The great thing about advertising agencies is they force you to produce ideas very quickly. It's a totally different cycle than software development.
Please give us a brief bio of yourself.
I definitely took a non-traditional path to Creative Director.
I was living in Austin, TX in the late 1990s pursuing a BA in English and doing some writing for a local Arts 'zine. When I graduated I got swept up in the technology boom and did some technical writing and instructional design for a software company (CSC). While we were training our client's staff on the new software I started working closely with the dev teams on bug fixes and describing how the users in the classes were actually interacting with the product. This was my introduction to user experience.
I moved to San Francisco in 2000, and after a brief stint at a start-up I landed at the digital agency that would become part of Razorfish. Over the next four years I focused on content strategy and information architecture for brands like adidas, Red Bull, and Visa. After that I spent some time at Publicis Modem and eventually was hired by McCann/MRM to build and run the UX practice in 2007.
About a year ago Shu Lai approached me about joining him at Pereira & O’Dell. I had a long meeting with PJ [Pereira] and the thing I loved about what he said was that there's no compartmentalization of creatives like you find at most agencies. Whether you're a copywriter, art director or experience designer PJ expects you to utilize the appropriate medium to solve a problem. The majority of what I've worked on ranges from app dev to content creation so it's really a great range of work. Some of the brands I've worked on this past year are Corona, HBO, Lego and University of Phoenix. I've definitely found a happy home here.
Ok, so that wasn't very brief.
What do you do for inspiration?
I play with my six year old son. It's such a wonderful experience to relive my own childhood through his eyes, whether it's assembling a Lego set or creating these elaborate, on-the-fly narratives that involve random characters, like Spider-Man, Transformers, and Thomas the Tank Engine. Most of the time I just sit back and watch and listen. There's something endlessly fascinating about the elasticity of a child's imagination. They take whatever toys and environments they have on hand and just mash-up these worlds without any perceived limitations. it's the purest form of creativity.
Please list 3 of your favourite sites.
I'm basing these on usage rather than just design. Obviously Facebook is one I use a lot but it's also a maddening platform to design for, so not included.
What do you regard as being your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement has been assembling amazing teams of people that work with and for each other. These are really, really talented folks, and when you put the right group together, it becomes very much like a family. I was able to put that kind of team together at McCann with Alastair Green (currently ECD at Team One) and Shu and I have sort of repeated that with the group of people we have now. And that's really an extension of what PJ and Andrew have with the agency. They've hired the right people and put the pieces in place to create a wonderful culture that has a tremendous amount of energy and momentum. It's why I'm so happy to be here.
How many hours do you work each week?
I don't even know how to gauge that anymore. Once you're a CD you're kind of always thinking about work. When you have six different things happening at once you mentally carve out time to consider each one, so that a full day in the office might consist of focusing on one or two things, but once I get home I may see something online or hear my wife say something that triggers a thought for a completely different piece of work.
How do you relax or unwind?
I get the fuck away from technology. Rent a cabin in Mendocino where wireless reception doesn't exist and spend the first 24 hours compulsively looking at my phone, desperate to tap something or consume some content. Once you make it through that first day and time sort of washes away, I just feel my shoulders drop. A day that consists of sunrise, a few meals, a nice hike, spending quality time with my family, sunset, and a bottle of good wine is a damn good day. I wish I could make more of them like that.
Oh, and I also watch really old movies that no one in my family likes, like the Marx Brothers or Buster Keaton. Even my kid thinks I'm weird. Probably because I am.
If you weren't working on the internet what would you be doing?
Probably teaching. It's what I wanted to do originally before I fell in love with experience design. My grandmother was a teacher for 35 years and I had a hugely influential teacher in high school that made me want to do what he did, which was really to show kids that knowledge is the great equalizer and give them the confidence to seek their own path. It's one of the pleasures of working with a client like University of Phoenix. For all of our campaigns you get to meet these amazing people that overcame crazy odds to carve out a good life for themselves and their family through education and sheer determination.
I also would've loved to go to film school. I love the process of group of people creating something, which is why I like web dev and advertising. So being part of a production team in a different medium is a natural fit.
What's your favourite part of your job? What's the hardest part of your job? What do you do when you get stuck?
The favorite part of my job is definitely using or watching someone use something I've had a hand in creating. It's what I love about interaction design. Don't get me wrong, broadcast and print are both fun mediums to work in, but outside of a focus group you rarely get the satisfaction of watching someone's reaction to it.
We just launched a mobile app for Lego's Duplo brand, called Lego Duplo Jams. We were given these great little songs the client had recorded for the brand and asked to do something with them. Rinee Shah, who's one of our very talented ADs, created this great art and little worlds for the music. To bring home builds of the app and let my son play with it definitely qualifies as one of the more rewarding experiences of what I do. The app is really aimed at toddlers just beginning to use touchscreens, and he's a little older, but he still dug it and gave us good usability feedback. It was pretty special.
The hardest part of the job is solving problems in original and unique ways. It's always a drag to think you have a cool idea only to discover it's been done in some form or another. But that's really true of everything, isn't it? So you try and find that twist or insight that makes it different. I've done work that's really beautifully executed, but in the end it's still a game or a web site. That's not a bad thing, but I think we all want to be part of something that seems groundbreaking.
And when I get stuck, Shu and I just lock ourselves in a room with a whiteboard and scribble until we figure it out.
What's the longest you've ever stayed up working on a project?
When I started at McCann we spent 31 days in a row in the office, working on a pitch. It was an all hands on deck for a massive client and had 30 cooks in the kitchen. Needless to say we lost.
