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The Chopping Block

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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

Published on January 22, 2002

Back in May of 2001 I was talking to Darleen Scherer over at The Chopping Block about designing a cover for Digital Web Magazine. Through a series of emails they agreed to do an interview, that was the night of September 10th, The Chopping Block's place of business was downtown New York. Since then a lot has changed. The acts of September 11th hit home for a lot of us but probably not as much as for those who reside in downtown New York. We are glad that everyone at the Block is doing well after the events that changed the world. In the weeks to come we were able to piece together an interview with the team. We are happy to announce the publication of the original interview with The Chopping Block.

Digital Web:

First I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. The Chopping Block does such beautiful and entertaining work that I felt we had to find out more about what makes The Chopping Block tick.

Could you tell us how many people work for The Chopping Block and what are their roles? Is everyone there a designer?

The Chopping Block:

Yes, there are 9 of us at the moment, the bulk of that number being designers. We have four Designers and a couple of Design Technologists who make our design work flawlessly. Production Artists who act as support to the Designers, providing design, illustration and HTML assistance on virtually every project that enters our doors. A Project Manager keeps us all organized and the rest of us help make sure our clients are happy, that payments are coming in on time and, generally, that we are all happy, working on fun, challenging work projects and being well paid.

 

Digital Web:

Briefly, could you tell us how The Chopping Block came into being?

TCB:

The Chopping Block was started back in 1996 by Tom Romer, Mike Essl, Matthew Richmond and Rob Reed – all graduates of The Cooper Union with a focus in Graphic Design. When Tom and Mike were both busy with freelance design work – Tom mostly print and Mike with web – they decided to start a company by combining their talents and current clients. At that early stage, their clients included St. Martin's Press, i-traffic (now an Agency.com company), and They Might Be Giants. They now had a name, a great logo, a love for wood grain and the color orange as well as similar sensibilities: they liked doing the unexpected and it shows in even the early identity, print and web work. Someone told them, "You design web sites that don't look like web sites." Well, although that wasn't a compliment at the time, they knew they were on to something.

 

Digital Web:

What is a typical day on the job like?

TCB:

  1. We come in
  2. We check email
  3. Everyone puts music on our mp3 server
  4. We order bagels from Murray's
  5. We look over our list of things to get done for the day. We call it TITS (Today In The Shop). We check our TITS and get working.
  6. We make fun of Tom
  7. We work
  8. Emails with links to nice design work, current events, and utter ridiculousness are passed throughout the day
  9. We work
  10. We make fun of Tom
  11. Calls and meetings with clients also happen throughout a normal working day
  12. We finish up and prepare for the next day
  13. We all go out. We are all friends, most of us knew each other before starting at The Block, so it's not a stretch that we actually enjoy hanging out with each other after a full day together.

 

Digital Web:

Does everyone at The Block have a formal education in arts or computer science?

TCB:

All the Designers have BFAs and two have MFAs from Cranbrook. Our Design Technologists studied Philosophy and just get off on doing and learning more code. The rest of us all have various college degrees with studies in the Liberal and Fine Arts.

 

Digital Web:

How important do you think having a good portfolio is versus having a formal education? Does a portfolio always speak louder than solid education and experience?

TCB:

Well, people come to us for our work. The education acts to give us more credibility, I guess. Although it's in our bios and something we talk about, it's not something we focus on. Some would say that the caliber of work we do demonstrates a formal education in Graphic Design. Designers pick up on it right away.

