When we left Condé Nast Digital in 2009 to start FOUR32C, we couldn’t have anticipated the great adventure ahead of us. We traded in the security of Condé Nast’s fashionable digs in the heart of Times Square for a funky little studio space in West Chelsea, which wasn’t yet the fancy-schmancy destination that it has since become.
Fast-forward seven years, and we’ve hit our stride with a roster of terrific clients, an amazingly talented team, and an expanded studio located in what has now become one of the hottest spots in New York City. While our editorial roots made us outsiders from the advertising and marketing crowd in the beginning, we’re thrilled that the industry media has started to take notice of our work.
Check out Adweek’s portrait of FOUR32C in this week’s issue. We’re humbled to be featured!
At many agencies, especially those working in digital, the term “discovery” is often front and center in client engagement process diagrams. While there’s no denying the benefits of gathering insights into clients’ businesses and unpacking the problems that they might be facing, the “discovery phase” as it exists today has become so entrenched and, frankly, rather codified that regardless of an agency’s super-secret-special sauce, the requisite activity of discovery is now threatening to becoming rote.
This may be a matter of semantics, but I’m not a fan of the term “discovery.” To me, the practice of “discovery” implies that there’s something finite and concrete to be discovered and it’s simply our job as an agency to find it. To wit: whenever a client says, “We want X,” any proficient agency wouldn’t reflexively respond, “Great, we’ll build you X.” Instead, the client’s ask kicks off the process of further probing: “What are you trying to do? Where is your business headed? What do your customers need/think/expect? And why?”
Many of us have led with this kind of research-driven model and called it “discovery,” but I think what we really should be doing is “to question.” It’s a subtle but important shift to move from discovery to question. “Question” suggests an open-ended process of peeling away at layers to get at something more essential. Where “discovery’ is frequently two dimensional and linear and the final destination is often known even if it’s not expressed, “question” operates in multiple dimensions, allowing for an expanded frame.
Question. Design. Make.
By its definition, “discovery” is closed—there’s a beginning and an end to it—whereas “question” is more a way of being. At FOUR32C, the framework of “Question. Design. Make.” is how we structure our entire process: to be flexible and continually work to understand why we’re doing something. We are much more interested in understanding the “Why” not the “What,” because the “Why” is more expansive and can lead to new possibilities, new options, and new solutions.
Here’s an example: when we started working with one non-profit client, they told us, “We need a new website with a modern CMS that’s easier to administer. Plus, add a fresh coat of paint to the user interface. And we want to make our website available in Spanish, too.”
We went into a robust interview process: we questioned internal and external stakeholders, including board members, recipients of the non-profit’s services, community members, and donors. We asked ordinary people in the neighborhood, “What does the non-profit mean to you? How do you access its services? What do the spaces that the non-profit provide mean to you? How do you want to engage with this organization? And why?” Then we asked stakeholders at the non-profit: “Why do you need a Spanish-language version of your website? Who are you serving? How does this community use your services? Are there cultural nuances and differences that need to be addressed in your web presence?”
After many hours of questions for which we had no preconceived answers, we ultimately turned the entire project on its head and came back to the non-profit with a new narrative and a rebranding of its website—in addition to fixing the back-end, redesigning it, and creating a Spanish-language version. Our clients were thrilled.
Had we simply plunged into discovery based on the “What” of the client’s ask—i.e., addressing tech and design without knowing why we were doing so—I don’t think we would have arrived at the best solutions. By tending to the “Why” first, we were able to uncover the more essential challenges and opportunities for our client.
Questioning Sparks True Innovation
When it comes to new business, prospects will sometimes call and say, “I saw that FOUR32C created an app/website/campaign for X brand. Can you make the same thing for us?” Or they’ll say, “Do you have a product that does X thing?” Inherent in these questions is the idea that there’s a one-size-fits-most approach to solving a client’s unique business problems, which is rarely the case. When I’m asked questions like these, I invariably will respond with my own questions, starting with “Why” questions before getting to the “What” questions.
At some point, as business people, we start to take certain things for granted. Ideas tend to become institutionalized. Part of what we’re doing at FOUR32C is breaking down—or at least looking beyond—preconceived notions. By reframing our process as “question,” the practice of “discovery” doesn’t become mechanical and habitual, and retains its potency. With question, we can expose and deeply understand the motivations behind a client’s requests and work toward tackling business objectives instead of just making well-designed, technically sound digital products.
