Published on August 26, 1999
Todd Purgason is perhaps one of the most influential creative minds in web design today. He is the Creative Director and co-owner of Juxt Interactive. Juxt is most well known for its use of Flash and other cutting-edge technology to convey a memorable user experience and a powerful message on the web. Some of Todd’s other interviews can be found on sites such as Sabre Magazine and Vector Zone, as well as in a feature of HighFive [editor’s note: link removed]. His works have won a number of awards, including the IPPA StudioONE Award, the Communication Arts Magazine Web Site of the Week, the High Five Award, How Magazine’s International Design Competition award for Outstanding Design, and numerous Macromedia Shocked Site awards. The list goes on and on.
|Todd, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. Can you start out by explaining your roll at Juxt and how you’re involved with the production of the web sites?
|My pleasure Nick. First, let me give you some context for Juxt and myself. My partner, Steve Wages, and I started Juxt eighteen months ago on the premise that we would either do this business right or die trying; that’s what happens when you put two perfectionists together. We had and still have the perfect combination of talents. Steve is a gifted project manager and communicator, with a creative background. I am a fairly creative guy with a drive to push the limits of things, but at the same time I have experience in visual communication and project management. It is through this Partnership that we have developed a business model that is totally focused on quality in the means and the end. As a result, our clients learn to trust us. This allows me as the creative director to develop the creative direction for our clients to step out of the box they’ve been living in.
We typically take on clients that are interested in using the Internet as a long-term strategic tool. We work with them to develop an Internet strategy as opposed to just building a site-we help them determine how to build a business asset that works for their company today and tomorrow.
We do a large amount of research into the client’s business and market situation and then develop a creative direction that reflects their business objectives and effectively communicates with their market. At the same time, I assess where they are creatively-determine what kind of box they’re in-and once I understand that, I work to develop a solution that will get them out of that box. I push them beyond what they’re used to and, in effect, get them to take risks that they normally don’t take.
In the office, I’m working as a creative director and a designer, either developing the creative vision for each project or brainstorming with the other designers to develop a solid creative direction. I do a lot of the Flash pieces myself, because in designing motion graphics, a lot of the design is done in production. Plus I love doing it-there’s something that’s totally gratifying about taking a static page and breathing life into it through motion and sound.
|You have a strong background in architecture; how has that prepared you to meet the challenges of web and media design? Were you able to adapt many of the skills and creative processes you learned as an architect to your current career? What other types of formal or informal training do you see as beneficial to web designers?
|In architecture, the bare essence of what we did, day in and day out, was create communication devices in written format, but more often visual tools like drawings diagrams to study models and so on. Basically in architecture, you jump through many hoops just to ensure that the client, the in-house team and the outside consultants understand how the building will come together and where we are in the process at any given time. On top of that, project management is a make-it or break-it situation-there is no winging it in architecture. You have to properly manage the project, or most likely you will get you tail end sued off.
So when Steve, who is also from the architecture profession, and I started doing web development 4 years ago we carried over a lot of the project management and visual communication processes that were a part of our daily lives into this new arena. Back then their were no experts, no books, or no resources saying, ‘this is the process used for web development.’ most people were experimenting and learning through trial and error. At Juxt we have developed some processes that help us to both communicate with the client and to manage the project, which are the backbone of our business.
Doing the job is not just getting the site built, working and launched. It’s also helping the client to understand what it is that we are creating, helping the them to get involved in a positive way, and helping them make the decisions they need to make when they need to make them, so that we can make our decisions when we need to. We work very hard to help the client understand what we are going to deliver, so that they get what the expect and so that they can be confident that the project is on track, on budget and on target throughout the process.
