I think we've already reached the point where technology isn't what holds back the creativity of websites. A sufficiently-motivated person with enough time and resources can basically make anything he or she can imagine already!

question Please give us a brief bio of yourselves.

Aaron: After a brief stint in product design, I Co-Founded Hook with Michael Watts in 2006ish while exploring Azeroth from my Mom’s house in a heartbroken stupor.  I call myself an Executive Creative Director - mostly because Emperor of Creative Domination sounds too pompous.  It’s all a farce though, I rely entirely on our super-gifted team to produce the majority of our interface and motion design work.

Ben: I’ve been running my own little Flash studios on and off for most of my life. I joined Hook in 2011 and launched my other big project, Cards Against Humanity, the same year. I studied cognitive science in college and briefly had delusions of grandeur about being a composer, but these days I’m comfortable with my established skills of drawing tween curves and writing poop jokes.

What do you do for inspiration?

Aaron:  For me, inspiration comes after long (often painful) hours of exploration, iteration and starting-over.  So I just work a lot – it’s a brute force approach.  I assume that my next revision will be more informed than the previous one so if I go at it long enough, sooner or later I’ll stumble upon something seemingly great.  It’s not as glamorous as hand-crafting beers from a window box garden or flying to Paris to scrapbook in my moleskin, but it gets the job done. 

Ben: I find inspiration typically comes when I don’t want it, like when I’m moments from falling asleep or in the middle of a road trip (I’m sure many of you can relate!). I think inspiration tends to flow in moments like that because we’re relaxed and able to unconsciously free-associate without the distracting minutia of daily waking life. Dragging yourself out of bed to go and slave in front of Photoshop at 1 AM or pulling the car over to write a note on your phone sucks in the moment, but it pays off in the end.

Please list 3 of your favourite sites.

Ben: Back in the day (early 2000s), there are definitely three sites that got my juices flowing more than others: 2advanced v3, the original WideGroup “Digital Experience,” and the heavily-animated NeoStream site with the spiky-head guy.

These days, there are so many incredible sites out there that it’s hard to even pick three without feeling like I’m slighting someone.

How many hours do you work each week?

Aaron:  90+ hours in an average week.  That’s how it gets done!

Ben: Between Hook, CAH, and my other projects, probably also around 90 hours. Aaron has the magical power to focus on one thing much longer than I can.

How do you relax or unwind?

Aaron: I read, specifically for an hour or two before bed.  It helps ensure that I don’t dream about work.  Also, I buy sweaters online.  And let’s not forget booze and video games.

Ben: My fiancee convinced me we needed a dog at the beginning of this year, and man, was she right. Having a dog gives you an amazing excuse to do all kinds of relaxing stuff, like walk around outside in the gorgeous LA weather for no reason. I also like taking a bath at night after a stressful day. For ultimate relaxation, I head out to a place with no distractions (e.g. the desert), turn off my phone, and do nothing for a weekend. Day to day, I find that a long morning coffee routine is an essential grounding ritual -- my fiancee and I have gone out for coffee together most mornings for the better part of a decade.

If you weren't working on the internet what would you be doing?

Aaron:  Concert Pianist or Dota 2 League Celebrity

Ben: I’d probably still have my delusions of grandeur about being a composer.

What's your favourite part of your job? What's the hardest part of your job? What do you do when you get stuck?

Aaron: Seeing your own work out in the wild is always awesome, but I get more excited when someone else here kills it and receives client or community praise.  Making something pretty in Photoshop is definitely satisfying but knowing that you've helped build an environment that enables people to find success with their chosen talents – that’s a void-filling accomplishment.

Attracting mega-talent whose shoulders I can stand on is, by far, the most difficult challenge.  If only I could clone Ben Hantoot…

If I get stuck, I ask for help from any of the 35 people at Hook who are both smarter and better looking than myself.

What's the longest you've ever stayed up working on a project?

Ben: I’ve stayed up all night working on personal sites.

If there are any pivotal experiences/decisions you could point to that helped shape your career, what would they be?

Ben: Choosing to always put in the time necessary to make a totally kick-ass portfolio site is the best career decision I've made. It has helped me get all my jobs, and it’s something we always love to see in applicants.

