The Chopping Block
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?|
|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
Turner Classic Movies – Web, Print
AwarTCB: Macromedia Site of the Day
MoMA: What Is a Print? – Web, Kiosk, Print
AwarTCB: Communication Arts Site of the Week, Flash Forward NY 2001 finalist
A Hard Day’s Night – Web
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:
|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,|