Net Profits

Yolanda Zappaterra charts the ways design consultancies can tap into the ever expanding market of new media and give the ad agencies a run for their money.

According to Peter Matthews, managing director of Nucleus Design: “New media was the biggest opportunity that design ever missed.” To make things worse, he adds: “Design companies are coming from so far behind now, they’ve lost so much ground, that I doubt they’ll be able to catch up. Ad agencies and new media companies are getting the jobs that designers should never have let them take, and they’re developing applications that don’t communicate effectively.” It’s a depressing statement, but there’s a glimmer of hope in those last two words, suggesting that design consultancies still have something very valuable to offer potential clients.

Making up the lost ground is the starting point, and the new media bandwagon that everyone has leapt on to in the past three years is now so full that it offers all manner of ways in which designers can develop the technical skills, sales expertise and strategies they’ll need to offer clients, and put up any kind of serious challenge to their latter-day competitors.

Building a new media division

Nucleus Design, whose new media division is the fastest growing side of the consultancy, started advising global companies about network strategy five years ago. “It gave us an insight into the importance of networking and led to our interest in the Net a year later,” says Matthews. He began to look for designers who were enthusiastic about technology and had, or were interested in developing, complementary skills such as programming. Some of these were designers already with the company, people who “valued ideas above everything else”, says Matthews. “Experience and exposure to the issues and challenges of IT is the way to involve designers, but they have to have the interest there already.”

Over the past five years Nucleus has built a new media team and learnt how to integrate the various members choosing this route rather than buying in add-on skills because Matthews believes that “a well-integrated team has to be grown, or there will be an imbalance and its skills won’t be exploited properly”.

Around ten designers now work on both old and new media projects, and a major part of the new media division’s success lies in Matthews’ ability to put together specialists for each job in the way film production works.

“My role is almost like that of a film producer or director. In a strategic sense I’m quite technical, even though my traditional skill is design,” he explains.

Buying in a new media team

Sheffield-based Scope’s decision to buy new media outfit Tapir Communications has already paid off, as the group won the commission for Boddingtons’ website for Whitbread just after the acquisition deal was done. Chief executive Charles Buddery explains the reasoning behind the move: “Some of our existing clients will eventually have a big presence in electronic media, and it was a simple case of our wanting to service their needs. But it’s also a way into new business, if you work from a commercial base you have to be at the forefront to be considered.

“While we have a good account management team and a good creative team, we needed some new media expertise in both these areas to get client confidence. We spent about nine months researching different options, including training and recruitment, but then found Tapir, which basically consisted of sales executive Andrew McCormick and programmer David Moore, who were frustrated by not being able to work on large jobs. So it made absolute sense for both companies to combine their abilities.

Theirs were the exact skills we needed in-house, because although you can sub-contract something like programming, we see David’s work as an integral part of the production process and creative team.”

Recruitment

“Someone once told me that recruitment firms are seen as one step up from estate agents,” laughs Steve Hutson, head of the London MacTemps technical services division. In a continuing bid to change that perception, MacTemps set up the division in June and put Hutson – who came from a position as IT and production manager at The Partners via Michael Peters Limited, Siebert Head, Light and Coley and The Small Back Room – in charge. This background obviously lends Hutson some authority when he describes design’s problem with new media: “Design groups have to find someone who has IT skills but also has a great design sensibility, the technical background has to successfully translate into the language of design.” He believes that designers have to stop being scared of the medium and realise that “a good concept and great technology will communicate across all media”.

His job is to identify and supply the people who will help a design group realise those ambitions, and he’s skilled in looking at unlikely areas – for example, “Apple engineers and studio managers who through their work will have developed an extensive design knowledge”. After on-site visits and consultation he will advise on whether a company should employ the services of a consultant, technical staff, account-handler or even a whole IT team. He places staff with all levels of expertise from a global pool, and due to the technical and personality assessments undergone by applicants, he claims a high success and satisfaction rate. And if companies aren’t happy, there’s always the MacTemps unconditional 110 per cent money back guarantee.

Training

Part of the problem faced by designers wanting to bring in new media expertise is their own lack of knowledge of the medium. A good fast way to get a complete overview and understanding of it is through a training course tailored to your needs. The Corp Business offers a two-day course called Designing for the Internet which covers general design concepts, basic programming and law and copyright aspects. Within that, a whole range of different design aspects are covered, from software requirements to planning the web structure, dealing with images, setting up a frame-based site and dealing with colour.

The advantages of a classroom environment are obvious, and participants can bring in their own projects to work on and get e-mail and telephone support for as long as they need it after the course. At 1400 for two people it’s not cheap, but marketing director Juliet Ripley says that “designers would be able to design a website after taking the course”, and claims good feedback from designers who have taken it.

Freelances

While Roundel Design hasn’t actually produced any websites yet, growing client interest has compelled the group to offer the service. Senior designer Jeremy Roots has a “core centre of knowledge” which expands through the use of regular freelance staff with the necessary skills. “The Internet is such a fast-moving medium and things change so quickly that freelances are at an advantage because they’re out there and can keep up with all the changes and developments,” he says.

Roundel recruits mostly via word-of-mouth from other consultancies and freelances already working with Roots. But it is also increasingly using graduates “because they know the software and programming and can work almost like consultants to the group”, says Roots.

Aside from keeping overheads low, using freelances “allows you to tailor your team to the project, and they bring fresh ideas, creative input and practical knowledge”, says Roots, who concludes that “it’s very cost-effective and hugely beneficial to smaller consultancies”.

Graduates

As Roundel’s Jeremy Roots points out (see Freelances above), design students graduating from multimedia courses have a huge advantage over existing designers when it comes to technology and the Internet. In this year’s D&AD Students Awards, the Interactive Media Category winners were described by the judges as being “in a league of their own” and their work “as high as professional entries in this category”.

The three students who received this acclaim are all on the MA Design for Interactive Media course at Middlesex University’s Centre for Electronic Arts. Course leaders Stephen Boyd Davis and Gordon Davies recruit from a wide range of courses and industry backgrounds, and last year’s intake boasted slightly more women than men and an age range of 25-50.

These, plus things like experience of working on real projects, a high level of scripting knowledge, working in cooperative teams and a range of topics around concept development give the course and its students an edge which prepares them for working in the medium.

“Many of them can produce fully working products without the need for assistance from a programmer,” says Boyd Davis, “and because they’re encouraged to think of the interaction as part of the content, rather than just a surface layer, they produce a product that is a more integrated, seamless experience for the user.”

Students from the course are often experienced enough to go into jobs at mid-entry levels, and Boyd Davis believes they have a better time going into small specialist multimedia companies which “are flexible, do a greater variety of work and give graduates more room to grow”.

But any design groups looking for cheap labour should take note. “Sometimes companies think that setting a student project will get them a redesign for a bad product on the cheap. Students seem generally to have done better by seeking work independently or through agencies,” warns Boyd Davis.

Books

While there are now thousands of books out there which claim to guide you through the various pitfalls of interactive design and website creation, the web producer’s bible is David Siegel’s Creating Killer Web Sites published by Hayden Books. Peachpit Press’ Elements of Web Design by Darcy DiNucci with Maria Giudice and Lynne Stiles, and Thames & Hudson’s new Website Graphics: The best of global site design by Liesbeth den Boer, Geert J Strengholt and Willem Velthoven also offer useful and succinct guides to the medium.

Last but not least – surf the Web!

Latest articles