Feeding time

Digit won the Best of Show at the DW Awards, for its work on the MTV2 project. How does a small digital media consultancy follow this up?

By the group’s own admission, Digit is still a bit of a mystery to people outside the digital media sphere. Perhaps deliberately so. But to those lucky enough to know the people behind Digit – Digital Experiences (to use its full name) the digital media group is now legendary, almost too legendary in fact.

Its success with its MTV2 project is perhaps unprecedented for a small creative studio. It has certainly captured people’s attention, and deservedly so. Given that the slightest alterations to its own websites now spark a flurry of electronic fan mail, just try and imagine the impact that its forthcoming non-commercial project – Feed – is going to have.

Feed will see a full relaunch of its main site – www.digitlondon.com – and its experimental site – www. digital-experiences.com – as well as a forthcoming book (think laterally here), and an ICA exhibition. Feed is set to cause more than a ripple.

Despite an achingly-hip studio in London’s Hoxton Square, facing the side of what was, in Hoxton’s heyday, the Blue Note nightclub, Digit’s key men are not the walking egos you might expect. They come across in fact as the very opposite: modest, considerate, er “nice” guys who you could take home to your mum. To their credit, things haven’t gone to their head. They don’t “sell you the firm” like so many run-of-the-mill groups that have doubts about their own abilities. Neither are they spotty geeks or intense, extravagant eccentrics. Is this too good to be true?

Managing director Andy Chambers is the “boss”, which is probably tough at times; it is a role that requires heavy commitment. He apparently describes himself at the “financial gun turret” of the business, and is well respected by his creative counterparts. He has been, until now, an all too absent figure from the group’s public image.

He says that he has usually tended to stand in the shadows or miss photo shoots altogether – leaving the fame and celebrity to his creative colleagues. This may perhaps be a lingering habit from his dual life as global product manager for IBM and silent partner to Daljit Singh. But his individual contribution has been immeasurable: he has even written personal cheques to employees when the cash flow has dried up.

Singh, the creative director, is the ebullient smiling face of the group. An ex-typography nut from Nottingham Trent University, he designed the old Digit logo in a font called Knob Cheese. At IBM, both Singh and Chambers were “scared by the processes” and lack of creativity around them. They saw big holes in the corporate approach and carved a niche for Digit right there. The rest, as it were, is history.

Digit’s main men are now seeing to the group’s next phase of development. Having been conceived in a Nottingham kitchen in 1995 as Studio Digit, the company moved to Flitcroft Street, Soho in 1997 and on to Hoxton Square in 1999. It has just bought an adjacent office (its first) on the same side of the square as its current, leased premises, adjacent to the White Cube 2 gallery and overlooking the Lux Cinema.

Number 42, its new space, will alleviate some of the restrictions facing the 35-strong group and enable it to increase the size of its staff by an estimated five people a quarter, according to Chambers. The building is due to open later this year and will give Digit the opportunity to broaden and deepen the scope of both its client and experimental work. It will be the base for a new digital content team, a roof garden, a “quiet floor” and more focused project teams. It will be a place to entertain designers both at work and at play.

“Last year was a tough year,” says Singh, as honest and up front as ever. I wonder whether he means financially or in terms of hours worked. Both, as it happens.

His partner Chambers qualifies the statement: “We have been through a very worrying period recently and we’ve all seen a lot of mates getting in trouble. The big Americans [digital media groups] have pissed off back home and left everyone high and dry,” he says.

“But this year, right from 3 January, the phone hasn’t stopped,” adds Singh.

It’s probably a good job, what with the new office and the staff growth plans, and its plans to devote more time to non-commercial projects like Feed. This kind of work is critical to the forward movement of the company and the integrity and sanity of its staff. Such work is typified by its benchmark Balls CD-ROM, which got the group “noticed” in design circles in 1997 and is still a “must see”. But work like this does not pay wages.

Singh says things went a bit off tack last year. Arrogant venture capitalists were walking in almost every week practically ordering them to sell out; and the marketing communications networks were ringing up “looking to acquire a new media arm”, as the phrase goes.

