Web Designer travels to the other side of the world to meet and greet with one of New Zealand’s finest. Creative and practical thinkers Flightless unveils its passion for creating solutions that look, feel and work beautifully
Flightless is a boutique design company based in New Zealand, run by creative director John O’Reilly and technical director Greg Harding. The company boasts a diverse portfolio of highly creative, award-winning work, ranging from web-based projects, museum and exhibition installations, identity development and self-published iPhone and iPad titles. Hatched in 2005, Flightless started out as a multi-disciplined design studio, working with high-profile clients in New Zealand and offshore (Icebreaker, Nintendo Australia, Tourism Australia, National Museum of New Zealand and Sidhe Game Developers). More recently, the company has focused its direction on high-end interactive work for museum installations and games and applications for mobile. In the 2010 Designer’s Institute of New Zealand ‘Best Awards’, Flightless came away with five medals across multiple categories: one gold (Maori Feast Museum Installation), one silver (Top Dog iPhone Game) and three bronze (Sidhe Branding, www.palliser.co.nz, www.hamiltonwaikato.com). Flightless’s iPhone titles continue to do well, and its recently released iPad title ‘AnimalBlocks’ was the number one kids and educational app in the UK and New Zealand App Stores in March this year, among others.
Looking back at the Flightless journey, creative director John O’Reilly talks about how the agency has developed since he started it back in 2004. “I started Flightless in late 2004, after arriving back in New Zealand from living and working in London for four years. I’d been successful with my career move to London and, after being hired to start up and direct design companies a few times, I felt it was about the right time to do it for myself. I’d worked with my highly talented and good friend Greg Harding for the years prior to leaving New Zealand, and after many failed attempts to get him over to the UK, at last we were in the same city again. We were both very keen to keep the company boutique in size and multi-disciplined in its approach, although we have always had a particular focus within the realms of interactive/multimedia, as it lets us play with the full scope of our areas of interest and skill sets.
“In mid-2005 my sister Lorin, who is a talented designer and had been working in Brighton, UK for a few years, also headed back to NZ. At that point, she became the third member of Flightless.
“Over the next few years we steadily grew our client base and employed additional designers and contractors to service a growing list of high-profile web-based work and identity development projects. More recently, we’ve refined our direction and have been focusing on high-end interactive work for museums and mobile iPhone/iPad.” The agency boasts a distinctive moniker, and behind every name there is always a story. John reveals the reasoning behind the name, and also gives his brief thoughts on the importance of it being matched to a ‘.com’: “The name ‘Flightless’ in many subtle ways encapsulates who we are, how we are and where we come from. The predominant native animal life in New Zealand are birds – a lot of them flightless. Before any Europeans landed here, there were no land mammals other than a bat (but it spent much of its time on the ground, anyway). With no predators, they decided wings weren’t required. It’s fairly unique, so ‘Flightless’ felt like a New Zealand trait to us. We also like the connotations of being well-grounded – we’re creative but practical thinkers. Additionally, we are fairly modest and like to think our work does a lot of the speaking for us. I should also mention that I’m a bit of a bird geek, too! A good URL can be important depending on the nature of your business. We think the importance of having a .com is always reducing, and we’re happy with Flightless being a New Zealand domain.”
Clients are the driving force that keep an agency active, and in work. Creative director John explains how networking and referrals are key components in bringing in new clients. He also reveals how the agency is not afraid to take on any size project. “New business is a tricky thing to get right. For us, not all new business is good business. We’ve been fairly select in the projects we take on or go after, because they tend to define the future work you do. Much of our business comes through networking, referrals and our portfolio. However, for larger projects and museum-based installation work in particular, there is generally a rigorous tendering process that companies have to go through. Initially this sector was hard to break into, and losing a tender resulted in a lot of anguish and lost hard work. But once we got our first large museum interactive project and nailed it, the doors became more open.
“We don’t generally pitch for work unless we desperately like the job and have some good intelligence around the success rate of winning the pitch. We have rarely engaged specific clients, but this is something that may change.
“Previously, we’ve not restricted ourselves in terms of the size of a project. We’ve got a lot of cumulative experience and have been fortunate to have a very multi-skilled team and a good relationship with regular contractors that make larger jobs possible. We are a design-led company, so projects that are too heavily weighted towards a technical solution, rather than a creative one, tend not to be suitable for us. Although, in saying that, we have partnered with technical companies to work on projects that require a substantial technical solution outside of our own resources.”
Once a client has signed on the dotted line, the
real work begins. John unveils who is likely to make it onto a typical project team: “As mentioned, we’ve had a fairly multi-skilled team in the past, so division of labour was an issue, as we have been able to occupy a number of different roles on any given project. Generally, most of our work falls within having a creative lead, a technical lead, a project manager (sometimes the lead designer) and design and technical bodies under that. We aren’t the fastest production line around because we are big on ‘crafting’ our work. More numbers (people)
can sometimes speed up the timeframe, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a better result creatively or financially, for us or the client. Larger sites dictate a team of at least three, but no more than five. Large museum interactives normally have a team of around three to four, but we use other small specialised companies for things like sound engineering and physical fabrication/building. Our mobile work for iPhone and iPad often comprises only two – designer
“As well as working on the projects, I have the creative overview of what’s coming and going and Greg has an overview of the technical situation. We also have Kim Lumsden, our part-time account manager/business analyst.”