“Question” invokes curiosity, exploration, and a little bit of rebelliousness—all of which are fundamental to what we do. It’s not knowing and not having pre-made solutions in mind that’s important. Admitting that we don’t know all of the answers opens up the process of creating something special.
The answers to open-ended questions can often provide sparks of brilliance for a product or a program that we’re creating. Questioning—at its core—opens new avenues for creativity and innovation.
By Elizabeth Stafford
Creativity is a word that is too carelessly tossed around—especially in advertising and marketing, where “creative” is unironically used as a noun. As a longtime creative director (yes, I appreciate the irony), I’ve always felt uneasy about the unnecessary mystique and usually bad attitude that the title “creative” has come to suggest.
Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends are “creatives” and some of the most creative people I know happen to be, well, “creatives.” What bothers me is the fact that labelling oneself as a “creative” has become a shorthand to bestow myriad other ingenious traits and problem-solving skills that may or may not necessarily be inherent in the average “creative.” In fact, being a chunky-eyeglasses-and-skinny-jeans-wearing “creative” has become as much of a posture as an actual profession.
Many of us have worked with a self-appointed “creative” visionary whose Very Creative Big Idea is meant to send mere mortals scurrying to help execute on that Very Creative Big Idea, no matter how half-baked or improbable it is. When a “creative” idea is primarily ego-driven, devoid of purpose or vision beyond simple aesthetics or easy pop-culture references, and lacks an executable roadmap to make it come to life, that’s when “creatives” get a bad rap.
Contrast the mythos of a “creative” with the work of an artist. When I say artist, I don’t mean to invoke the image of a solitary, tortured soul who makes “art.” These “artists” are probably just as phony as some “creatives.” The artists I’m talking about are those who have undergone the rigorous training and self-examination that’s required to conceive brilliant, wholly original ideas, but also possess the vision, skills, and capacity to realize them.
While (some) advertising and marketing “creatives” are show horses who mostly prance and bray, genuine artists that happen to work in advertising and marketing are work horses who get shit done.
What has happened is that the terms artist and creative have become interchangeable, particularly in “creative” businesses and especially in advertising and marketing. This can pose a significant challenge when it comes to hiring; however, I use a few simple litmus tests when I’m hiring and recruiting, um, creatives for my team.
Curiosity: Artists are naturally curious and work to contextualize ideas and the world around them. This goes beyond simply glomming onto short-lived pop-culture trends and calling them Very Creative Big Ideas. Questioning extant ideas and challenging conventions and expectations are two defining characteristics that separate mere creatives from true artists.
Empathy: At its core, the role of the artist is to connect, whether it’s people to people or ideas to people. This is only possible if the artist is genuinely empathetic to the desires and feelings of others, an essential skill that is often sorely lacking in many “creatives.”
Humility: While “creatives” sometimes believe everything they do or say is unreservedly perfect at conception, artists often can be their own worst critics, humbled by the innumerable rejections they’ve faced and steeled by the fact that putting themselves out there requires a degree of deference and collaboration.
Rigor: Innovation can come from failure and the work of the artist is often built through trial and error. The artist’s pursuit to create and finetune his or her creation is honed through a rigor that’s been developed over years of practice and discipline.
Flexibility: Perhaps the greatest difference between an artist and a creative is flexibility and adaptability. Longtime creatives can get stuck in processes that are largely informed by industry trends and standards (not to mention being overly concerned about industry awards rather than solving problems), while artists who are new to advertising and marketing bring fresh perspectives that aren’t marred by the echo-chamber effect of the business.
Throughout my career, I’ve had the good fortune of hiring and working with creatives who’ve had formal fine arts training, whether they are actors, dancers, painters, or playwrights. Although the work they create in our studio doesn’t necessarily directly relate to the art that they create in their preferred mediums, the discipline and resourcefulness that they’ve acquired as arts students and working artists greatly inform the creative process and perspective that they bring to client work.
That’s why I don’t like to hire “creatives,” and I whenever I receive resumes and portfolios from artists who have earned BFAs and MFAs in disciplines outside of advertising and marketing, I always give those candidates a second look.
