Engineered design, an agency profile

By David Howel

Originally published in Web Designer Magazine (January 2018, issue 269).
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Design is woven into the DNA of AREA 17. From its inception, the ambition to transform communication using diverse channels and approaches has shaped this studio. Today, few can match the breadth of understanding AREA 17 bring to the digital channels and beyond.

The beginning

George Eid founded AREA 17 in a corner of a large loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The space was called The Ranch and was primarily dedicated to George’s filmmaking activities. 1999 marked the first year AREA 17 poked its nose out into the internet fray, working for the legendary hip-hop label Tommyboy Records. However, the agency in its current incarnation was officially founded several years later.

In 2003, AREA 17 was a new agency in search of its symbol. George contacted renowned interactive designer and founder of Elixirstudio, Arnaud Mercier. After a few days of noninvasive coercion techniques, Arnaud agreed to assist in the creation of AREA 17’s visual identity.

Soon, it became clear that both George and Arnaud’s ideas played well together. What started as the designing of a logo turned into the creation of a mutual philosophy. The collaboration continued on a project basis until 2005 when the duo decided to tie the knot and merge companies. Arnaud left his studio overlooking a small Mediterranean port in Marseilles to come work face-à-face with George at The Ranch in Brooklyn, overlooking a dumpster.

Senior Design Director David Lamothe deep in thought. We’re not sure what he’s listening to. Let’s hope it helps him come to a decision.

From New York to Paris

From the start of this new beginning, their eyes were set on being an international agency. With clients from all over the world, and the inherently borderless nature of their work, planning for a European studio started immediately. Paris, France — the city of love and the home of croissants — was the chosen location. The effort was spearheaded by Dominique Deriaz, a blood-in-blood-out Parisian, who had joined the agency in 2004 as a senior producer and information architect.

Since the internet boom of the late 90’s and before her séjour in New York, Dominique had been working the web scene in Paris. She was looking to move back and opening the European studio was the perfect opportunity. In 2006, Dominique became a partner and AREA 17 officially opened its doors (and hearts) to Europe with its new Paris studio.

During the years that followed, George split his time between the Paris and New York studio. As the agency grew from both sides of the Atlantic, it became clear that stronger leadership was required in the New York studio. The reins were taken up by Kemp Attwood, who joined the agency in 2007 as a design director in the Paris studio.

Back in the day, Kemp and Arnaud were close collaborators at Blast Radius in Vancouver and immediately before joining the Paris studio, he was directing designers at Second Story in Portland Oregon. After his two-year séjour in Paris, he was ready to move back to North America and in 2010, he became a partner and the New York studio gained a new leader.

In 2011, Arnaud was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia and died on September 26 that year. Widely considered to be among the most important and prolific interactive designers, his death was a great loss for the agency and the industry as a whole. A permanent online collection devoted to his work is available at arnaud.area17.com.

Developing the agency

How does AREA 17 gain new clients? “Most of our business comes through word of mouth and reputation,” said George. “Many of our clients stay with us for years and recommend us to others. That said, we recognise that when most of your business is inbound, you are only working with clients that think of you. While over the years we’ve been honoured by the fact that many great clients think of us, we also understand that there are many other great clients that may not be thinking of us. As our agency grows, we look to develop our outbound activities through thought-leadership and active outreach to clients we’d love to collaborate with.”

How an agency approaches its business can be manifold. The work completed has to fulfil a number of criteria that not only meets financial needs, but also enables the studio to grow as a business. George outlined AREA 17’s approach: “Over the last 15 years, we’ve actively kept our agency small in order to maintain quality of craft and effectiveness of output. We’ve always felt that as an agency, we are defined by the clients we collaborate with and the excellent work we produce together.

“Choosing each client we work with is paramount to maintaining our mission because our clients’ success is our success. First and foremost, we look to collaborate with clients that have success on their horizon — offering great services and products through a team that is able to bring their own mission to fruition. But further, it is important to us that they have design as part of their business strategy (as we do not want to be in the business of educating clients on its value). And finally, that they are bringing some sort of good into the world, including the support of arts, culture, science and education. While there have been times where we’ve needed to take on projects because of financial reasons, we pride ourselves on the fact that most clients we’ve worked with are representative of our values, ambition, and mission.”

