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A Discussion About Responsive Web Design - Fahrenheit Studio

The Developer Spotlight is an interview session with many of the top designers and developers of interactive media from around the world. This edition will be an interview with Dylan Tran, Robert Weitz, and Jim Thoburn of Fahrenheit Studio.

HIA: Dylan, Bob, Jim—thank you for taking the time to be interviewed. I am hoping that by sharing stories and interviews of developers all over the world, we may begin to build a sort of camaraderie amongst all of the Horizon Interactive Awards participants. In addition, this is an opportunity for us to discuss topics that are relevant to the industry and I hope that by exploring these topics, we will somehow elevate the web design world and provide additional value through our competition.

HIA: First off, tell us a little about your background: (where you are from, experience, how you got started, etc.)

BOB: I’ve spent a lot of time in my life creating things that take some effort to make them work. I started designing and making musical instruments when I was 17 years old, and then evolved into a fine craftsman, architect, digital artist guy who loves crafting brands. While Dylan and I are known for our playful and visually delicious user interfaces, some of our best cues came from tactile disciplines like architecture, furniture design, product and packaging design. We like making objects and experiences that delight and work well, whether they are virtual or worldly.

DYLAN: I come from fine arts, painting. I worked as the managing editor & art director at High Performance magazine, a cutting-edge arts quarterly, before starting my own design firm to do music packaging for Warner Bros. Records, Sony Music, among others. I strongly believe that having a well-rounded background, whether in the arts, music, literature or science, contributes to a healthy ability to think creatively outside the box, and that’s what we look for in our team, who are all very smart and diverse in their talents. Technologies may come and go, but its your creative process and flexible approach that will always allow you to adapt and grow.

JIM: When I was a teenager, I was creating advertisements and page layouts for my high school newspaper, and I fell in love with graphic design. I started making simple animations with BASIC, and realized I had an aptitude for programming too. I was naturally drawn to creating websites, which are, in my mind, a near-perfect collision of design and coding. It’s very gratifying—going back and forth between the two during projects. I feel like I have the best job in the world.

HIA: Tell us a little about what your company does, types of projects, clients, etc.)

DYLAN: We’re the branding people. We help take clients to the next level by creating living brands for them, and that includes everything from messaging, identity to website, marketing collateral, and even interiors. We work in a variety of industries, from retail and entertainment to financial and education. We like to work with clients who are forward-thinking visionaries in their field and who have a different way of doing things.

BOB: We see branding on the Web as a way to amplify a company’s culture. We advocate that our clients’ brands be “responsive” to their communities, so the user experience needs to adapt not only to the way customers move through the site, but to their emotional and cultural needs as well. The fact that the site adapts to any device sends the powerful message that this brand is made “just for you.”

HIA: How did you get started in the business and when?

DYLAN: Bob & I had a mutual entrepreneur friend who was starting up a blank media company in 1994. He came to us needing a logo, packaging, marketing materials, and also a product design and factory layout. At that time, we each had our own respective companies—mine a graphic design firm, and Bob had his own architectural practice. I enlisted Bob’s help to execute the 3D part of the campaign, while I oversaw the 2D design. Parenthetically, when you’re married, people always say you should never be in a band or a business together! But we ended up liking the collaboration so much, we founded Fahrenheit Studio the following year to do multidisciplinary design. There weren’t many other firms doing 2D/3D design in 1995, so we had difficulty at first explaining to clients what we offered. But we were inspired by the legacy of the Eames and Vignelli studios, and knew that the future of design was headed in that direction. We were optimistic that the right clients would eventually find us, and they did. Also, the emergence of the Web shortly thereafter helped us tremendously because those borders were irrelevant when it came to design and technology.

BOB: We work with different industries and in various media. The commonality is that we employ a rigorous design methodology where we research, design, prototype, test, tweak, execute and test some more. A friend of ours who is a famous film editor said that the best editing should never be noticed, just felt. A great user interface should connect, inform and delight the audience. If we can provide an easy-to-use experience that excites the user, then we have done our job.

HIA: What do you think is the most important thing about your work in terms of the customer’s perspective?

DYLAN: I think clients are drawn by the visual design, usability and technology of our work. But for the most part, they love the fact that we are also strategic in our thinking and can communicate their complex ideas clearly. We help them tell their story in a simple, powerful way that connects with their audience.

BOB: The difference between “junky” and “well-designed” anything is in the details, and the way those details fit together. Many companies hire a mishmash of different designers, writers and engineers to create their brands, so it ends up looking like a pastiche. Until recently, “design” for the Web meant “putting it up there.” Fahrenheit Studio has always stood for something a little better than that.

HIA: During some of our correspondence, we were discussing the importance of “Responsive Web Design.”  As we discussed, the judging panel for the 2011 competition singled out your company website and honored it with the “best in category” award due to the fact that it was not only a great looking and well done website, but it was one of only a hand full of sites entered in the competition that was built on a responsive CSS framework.  Can you talk about how you have been using this as a company and why you feel it is important?

BOB: This is our 4th generation website, and we always try out new ideas to showcase our design and technical skills. After I read about responsive design last year, I did some sketches and presented my ideas to the rest of the team. Jim had already been playing around with responsive design and was thrilled to take it to the next level. Together, we all tried to create a completely unique user experience that was playful and interactive. I’m happy that we were able to make this site almost as animated as our previous Flash interfaces. We now do responsive design for all of our clients’ websites.