“We could have been 120 people or more by now, but we never wanted to lose our culture,” says Chambers. The nearest that they got to it was an “alliance” in the US, but this has not materialised.

It all sounds a bit unreal, a long way away from the interactive CDs for Tricky, which spun the group on to Web fame with projects such as MTV2 and 007.com and its Great Eastern Hotel installation.

Digital slowdown has enabled Digit’s directors, including art director Simon “Sanky” Sankarayya, development director Orlando Mathias and design director Nick Cristea, to re-examine their roles and Digit’s future. These individuals, plus Singh, Chambers and broadband director Toby Evetts – the Digit management team – found inspiration for Digit’s new direction during a visit to the Natural History Museum in London.

The consultancy’s next experimental phase will come as refreshment to a sector bugged by stock market binges, media hype, and technology overload. Paradoxical it might seem, but Feed is about going back to nature.

“We arranged a trip to the Natural History Museum to research our ideas for the Feed project. We visited all the small back rooms behind the scenes that people don’t normally get to see. Then we came back and gave a presentation to everyone else,” says Sankarayya.

Nobody will say exactly how Feed will materialise, either in exhibition, book or cyber form, but the ideas behind it are intriguing and aim to challenge a few ideas about what the group and their peers do.

The presence of costume and theatre designer Gideon Davies might give a hint about the nature of the ICA exhibit. For this, says Singh, technology will be involved, but it will be invisible. “We want to build a whole set, but do it more as designers than artists, in that middle ground between art and museum pieces.”

Sankarayya explains the point: “The only way to break free is to start from another direction – that is, not start with the computer. We are taking ideas from nature – designing without necessarily thinking of technology as something on the computer.”

And for the book (not a biography – but something more interactive), they have been toying with the idea of creating some software to design it. We will have to wait and see.

Standing on the roof of its new building looking across to the corporate spire of the NatWest tower, you are reminded that Digit has another side: the blue chips.

Since the “arrival” of Chambers in a full-time capacity, the group has consciously expanded the consultancy side of its work for big names such as Deutsche Bank, Sony and Ericsson. It has also acted for a US consulting group. These higher-paying clients can obviously provide Digit’s bread and butter work to balance out the more experimental projects. It has also just started to trademark some of its digital inventions and is planning a number of what Singh calls “physical network products”.

More work is now done directly with blue chip clients than ever before, says Chambers. It was once necessary to work behind the scenes for ad agencies to get this kind of work, but increasingly Digit is side-stepping alliances like the one it has cultivated with TBWA. It is slowly being recognised by the very big client names, though often still as “the wild card” on a pitch list, Chambers admits.

As for Digit’s future, it will always be about leading by creative example: Number 42 will house the group’s digital content hub when it gets going and will also serve as a base for future collaborations. Various guest stars of all shapes and sizes could find themselves invited to rub shoulders with the Digit stable – but more likely it will be very low key. Some may be paid but most will not – perhaps more design groups could learn from the idea that the benefits of collaboration are mutual – and this can only improve creativity.

On the way down from the roof we take a peek at the ground floor, still resembling something out of Bagpuss until it is redesigned, with fake Laura Ashley curtains and a curious matching, miniature bed about 30cm long, left behind by the old occupants.

“You are not gonna mention MTV2 are you? I have had about all that I can take,” Singh asks with typical humour. He will by now be realising that MTV2 will never leave him; this is the price of success.

Andy Chambers

Job title: managing director

Key role: runs the business side

DOB: 24 October 1960

Course: Economics at Loughborough University

Previous job: global brand executive – IBM Server Division

Hours per week: 50-55 max

Described by colleagues as:’Has the ability to manage this business extremely well and has been instrumental in its growth but cannot design to save his life!”A generous, genuine smart man”Mans the financial gun turret, and also totally understands the need for design and innovation in the interactive arena’

Orlando Mathias

Job title: development director

Key role: interactive ideas and programming

DOB: 2 March 1973

Course: Fine Art at Cardiff University

Previous job: freelance interactive designer

Hours per week: 50+

Other passions: collaborations with dance and theatre

Described by colleagues as:’Inventive, reliable, very spatially literate. High quality delivery of some very leading edge conceptual ideas. Asks good questions at the right times”Too many ideas so he never gets anything finished, the fastest programmer I ever did see. Our principal programmer”Highly talented, with an ability to look at things very differently, but very messy and often miserable!