By Mark Jarecke
Pixel Awards is a leading international awards program that honors noteworthy design and technology. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the Awards recognize exceptional design and technology that help inspire and advance our industry.
We’re super-excited that we’ve been nominated in four categories of this year’s contest! We’d love your support by voting for us in the Agency (FOUR32C), Fashion & Beauty (Vera Wang), Food & Beverage (Solerno), and Events & Conferences (Prevention R3 Summit) categories.
You can vote once a day until March 1, 2016, to help choose the People’s Champs.
We are excited to share our latest luxury brand site launch, for Solerno Liqueur! Solerno collects the essential oils from Sicily’s blood oranges and mixes them with lemon and orange to create a bright and vibrant flavor – and they needed a website to match. With a fresh color palate and intuitive navigation, we created a website to fully hero the product. The responsive site is in two languages and has a locator feature so you always know how close you are to the nearest Solerno bar.
If it’s a sun-drenched cocktail you crave this winter, checkout the ten mouthwatering recipes. After a few refreshing sips, even the winter-weariest may find a bit more spring in their step. Your margaritas will never be the same.
Visit the site here.
There must be something in the air, but it seems as if suddenly everyone is talking about robots. Specifically, people are talking about how robots soon will start taking over jobs currently held by humans. Even more specifically, artificial intelligence and computer-learning will advance (or maybe already have advanced) to a state where machines can make decisions and generate ideas that previously only the human brain could dream up.
For those of us who work at the intersection of technology and creativity, the coming showdown between man and machine—and the fear it inevitably conjures up—is starting to be part of the daily dialog. So it was no surprise that this was one of the predominant themes of the 4A’s CreateTech Conference that I attended last month.
Billed as “the conference for the seriously curious,” 4A’s CreateTech brought together creative technologists and digital strategists working in advertising and marketing to hear and learn from an impressive roster of speakers who come from a much-wider swath of creative technology fields than purely “advertising.” Indeed, for an ad conference, CreateTech is decidedly (and refreshingly) un-advertising in its subject matter and overall approach.
While there is a growing impression that the convergence of digital and traditional marketing has sufficiently blurred the lines between the two, my sense is that the line at some agencies is still pretty sharp. For me, the primary theme that emerged from the first day of this year’s CreateTech Conference was the tension that exists between creativity and technology at many agencies. It wasn’t so long ago that digital was perceived as an afterthought or a value-add, but nowadays, digital and tech are creeping onto Madison Avenue’s center stage, which has resulted in confusion at best and missed opportunities at worst—at least for some.
Technology for technology’s sake—often at the expense of creativity and effectiveness—may have been the rule in early days, but we’ve come a long way since then, and creativity and technology are no longer mutually exclusive. Storytelling and persuasion remain at the forefront of the very best in marketing, and technology has afforded practitioners with a powerful arsenal of tools to help tell our stories.
Which brings us back to robots. The theme that emerged from the second day of the conference was the tension that exists between people and machines. If we’re to believe some of the prophets, robots and machines may soon eliminate tasks once held by us mere mortals. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to this. After all, machines excel at things that people do terribly, i.e., menial tasks that rightly should be automated. But machines also are great at “thinking” multi-dimensionally, something humans struggle with.
The idealist in me thinks that by combining our human impulse to make sense of the world we live in through the art of storytelling with the machine science of information and data processing, we’ll able to create bigger, better, richer experiences, whether in digital space or real space. Or at least that’s the goal.
Not to brag or nothin’, but we love our West Chelsea neighborhood! Our studio has been here for more than five years, and the area just keeps getting better and better. The holidays are an especially great time to stroll the High Line, visit local galleries, shop, and refuel at one of the many terrific neighborhood restaurants and bars.
This holiday season, we wanted to share some of our favorite West Chelsea places with our friends and clients, so we put together a handy-dandy interactive guide as well as created a limited-edition FOUR32C holiday shopping tote to hold your holiday haul!
Merry, merry and happy, happy from all of us at FOUR32C! And why don’t you stop by the studio for a visit the next time you’re in the ’hood?
Check it out here!