JIM: The challenge is that we can’t know everything about our audience on the Web—what device they’re using, what disabilities they may have, and what content they need to reach. Responsive design helps us to create smart websites that offer content in a flexible container—one that doesn’t make assumptions about things like screen size or bandwidth. Our development philosophy is about controlling as little as possible, while giving as much guidance as we can. We trust that the engineers and designers who created our users’ Web browsers know their environment and limitations better than we can. We want our websites to simply work well for people, even if they’ve chosen to use a device that we haven’t specifically planned for.

This sort of thinking is at the heart of responsive design. Browsers inherently render content in a way that works well on their platform—so we start with that. We present the content and features themselves, as they naturally want to be rendered. And then we work to make the experience better. If someone is using a big screen with a lot of bandwidth available, we can do things like make product images larger so they can see more detail. We can also use a more sophisticated layout that exploits the available space. If someone is on a small device with limited resources, we simply give them the content itself—still designed and beautiful, but without complicated features that only work on a desktop platform.

HIA: Knowing that Responsive Design is the wave of the future, do you see a lot of old websites that may be converted to a more responsive platform?  Our general feeling is that there will be a lot of money to be made in the industry updating older sites to a more responsive design.

JIM: It’s already happening. Just take a look at the list on Media Queries (http://mediaqueri.es/). Huge websites, like BostonGlobe.com, have already been implemented responsively. Mobile use of the Web is increasing very rapidly today, and sites that adapt to different screen sizes will have a clear advantage with that audience.

DYLAN: I feel that sites that don’t adapt will quickly fall behind as responsive design becomes the new standard. Users will come to expect a certain level of browsing experience, and they will be frustrated with sites that don’t deliver responsively.

BOB: Great question. Responsive design is a baby step in the direction of a new Web generation that is proactive and highly intelligent in many ways. There’s still a lot to do to improve the way we develop websites—99% of which are poorly conceived, hard to use and serve little purpose. To me, responsiveness is not just about format. It encompasses storytelling, interaction and design as well.

HIA: What is your feeling on the use of Flash?  We have seen a decrease in its usage across the board. At one time, Flash was the “Go To” technology to bring unique and very immersive websites online.  Can we still use it?  What are the limitations to it in a responsive future of web design?

JIM: Flash was instrumental in getting us to where we are, in terms of the quality we see in websites with animation, movies and sound. There was simply no other way to do it. But now browsers—even on mobile devices—have features built-in that allow us to create almost anything we can imagine, even 3D graphics. And it just works better to do it right in the browser, without needing a plugin.

DYLAN: We were known for our Flash animation for a long time. But two years ago, we decided to switch over to HTML5 due to Flash’s compatibility issue with Apple mobile devices and its lack of SEO capability. Flash was a great technology that allowed us to create immersive experiences, but the future requires a more flexible, cross-platform framework and we’re able to do amazing animations nowadays without it.

BOB: Fahrenheit Studio was one of the earliest Flash design studios, and our work has been published in many books. We even met the guy who developed and sold FutureSplash to Macromedia, who then renamed it Flash. When Steve Jobs announced that Apple was not going to support Flash on their mobile platform, we broke out the champagne and celebrated! Flash was a “band-aid”; it was a necessary evil. But now I’m looking forward to a Web that is immersive, interactive space like architecture. I believe everything we do towards accomplishing that goal is the right move, and it’s fine to lose a technology along the way. Let’s think about what’s next, and say sayonara to Flash!

HIA: Changing the topic a bit... can you discuss why it is important for you to enter the HIA?  What does it mean for you all to win the award and how do you value the feedback from the competition?

DYLAN: I always make sure we enter the HIA every year because it’s a prestigious competition, and it’s an honor to be recognized by your peers as being amongst the best. Our clients love it too when we win. It makes them feel proud of the association with us.

HIA: Another topic changer... Where do you and your team turn for creative inspiration?

BOB: Everywhere for me—I cannot ever imagine being bored or disinterested. I live, eat, cook and breathe design. I find inspiration in all aspects of nature, art and technology.

DYLAN: We’re always checking out new art, architecture, and music. We get excited about cutting-edge technologies and seeing what people are doing with it. Also, I try to watch a TED talk everyday to learn something new. Not only is it inspiring, it’s like getting a massage for your brain!

JIM: Movies, music, visual art, podcasts, twitter… There are great ideas and beautiful things being shared all the time on the web. When I need any kind of a push to work or create, that’s where I go for inspiration.

HIA: Can you talk about a challenging moment in a memorable project or some interesting story about your team?

DYLAN: One of the most challenging and fun projects we did recently was an e-commerce site for Zansaar.com, India’s first online retailer for home décor. Zansaar is a new venture funded by Accel Partners (Groupon, Facebook) and Tiger Capital. When the CEO called us, we couldn’t believe that they wanted to hire a design firm half a world away to develop such a large site, but they were looking West for branding expertise and they really liked our work. So we ended up launching the site in 3 months, which was incredible given not only the scope and complexity, but also the time and cultural differences. We learned so much about Indian aesthetics, design, and consumer tastes. They were wonderful to work with, and we had a total blast developing the brand and website.

HIA: Do you have anything else you’d like to add to our interview?

BOB: Everyone here at Fahrenheit Studio really cares about contributing to the formation of a Web that has a much better, more responsive user experience. We hope it will be beautiful, useful and humane. So thanks to Horizon Interactive Awards for helping us to take a small step towards the miracle of a connected 21st century.

DYLAN: I just want to say thanks again for the “Best in Category” award. We are extremely honored, and we look forward to entering in next year’s competition!

Again, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.  I wish you the best of luck in this year with all that you do for your clients and we hope to see you all back for the next competition.