Web Designer heads to the Big Apple to talk to the multi-talented design trio behind CHIPS, who reveal that web fonts, responsive design and a love of potato-based snacks are the key ingredients for keeping them ahead of the game
CHIPS is the collaboration of designers Teddy Blanks and Adam Squires, and developer Dan Shields, based in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York. In addition to websites, CHIPS works on identity systems and logos, books, printed items, motion graphics, posters and apparel. Prior to working at CHIPS, as full-time employees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Squires and Shields led design and development teams on the two largest web initiatives the Museum had undertaken since its initial site launch ten years ago: the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (www.metmuseum.org/toah) and Connections (www.metmuseum.org/connections). Blanks spent two years in northwest Connecticut as senior designer at Winterhouse and, under the creative direction of William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand, worked with clients such as the Poetry Foundation, Smithsonian Archives of American Art and the AIGA.
In 2009, the talented trio struck out on their own to form CHIPS, and have quickly developed a diverse client base that includes museums, film distributors, events and festivals, record labels, magazines, theatre companies, artists, photographers and restaurants. By being small, working fast and having designers and developers in the same room, CHIPS is able to offer a singularly cohesive web-design experience.
CHIPS partner Adam Squires elaborates on how the three co-founders met, the roles they took up and how they got to where they are today. “While at the Met, myself and Dan had always kept a side business working together on freelance web projects. And throughout our respective design careers, Teddy and me had gone to each other for advice and feedback on projects. So it made sense for the three of us to team up once we were ready to move on from our previously held positions. But it took almost two full years to get us all in the same room. At first, me and Teddy worked as full-time designers in the studio, and development work was split between Dan (who kept his job at the Met) and our friend Thadd Williams, a developer based in Los Angeles. But as business escalated, and Dan was finishing up some key projects at the Museum, he left in the summer of 2011 to become a full-time partner at CHIPS. Since then, we’ve all been in the same room, working side by side, and we’re getting faster and better every day.”
The name CHIPS has a different meaning in different locations. Squires offers an insight into how the name came about, who it is not a reference to and why they had to add NY on to the domain name. “We named the company CHIPS not as a reference to the Eighties’ TV series starring Erik Estrada, but because we really do have a shared love of potato chips, and are always trying out new flavours. Beyond that, the evocative name could bring to mind paint chips, PANTONE chips, computer chips, chocolate chips, poker chips or chips-off-the-old-block. Mostly though, we chose the name because it’s short, easy to remember and captures our playful spirit without seeming too goofy or self-consciously clever. Due to the unfortunate, if inevitable, unavailability of chips.com, we combined our name with that of our town to launch chips-ny.com, and it has worked just fine.”
The studio’s site is a key visual indicator of services and first point of contact for visitors. Squires explains just how important the CHIPS website is to them and how it is a showcase of only their best projects. “Our site is very important to the studio, but luckily we’ve kept busy enough that we have to force ourselves to spend time keeping it up to date. We look at it less as a tool to drum up new work than as a place to showcase the projects we are most proud of. For that reason, it isn’t flashy or over-designed. It’s an extremely simple portfolio site without a lot of bells and whistles. But for anyone in the know, we are proud of the fact that it does have some sleek, sophisticated but understated functionality that communicates clearly to anyone interested enough to do some investigation that we know what we are doing.”
New clients are the lifeblood of any agency; Squires reveals how word-of-mouth and reputation have been the two main factors in attracting clients to their door. “We began the studio with pre-existing relationships with a few key non-profit and arts organisations who have stayed with us through the duration and continue to approach us whenever they have a project they think we’d be right for. Through continuing to work well with and create great work for these existing clients, we’ve been lucky to get a seat at the table with several potential new clients simply through word-of-mouth and a good reputation. This, and the fact that we simply enjoy meeting and talking to creative people that are out in the world doing great things, has kept us pretty busy.”
