The interactive guru talks creativity and tech – and why you don’t have to have it all.
The interactive industry is at an exciting point. On the one hand, the capabilities of what computers and the web can do is growing exponentially; on the other hand digital is emerging off the screen and integrating ever more closely with the world around us – in every facet of our lives, from our pockets to our shopping centres.
For the past five years, London agency AllofUs has worked at the cutting edge of digital interactivity, creating advanced mobile phone interfaces, large-scale interactive installations, and pretty much everything in between.
On the way the agency has won a plethora of awards, including BAFTA nominations, and has been ranked as one of the most respected digital agencies in the country.
In such a rapidly evolving industry, what makes a good digital designer? And what’s the secret to AllofUs’ success? Co-founder Sanky gave us a fast-talking insight into the agency and the industry.
What do you think about the current state of interactive graduates? I judged the student D&AD stuff last week. The brief called for a window installation that was supposed to be interactive: it needed to be about summer and it needed to be engaging and that was pretty much it.
There wasn’t a lot of screen-based stuff there, which was interesting. The entries seemed to be either really technical with not too much idea of how that’s going to manifest itself specifically for the brief, or really conceptual with no real idea of how that’s going to be made.
So there’s a gap between the creative and technical aspects. I think in most colleges you’ll find that there’s a group of people who really understand the two, but it’s maybe five to 10 per cent of students.
My point is that you don’t have to be able to do both the technical and the creative parts yourself, but you do need to know what you can do with the technology.
You don’t have to be able to program, but you need to be able to understand programming and what you can and can’t do. People have this fear that if they can’t do it themselves then getting their head round the technology is pointless – and that’s just not true. Students have this impression that there are people out there who can do everything and I just don’t think that’s true.
What’s the most important quality a new graduate can show you?
An understanding of the overall process, really, because you’re going to have to fit in to the team and have things to feed in, so being able to adapt to new things is good.
Speed is important – to come up with ideas you’ve probably only got an afternoon or a week. It’s good to be able to have two parts of your brain working at the same time – so on the one hand you’re thinking, ‘That’s a good idea,’ and on the other hand you’re running a reality check, thinking, ‘But are we going to be able to do that?’
As much as anything else, you want people who realize that as graduates they’re going to have to work quite hard – nobody gets away without doing grunt work. Work sometimes is really quite hard and working with a group of people can be difficult: sometimes you’ve got to let your ideas go.
Do you find that new graduates aren’t equipped to do that?
Well, they’ve never really had to do it, have they? When you work in a group, even if you think your idea is the best thing ever you’ve got to be able to see the genius of someone else’s and say, ‘OK, let’s do that’, because in a work environment you’re all working towards a common goal.
At AllofUs we’ve always been quite attentive to sifting out things that are good and getting rid of stuff that’s not without being too proud about it. I think the best work has come out of being flexible.
Tell me a little about AllofUs.
We started the agency just over five years ago. The five of us directors had all worked together previously at Digit, and we got to that stage where the focus was on very big website development but we were all interested in how technology and the skills that we’d learned could fit in outside a screen environment.
We’d seen interest from a lot of disciplines – design, architecture, especially museums and galleries – where they were starting to look at interactivity not as a gimmick but as a real plus point.
When you go to museums and galleries now it’s what kids will sort of expect when they go to these places now: they expect to play, and learn that way. So we took a bit of a gamble at that point, and set up.
We split our work up so that it’s about a third web applications and web development, a third physical interactive work and installation-based work, and the rest is experimental research and development (R&D) stuff.
What sort of thing does your R&D work involve?
Most of the time it’s about looking at the relevant technology for the project, getting under the bonnet and seeing what the thing can do, and finding out its limitations.
So for example we do a lot of work with Nokia in terms of its user interface, and it has these things which are like organic wallpaper, which are data-driven dynamic elements to the phone’s UI.
With the Nokia project, it’s a brand-new technology it has developed: we had to look at whether we’re looking at PNG signatures, can we render 3D, how much can you actually write to the screen before it crashes?
We do a lot of testing to find out what technology can do, and find out the limitations of things – that’s quite important. We’re always generally fooling around with electronics, or some sort of defunct – usually analog – technology.
Are there any key AllofUs values that you employ on every project?
Distilling down something to almost its simplest form. We try as much as we can to not rely on gimmicks – I really, really dislike unnecessary bells and whistles.
We’re pretty happy with not having a house style – I’m not a fan of house style, to be honest. I think everyone deserves to have something new, rather than saying, ‘We’re XY, and it doesn’t matter who you are, you’ll get something that looks like we’ve designed it.’ I find that attitude a bit wrong.
