I've always dreamed of someone coming to us with a few hundred billion dollars and saying "let's create the next iPhone". It's fun to think of the possibilities of what could make up the next mainstream electronic consumer device.

question Please give us a brief bio of yourselves.

Paul: Nick and I started Modern Assembly in April of last year. We consider ourselves a creative technology consultancy, which is to say we get off on strategy and concepts, in addition to design and development work. Our background is a mix of both.

Nick comes from B-Reel and helped start their LA office before moving to New York. Nick is one of those versatile coder-types who has evolved from Flash to HTML & Javascript, is passionate about design, and is fluent in a bunch of other languages and technologies.  I've worked at creative agencies my whole life, like Crispin, where I worked as an EP during the mid-2000's. I don't code but I make up for that by producing, handling UX, and coming up with ideas. 

What do you do for inspiration?

Paul: We read a lot and try to stay current on the latest trends. Not just in web design and advertising, but in other industries that involve design and technology. I like to read books on sociology, psychology, economics, art, music and culture.

It's easy to connect things back to the industry you work in. But if all you do is focus on the industry you work in, you'll probably end up coming up with a bunch of obvious ideas that other people are doing. 

Please list 3 of your favourite sites.

Nick:  Most visited probably are GoogleGitHub, and Space Jam

What do you regard as being your biggest achievement?

Nick: Starting Modern Assembly.

How many hours do you work each week?

Nick: Roughly 60 hours.  When we're knee-deep in production, then it gets to be more.

Paul: Yeah, but also when you have your own company, what's kind of weird is that you never really stop working. Sometimes I'll be in bed, trying to sleep, and in my head I'm working through problems and coming up with new ideas for the company, or a specific project we are working on. 

How do you relax or unwind?

Nick: Paul & I will sometimes break in the middle of the day and run to and along the Hudson River, it's a great way for us to relieve some stress and talk about important long-term visions outside the inherent stress of an office-space.  Also, staying fit physically will keep us fit mentally.  After big productions I like to take some time off and travel, as I'll usually come back inspired and hungry for more.

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

Paul: I think I would have been a musician, which is what I was planning on doing before I accidentally got into this business. I also really enjoy cooking and have gotten quite decent at it. There are a lot of similarities between writing a song, or cooking a meal, and creating a good piece of technology for the web in terms of mixing ingredients and having a creative direction that brings it all together in the end. 

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

Nick: My favorite part is getting introduced to bleeding edge technologies and figuring out ways to apply it to a creative insight.  I really enjoy when we're tasked to come up with ideas -- Paul and I compliment each other quite well and when we find our groove good things happen.  I also love the process, the uncertainties, the fog between concept & delivery.

Paul: Yeah, there's often that moment where you decide to jump off a cliff a bit. For example on the Tap Project for Unicef we sort of suspected we could pull everything off, and did some initial research to validate that. But you never really know what types of challenges you'll encounter. It can be scary to take on those types of risks, but it's important personally for us to do so.

Then when you end up seeing it all come together for the first time, there's this magical feeling, and also a feeling of relief that's really great. That moment when you say to yourself, "this is actually going to come together really nicely". That's a great feeling. 

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

Nick: Somewhere around 40 hours.  I'd like to dedicate most of the long hours to Internet Explorer.  Thank you IE8, life would be boring without you.

Paul: Back in my Crispin days I stayed up for four days in a row once. I actually started tripping. I don't recommend doing that. Back then there was sort of this pride we took in staying up to get work done, but now that I've grown up a bit I realize how stupid and unnecessary it was. Your work suffers, and it's an easy way to make up for inefficiencies elsewhere in the process that could be fixed by working smarter. 

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

Nick: Pursuing a Bachelors in Computer Science instead of living in a van and playing music was a critical decision I made at 18.  I'm pretty glad I took that route, although my current apartment is probably the size of a large van.  Another key experience was leaving my comfort zone in California to chase opportunities in New York.

