Legwork: A drive for creative perfection
Despite being a young agency, Legwork Studio has built a reputation for cutting-edge design that never compromises their creative integrity
who: Legwork Studio | what: A team of highly creative individuals come together to create digital design that is ahead of the curve.
where: 77 W 9th Ave, Denver, CO 80204 | web: www.legworkstudio.com
Founded in 2007, Legwork Studio is the brainchild of three college friends Joey Bullock, Aaron Ray and Sean Klassen. Sean studied sociology, Aaron motion graphics, and Joey business. Over the years they grew closer and, like many other agency founders, continued to feel that the work they were doing at the time was unfulfilling. Eventually it became clear that they could be doing much more interesting work, but this would mean branching out on their own.
Sean explained: “To begin with the business was really just freelance, as we produced work for clients. We had conversations for about a year before we actually started to do any real work for clients. We spent this time trying to figure out what our name should be and what kind of work we wanted to do.“Growing up heavily involved in our local music scene, we learned the value of DIY ethics and wanted to apply them to a design-focused company. We started slowly and worked on the side for the first year and a half, saving all the money we earned. “One by one, each of us took the jump (and a huge pay cut) to quit our day jobs. At first, we worked out of Aaron’s basement. Then, we rented a tiny 10’x10’ room across the street from a homeless shelter. The first year was tough, but we managed to always stay in the black and never borrow money from banks, investors, or anyone else. From the very start, Legwork was a profitable, self-sustaining business. We figured if we could survive during the worst economic collapse in generations, we should be in a great spot once things start to turn around.
“That first year we somehow managed to break our annual revenue goals and realised it was actually time to bring on more people and round out the team. This is when Matt Fajohn (sales and strategy), Matt Wiggins, and Andy McIntosh (both developers) came on board as partners in the company. They were offered more work for less money, but ultimately, a lot more opportunity by being co-owners of the business. We are one of the few companies that is made up completely of doers (rather than talkers). Each of the owners in our company represents each discipline in interactive and motion work. This helps us to keep a good balance and focus towards our bigger goals. It allows us to cut the fat that we’d watched similar companies in our space suffer from and work in the most efficient ways possible.”
As well as this, being a relatively young agency had its benefits, as Legwork was happy to embrace digital design from the very beginning. “Because our agency came along after some of the key digital tools had been developed, we had a native interest and skills with these tools that many existing agencies didn’t have, simply because they came from the pre-digital era. For us working in digital came very easily”, commented Matt Wiggins. “I think some traditional agencies struggled with the transition. Our goal was to simplify everything. For instance, we flattened out the management structure of the business and we simplified our processes. Working for other businesses, we could see how complex their development systems were. We wanted to change that. We knew that simplifying these processes would lead to better work, and in turn a more fun place to be in.”
Naming their new agency came next, as Sean explained: “We knew that anything can be good despite its name, but a solid name certainly helps with conveying a good first impression. We had a list going of ideas for a few months when Joey brought up a song by one of our favourite bands (None More Black) called ‘Oh… There’s Legwork’. Not only was this a great song by a great band, but it was also a reference to an episode of Seinfeld that we all loved. The word Legwork stuck in our heads and seemed to align well with our vision of being a DIY-focused company of creators. We attempted to buy legwork.com, but the owner replied back with an exorbitant offer that wasn’t at all realistic. So instead we settled on buying legworkstudio.com and named the company accordingly.”
The website that Legwork subsequently developed to showcase their extensive talents is a comment on who Legwork is and what its design approach means to each client. Sean continued: “A good agency site is absolutely critical to us. When we first started it was our only real form of marketing and brought us a lot of great opportunities. To help differentiate ourselves early on, we set out to make websites that were engaging and fun for visitors to use without the requirements of various plug-ins like Flash. Our site was our first good example of this and it made a big statement at the time, as the iPhone and mobile browsing were just starting to gain steam.
It took us nearly three years to finish the second iteration (what you currently see when you visit) as it kept taking a back seat to client work. In this version we’ve done what we can to keep it simple and flexible. It’s fairly painless to add a project or even evolve the design over time. We didn’t do the best job in the world of keeping up with our site in the first version, so we wanted to ensure we could do a better job this time around.”
For most agencies there is one client or a project that moves the business to an entirely new level. Sean explained that this came early on in the agency’s life: “We had the opportunity to do a site for a company called Vision Street in the skateboard industry. For us that job was ideal, as we all grew up in that world. We knew the brand and we were passionate to make it something that the audience would really love. That job gave us enough money to quit our jobs and give us time to get the business moving. That’s what I think was the pivotal moment for us when the agency became real. Actually, the Vision Street Wear job led to another project for another skate brand called Airwalk. The Airwalk project ended up getting a lot of attention and was really positive for us. I think it was one of the first non-Flash sites to win an FWA.”
Passion about each and every project that Legwork takes on is clearly a common factor. But how does the agency attract new business? Matt outlined their approach: “Outside of our site, we primarily get new projects based on word of mouth. We do everything in our power to make each new project the best thing we’ve ever done and we have been really fortunate to be presented with a lot of great opportunities. Additionally, we try to enter our work in the award circuit where possible. That has been a simple and inexpensive way for us to get our name out to a wider audience.”