Every project is built with a selection of industry tools. Technical director Greg divulges what tools are used for the different parts of a project. “We use a wide range of tools depending on the project and who’s working on it, rather than following some exact process for similar pieces of work,” he explains. “We often mix our skills and preferences with opportunities to learn and experiment, balancing them with the client and their delivery environment, maintenance and sometimes contractual requirements. “Adobe’s Creative Suite is used for most design work, but a glance at anyone’s desk will show plenty of pens and paper, through to obscure utilities running in virtual machines. When working together or integrating projects, it’s common for one of us to be using a visual tool or IDE, while another works from a text editor and command line. Modern software and systems, along with free and open-source projects, allow a lot of flexibility to develop and deliver projects, so we use whatever we need or think works. There’s often no way for us to work on a project without using a mixture of closed and open-source software, projects or communities for front and back-end work, whether it’s for design and creation of an identity, sound effects for a museum interactive, or an iPhone game talking to a highscore framework.”
Creating gorgeous, award-winning web presences is all part and parcel of the Flightless lifecycle, but how important is the agency’s own online experience? Creative director John gives an insight into the resources dedicated to its own site: “Traditionally, our website has played a very important role as a portfolio of our work and example of our expertise. It’s also been a chance to visually establish our character as a company. Working in the web, we always felt it was good to have a website that demonstrated our abilities in that medium. However, this is changing as our company direction moves further away from website design as a service.
“Our new website (soon to be released) isn’t going to be a demonstration of our web expertise. It’s a more conversational communication tool for talking about our work, sharing ideas and being in contact with our product customers and wider community. It will still have a portfolio of selected work, but the emphasis is on easy day-to-day communication with our blog and Twitter feed rather than a work repository. Yes, it is a lot of work to maintain and update, but it is an important part of our business not only for service work, but for our own product support and dialogue.”
Technical director Greg offers a different perspective on the same question: “Interactive design companies are often last to give themselves enough time and resource to design and build their desired online presence – we know, we’ve put some of our ideas off for months, if not years at times. It is hard work and a bit of anguish to find time to design, write, agree on, build and maintain your own site, especially when you’re offering the same service to others.
“After our change in focus we’re immediately more relaxed with our upcoming site, seeing as it doesn’t have to act as a portfolio piece in itself for our ability to craft a website. So, instead of designing a showpiece interactive from the ground up again, we’re a bit more free to deliver a modest and functional site that will show who we are and what we do, and help and encourage us to communicate better and more often than we have before.”
Flightless recently said goodbye to its offices and changed its business strategy. John discusses the reasons and thoughts behind the decision. “In the last 12 months, we’ve significantly changed our business strategy,” the creative director explains. “We’re now focusing on mobile (iPhone/iPad initially) and high-end exhibition/museum interactive work. We’ve split our work base between some service work for clients and creating our own products, like games and apps for sale on the App Store. The reasoning behind this is fairly selfish. We have a natural desire to work on creatively stimulating, multimedia-based projects – projects that require a combination of creative concept solution, design, animation, programming, sound and artwork. The museum work we do generally enables this, and there’s a synergy between the approach and tools we’re using to design and develop interactive exhibitions and what we’re doing for mobile. The website market here in NZ had been trending towards larger, content-heavy and business operational-type web work. Although we had been doing exceptional websites in this market, we generally felt they were leading us away from our passion of highly interactive, creative work. Individually we’ve been working professionally in this space for a long time, and the mobile platform led by Apple’s iPhone/iPad and the App Store marketplace represents a chance for us to sell our work direct to the consumer for the first time. “With this change in direction and some other life changes (such as losing a director to motherhood), we reduced our staff and now work closely with other external contractors. The new direction also means there is little need to be based in a major city, as most of our work is either internationally focused or tied specifically to a museum location. For that reason, we have moved the business north to a more tropical climate and close to some great surf beaches. We don’t mind travelling to where the work is at all. This year I’ll be building a new house with a separate, purpose-built studio that will become Flightless HQ.”
The change in direction has seen Flightless focus part of its strategy on the mobile market. Technical director Greg gives his thoughts on the unstoppable march of the small screen: “There’s no doubt that modern mobile platforms are important and there are plenty of things to think about for people and brands when trying to make best use of them. We were around at the start of the web when the industry and companies fell over themselves in the rush to get online – there are strong parallels with what we’re seeing now with the mobile experience. There are new aspects to things like the browser wars, vastly different hardware, software and performance from a range of vendors and increasingly high expectations from users, of course. There can be big differences in time and effort between building content for a range of mobile browsers and delivering a native application that makes full use of the available frameworks and hardware. Add to that online marketplaces to sell apps, various advertising channels and the overall philosophies of the big vendors, and there’s a lot to consider. We’ve given a positive but measured response to anyone we’ve talked to, trying to focus on their reasons for wanting something (anything) mobile other than just existing. One thing has never changed for us, though – no matter what platform you’re on, it always boils down to the creative concept.