What software could you not live without?

Aaron:  Google Docs.  By the gods, that suite of collaborative editing software has transformed the speed and clarity of communication here.  Flash too, I suppose – even though it’s the obvious answer.

Ben: Obviously Flash and Photoshop. And like Aaron, definitely Google Docs. At CAH, we also extensively use HipChat, which is an amazing piece of collaboration software (written with Flash no less).

How many projects does your company juggle at any one time?

AaronAt any given time, there are between 10 and 20 projects running simultaneously thanks to the nimble fingers of our brilliant and patient producers. 

In terms of software, is there anything new you have been playing with lately or that has impressed you?

Ben: Grant Skinner has done something special with CreateJS. With everyone in client-land stepping all over themselves over “HTML5,” CreateJS allows us to actually do really cool stuff with the canvas without slaving over the horrific built-in syntax.

Who do you rate as being the top 3 design companies?

Aaron:  If we’re talking about digital advertising, I have a three-way crush going for: Fantasy Interactive, RG/A and North Kingdom.  

What area of web design lacks the most?

Ben: People very rarely implement proper fluid, re-sizable interfaces in site designs; most are still fixed-width. The latest buzzword is “responsive design,” which most often seems to refer to websites that switch layouts at pre-defined screen widths. Properly-architected fluid designs don’t need to be called “responsive,” because they actively scale and realign to fit any view port of arbitrary width. It’s a much greater design challenge, but it leads to a more usable website.

Has winning FWA awards helped you in any way?

Ben: Winning my first FWA back in the day immediately gave me a shower of clients. It’s still definitely the most-respected award.

What did your very first site look like? Is it still online?

Aaron:  My first website (1999-2000ish) was a brave imitation of version 1.0 of 2advanced.com.  Eric Jordan’s tweens were/are life changing!  No, it’s not online - phew!

Ben: My first site (1999) was a cheat guide for Diablo for Mac OS. I was obsessed at the time. It may still be online, but man, there’s no way I’m posting that here! 

Have you written any books, if not do you plan to?

Ben: I've been slowly working on a guide to interactive motion design. Many of the concepts can be described with simple math, and for a while now I've wanted to share how I do code-driven animation with other animators who may not be comfortable with programming (‘cause it’s not hard if you know how to set it up). Hopefully I’ll finish it someday!

Looking 10 years in to the future, how far can websites go?

Ben: I think we've already reached the point where technology isn't what holds back the creativity of websites. A sufficiently-motivated person with enough time and resources can basically make anything he or she can imagine already!

What was the toughest thing you ever did with Flash? How long did you spend on it? Is it still online?

Ben: Some of the 40k banners we've had to build over the years have been INSANE challenges requiring really creative thinking to execute big concepts in no space. One that stands out to me recently is this YouTube banner we made where the user got to scroll all around this huge wall full of drawings. It had dozens of drawings, a huge wall area, constant TV static, a shaky cam, mouse-following interactivity, a 15-second canned pan/zoom animation, and even some dynamic motion blur, all in 40k. Banners may not always be sexy, but they can be very tough.

Do you think Flash is here to stay?

Ben: My feelings on this change a lot. With enough care, I think Adobe could modify the Flash IDE to work as an amazing canvas editor; the basic format of a canvas-based site is the same as a Flash site and Flash remains the best motion design tool out there (unless you need the video-style effects AE provides). They would need to commit to it 100%, which is something I’m not sure Adobe has the balls to do. They claim to be doing something like this in the next release of Flash. We’ll see.

There is perhaps a shift in web use these days. We are seeing a decline in the purely experiential sites in flash with huge production efforts, to a relationship with clients based on tools and services, that many times have simples interfaces. How do you see that trend developing? Will Flash suffer?

Aaron:  Candidly, we still see requests for huge production efforts with expansive and deep branded engagements – it’s just that now they come with the stipulation of being accessible from a four-year-old smartphone.  Compared to the desktop-only sites of yesterday, even the most responsive designs still sacrifice functionality, content and pizazz (can’t say flash) to function on mobile platforms.  We’ll continue to see experiences rely more upon back-end functionality and non-intensive cpu technologies/methods until phone and tablet devices become more powerful.