Daljit Singh

Job title: creative director

DOB: 18 March 1969

Course: Graphic Design at Nottingham Trent University

Previous job: IBM senior interactive designer

Hours per week: 70-85

Likes: Gill Sans Remembered for: telling bad jokes

Described by colleagues as:’Creative inspiration, savvy business head, extremely persuasive. Provides creative leadership and long-term strategic direction for our brand and culture”Frustrated Ballet Dancer/ leader”The key for new ideas, needs to stop worrying

Simon Sankarayya

Job title: art director

Course: Graphic Design degree at Nottingham Trent University

DOB: 28 August 1972

Previous job: student

Dislikes: Gill Sans

Hours per week: 50-90

Key role: look and feel, functionality

Other passions: currently involved in the production/ creative on a record project

Described by colleagues as:’Fast creative with great ideas and a big record collection”One of a kind. Extremely talented art director – bit of a font-head. Keeps a light but loose rein on our creative output’

‘Very talented pain in the arse’

What is Feed?

‘Feed will be the overall theme; the ability for users/ viewers/ players to input and receive output. The website will be first (launching in early April) we have also started with developing ‘networked products’ moving interactivity out of the screen, this will continue throughout all our work and allow us to investigate the bigger picture of how these elements may influence our work. Then, towards the end of the year we will be doing an exhibition at the ICA for a week looking at the whole concept of Feedthen hopefully a book!’

Singh

‘Feed is a generic title that describes our work. Feed can be input or output. It will be explained more by the three projects that we will produce this year (relaunch of digitlondon.com/ digital experiences.com, a book and an exhibition at the ICA). All three focus on alternative ways of interaction, both passive and active’

Mathias

‘Somewhere pleasant and intriguing, space dust, astroturf and oompa lumpas in Verner Panton’s Visiona 2’

Sankarayya

Client projects

007.com

Expo 2000 (Foreign & Commonwealth Office)

Boomagazine.com

Sonnetti

Open

Disney

MTV2

BBC News on-line identity

Hotwire for London Fire Brigade

Installations/ collaborations

Great Eastern Hotel installation

Jones [shoes] window display

Onedotzero festival

Consultancy work

Deutsche Bank, Sony, IBM, Motorola, Ericsson, Electronic Arts, Philips, OnDigital

The history of Digit

1995 Studio Digit conceived in Nottingham kitchen by IBM employees Daljit Singh and Andy Chambers

1996 Opened the business in Nottingham. It grows to four with the arrival of art director Nick Cristea and Simon Sankarayya

1997 In August Digit moves to an office in Flitcroft Street, Soho with just one client, but loses it (Bass) within a month. It drops the ‘studio’ prefix and is joined by development director Orlando Mathias. Its CD-ROM project – Balls – establishes Digit at The Creative Show in Hoxton Square. Logotype is redesigned. The five founding members grow to eleven over the next two years via ‘mates and referrals’

1999 Digit leases office at 53 Hoxton Square. Co-founder Andy Chambers leaves IBM and joins full-time as managing director

2000 MTV2 project propels Digit to design superstardom. Digit grows to 30 staff. Group turns down offers of acquisition during the dotcom bonanza

2001 Reports a fee-income of £2.05m for 2000. Buys additional office at 42 Hoxton Square for refurbishment. Grows to 35 staff by the end of the first quarter and plans to add five staff a quarter for the next year. Plans to relaunch its own website, www.digitlondon.com, on 1 April, which will herald the beginning of its experimental Feed project, inspired by nature

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