Your work encompasses large-scale installations and small-scale mobile projects. Is there a trick to engaging people, no matter what the scale?
That it’s understandable, that you want to play with it, that you don’t have a learning curve to a certain degree. It’s always good to have a surprise, or an element of discovery, but it’s important not to have a barrier.
A good project should have little details that make it more memorable, and to a certain extent a user experience should remember you or adapt to you, rather than being exactly the same every time you see it – there’s not a lot out there now that doesn’t engage you in a customized way.
These days, things you can’t engage or customize I think are probably failing in some way. Most people are now in the mindset that things that are flexible are more approachable: the walls are starting to come down, people are getting used to having a voice rather than being broadcast at.
Does your background in graffiti influence your site-specific work?
The thing that graffiti taught me most that I use specifically for the installation-based stuff is really about the basic impact – the decisions you make about how you instantly like or don’t like something in the first seconds where you get to look at it is so inbuilt that you’ve really got to think about not just the work and the experience over time, but that first impact.
So one thing we come back to is: if you hadn’t seen the brief, would you still form a connection with the piece? And that’s what graffiti taught me very specifically. I learned a lot about colour and basic form – because the form makes such a massive difference, if you just pull something round 90 degrees it becomes something completely different.
It also taught me to draw, which is quite useful. Also, graffiti’s a pretty brass-tacks kind of activity to be involved in: people tell you straight away whether something is good or not. I guess the honesty of painting in a public space when you’re 13 or 14 gives you a certain level of sturdiness.
Which of AllofUs’ projects are you most proud of?
Some of the big websites were really good for establishing ourselves, such as the Habitat site. I like some of the stuff that’s a little bit more high street rather than those very cool brands – I’ve never really been that kind of designer, I quite like the high street style.
We did a project for Great Ormond Street which was this little identity based around a really simple idea, Make Some Noise – it was for a really good cause and was really easy to do, as well as being really relevant to the brand. The NHS stuff I thought was really good – the fact is that interactivity can actually help the improvement of patients in hospital, which is I think a very useful thing.
We’re pitching to do another big hospital thing at the minute, which everyone’s really excited about, because art in hospitals is really important. Some things that we did were kind of impossible to do at the time – the light train installation that we built by hand ourselves because we didn’t have any money left to get it built – that’s something that I don’t think we’d do any more because it’s just a bit more serious now.
Is the interactive sector less thrilling now?
I think it is: it’s not the same. Thirteen years ago it wasn’t a career, it was like, ‘Woah, what’s all this interactive stuff? Let’s try it out.’ Whereas now it’s a career path and that’s happened in 10 years – it’s gone from nothing to where it is now.
But then you think about how fast things change, it’s exponential, and people ask me what it’s going to be like in five years’ time and all I can say is I don’t know, but it’s not going to be like what we have now. And it’s kind of exciting.
I think what’ll happen now is that there’s a big pivotal change – everyone’s talking about Web 3.0 and what’s that going to be about, and I think there is another massive change ahead, whatever it is, we have no idea what it is but it’s not going to be a baby step, it’s going to be a big turn-the-corner idea. I’d be quite happy for that to happen.
A detail from the Make Some Noise project for Great Ormond Street children’s hospital. “I really dislike bells and whistles.” says Sanky, explaining that AllofUs tries to keep projects as simple as possible.
The Nature Window was an interactive artwork designed for the preoperation room of the Harefield Hospital. It aims to reduce the anxiety of patients as they wait to go into major surgery: patients bring the scene to life with light, sound, and animation by pointing at different areas with a special ‘air mouse’.
Logos from the Make Some Noise project, for Great Ormond Street children’s hospital.
Sections from the Interactive Canvas, a wall-sized installation that AllofUs was commissioned to create to test the capabilities of Microsoft’s WPF platform. Sanky says: “The project was really to showcase what you can do with the new platform, aiming to create something different from the standard product demo. People were pleasantly surprised, so it did exactly what it was supposed to do.“
Above, and left Sanky explains that a central part of the Interactive Canvas project was putting Microsoft’s Expression software and the WPF platform through some fairly intensive testing in the AllofUs R&AD lab. “There’s all these things it’s supposed to be great at but we found out it just wasn’t,” he says. “But then there were other things – for example it’s got a pretty good 3D engine in there, which was a bit of a surprise.”
Aside from largescale installations, AllofUs develops websites, with clients including Habitat (shown here), upmarket sex shop Coco de Mer, and Porto Montenegro.