As far as training goes, this business takes an understanding of structure, organization, communication, technology and design. As designers, the most important thing you can have is creativity, the ability to think critically and to think out of the box. But you also need to be very analytical-you need to be able to solve problems with structure, navigation, design and user experience. I have seen many designers coming out of the schools that either know how to decorate a page to make it look interesting, or that want to force their style into every project they design for the sake of design-not to solve a problem. I think the real challenge is to draw a visually creative solution out of the problem at hand. I am a firm believer that there is no teacher better yourself, especially in this business. So my advice is kill your TV, move next to a good bookstore and devote an hour a day to personal development, and in time you will really surprise yourself.
|The process that Juxt has developed seems to be a key element in its success in continuing to build award-winning and original sites. Could you elaborate on how you came up with this process and also describe it for us?
|We are constantly evolving our process; we experiment with new types of tools and deliverables to see if they can make us more efficient or more effective. Our process is pretty involved, so let me walk you through it on a Meta-level.
We take on a new client and go through a strategy phase in which we have several meetings and interviews with the them and members of their business or organization. We do market research; we do customer surveys and we do a lot of analytical thinking. Once we understand the client and their needs, we write up a strategy document. At this point we also develop a site architecture diagram or diagrams, depending on the scope of the project. This is where we start to differ from other firms. We use Macromedia Freehand to do these diagrams, and rather than developing just structural org charts, we create illustrations that communicate the functionality of the site along with navigational flow and content interaction. This allows us to further explain how the site works with visual tools that they can understand-a picture is worth a thousand words.
Next, we break the architecture up in logical objective-driven phases, which allows us to get started. The architecture is followed by Creative Direction. We then develop the site design concept, using the objectives developed in the strategy and the information we have learned about the client and their markets, to develop the solution. We typically develop one solution, which we spend time maturing, as opposed to developing three comps as many shops do. It is our feeling that we will experiment and explore options in-house and determine the strongest design direction. We hone that direction as opposed to trying to spread resources across three directions, just for the sake of having three to show the client.
Once we have developed a design solution, we create large format presentation boards from the Freehand sketches. This is another area in which Juxt differentiates from many firms. Screen-based comps and presentation are very popular in this business, but research shows that presentation boards are extremely effective and do much more for you as a designer. A presentation board is a real, tangible object-the client can see how their design works across an animation or across the site all at once the can study it, analyze it and take emotional ownership of it. Screen presentations are abstract and they make what you do seem easy to create and to easy to change. Plus, most clients are not visual people so they will have to spend hours studying the screens of a concept to get the whole picture.
When the client signs off on the design concept we do the technical spec, if it’s a heavy technology project. At the same time, we develop navigational models and structurally diagram each page of the site in Freehand and develop our content schedule. The next step is to design the rest of the pages in the site. We systematically walk through each and every page or screen of the site and lay it out in Freehand it then post it to our project management system. This is something you’ve got to have! One of the first things we did at Juxt was build a tool, an entrant that allows us to interact with our clients and team members via the web. The best thing is that when we find a new need, we just build a piece for the project site that meets the need for this and all future projects-I love the web. Once the layouts are approved, if it’s a flash project, we use the Freehand SWF export to move our layouts to Flash; if it’s static HTML we just open our layouts in Fireworks and process for the web. Then we move into Dreamweaver to build the site. Finally, we do the database connectivity and/or tie the applications together.
Typically after or just before launch, we do promotional work for the site in print and other mediums. Since we started our layouts in Freehand we can easily re-purpose assets from the site design files for print promotions, as well as other branding pieces.
|On the topic of form and function-or the striking of a balance between flashy looks and practical content-how would you describe the perfect mixture of both? In your opinion, which sites provide the best examples of the blending of form and function to create the ideal user experience and to convey the desired message most effectively?
|That blend of form and function is always dependent on the audience and the objective of the site. I will say that navigation must always be well developed and relatively clear, no matter how flipped out the experience is. People on the web are too impatient to figure out a mind teaser to navigate a site-they will leave seeing a fraction of the experience you have to offer. I’m not saying, ‘don’t be creative’-what I am actually saying is, ‘be more creative.’ It’s much harder to create interesting but clear navigation than it is to just do some freaked out navigational metaphor.