 

Digital Web:

The Block has received several awards over the last few years, from events ranging from the Flash Film Festival and the Adobe.com Spotlight to Communication Art's Interactive Design Annual and Macromedia's Site of the Day. Tell us a little bit about some of the projects you have released over the past few years

TCB:

Some of our most recent projects include:

Apocalypse Now Redux - Web, Print
Over the course of six months, beginning in March 2000, Francis Ford Coppola edited and remixed "Apocalypse Now" from scratch. Rather than returning the 'lifts' taken out of the film during the original editing, he re-edited the film from the original unedited raw footage - the 'dailies.' To get the word out about "Redux," The Chopping Block created a web installation arranged in seven parts, or "modules." Each Friday up until the release of the movie, a new module was added, adding to the journey and encouraging visitors to check back each week. To recreate the film's mood and give users an engaging and immersing interactive experience, we knew that photography and would be a huge part of this project. And it was our experimentation with action-controlled audio clips that enabled us to create an environment, which gave users navigation clues through the labyrinthian piece while the stereo quality helped capture the movie theater experience. "It successfully captures the mood of the movie and intelligently uses interactivity to achieve that goal," commented Coppola upon the site's completion.

Turner Classic Movies - Web, Print
TCM presents some of the greatest movies of all time, from the 1920s through the '80s, featuring the silent screen, International pictures, as well as all of Hollywood's genres. Their extensive library consists of more than 5,000 classic film titles from the Turner-owned MGM, Warner Brothers and RKO libraries, plus films from all other the major studios. This extensive collection of resources, coupled with the challenge to turn their static site into something cinematic with improved functionality made this project ideal for The Chopping Block. TCM also commissioned us to create a new site that would integrate easily with their existing editing tool, which establishing a new web identity. We accomplished this by adhering to their on-air aesthetic while establishing an entirely new online environment. To reflect the vastness of the TCM archive, the home page design changes regularly in accordance with their "Star of the Month."

AwarTCB: Macromedia Site of the Day

MoMA: What Is a Print? - Web, Kiosk, Print
MoMA and The Chopping Block collaborated to create a kiosk and web installation which uses engaging interactive animation to educate users about the art of printmaking, and demonstrates through examples in MoMA's collection how artists make expressive use of the four basic print techniques. The What Is a Print? piece aimed to interest and educate people in the art of printmaking by introducing them to the printmaking process. Deborah Wye, Chief Curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books stated, "This site accomplishes a fundamental educational goal of the Print Department in a way which far surpasses our efforts in brochures and other means. Through animation, it immediately clears away the confusion about technique that often obscures an appreciation of printmaking." The kiosk works as a companion piece to the museum's print exhibits, Collaborations with Parkett being the first. It will also have a permanent place on the web site, where art teachers frequent to supplement their instructions.

AwarTCB: Communication Arts Site of the Week, Flash Forward NY 2001 finalist

A Hard Day's Night - Web
A Hard Day's Night, nominated for two Academy Awards and starring the Beatles in their feature film debut, is one of the greatest rock-n-roll comedy adventures ever. Re-released by Miramax in Fall 2000, the film has a fully restored negative and digitally re-mastered soundtrack. The site celebrates the legend of the movie with never-seen-before photos, reviews as well as the original screenplay. To create excitement among people unfamiliar with the film as well as those who have seen it, we let the unique content drive the site's presentation. We did this by splitting it in two: Yesterday, a black and white section with photos of the band, facts about the soundtrack and actors' biographies; and Today, the Technicolor version that features backstage color photos of the band, recent movie reviews and the original screenplay. After its theater run, the movie will end up on a DVD release, where the site will live on.

Awards - Communication Arts Site of the Week, 2001 One Show Interactive Gold Pencil

 

Digital Web:

One thing that can be said about the kinds of projects that I see coming from The Chopping Block is that user participation in the user experience is a huge part of the work you do. This level of interactivity has set your designs apart from those built by others in the industry. What is the process you go through to create such interactive sites? I imagine you do a lot of storyboarding and brainstorming, correct?

TCB:

Thanks, Nick. Yes, we do a lot of concepting and storyboarding and the level and time that goes into this, obviously, varies per project. The ones that intend to be experience-driven (like Apocalypse Now Redux, Turner Classic Movies) or instructional (like What Is a Print? or the work we do with LEGO) all need to start with sketching, story boarding, concepting, more sketching and story boarding to figure out the best approach. This also serves to explain our thinking to the client. We know what we are thinking but it needs to be told in various ways. Sometimes we even do rough working versions to explain what we are thinking. And once the client and team all sign off, we begin designing. But the concepting never really ends here. Our process is structured yet loose enough to allow for the work to become what it needs to be. This sometimes even stretches into the development of the piece.