Paul: Yeah, I think for me it's been the moments where I sort of left what was comfortable to go into an uncomfortable situation and challenge myself. Going from the Minneapolis Ad Scene to work at Crispin was one of those. Leaving Crispin to become a partner at a small shop was another. Leaving that place to start Modern Assembly was another. But in each case by putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation you grow and become better at your craft. 

What software could you not live without?

Nick: At this moment, Sublime Text, iTerm, Chrome, Spotify, Google Maps

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

Nick: This is subject to change with our size, but including our internal projects, 2-5.

Paul: We have a pretty flexible model whereby we team up with a lot of our friends who are independent creative techs in the NYC area, which makes juggling things easy, since everyone is so Sr. But it's also nice because we never have to take projects on just to make our monthly payroll.  

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

Nick: I just did a lot of experimentation with projection mapping in the past week, and I'm really excited with the possibilities of MadMapper & Syphon.  

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

Nick:  Italic is an up and coming design studio in LA, and Knurling in NYC.  And I'm a big fan of SerialCut.

Paul: Yeah, we are really big fans of all the up and coming places out there. The people who are sort of shifting the status quo by doing great design work with small and scrappy teams. 

What effect on traffic do your new designs have?

Paul: In terms of driving traffic, it really depends. But design plays a really crucial role. For example, the Tap Project drove millions and millions of people from around the world to use the website with no media buy. It was the combination of a great concept, a good cause, great design, and really seamless tech implementation that made that possible. 

Who is your target audience?

Paul: We are pretty flexible with who we work with. We work with a lot of ad agencies, but we also work directly with brands, non-profits, like Al Gore's Climate Reality Project, and we partner with different studios that we like. At the end of the day we want to work with people who appreciate innovative work and have an opportunity to do something innovative. 

What area of web design lacks the most?

Paul: I think one area that is still a bit behind the curve is mobile. We are still trying to figure out (as in the collective, industry "we") how to design for mobile. Responsive design works. But it's not always the right choice and I think sometimes people forget that. With the Tap Project, for example, we started with mobile - we made that experience great, and then we did a desktop site that worked as an advertisement for the mobile experience. I think too often people get caught up in trends like responsive design and lose site of the problem you are trying to solve. Good design should always be solving a problem. 

Are there any websites that have shone through as being pioneering in the last 5 years or so?

Paul: I know this is a bit cheesy, but the Wilderness Downtown site still gets me off, and that site came out quite a while ago. Definitely ahead of it's time. 

Nick: The Chrome Web Lab and Rome were inspiring from a technical standpoint.  Sites like Labuat,  Intel's Museum of Me and Wilderness Downtown managed to create a unique emotional connection with the user, which is very hard to achieve nowadays.

Has winning FWA awards helped you in any way?

Paul: We've won FWA awards in the past, Nick at B-reel, and me at Crispin and Amalgamated, but the Tap Project for Unicef is our first FWA award under the banner of our own company.

So hopefully people will see the award, and read this interview, and decide to give Modern Assembly projects with really giant budgets so we can go buy fur coats. If you see us wearing a fur coats anytime soon, you'll know that the FWA has helped us. 

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?

Paul: We did a photo contest for Diet Coke and Taylor Swift last year with Droga5 that used social media for photo submission. People could submit through Vine and Instagram to partake in the campaign.

For an artist with such a giant social media following, this made a ton of sense, and all of our media for the most part (or at least the media that was really successful) came from Taylor asking her fans and followers to participate. I think it's really easy for people to come up with complex social applications that use social data in interesting ways, but don't really jive with consumer behavior.

It's important to take a step back and think about how consumers actually use social, and how your idea fits into that, versus trying to force consumers to create new social behaviors to partake in your idea. 

Have you been a part of a campaign that was rooted in digital and THEN reached over into other consumer touchpoints? Did this happen organically or was it a part of the plan from the beginning?

Paul: With the Tap Project the whole thing started with the idea for this native mobile application, and next thing you know, the whole thing was so successful we were seeing unplanned print ads on the back of Time Magazine and billboards running in Time's Square.