As for Flash (my first love), not having a ubiquitous mobile presence has ensured that the suffering has only just begun.  At least we have banners, right?

Ben: I think this is a temporary phase resulting from the rise of the no-Flash smartphone. As phones become more powerful, we’ll see more crazy (non-Flash) websites on them, and that will bleed back to the desktop. Perhaps in another 3-5 years, canvas-based sites will run as well as Flash sites do now. It’s a shame we've had to move backwards, but we’ll recover.

What are your views on design/graphic school. Do you think someone can get into the field without educational experience in a school environment?

Aaron:  A strong portfolio is all one needs to land a job in creative advertising.  With that said, art school certainly doesn't hurt.

Ben: Someone can absolutely get into the field with any schooling (like me!). That said, I do think going to school would have taught me some of the more formal aspects of design much more efficiently than I was able to absorb them on my own.

If you were a student entering this industry or an aspiring FWA award submitter, what advice would you give them?

Ben: Come up with an idea that seems impossible, and then do it. It’s not impossible, and it’ll be awesome. Also, learn basic programming. You won’t regret it.

How difficult do you find employing the right people in a world where everyone calls themselves a web designer?

Ben: There aren't enough talented young motion designers popping up these days. The kids mostly come out of school wanting to do 3D animation and/or special effects. 2D motion design ain't going anywhere! We will hire you!

How do you keep up with the latest capabilities of Flash or do you rely on other members of you team to do this?

Ben: I like to stay directly on top of the latest developments myself, though in recent years many of the new Flash “features” have been empty promises. I will say that Flash CC’s upgraded video export feature is insanely good, in case any of you guys out there didn't know that yet.

What would be your ultimate vehicle to travel in?

Ben: DeLorean!!!

When your company was just getting started, what did you find was most effective for getting new clients?

Aaron:  Well written and formatted spam.  Also, long hours.

Ben: Executing one or two really amazing projects with no regard for time or money will give you awesome ammo to get future work.

How have you learned so many Flash/design skills and techniques and can you offer any advice for newbies?

Aaron:  For the longest time, when I discovered a site or design that blew my mind, I immediately tried to figure it out how it was made and then I copied it - thus absorbing those skill sets.  It was like Highlander except without the killing.  People just beginning these days have a lot more to catch up on than I did and the shift to HTML5/Canvas/mobile definitely presents more complications.  But the same method still applies, chop that website’s head off and suck up its power.

Ben: Definitely agreed with Aaron...copy, copy, copy! I must have spent days intricately copying the buttons from 2advanced v3. Also, make your own stuff for fun, even if no one else ever sees it...invent your own clients. And as I've said elsewhere, no matter how much you think it’s not for you, take an entry-level programming class. It will pay off.

How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the latest web trends?

Aaron:  Naturally, I scour theFWA.com.  Also, I look at Ben’s monitor.

Ben: FWA, of course.

What country excites you the most in terms of innovation?

Ben: Apparently, Brazil is a hotbed of motion design talent right now (looking at you, Antonio www.boobiesareawesome.tv)

There must be a project that you have always dreamed of doing, what is it?

Ben: There are a few! I would absolutely adore the chance to do a car interface design. I think most of what’s out there now is borderline-unusable, and I’m confident the team at Hook could make something so functional and so pretty that we could take over the industry. I've also always wanted to do a film credits sequence, as well as (on the more traditional side) lay out a magazine.

What are you excited about learning next and is there a long term challenge you are considering tackling?

Ben: I’m looking forward to cranking out some really inventive canvas-based mobile sites. Touch provides a whole new language to do reactive motion design, and I think we’re only just beginning to explore what we can do with it.

Any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

Aaron:  Don’t take jobs from people paying you from their own pocket.  Also, you can never have too many monitors.

Ben: If you have an awesome idea, don’t wait to use it in someone else’s project -- just go for it. Present your work in the best way you can (please, no more Cargo Collective!). Copy work you love. Do things people tell you aren't possible. And take a goddamn introductory programming course.


Aaron Schwartz
Aaron Schwartz

Ben Hantoot
Ben Hantoot


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