 

Digital Web:

In your opinion, what sort of mindset, what sort of approach, lends itself best to creating a powerful user experience?

TCB:

Well, it's trying to get in the head of the user. Understanding why someone would come to the site or kiosk, watch a DVD, play a game, or interact with a CD is the first step. Our goal is always to give the user what he/she needs and then give more. We want him to go "oh, wow" and stay because he can't tear himself away. That's when we have done our job.

 

Digital Web:

What do you hope a user's "takeaway" would be after visiting one of the sites you have designed?

TCB:

That was better than anything I even expected.

 

Digital Web:

I admit I'm alittle biased here; by a long shot, I really enjoyed the site you did for the movie Apocalypse Now Redux. Is everyone at the Block a major fan of Coppola's work? If so, weren't you a little intimidated in designing this site? I mean we are talking about an epic movie here… this isn't just your ordinary web site here. How did you approach this project?

TCB:

It's funny to think about when you put it that way. Yes, just about everyone here was a big Apocalypse Now fan, and when we got the call from Miramax about the project, who would head the design was an easy choice: Rob Reed. He's seen the movie close to twenty times and showed a lot of interest. He certainly did his research. Chandler, the Design Technologist, studied film and this project was one very close to him, as well. The two made quite a team. We knew this wasn't going to be the standard information-driven movie web site; it needed to capture the mood of the movie on an interactive level. We put the user on a non-linear journey through various scenes we called "modules" of which there were seven. Every Friday, a new one was added, creating this labyrinth of a site. And according to the folks at Miramax, Copolla loved it. He said it successfully captures the mood of the movie and intelligently uses interactivity to achieve that goal. We were all psyched to get the thumbs up from him. It was a pretty nice pat on the back.

 

Digital Web:

When you build these sites, do you do a lot of focus group and usability testing? Do you think it is important to do this kind of testing especially if there is some early indication that the user does not understand how to use the site?

TCB:

We don't do focus group testing. Many of our clients test our sites with groups, but it is not our core strength, so we don't offer it. Because of the type of work we do, navigation is either very straightforward or somewhat obscured intentionally to make the experience more engaging and playful. For example, most focus groups and information architects would freak out on TMBG.com, where most of the navigation is a moving target. It's perfect for their audience, though. People who listen to The Giants love that kind of weirdness. The same is true with Apocalypse Now Redux. If that went in front of focus groups, it would have never gone live. Sometimes you have to challenge the user and give him the benefit of the doubt. We generally think people are smart, not dumb. But, again, it's more about getting in the head of the user. Obviously, certain kinds of sites demand usability and focus group testing such as financial institutions and complex e-commerce, like travel, for example. So, to answer your question, I think we all agree this kind of testing is important in certain cases.

 

Digital Web:

Do you feel that Flash is always the answer for all projects or do you feel that a balance of new technology and old technology needs to be achieved?

TCB:

This is something we talk about a lot and at the beginning of every project. Although we feel so much can be achieved through the use of Flash, we certainly are not tied to using it when it's not appropriate. Sometimes small elements of Flash sprinkled through a site can achieve our goal very nicely. It just depends. We are, by no means, a Flash design studio, although some people may like to pinpoint us as such. We love design and don't really care what technology we use to create something that's really great. We just finished the package design for the new They Might Be Giants' album, "Mink Car." We didn't use Flash for that.

 

Digital Web:

Macromedia is contently evolving Flash and making huge improvements. Do you think that Flash will evolve into a realistic and usable technology as, say XHTML/XML with DOM, or do you see other technologies such as SVG becoming more of a mainstream solution?