A steady stream of projects ensures the CHIPS trio are always busy, but partner Teddy Blanks explains the rules they live by when it comes to picking their projects. “We try as much as we can to follow the strict ‘Three Fs’ rule, taught to me by Bill Drenttel at Winterhouse. The three Fs are Fame, Fortune and Fun. While running Drenttel Doyle Partners in the Eighties, he and Stephen Doyle came up with the idea that for a project to be worthwhile, it must fulfil at least two of the three Fs. If it just hits one, it’s not worth it. As any designer knows, when you do something just for the money, if you’re miserable working on it, it’s never enough money. We can’t claim credit for this concept, but so far it has served us well.”
CHIPS is a small agency in terms of numbers; here Squires explains the advantages of keeping the studio agile and who takes on what in a project. “There are some big advantages to being small. We can provide a higher level of availability and communication than a larger web firm. Clients will never have to fill out a service request or go through a ‘producer’ in order to ask for a quick change on the site as we work. Our process is extremely collaborative, but of course this varies from project to project. Any day of the week, there are non-web-design projects that Teddy and I work on together or separately, and development-only projects that Dan works on alone. But on large web jobs where we’ve been hired for design and development, a great idea for a site could start with design sketches by Teddy or myself, or from a functionality concept from Dan. From there, we work side by side, and bounce designs and ideas back and forth. Occasionally, if a project is big enough, we will work with another designer or developer, but for now we try to keep things as in-house as possible.”
A studio’s toolset is clearly intrinsic to both how a project is put together and the final outcome. Dan Shields explains how content management systems are one tool that provides a great base for a project. “I’ve worked at different companies making websites since 1996. Over the years, as open-source content management systems have become the standard, developers like myself get to spend time solving problems specific to the project, and don’t have to worry about writing image uploaders or login scripts. WordPress, ExpressionEngine and Drupal are some favourites because they all shine in different ways, and identifying whether to use a modification on one of these systems or to write something custom is an exciting and welcome challenge.”
Once a project has been completed it needs to be handed over to the client. Squires gives a brief explanation of the process that CHIPS adopts. “It varies. We always develop sites in a clear, easy-to-update CMS with the hope that once a project is over, the client can take the site from there. When we hand a site [over], we often provide training, whether over the phone or in a document we create, on how to use and navigate a CMS. If a client approaches us after the hand-off for any small change to the site, we are usually happy to oblige at our hourly rate. On a few rare occasions for clients that require frequent aftercare, we will set up a custom retainer agreement.”
The web is ever-evolving and web fonts are one development that are giving designers the opportunity to be more creative. Squires tells us: “We are entirely, unapologetically pro web fonts. They have effectively changed type design on the internet from a struggle to make the best of a severely limited palette into an opportunity to create an expressive and beautiful reading experience for web users. And while we have our favourites, we always try to find the typeface, or combination of typefaces, specific to and appropriate for the project at hand.”
As we all know, mobile is now an integral part of the web experience. Shields explains how the CHIPS team like to take a responsive approach. “Every project is different in its needs for mobile, but we try to make our designs as responsive to different devices as a budget and time will allow. We don’t like the idea of mobile-specific versions of sites. We would rather use one design and program it to respond to different devices. A little work can go a long way to optimising a design for [phones] and tablets.”
Creating a beautiful site is only one step, but what of beyond that? “Our first priority is to work with organisations and companies that are doing great things,” Squires says. “When the site is beautiful and offers interesting content, we believe if you build it, they will come. We also believe in writing clean code; if you can quickly view the source code of a page and know what you’re looking at, so can search engines.”
After being in the business for nearly 15 years the CHIPS team collectively give a few tips on what it takes to break into the industry. “We have never had a full-time employee, but when it comes to breaking into graphic design or web development, as with any profession, the key traits seem to be genuine talent, hard work, a positive attitude and a certain amount of luck. Of course, being extremely good-looking and knowing all the right people never hurts either!”