As far as balancing design and function goes, I look at each screen I’m designing and ask myself, ‘what is the point of this screen.’ If the point is to communicate a mood, the design will be very heavy. If it is to guide the user through an application, the design is a tool to get attention and call the user to action without distracting. For example, http://bornmag.com is art and literature but it is more about experience than about having the words as plain as day for you to read. On the other end of the spectrum, PhotoDisk is about getting you through the process of buying stock photos; there is subtle sell, but the design is built to communicate, organize, and to explain how to use the site. Of our projects I think we struck a pretty good balance on Lundstrom and Associates Architects and The Process.
|Without any doubts you have mastered the perfect mix of form and function though design; what advice would you give to someone on this issue who is struggling to become a web designer in today’s industry?
|Thanks, however, ‘perfect’ is a very dangerous word, I don’t think I’ve done a perfect thing in my entire life, but we do work real hard at balance. As a designer, you often want to out freak the next guy, but that’s typically design suicide in the real world. If you’re doing work for the artistic community, then obviously it might be time for super freak, but most often you need to be thinking of the user’s needs more than anything, including yourself.
What I always try to do is focus on what the objective of the screen is and the micro level, and focus on the target audience at the macro level. With every project I try to push myself into new territories and to push my clients out of the box, design-wise. I stay up on the latest design trends on the web, but I do that more for appreciation and inspiration. I strive to make our projects original and not draw literal influences from other web projects. I try to find uniqueness through critical thinking; every move I make backs up the design concept or design theory behind the site.
If you start with an original concept as the seed and then grow the design solution from that concept, then your design should be somewhat fresh and intelligent at the same time. All the while you maintain focus on the purpose of the site and the purpose of the page. Also, when you start sewing it all together you need to walk through the site and make sure the overall experience is in sync with the objectives. We work real hard to create seamless experiences that flow well with no awkward shifts or jumps or breaks in the experience; we employ technology in ways that add to the concept and objective and are not just tacked on. We also work real hard to ensure that experience is driving the technology, and that it isn’t the other way around. All of our sites use databases for content in some or all places, but we don’t want the user to feel that. We want the experience to feel totally integrated. We live in the Experience Age-the Information Age is over-and more and more people will go to sites that offer good, intelligent functional experiences for their content, over just sites with content.
|When working with clients in an often artistic and conceptual industry such as web design, it’s sometimes hard to get them to see outside of the box and to see what a certain concept is really all about. How do you overcome this and what are your methods of helping the client to visualize the big picture?
|I call it ‘cover your actions.’ That is, ALWAYS be professional in your communications, documentation and presentations. If you’re going to ask the client to take a risk, he or she is going to have to trust you as the expert.
In order for you to build that trust, you need to come across in a professional manner. And I don’t mean show up in a suit. I mean be professional in how you run your business and manage your projects, use proposals and contracts. Always put things in writing, create schedules and budget reports and other documents that help the client understand how the project is going, and give them the security that it will get done. Also, do your home work about the technology, know your subject matter and then act confident in that knowledge; if you’re uncertain about the direction you’re going the client will pick up on that and loose faith in you and the solution. Then make your presentations the best that they can be. Give yourself the tools you need to create presentation deliverables that will sell your design ideas, and give the client security through the knowledge that you are creating a great solution. Walking into the client’s office with a couple of inkjet prints shrunk to fit on 8.5 x 11 is going to say to them, ‘I’m not really prepared and your time isn’t that valuable.’ If you walk in with large presentation boards nicely laid out and mounted on foam core, it’s going to communicate positively to the client. It’ll say ‘I have put a lot into this, I care about this project, and I need to really impress you, the client, because your time and opinion are very valuable to us.’