TCB:

Well, that's a good question. Here is what one of our Design Technologists has to say about that:

"I think that Macromedia is already making huge steps in that direction, primarily by opening the SWF format. I think it will turn upon the way Macromedia develops the Flash player and plug-in. there are so many issues with differences between the Mac and PC plug-in, and a Linux player is desperately needed. The advantage of SVG and other XML based formats is that they allow for much easier multiple player capabilities. However, one great benefit of using Flash is its singularity of the player, which helps to ensure that one's movie will run everywhere. Just think of the nightmare of writing universal DHTML, with each browser company able to follow or break standards at will."

 

Digital Web:

Looking at some of the projects on your demo CD it is clear that you pay as close attention to function as you do the design. How do you find the right balance?

TCB:

We love doing both. We think of both from the beginning. We never design without thinking about how it will act and function for the user. So, we always have that balance happening. But we still let the experts do their thing. We also share a big open floor with each other, so collaboration is unavoidable.

 

Digital Web:

It's pretty clear to me that The Chopping Block takes branding seriously not only in your client work but also in your own product such as your demo CD, your business cards and even the clothes you wear (love the orange, by the way). When a client approaches you with a branding project what are the first challenges you look to overcome?

TCB:

Like our identity, we want to create brands that will work many ways, in any form and can take on a life of their own. When we create a logo system or strong design language that will give the client a really rich style guide, then we are happy. We usually go overboard and start coming up with ideas for how it could work in real life. For example, with one client we came up with a media kit idea (not part of the project but we just went with it) where a toolbox held various pieces relevant to the company and room for the informational cards in the center. The client loved it but was rushed to get a quick, more standard version completed, so the toolbox idea was put on hold. We really get into this stuff, definitely as much as we do the web work.

 

Digital Web:

What are some of your favorite web sites; be it for form, function or just plain old pure entertainment?

TCB:

linkdup, design is kinky, the Apollo program, google, amazon, ebay, house industries.

 

Digital Web:

The Block's work has clearly inspired several designers from around the world, so I have to ask, what inspires you?

TCB:

New York City and its people, self-taught designers and letterers, type design history, travel, and pop culture.

 

Digital Web:

In your own words, how would you define creativity?

TCB:

Not in my words, but the Designers here: The inner drive to make something, to discover through the experiment and to exceed your own expectations.

 

Digital Web:

If you had to define it, what would you call beauty in design?

TCB:

Not in my words, but the Designers here: Genuine personality and an evident lack of interest for the status quo. In other words, a Designer who can separate personality from trends. When something's hip, it's already dead.

 

Digital Web:

Many very talented designers and agencies are struggling to get by in a slow economy. By way of helping those of us who are in for the long haul, can you tell us where you see the Web in, say, two years from now?

TCB:

In two years, the web will look like sites that we're making right now. And our sites will be even better... but we can't really disclose details on that. Just wait and see.

A more serious answer: form and content will merge more closely, the end user being guided through relevant information with the aid of intelligent design. Also, we see it's natural growth alongside all other forms of media, eventually being combined with television completely. We do not foresee any sort of boom in the industry ever again but, rather, a slow and healthy growth. Those who make it through the next few years will find themselves to be among the most sought after professionals having survived the storm.

 

Digital Web:

I continue to be amazed at the work you produce. What can we expect to see next from The Chopping Block?

TCB:

A new site. We need to get working on that. We've had the orange farmer one for too long. The next one is under way.

 

Digital Web:

If there were something you could say to the next generation of web designers, what would it be?

TCB:

Become an electrician. There will always be electricity.

Seriously, someone here just said, "Concentrate on typography. Most designers don't know a thing about it." So, that's one opinion. Other than that, do what drives you and what you love. Great work has some truth to it, you know?

 

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Related Topics: Web Design, Motion Graphics, Web Guru

 

Chandler McWilliams, Matthew Richmond, Mike Essl, Rob Reed, and Tom Romer are some of the people that make up The Chopping Block. The Chopping Block is a award-winning design firm based out of New York that was founded in 1996 by a group of Cooper Union grad students. In short, their work speaks for itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site, NickFinck.com.

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