For the third CR Readers’ Panel, we asked three digital designers to look at four new websites and reconvene for an online chat to talk over their findings. Joining CR were James Sanderson, creative director of New York studio Plaid; Karen Cinnamon, creative director of studio Cinnamon Creative in London; and Costas Michalia, director of London-based agency Crab Creative. The Panel looked at Kleber’s new website for Studio Output; a data-driven site for the McLaren Mercedes F1 team designed by Work Club and Pirata; Champagne Valentine’s site for US editing house Lost Planet; and the new-look blog, Thinking for a Living.
First up, let’s look at the new site for Studio Output. James, what did you think?
CM: I tend to agree with James but I do think the site could have a better filtering system, eg ‘show me print work’.
JS: Yes, all the work is shot or displayed the same way, so you don’t quite get what they’ve done for specific clients.
KC: I have to disagree in that I didn’t like the design. I was impressed with the functionality but felt that the brilliant work was overshadowed by this part of the site. It was too cumbersome, clunky and distracted from the great work on show.
CM: But you need to take a step back and understand the ‘build’ issue. We have two agencies here: one is showing off their folio, and the other is showing off their build and how clever they can be. It’s an issue unique to digital work. Design and crafting is as important as developing new and interesting ways to express code.
KC: But the Blog was hard to read on that background and the Contact Us page was a visual cacophony; way too much going on. Studio Output has some really stunning pieces here but the environment they’re being displayed in is, I’m sorry to say, poor. It’s not giving the work the stylish, simple showcasing it needs.
JS: The problem a lot of the time is that studios show their work in a similar way, which makes all studios look very similar online. This site is good for being distinctive, but needs work on the architecture and hierarchy. But I’m happy to see them pushing it.
The ‘pods’ mode seems to have more of a blog feel to it, allowing the ‘voice’ of the studio more reach. Is that an important aspect of a studio website these days?
JS: Twitter feeds and other live dynamics are features studios need to incorporate now. I’m excited by the ways we can incorporate all these elements. They need to be there, but here the background could quieten down.
CM: Sorry guys but the beauty of digital is to allow multiple views, layers, options. It’s not print, so we don’t have to settle for a single perspective, we can have everything and anything. We just need to give the users the tools to switch on what’s relevant and turn off what’s not, on an individual basis.
KC: But this is an agency portfolio site, where surely the prime aim is to show off the work of the agency, not to show a brilliant idea for functionality? If I can’t find what I want fairly quickly, or get distracted from too much going on, I will very likely move away. Surely that’s not what Studio Output want?
CM: I agree Karen; I’d like to see filters. Perhaps that’s the next phase.
But for me the answer is always the same: keep experimenting until you find something that works better than the channel you had before.
JS: For small agencies struggling to get their voice heard above the larger ones these new forms of communication platforms are integral. Sites are really just a hub these days for work that’s spread out throughout the net and viewed on different devices.
CM: What I love about the digital space is that clients can be as engaged in the channels personally as they are through their work. It’s wonderful that we can all create a YouTube video; the tools are there so clients understand them. Online, clients, designers and consumers are all the same.
Is that a view you all share?
JS: Yes. It’s a very interesting time. Obviously some clients are more willing to participate in these things than others. But it’s happening.
So what does the SO site tell you about the studio, their work?
KC: Very eclectic, innovative, experimentation over usability, avant garde, willing to take risks, non-conservative.
CM: Well rounded agency with a good client base.
JS: They’re a solid, modern agency. They can deliver.
Let’s look at the new site for US editing house, Lost Planet. Made by Champagne Valentine, it’s an “experimental online video channel and portfolio showcase”. What did you make of it?
CM: I loved Lost Planet. Yes it crashed Safari, yes it’s a heavy load but so what, it’s engaging and fun.
KC: Sick design, horrific colours, but for some reason it kept me intrigued and I loved the eccentricity of it.
JS: I found it amusing. Works a dream on a giant iMac. It’s really fresh.
CM: I’m just waiting for the net to allow for a sense of smell and touch and then we can really go to town on sites like this. I would have loved to be able to use my webcam so I could be part of the site.
Do you think it conveys more about the ethos of the company than a simple, clean, ‘accessible’ website would do?
JS: Yes it’s great to see the rules broken. They’ve approached it as raw creatives. It’s growing on me as we talk. A little like the 2012 logo.