Also, the single design approach tends to allow us to push the edges a bit more; we’ve done a couple of projects presenting three designs, and what has happened is that the client has always picked the safest solution. So, by showing only one, your job in presenting is to explain why this design is going to succeed, as opposed to presenting three and deciding which is the most liked of the three. You can present one and focus all your efforts on making that direction extremely effective and not just different from the other two schemes. This is what has worked for us-I’m not saying if you do this it is going to automatically work for others, but I am saying that this is why we’ve been able to push our clients design spectrum out further.
|Macromedia’s Flash has changed many of our lives and the way we perceive the web today. With the release of Macromedia’s Generator and the up and coming Scalable Vector Graphics recommendation from the W3C, where do you see vector graphics on the web in, say, two years from now? Five years?
|Wow, that is tough. I’ve seen so much happen in the last year thanks to Flash. In two years I think we will start to see some serious technology gaps between sites, that is to say that there will be content developed exclusively for broadband and content developed for non-broadband. With the new advances in codecs we will probably see full screen video streaming at a very solid quality. I see Flash and video working more hand in hand. I see portals and online magazines moving to Flash because the experience offered is so vastly superior to static HTML. I see that visitors will start to demand more experience, and the majority of web sites that are serious about the web as a marketing tool will be forced to recreate their online experiences just to complete for visitors.
There are so many million domains registered today that if you were to visit each one and spend, say, 60 seconds at each one, it would take a lifetime to hit all the domains. What I’m getting at here is that competition for visitors will become more and more extreme. So if your spending ad dollars to get those visitors to a site, you want to give them a better experience than the next one to keep them coming back. So I see sites becoming more and more experiential and more and more personalized over the next 2 years.
Five years will look nothing like today. There will be other technologies that will supersede the current ones. We will probably be fighting the issue of super fast access over broadband; we will find ways to clog the pipe and need more and faster access. I doubt that their will be a browser in five years-it will just be a part of the OS. It could be something extremely different than anything we imagine now. But I do see that the economy as we know it today will be completely tied to the Internet. Many big corporations are going to suffer dramatically due to the empowerment of the little guy to compete with them. I think the entertainment industry is already turning on its ear due to this. Movies, music, video games will be built by extremely creative guys in their basements and will outsell the magacompanies on a regular basis.
I think in the next 2 years, more and more money will be invested in the little-guy entertainment companies as opposed to the giants, because they are fresh and will deliver what corporations can’t or won’t. But I could be very wrong; Nostradamus I am not. I will say one thing for sure, this is the right business to be in.
|Who or what would you say has inspired your designs and creative ideas the most?
|Architecture has always been an inspiration. Frank Ghery, Morphisis and Zaha Hadid inpiticular have been big influences, not so much in my web design but my creative thinking. From the world of print, David Carson and Nevel Broody are inspirations. And from the web I am inspired a handful of guys, Hillman Curtis, Jimmy Chin, Josh Ulm, Marc Klien, Matt Owens and last but not least Brad Johnson. I love to see the creativity of other people, not so that I can find new styles but rather for the joy of seeing new creative ideas spun out onto the web, making it a better place. I remember the days when it was not so pretty a place.
I do have one creative influence that is like the foundation of my creativity: the flower. If you look at flowers, the functions are all the same but there are millions of drastically different species-each a masterstroke of design by the master designer. Some of these masterpieces seem like such a balance of structure, color, opacity, texture and function. The fact that they are able to stay up is an impossibility, but none the less they do and carry out their function. This to me is a constant reminder that there is never an end to creative solutions and that my greatest design will always be trivial in comparison to such a masterful creation.
|How would you define creativity?
|Creativity, I think, is the outward expression of one’s inner ideas. I think some people are more creative because their thinking is so different from others’.
|What would you say is beauty in web design?
|How do you spell relief: ‘F L A S H’ he… he… he…
I think sites that are designed as an experience and not a page are on target. It’s so easy to see the breaks between technology, design, and content on many sites, I think beauty is achieved when you weave all those elements together into an integrated experience that achieves it’s objectives and enthralls the visitor at the same time. I think we’ve all been to cool looking sites that after two clicks we bail because the experience was convoluted or we know we wouldn’t get much more out of it. A beautiful site draws you in and gets you to go through the whole thing, and you want to go through the whole experience because you’re being delighted of educated with each new screen. To me, beauty on the web is an experience that is solid from beginning to end.
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.