Unicef was able to get people to donate that media because the idea was so strong, and the execution became really popular. While that was done organically, it can definitely be something that's planned as well. People are sick of marketers pitching them stories, so when you have a really innovative digital idea that demonstrates the story, or is the story, it can make it much easier to cut through other mediums. 

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?

Paul: Web is kind of cool as a medium, and still is quite useful for solving a problem. But the possibilities really open up when you think about solving problems with technology in a broad sense. For example, we are really getting into building physical devices that connect to the web. We have a few upcoming projects that we can't talk about that demonstrate this really well. And the feedback we are getting on them is quite great, since the combination of digital and physical creates an emotion that is somewhat new and unfamiliar to people. 

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

Paul: In terms of the word "site" I think we're going to see that type of thinking evolve a bit. The Tap Project, for example, felt like a native app but it was browser based and technically speaking, a website. As we start to apply that thinking to new interfaces, and look at where the industry in Silicon Valley is taking us with this new revolution of connected devices, the possibilities are quite endless. 

Do you think Flash is here to stay?

Nick: As long as it's a plugin that large-market share browsers don't support (i.e. iOS), I think it will exponentially lose support from the end-client, and therefore developers.  The tight-knit Flash community has propagated into the world of web standards, which is a great thing, as we now have more people and companies helping to advance the standard in really exciting directions (i.e. Web Components, WebRTC to name a couple hot ones at the moment).  

What would be your ultimate vehicle to travel in?

Nick:  A private jet piloted by Liam Neeson(s) and powered by the tears of American Airline employees.  

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

Nick: Building prototypes and showing people, and asking for people's opinions on presentations about our company.  It was both valuable to get people's take on what we are trying to do, and many times conversations ended with "...and we might have a brief to send your way".  

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

Nick: Twitter, FWA, GitHub, attending conferences

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

Paul: I want to build an interface that will allow me to automate all of the shitty things in life that I don't want to do. Chores, laundry, grocery shopping, answering calls from my parents, etc. 

Nick: I've always dreamed of someone coming to us with a few hundred billion dollars and saying "let's create the next iPhone".  It's fun to think of the possibilities of what could make up the next mainstream electronic consumer device.  

What does the future hold for your company, or you as a person?

Paul: We're increasingly focused on innovation in general. The fascination with web comes and goes, and I think in general the industry is shifting to spend less and less on websites. But when you open up to the big picture and focus in general on innovative solutions that involve design and technology, I think there will always be an appetite (and a budget) for that type of work. 

What is the most expensive thing you have bought in the last week?

Nick: The new Oculus Rift.    

Any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

Paul: Eat healthy and get exercise. It sounds cheesy, but when your body is healthy your mind is healthy. And that leads to better work in my opinion. 

Nick: Stay restless and out of your comfort zone.  Don't compare yourself to other people, but to yourself 6 months ago. Work hard and be nice to people!

It has been a privilege, thanks very much

Thank you Rob!  


Nick Jonas
Nick Jonas

Paul Aaron
Paul Aaron

Modern Assembly's rooftop studio
Modern Assembly's rooftop studio

Our first project, a social media campaign for Diet Coke & Taylor Swift.
Our first project, a social media campaign for Diet Coke & Taylor Swift.

The Cost of Carbon is a tool we built for Al Gore, where people can discover what they pay as a result of CO2 emissions.
The Cost of Carbon is a tool we built for Al Gore, where people can discover what they pay as a result of CO2 emissions.

A realtime WebGL data visualization of who loves their job and hates their job in the USA, based on tweets.
A realtime WebGL data visualization of who loves their job and hates their job in the USA, based on tweets.

A WebGL visualization of your Facebook network, cross-referencing available jobs on Monster.com with your network.
A WebGL visualization of your Facebook network, cross-referencing available jobs on Monster.com with your network.

Based on a javascript smile detection algorithm, we created a way to lift weights by smiling.
Based on a javascript smile detection algorithm, we created a way to lift weights by smiling.

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