arm wrestling, but Matt grows a much better beard.
They are currently working against the clock of Remon’s imminent departure to Adobe in San Francisco, to add new functionality to Spectra and to integrate the application into five touchscreen monitors and a wall installment for the new msnbc.com digital café at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City.