While the popularity and growing ubiquity of responsive web design has enhanced the web experience across multiple devices for many brands, a mobile-first approach to responsive design is not always the right solution. In fact, as consumers have become more flexible with their use of different devices, design innovation hasn’t always kept pace and some basic rules of responsive design now require rethinking.
These days, prioritizing mobile-first over all else to ensure elegant content flow across multiple screen sizes seems to have trumped the user’s contextual experience with content. At best, developing a well-thought-out web experience with responsive design starts by asking the right questions about what specific users need from specific experiences on specific devices. At worst, responsive design has become an exercise in aesthetics rather than a true exploration of user experience.
When coupled with a human-centered design approach, responsive design can transform user experiences from merely serviceable to contextually engaging—at the right time, in the right place and in the right way.
Here are four ways that we’re rethinking responsive design:
01. Design Starts With Behavior—Not Device or Screen Size
The fundamental design challenge is uncovering how consumers engage with brands they love, and ensuring that their experiences with brand content are tightly integrated with the context of their experiences. Sitting with a smartphone on a couch in front of the TV is a radically different experience from viewing content on a smartphone in a retail aisle. Assuming that responsive design magically can address these differences without careful consideration of user behavior undercuts the best intentions of responsive design.
Breakpoints should be based on a user’s environment rather than the device that’s being used. This is a subtle but important distinction. Users need information tailored to their environment not simply tailored to fit screen size. And in order to present the right content at the right time, user behavior needs to lead discovery to find the best approach. If user behavior is dramatically different from one device to another, standard responsive design may not be the best solution and we might have to scrap a responsive design approach and create custom adaptive sites to better meet users’ needs.
02. Mobile-First Doesn’t Necessarily Always Need to Be First
There’s no denying that designing for mobile devices—whether smartphone, phablet or tablet—is critical, but mobile doesn’t necessarily always need to be first. The greatest benefit of starting with mobile is that it distills user goals and business objectives to the essentials of a web experience; however, mobile-first intentions sometime becomes mobile-priority mandates, unduly constraining all other screen experiences.
Conventional wisdom in responsive design thinking dictates that responsive design begins at the smallest breakpoint and works its way up through desktop screen layouts. This assumption is predicated on the belief that all (or most) of all brands’ web traffic originates from mobile channels, which simply isn’t universally true … yet.
While mobile is increasingly the first point of exposure for a consumer to a brand, user behavior research may reveal that a significant portion of a brand’s core users still primarily accesses web content through laptop or desktop screens. If a brand’s business objective is to reach consumers where they are (in this case, not starting at mobile), then ignoring this insight could result in the creation of an excellent mobile experience, but a lackluster laptop or desktop experience—precisely where a desktop-leading brand’s audience is consuming most of its content.
Rather than blindly sticking to a mobile-first approach, we employ an “every screen” strategy and lean on user research to uncover the optimal device and screen that best reaches a user’s preferred mode of content acquisition. An every screen approach allows designers to consider information hierarchy that best suits a user’s needs.
03. Design for Unique Consumers’ Unique Needs
When it comes to responsive design, an overly device-centric focus at the start can lead to false assumptions. After all, mobile doesn’t always mean mobile (as in on-the-go), it could simply mean hand-held. Further, hand-held web experiences can differ significantly depending on where a given device is being used as well as differ significantly depending on the unique perspectives and needs of a given user.
One of the biggest problems about what’s being discussed around responsive design is the fact that the interactive design community seems to have lost track of the most important factor in user experience design, namely the user. Oftentimes, when people consider responsive design, they think about it as a design challenge or technology challenge instead of thinking about it as user experience challenge. Designing with a user-centric mindset at the start leverages understanding of what and where users are experiencing brand content.
Understanding what makes a user unique can help to develop a design approach that addresses each user’s and specific needs. To achieve this, we create unique information architecture for every device, starting where the user is, while maintaining consistent brand and user experiences. Therefore, if the user starts her experience on mobile and finishes on a desktop or if the user starts his experience on desktop then hands off to mobile, we design with each unique point of entry in mind.
Developing an optimized, brand-consistent user experience goes hand-in-hand with staying true to a brand’s business objectives.
04. Best Practices Aren’t Always Best
In the early days, experiences on the mobile web were often radically different from desktop experiences. Then tablets came on the scene and the desire to have a more consistent, on-brand experience took precedence. The problem is that if the same content is essentially being served up on different devices, only in smaller pieces, then all of the opportunities to address a user’s needs are not being considered to the fullest extent.