It’s behind you! Quentin Renard (Engineering Director) fixing some code that is misbehaving.

Work ethos

Like most studios, AREA 17 strive to ensure they continue to develop world-class original work for their client base. However, does the studio have an ethos that is enshrined in the work they create? George commented: “It is difficult to pinpoint a single project that is representative of our ethos as we believe that it is the entire body of our work (as a whole) that best represents the complexities and intricacies of who we are. It is a strong belief of ours that every project we work on must be representative of our values, ultimately pushing our mission forward.

“It is a common idea at AREA 17 that we are building a single platform across all projects — with common features being standardised and client-specific ones representing their differentiating factors. Internally we build developer toolkits that allow us to rapidly develop standard features so that we can spend the lion’s share of our time on the ones that’ll make them different, that’ll ensure our clients success.”

How AREA 17 approach the innovative work they produce offers an insight into what drives this studio. George outlined their workflow: “We work on many large-scale projects of different sizes. Excluding strategy only or design sprint projects, it is rare that we work on a full-service project that is less 4–5 months. An average project is 6–7 months and a large-scale one is 9–12 months.

“It is important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are not quick to market — on the contrary. When approaching a large-scale project, we most often break it down into phases that reach beyond the first public launch. Our first phase focuses on MVP (Minimal Viable Product) and the feedback mechanisms that give us qualitative and quantitative feedback allowing us to measure success and identify the roadmap priorities for subsequent phases.”

George also said: “We work in small interdisciplinary teams, ensuring that each person is vested in the project’s’ success. At minimum, a project team includes the following roles: Product Director, Technical Director, Producer, UX Architect, Designer, Interface Engineer, Application Engineer, and QA Tester. Additional support team is added as needed for larger projects.

Designing technology

“From an overall philosophy perspective, we are technically agnostic. However tactically speaking, we develop platforms using open source frameworks, libraries, and components. From a language perspective, we specialize in Ruby (on Rails) and PHP (Laravel).

“Internally we develop standardised toolkits and boilerplates that ensure quality, consistency, and rapidity — and allow us to rapidly develop custom solutions as quickly as a packaged one. As for design, we are Adobe-centric, designing mostly in Illustrator (see our design techniques). However, we are currently experimenting with other tools such as Sketch and Figma. For prototyping, we use various tools depending on project needs such as Framer, Invision, Principle and Axure.”

George also commented: “One of our founding principles was to create a new kind of design vernacular that is native to the internet. So, in our early days, when everyone was focused on Flash, we doubled down on HTML/CSS/JS. Our belief was that Flash was a media, not the internet itself, and if we were to design an internet-specific vernacular, then we must stay away from designing media (which includes broadcast design and other types of interactive design).

“This decision served us well and today our agency is on the forefront of web-based mobile technologies. As for jQuery, we do not use it a lot as it is bloated, however we do invest quite a bit into modern JS frameworks such as Angular, React, and Vue.”

Turning to design for mobile, George explained how AREA 17 approaches these design technologies: “While we have a great deal of experience building native apps, our focus as an agency is mobile web technology. We see similarities in the current web app vs. native app debate as the Flash vs. HTML debate of years past. Back then, we committed ourselves to HTML/CSS/JS as we believed that its semantic nature was more suited to the strengths of the Internet. That decision positioned us well as Flash died off.

“As with Flash, native apps are closed systems. While native apps allow for a high degree of customisation, fluidity and functionality that takes advantage of the smartphone ecosystem (notifications, data storage, etc.), Google and Facebook are both seeking ways to bring these capabilities to web apps. Google has created the Progressive Web App architecture that enables native app features on a web app and Facebook has created React Native to allow developers to use JavaScript (React) to create native apps for both iOS and Android.