“We are now strongly focused on mobile ourselves, having released several titles of our own and worked on a few others with partners. We’ve delivered native apps for the iPhone and iPad requiring different design and technical skills than our traditional web and interactive projects, but happily the platforms and technologies we’ve used are directly applicable to our museum and installation work as well. This is an important point, for our future at least – being able to share design, assets and code across multiple platforms including mobile, and making the most of their strengths to deliver our creative concepts well.”
Flash is a technology that has differing degrees of success on the web. Greg reveals how he sees the future for the dynamic powerhouse and how alternative technologies such as jQuery and HTML5 offer a more inclusive end product. “Flash or not has been a loaded question for a while doing web work. Rather than joining heated debates we’re strictly on the side of fitness for purpose, which means we’ve been using less Flash on the web for general components and rarely without alternative content. We have used Flash a lot for our standalone interactive works for more than ten years, so it’s never been an option we’ve ignored, particularly when a project requires delivery both for an installation and a website. Flash/Flex has a good environment for designers and developers that is documented and supported, and the platform handles a lot of content and interactivity. (We’ll admit, however, to more than a few moments of head-scratching weirdness over the years, that only Flash can cause.) “For use on the web, the same can’t yet be said for the alternative offerings from open-source communities hoping to rid the world of closed-source plug-ins, but these will only get better as 2D/3D graphics, video, sound and networking get more native support and tools are built around them. Recent trends in web standards and browsers are helping a lot with choice, but we think it will be a while yet before Flash is easily replaced with another tool chain. Obviously, there are other plug-in-based offerings like Unity, Processing and Silverlight, so it’s not necessarily just Flash vs HTML5. Like many others, we’ve been experimenting and
Building a web presence is just the beginning of the life expectancy of a website. The next step is to make the web-loving masses aware. Greg discloses the tools and techniques used to get a site seen. “We’ve built a lot of big and small sites, and there’s never the same answer to generating traffic that suits any one of them or their owners. With sites that needed it, we’ve taken care to use whatever the current best practices were at the time, to help with things like SEO and accessibility. For a lot of our sites it hasn’t been a primary concern to have them ranked highly in search results, more a ‘nice-to-have’. “Often, our clients have other drivers to their site or an established product or audience and need to do something better with their design or communication, or just want to support their existing offline business profile. It’s always a bonus when a museum has a high-profile opening for an exhibit with international media coverage, documentaries and stuffed toys, or an organisation prints pictures of puppies each week in the paper that demand a web visit – but not every site has that. Other sites have required better content, search engine friendliness, online and magazine advertising and respected external sites linking in to get traffic coming in. “We have engaged SEO specialists for clients on a few projects in the past, and if we had implemented all of their suggestions we would have had to double our budgets and ask everyone to browse in Lynx. (Well, maybe not quite…!) Optimising for SEO is important but has diminishing returns in our experience, and you have to judge just how far to go for each project.”
A social media presence is an obligatory part of the online experience. Flightless director John gives his thoughts on how it works for the agency and business alike. “Social media can be a very important part of any online project, depending on the nature of the communication,” he comments. “Specifically for us, it’s an instantaneous connection with our peers, people buying our products or wanting to know more about us and us about them. As mentioned above, our website and online communications have taken a change towards a more communicative platform rather than a standalone showpiece. “For clients looking to sell/promote/raise brand awareness, it can be very alluring to tap into a particular pool of potential consumers. It has become yet another buzzword in web design and development that some people believe they need, despite not knowing exactly what it is they’re getting into. We advise our clients to strongly consider the level of commitment required to participate in social media, and if indeed what they are offering suits the medium. There is a danger in getting it wrong and being destroyed overnight. What excites us is the gamification of campaigns and digital products; that’s where we can add real value. “
With a new business strategy in place, John goes on to reveal his plans for Flightless in the near future and beyond. “We’ve modified the way we were doing business, so the immediate future of Flightless is about finding the right balance between our own product work and our client work,” he explains. “We have a growing list of Flightless game titles, applications and a book or two waiting for their time slot to be realised. We have some clients here that we love working for, but we’d also like to further expand our client base offshore. With the way we work now, there’s little reason not to use a creative company from New Zealand if you’re a client in the UK or US. The time zone difference is often advantageous for the client and the exchange rate generally works in the client’s favour. A face-to-face meeting is just a video conference call or a flight away. “Our research and development time is a very important ongoing part of what we do and is part of the reason we’re approaching things the way we are. We’re also looking to expand our network of quality contributing contractors and companies. “Most of all, Greg and I are passionate about Flightless being the company face to the stuff we love doing, being on the creative edge of technology, design and communication. We’re just very fortunate that what we love doing happens to have value placed on it, and that we can make a living doing it.” With a small team and big ideas, it would seem that the sky’s the limit for this ambitious agency.