Monday, April 15, 2013

Love desks

My co-conspirator on Can't Understand New Technology says "f*ck desks". Steve argues that, within reason and with common sense, it is unnecessary to show up to the same desk, in the same office, in the same country every day. And to a certain extent, I agree. He makes a sound case. Here's the thing though -- I love desks. I don't want to fuck them, I want to take them out for an expensive dinner and treat 'em nice.

Marissa Mayer's recent call to end remote working may have been controversial yet I can understand the reasoning. A company's internal culture is a key, if not guiding, component of its brand. For Yahoo to rebuild itself in a post-Google world, the focus needs to be on bringing its people together, under one roof, at desks, in order to start figuring out what they add up to and where they're going. On December 31st 2012 I made several big decisions. I decided to quit my job, I decided to launch a newspaper, I decided to go to California, and I decided to stop caring quite so much and just enjoy life. But it was the offer of a desk - albeit on the other side of the world - which anchored me. The knowledge that I'd have a place to plug in - and people around to work alongside - gave me all the courage I needed to act on these huge decisions.

Yes, today's technology means we can work from anywhere, but camping out in a coffee shop is only as fun as your next bathroom break. Is there any greater sense of loneliness than having no-one to watch your MacBook while you pee? No. So, for the past month I have been at my desk in San Francisco's Presidio at Suiter Creative (working title). Some days I was there all day, some days I just did a couple of hours, but in four weeks I worked, I wrote, I helped friends and I starting ticking off some of those goals I set back in the new year. It's the best thing I've ever done.

While it's true that most of my professional relationships and "strategic breakthroughs" have not been forged at desks, a desk nevertheless symbolises being part of something, of belonging. Next week I get a new desk and a new place to belong. I first emailed Wolff Olins in 2007, about an hour after I learned the term "branding". It's been a long - and incredible - journey since that email and I wouldn't change it for anything. But, of all the desks I've had the pleasure to sit at, this is the one I've had my eye on for a while.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Three studios. Boundless creativity.

In the past week or so, I have embarked on a creative safari and visited three incredible studios. In Austin, Texas I stopped by the awesome Chaotic Moon and here, in San Francisco, I was lucky enough to visit Pixar and Madefire. These three studios could not be more different in terms of the work they produce, but they are alike in their dedication to their craft, attention to detail and their instinct for relentless innovation.

Chaotic Moon bills itself as a mobile studio and, with The Daily, Marvel and Disney on the sizzle reel, there is no denying their prowess in mobile experiences. However, as I discovered on an explosive tour by founder Whurley, this shop is making considerable steps towards world domination. The word ‘awesomeness’ is emblazoned in two-foot lettering across the largest wall in the main studio and yet it somehow feels like an understatement. Standing in midst of soldering irons, hacked Kinects, augmented reality paper, 3D printers, mind-controlled skateboards and a blender, Whurley talked at a thousand miles an hour about his ambitions for the company which has grown exponentially in just two years. With new, big-hitting partners onboard, and as they prepare to move into bigger offices up the road, the intention is to split Chaotic Moon into separate divisions in order to bring specific focus to gaming, software and - Whurley’s domain - labs. “Right now we’re like eighties Metallica”, explained Whurley, “we’ve not gone mainstream yet, but we’re smashing it underground”.

Madefire is close to my heart. Ben Wolstenholme, founder of Moving Brands where I worked for four years, took the decision to realise his vision for the future of storytelling early last year. Madefire is a comic book reader and creator tool which fundamentally disrupts the way people experience comics. I was part of the UK-based brand team behind Madefire, so it was fantastic to finally see the studio in real life. Incredibly detailed sketches lined the walls and, upstairs, some of the world’s best developers worked their magic. My visit came just days after their announcement of a strategic partnership with DeviantArt - a relationship which will expose a vast, global audience to the artistry and progressiveness within Madefire. Personally, it was fantastic to see Ben and his team just as their months of hard work and hustling began to pay off and I look forward to watching a dedicated fanbase build Madefire to superhero status.

Last but not least - Pixar. I am going to struggle to find words to accurately describe my experience within the walls of this prestigious studio. Awe-inspiring? Momentous? Life-changing even? Nothing is more thrilling than being part of a team who collaborate with and challenge each other in the quest for the best possible solution and to see how a diversity of talents and mind-sets can spawn a simple, beautiful output is specifically what makes me love what I do. At Pixar this spirit of game-changing group think was infused into the very fabric of the campus. It was evident in the ‘visitor’ sticker I was given at reception, it was there in the infamous artist huts behind the main hall, and it’s there in the animations loved by young and old around the world.

My host took me through Pixar's art gallery to show how a broad range of artistic styles and nuances inform what culminates in a distinctly "Pixar" visual language on-screen. He explained how a sketch will move from script to story to character to modelling to shading to sets and props to animation to simulation to lighting and, finally to rendering. "And that's just one frame!" - he said. Pixar, however, is not immune to the challenges of the moving world - like Chaotic Moon and Madefire too, their future lies in keeping a keen eye on the horizon. New audiences, new competitors and new technologies are all finding their way past security and sizing up the giant Luxo Jr on the concourse. Little have these external forces reckoned, however, to the legions of monsters, princesses, cars and toys awaiting them on the inside. At Pixar creative infinity is a given. It’s what lies beyond which remains unknown.

Thank you to Whurley, Ben and Andy for hosting me and taking the time to share their stories, ambitions and dreams with me.