CM: I think we have to be careful as it’s easy to get caught up in ‘tech’ and the ‘new’ for the sake of it. But if it adds something, let’s experiment. Rules are there to be broken by those that understand why the rules exist in the first place. But we must answer the brief.
JS: What was the brief here? Cult, tribal techno filmakers must create site?
According to Anita of Champagne Valentine, Hank Corwin, owner of Lost Planet, told them to “swim out as far as we could go”. The designers themselves describe the website as an “otherworldly portal into the psyche of Lost Planet”…
CM: OK, so the brief was have fun. Great – more of that please.
KC: Can I work for Champagne Valentine? What a dream.
On to the new site for the McLaren Mercedes F1 team, which comes into its own when a race is actually running, with live updates from the pits, the drivers etc. What did you think?
KC: I’m not an F1 fan by any stretch but I loved the cleanliness, the type and live content. The style reflected the content and it is very ‘on the pulse’ without being cluttered by the stats and figures. A nice balance.
JS: They’ve managed to put a modern, gritty, data-driven take on the sport.
Do you think it brings out the ‘behind the scenes’ side of F1, or even the elements of ‘teamwork’ that you don’t get on TV?
CM: Somehow that’s the weakness of the site. On race day it’s full of energy, with the feeds etc and then you feel like you’re waiting for the next one.
JS: But they could have made it very slick like F1 used to be, ‘go faster’ graphics and all that. That font is free, which enables them to use it wherever it’s used. Smart. It feels living.
CM: Imagine if the individuals were more flamboyant. How much more engaging would it be!
It is very different from the other F1 team sites, which are designed as you’d expect them to look. So Karen, your points about the design are relevant here I think, despite not being a fan of F1.
KC: Yes, I still found it to be an absorbing site. The cleanliness helped me feel ‘part of it’; I didn’t feel alienated.
CM: If Karen isn’t even into F1 and found it engaging, then the site works.
Using data like this is becoming increasingly common online, but do you think we are getting overwhelmed with information? Or do sites like this show how data can be a valuable or interesting commodity when filtered properly?
CM: There aren’t many channels that can do this and a well executed and engaging site can win someone over. When did having access to information become a bad thing?
JS: Eric Schmidt, the Google CEO, says that data geeks are the rock stars of the future. But I suppose he would.
KC: It can be unhealthy to blow the mind with too much data though. I’m turning into a hyper-info junkie and the net feeds that somewhat toxically.
So you need some filtration in place?
CM: Yes, of course, but it should be controlled by the end user.
KC: Yes, all the data here is neatly ordered and clear to follow. But maybe it doesn’t seem overwhelming to me because I don’t understand a lot of it!
JS: But I think that we will eventually ‘hide’ the data again as objects utilise it. There are too many screens at the moment, rather than too much data.
CM: Interesting thought: so you feel converging devices will help that?
JS: Yes, it may do. The way Nike+ works is a good example of that.
KC: I’m inclined to think the opposite.
CM: I’m of the opposite opinion too – the more screens the better.
Finally, let’s talk about the new-look design blog, Thinking for a Living. What did you think about the content and, in particular, the horizontal, keyboard-based navigation?
JS: I like that it’s really trying to interpret how we can utilise content on all these different formats. It took me a while to get into it though.
KC: I like the cleanliness of it but again have to admit I found the navigation confusing. Maybe I’m a traditionalist but I do love simple, clear ‘don’t-make-me-think’ sites. With this I’d be surfing it primarily for content. A good blog site design, however beautiful and experimental it may be, has to weave those elements in when there’s so much info involved.
CM: I’m a sucker for a site that almost removes the need for a mouse.
JS: But with the percentage of people reading on smaller devices increasing, they’ve clearly thought about what is a digestable column width when your page boundaries are endless.
Would you bookmark TFAL? What is it that other visual culture or design blogs get right that makes you go back to them?
KC: Yes, for the content. I love the simplicity of Ffffound and It’s Nice That. With TFAL, what about adding a navigator map like you have in Photoshop so that you can see wherabouts you are on the page?
CM: I would give the site a go and then drop it if I got bored. Welcome to the wonderful flexible and choice-driven world of the web! I did like their shelf section though – charming to have a bookshelf type feel on there.
studio-output.com; mclaren.com/home; lostplanet.com; thinkingforaliving.org
James Sanderson is the creative director of New York design studio, Plaid.
Karen Cinnamon is creative director of London-based digital and branding studio, Cinnamon Creative. cinnamoncreative.com
Costas Michalia is director of digital agency Crab Creative in London.