“Also, with our commitment to HTML/CSS/JS in the past, today we are committed to web apps because they are open systems that take full advantage of the semantic nature of the internet. As an agency, we’ve made significant investment into web-based technology for mobile to behave more like a native app. We’ve committed to Single Page Apps that allow for a website — whether on desktop or mobile device — to behave more like a native app with transitions and fluidity, but with the added bonus of ubiquity. And moving forward we will commit ourselves to Progressive Web Apps and build up our skills with React and React Native so that we can build one app that can then be both web and native.

“As for responsive design, we see this as a starting point. Of course, the design must visually respond to a device. However, a mobile first approach recognises the importance of other technical subjects such as mobile performance, fluidity, ubiquity, and security. And of course, we believe that context matters when designing an omnichannel experience, with different usage patterns and expectations across different devices and channels (including offline ones).

“We tend to adopt new technologies slowly as our goal is to be on the cutting edge of technology, not the bleeding edge. Plus, it is of the utmost importance to us to deliver consistency on time and on budget. Our engineering team meets twice a month to discuss new technologies and as needed new ones are adopted and integrated into our boilerplates and toolkits.”

And of course, the rise of social media networks has meant designing for these channels must be an integral component of any development. George said: “While we are not a marketing agency, we see search, social and syndication as a key part of our work. The work we do is semantic by nature and must be machine readable. If we are going to design the overall experience, it must extend beyond the walls of the domain and across the internet as a whole, even extending into offline environments with connected things and places. When launching a platform, we have an exhaustive checklist to ensure adherence to best practices for performance, search, social, and other types of syndication.”

Some people just don’t like their photo being taken. A very shy member of the AREA 17 team.

Looking to the future

The breadth and depth of the work AREA 17 has created is thanks to the talent people that make up the studio. George outlined how valuable people are to AREA 17: “We are made of people and it is the success of our team as individuals that makes up the success of our agency. We look for talented people who have a consistent record showing commitment to their craft. But further, we look for curious, helpful, and committed people: people who love to explore, learn, and iterate; people who seek to collaborate with others, respecting the interdisciplinary nature of our work; people who like to help others and be helped; people who like to finish things 100 per cent. Ego has no place at our agency.”

As a dynamic studio driven to not just create new innovative work, but craft whole new experiences, what does the future hold? “Over the years, we’ve kept ourselves small in order to maintain the highest level of quality output,” said George. “And as a small team, we invest a lot into the professional growth of each individual. Because of this commitment to quality and professional development, many who join AREA 17 stay around for a very long time. In recent years, we’ve realised that we’ve become quite senior and because we like to keep project teams small, it has left little room for junior talent.

“In order to maintain our agency for the future, we must look to the role of apprentices within our team structure and that means growth. However, we believe that the world doesn’t need another large digital agency and if we are going to grow, we must grow our soul.

In 2016, Hannah Kreiswirth joined AREA 17 as global general manager. With the agency growing significantly and the industry growing around it, AREA 17 was in search of a link — to make their always implicit differentiating values more explicit and manifest in their business and operating model. Serendipitously, Hannah was in search of a new opportunity and found her way to the only agency she was interested in working with — the one not interested in being “just another agency.”

Having just left her post as Head of Creative at social impact agency, Purpose, she was delighted by the opportunity to put the strategy and systems in place behind the scenes that allow AREA 17’s interdisciplinary teams, diverse clients to thrive and setting the agency up for long-term, sustainable growth and success.

“With Hannah at the helm, in 2017, we’ve looked internally to ‘service design’ ourselves and the programs we offer. This will act as a foundation to our growth, as we introduce multiple levels of talent within the agency, and ensure that it doesn’t mean multiple levels of quality output.

“We are not looking to diversify, but rather become more focused as we grow. So that we can truly affect change within our ever-changing industry and be a wonderful part of the digital community as we all build the future of the internet and how it becomes an extension of our daily lives, not a distraction from it.”

The approach that AREA 17 takes to each piece of work they create is akin to engineering. Understanding how form and design integrate to create experiences in the digital space, is a skill that few studios master to the level AREA 17 have achieved. Code becomes not only functional in the hands of AREA 17, but also engaging and beautiful.


Also published at Optical Cortex.