If there are any pivotal experiences/decisions you could point to that helped shape your career, what would they be?
Fighting for user experience to be seen as a creative discipline as opposed to a function of technology or strategy. While it's all of those things, to create something amazing there needs to be mutual respect between an art director, copywriter, and experience designer. Educating more traditional creatives and getting people to believe that was the right approach has opened lots of doors for me in this business, as well as allowed me to learn a ton from other disciplines about how to communicate through design.
What software could you not live without?
How about an app I couldn't live without? I'll say Flipboard. I Love it.
How many projects does your company juggle at any one time?
A lot. More than I actually even know about.
What area of web design lacks the most?
I still think it's a consideration for content. It's always been the problem and still is.
Good content is costly and time consuming. Clients get the impression that you can just build a shell and populate it "dynamically." That's a promise that's sometimes paid off, most of the time isn't. If that's the case then you're just an aggregator, and there are plenty of those. When a client comes to you wanting to communicate something to a given audience via the web, a lot of the time they want to be impressed by a beautiful design but aren't thinking about the best way to present information. It can still be a great design, but it needs to be designed in relationship to the content.
Are there any websites that have shone through as being pioneering in the last 5 years or so?The Wilderness Downtown. I remember the first time I used it, it just triggered so many emotions: nostalgia, aesthetic appreciation, wonder, curiosity. The term "experience design" is used quite liberally, but even without having an actual physical component, this was truly impressive experience design.
When dealing with major clients, how difficult is it to meet the needs of such wide target audiences?
It was much more difficult in the late 1990s and early 2000s when you had all these different strata of user capabilities. In addition to demographics you had to consider whether someone was computer proficient or they were a complete novice. I remember sitting in a usability lab in 2000 and watching a participant pick up a mouse and point it at the monitor like a remote control. Now the playing field is much more level regarding people's comfort level with interface design.
And while it's difficult, sometimes we all over think it. Yes, planners and strategists are critical to creating the right experience to solve the right problem, but to an extent everyone has many of the same emotional triggers that great design touches. People like beautiful things, they like to explore or personalize an experience. And sometimes you just have to pursue what your instincts say regardless of what the research says if you really believe in an idea.
What was the last digital effort you saw (or were a part of) that used social media in a way that really made sense. Why?
Shameless plug here. We just launched a platform for Corona called the Corona Beach Break.
It's based on the Facebook platform and challenges fans of the brand to complete simple challenges to earn points redeemable for rewards. Think of it as a rewards program for beer. But the social component is really in the challenges. If someone excepts an event challenge they can get points for scheduling a happy hour and getting friends to accept, so it actually uses social to make people socialize, and not in a virtual way. We have photo upload challenges here you score points for uploading pics of people drinking Corona in a variety of scenarios, everything from Halloween to a tailgate party. And we even reward people for taking a break from Facebook, so if you can stay off for 8 hours, to, you know, actually live life, we'll reward you for it. We're excited to see the people playing really doing it and not just trying to game the system, so we're proud of it.
The web is getting out of the web. Do you find that thinking in digital solutions alone hinders you? Do you feel the urge to solve the problem using all mediums necessary?
The day I walked in the door at Pereira & O'Dell I wasn't allowed to just think in digital anymore. At first it was difficult to not have to have my personas and flows and everything in place before I made a move, but it was good for me. The great thing about advertising agencies is they force you to produce ideas very quickly. It's a totally different cycle than software development.
Of all the websites you/your company have produced, which one are you most proud of?
Actually we quite like our site, pereiraodell.com. We worked with Welikesmall on it and they were great, considering it was kind of a side project among everything else we were juggling. David Kelly, another really talented AD, deserves the credit for all the work he put into it.
How difficult do you find employing the right people in a world where everyone calls themselves a web designer?
It's a great question. A while back we were looking for a good user experience freelancer and looked at probably 30 portfolios of people calling themselves interaction designers, or experience designers, or information architects or all of the above. Their book would look great but within 5 minutes of talking to them you'd realize they weren't who they said they were. And that's ok, but I'm more likely to hire someone that's honest about what they can and can't do but is willing to learn than someone trying to pass themselves off as something they're not.
And sometimes, just hire based on raw talent. Rather than be threatened by people who are more skilled or talented than you, always hire them if they're a good cultural fit. I know it sounds obvious but you'd be surprised.
What would be your ultimate vehicle to travel in?
An M1 Abrams tank. My father was a design engineer in the army and worked on the first M1 that went into service in 1980. How cool would that be? It would be even safer than my Volvo.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the latest web trends?
By keeping my finger on my mouse.
There must be a project that you have always dreamed of doing, what is it?
Redesign the American Film Institute's site, but have a massive budget to do it. They're always compiling these lists, like "100 Years 100 Movie Quotes". I don't always agree with their selections, but damn would I like to browse through them and have a cool experience where I actually get to see the clips. But you go there and it's just a list. I love film so I'd be doing more as a labor of love for the content.
What does the future hold for your company, or you as a person?
I try not to look to far down the road. I can tell you that right now Pereira and O'Dell is unlike anyplace I've worked before in the best possible way. There's so much talent here, in all areas, that it just feels great to be a part of it. So I think the future is bright.
Any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?
When someone is truly passionate about an idea, sometimes it's best to just stay out of the way. Don't think that just because you have the title "creative director" you have to put your mark on everything.
And real BBQ comes with sauce on the side.
It has been a privilege, thanks very much
Thank you. And thanks to all the great people I work with. It's because of them that we're even doing this interview.