What keeps us on our toes is that best practices are constantly in flux, which is the nature of design in our business. Mobile devices are becoming more powerful. Laptops are becoming more portable. But only through solid research and discovery can we understand users’ behavior and address their needs.
The promise of responsive design is that there are unified tenets that can help designers and developers iterate more quickly. But at whose expense? The user and the client? A user’s mobile needs may change dramatically over a year, while the user’s desktop needs may not. Would those conditions change a site architecture that no longer fits into the responsive model? In many instances, responsive design may make sense right now, but the harsh reality is that it could cause friction down the line. Like many principles and approaches in this changing landscape, rules for responsive design shouldn’t be seen as absolute.
Check out some of our recent responsive design work, including projects for CBS Interactive, Vera Wang, and NYRP.
By Mike Lee
Our redesign of the CBS Fantasy Sports site launched right in time for football season ensuring fans won’t miss a single stat! With the intuitive interface, fantasy football fans can easily access information on hundreds of teams and thousands of players to always make the right call this season.
At FOUR32C we love to solve complex problems and figuring out how to make the stats accessible was a snap. Flexible modules make the site easy to update for the client and quick to digest for the fans. Go check out the site here.
You can also see our case study here.
FOUR32C designers were using Photoshop before some of our younger employees were born. While it wasn’t built for designing interfaces, it came with plenty of tools to adapt it for what we needed it to do. In Fall 2014, we collaborated with CBS Interactive in a redesign of the CBS Sports sites (the first site, Fantasy News site is scheduled to launch next week). They were in the process of moving over to Sketch, and we decided to give it a live test. But before making the leap, we did our homework and a little bit of tinkering. We ended up loving Sketch so much it’s become our go-to tool. Since then, we’ve used it in designing projects for New York Daily News, Weight Watchers, Men’s Journal, Bobbi Brown, and even our own website. Here’s why you should switch too.
- It’s easy. Learning Sketch is progressively rewarding. The UI is very intuitive. Sketch combines aspects of InDesign—like styles and patterns—with the pixel perfection of Photoshop. And as you become proficient, you unlock its power.
- Working with developers is a breeze. You can import and export CSS. In the past, we couldn’t rely on things like letter spacing to be accurate when giving developers designs in PSDs. All of Sketch’s effects, like shadows and gradients, can be converted to CSS. Even if a developer doesn’t like the code it produces, it’s a baseline they can understand and work with.
- It’s cheap. Sketch is available for a one time payment of $99, compared to CS6’s $1,900 or Creative Cloud’s yearly $600.
- It’s fast. More precision in the design phase means fewer mistakes in development, which means a higher quality product in shorter timelines. Sketch makes it easy to revise work with the client as you build a design system with the style sheets.
- Three words: Interactive. Style. Guides. They’re already embedded in Sketch. We didn’t need to create one to share with our clients and developers. And if we, or the client, makes changes they appear throughout.
- And the biggest reason: Sketch is made for building user interfaces. Photoshop is a powerful tool, but its audience is broad (photographers, interactive designers, motion graphic designers, etc.). Using an application for the purpose it was created means you’re going to have a better experience. Here are four specific very cool examples:
- Sketch doesn’t support actions a website wouldn’t—anything we do in sketch can be replicated in code.
- The designer can work with the actual pixels on the screen—and export to all device pixel ratios. Take working in retina. In the past, we would need to double the webpage’s size to account for appearance once it was scaled down. Sketch has an export function that renders a graphic any size (double, triple, fixed width/height, etc.)
- Speaking of devices, Sketch makes managing designs and styles across devices effortless. It combines artboards and pages so you can design the whole website in one file, or see the design in all of its responsive iterations (everything from desktop to mobile).
- Web typography is rendered more accurately in Sketch. What you see is what you get… well at least closer than any other design tool.
Sketch has some downsides too (we don’t love autosaving, no revision history, and it’s pretty processor intensive) but any new app will have minor issues to be sorted out in coming updates.
Sketch is the first Photoshop alternative that’s ever made us consider tossing out our “I heart Adobe” t-shirts.
We did it, and we’re glad we did.