“Lately, we’ve had the good fortune of being in a position to be more selective about work we take on – and even though that has been a conscious goal of ours, it’s not something we take for granted. When we meet people we gel with, we do everything in our power to create great relationships and produce the best work we’re capable of.”
Looking at the extensive portfolio on the Legwork website, the breadth and diversity of the work stands out. “Our approach to every new project is to begin by asking how we can defeat the status quo and exceed our client’s expectations. So, our goal for each and every project we take on is to define our ethos. We want to find new ways of doing our best work with every website that we build. We’ve been very lucky that this approach works on a consistent basis. We’d be lying if we said it worked every time, though. Like any other agency, we run into creative issues, technical limitations, or other issues that cause us to fail to execute the plan we originally set out. But we’re proud to say, we’ve yet to actually fail in launching a project. Sometimes it’s just a lot different than what we had planned for in the beginning. “A good example of a recent project that we are really pleased with is the Chrome Experiment we launched for Google called, ‘Roll It’. In addition to working with a top-notch team, we got to use cutting-edge technology, build some fun 3D environments, explore a really unique UI, and… it’s a game for Google!”
As an agency that grew up using digital tools, Legwork didn’t have the legacy or the steep learning curve that many other agencies had who came from a traditional ad background when digital came along. Matt explained how Legwork approaches each project: “Every project that we take on has a team that is dedicated from the beginning to the end. We have a very flat organisational structure, so a team typically consists of a strategist and any appropriate number of designers and developers. These people work directly with the client on the project on a day-to-day basis. “Our goal is to simplify our work and enhance quality by eliminating unnecessary layers in our company. We are strong believers of communicating early and often and we try to include the client as much as possible. On the other side, the client usually really appreciates having direct access to the people who are doing the actual work.
“The build is always the most time consuming part of a project. This is where the entire team comes together and obsesses over every detail to ensure an exceptional execution comes to fruition. We keep trying to make things better and better until we run out of time. “We call the way we work ‘agency agile’. We know that for some clients using agile can be a bit scary. Large ad agencies, for example, can often be reluctant to embrace full agile methodologies. So, we have modelled our own version of agile to make it more workable for our clients.”
And the tools that Legwork uses across their accounts are also diverse. Sean explained their toolset: “On the design side we use Adobe Creative Cloud. It’s nice to always have easy access to the latest versions of everything and we love some of the features that come with it. On the dev side, our team uses Sublime as an editor and we house all of our code on Github. We like to use Ruby on Rails with Heroku most often these days. However, larger clients typically dictate technology and platform choices. This isn’t ideal, but we’ll figure it out. “For a long time the goal had been to catch up to Flash with these technologies. We’ve passed that point – well, except that even though we are now seeing more clients drop support for IE7, we’ve still got IE8 to contend with for a lot of projects. Now, we’re going to see what they can do better. We think the next step is utility. Apps and websites that interact or combine in your physical life to make every day things easier and more accessible. We’re excited to continue to experiment, learn and push what’s possible in our space.”Matt also commented: “I think that it’s an exciting time right now. There are so many people contributing to the different frameworks and libraries out there that I think the tools available to a developer are way ahead of the curve at the moment. The biggest thing that is holding us back now is all the old browsers.”
Mobile is a key component of the web experience. What is Legwork Studio’s approach to designing and developing for different devices? Does Legwork think that responsive design is a viable solution or does it consider a more custom option to be the answer? Sean continued: “We’ve taken both approaches and they certainly each present their own challenges. We’ve decided that it’s about what’s right for the project. Sometimes your idea or project goals don’t seamlessly translate to mobile and your best bet is a separate build. Sometimes it’s vice versa and a responsive design is the way to go. “A big problem, as we see it, is the loading of assets for different break points. For example, if you load everything up front, why should a mobile user have to load desktop assets? If you don’t load everything up front, how do you handle resize on the desktop? There are a few solutions out there that are close, but nothing official yet.
What has gotten us the most excited recently is the news that Chrome will eventually become the default browser on Android, which is much more solid than dealing with the native Android browser as we used to have to do.”
Still, it’s worth remembering that as great as ideas are, an agency is effectively only as good as the people it employs – so how does Legwork find its employees? What are the criteria they look for? Matt outlined their approach: “Skills matter but motivation, passion and attitude are just as important. It’s less about what you’ve already done and more about what you are capable of doing. We look for people who are fun to work with, know how to work hard, know how to manage their balance in life and keep a positive attitude with everything that they do. It is essential to our business model that every employee takes responsibility for the work they produce.
“In terms of advice, put in the time and effort to be a master of your craft. Make it your passion in life. This includes both knowing the history and staying up with the trends. Study the methods of people who inspire you and see how you can improve them. Remember to be patient and find the simple, elegant solution that is perfect for the problem. Be as detail-oriented as possible. Your hard work and good attitude will definitely set you apart.”
Sean also outlined what the future has in store for Legwork: “We just moved into our new studio which is a huge milestone for us. We designed and built it specifically to foster our culture and suit the needs of our team in terms of creativity and collaboration. We’ve added a few great members to the team each year, but we don’t really plan to scale up too much. We prefer being small. It allows us to be nimble and more selective with the projects we take on.”