Teehan+Lax: A happy accident
Web Designer gets the low-down on Teehan+Lax, a Canadian agency that worked hard to get their reputation, and whose primary motivation is quality
what: Digital strategists delivering great user experiences
where: 109 Atlantic Ave, Suite 202, Toronto, ON M6K 1X4, Canada
The Teehan+Lax story starts over a decade ago, in the summer of 2002. Geoff Teehan and Jon Lax were both working for the same agency, Modem Media in Toronto. Geoff Teehan was the associate creative director and Jon Lax had been the creative director.
It was here that fate decided to deal its hand. Modem Media decided to close its office in the summer of 2002, leaving both Teehan and Lax out of work and unemployed.
With no money, no jobs, and no future, Teehan and Lax stayed in contact and had several discussions about trying to go somewhere together, maybe as a team. While discussing future possibilities, jobs needed to be found and interviews were a recurring theme throughout the summer.
Still being friends meant that after either Teehan or Lax attended an interview, they would reconvene at Geoff’s back deck to debrief. Each time this happened the discussion followed a very familiar path. Lax tells us the discussions went very much along the lines of the following:
“So how was it?”
“F**king awful,have no idea what they are doing. How about you?”
“We could do it better.”
And Teehan+Lax was born.
Well, the concept of a new agency was born and both Teehan and Lax started putting the building blocks in place. The first steps were to call a host of clients who had suffered the same fate as Teehan and Lax when the agency closed it doors. A simple message to previous Modem Media clients giving the lowdown that Teehan and Lax were considering branching out on their own received a universal response: ‘if you do it, we’ll give you work’. Encouraged by the reaction, Lax decided to add to its prospective portfolio of clients by giving his old boss GM O’Connell a call. He followed suit with the reply “we’ll give you work,” and a collective of clients were there ready and waiting from day one.
Cofounder Lax tells us how even from the start Teehan+Lax was only meant to be a temporary thing. “We opened up with the idea that we would work some of these opportunities while trying to find ‘real jobs’. Teehan+Lax was really a temporary thing. But after two years we had a few employees and Geoff and I decided that this was permanent. The whole thing was a bit of a happy accident.”
With the agency foundations in place, the logical progression was to debate a name. A decade ago, abstract names were a popular, if slightly pretentious, choice for creatives. A path that Teehan and Lax visited, but one that never felt right. The next choice was to, keep it simple and obvious – the only issue was who was to get top billing, as Lax explains. “When we were trying to name the company we had a list of abstract names. At the time, ‘-iant’ names were really popular, Sapient, Alliant, Navigant, etc. We played with a lot of names like that but nothing ever felt right. 2002 was right in the darkest days of the dotbust and names that were abstract felt really fake to us, like we were hiding something.
“Geoff and I envisioned a company where we would work really closely with clients. We were selling us. At the time it was unusual for Digital Agencies to name themselves after the principals – that was more of an old ad agency or law firm thing.
“So naming the company Teehan+Lax just made sense. It aligned to the kind of company we wanted to build and it allowed us to put our personalities in to the identity.
“We played with the order of the names… Teehan+Lax, Lax+Teehan. We both agreed Geoff’s last name just sounded better first.
“Obviously the URL wasn’t taken, but when we were looking at possible names we would come up with a name and look to see if it was available. I think that is common for naming.”
Teehan and Lax had a head start when they got together, with a host of clients already in the bag. But, all good agencies need to keep clients coming back or actively engage newcomers. Lax explains, that for continued success you need to ‘do good work’.
“Your job is to develop reputation. That is how you get clients. If you have an hour to spend, do something that will get you a reputation in the field you want to be known in.
“I’ve never seen outbound selling work in this industry. Anything of quality has come because our reputation attracted it.
“I think people imagine that this business has some magic to it, but the best new business tool is your work. Do good work and you get good work.
“I’ve seen other agencies have some success with relationship selling, so they attend every conference, sit on every industry board, take potential clients out for dinner and drinks. That style was never us. We would rather focus on making something.”
Attracting new clients is one key to success, and the Teehan+Lax website goes a long way as the springboard for more work. Lax is proud of the company site but thinks they don’t spend enough time maintaining it. “Our site gets over 1 million unique visitors a year. Which, I think has to be one of the most visited agency sites in the world. We use our site to share with the design community. We are really well known for our iOS PSDs, but our Labs group gains a lot of traffic and our blog posts contribute as well.
“Creating meaningful resources and content is essential for us. Like most agencies, about every two years we try to redesign our site and it takes a lot of work. We are due to do it again in 2013.
“We don’t spend enough time maintaining our site. It is a real source of personal frustration. One thing I am considering is hiring a full-time team to do nothing but design and create for our company site, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. I think that it may require full time resources to do it properly.”
As already mentioned clients are key, but being selective with whom you work with can be just as productive as taking every project that comes an agency’s way. As Lax reveals, a bad client can have disastrous consequences. “We’ve always been selective about who we work with. A bad client can ruin a company – there is such a thing as a bad dollar. Now, if your primary motivation for being in business is profit than your only criteria for work is budget. But our primary motivation is quality.
“Even when we were starting we would look at every potential client sceptically and say, why do we want to work on this? Is this interesting to us?
“All the partners here work on the clients we take on; so one of our criteria when looking at a new piece of business is, are we interested in it? We eat our own dog food.
“We have done a few jobs just for the pay cheque, but when we do that, we do it knowingly. We make a conscious decision to take it on for financial reasons and we tell the team, ‘hey, this is why we are doing this job’. It happens very rarely.
“As we’ve grown larger, we have a minimum level of engagement that we look for. Right now, we look for clients who will commit to 12 months and a minimum of $750,000 over that 12 months. We need clients like this because of our scale. There are certain economics to our business at this point. Occasionally, if a really great opportunity comes in, we will make an exception but generally we look for clients of a certain scale. The problems that are interesting to us right now (multiscreen, complex) are bigger challenges and require corresponding budgets and commitments.
“We won’t do pharmaceuticals or government. Those two categories just require too much specialised knowledge and patience to deal with.”
Teehan+Lax has grown into a major creative force in the decade it has been in business. Along the way it has embraced a plethora of projects, and we asked, ‘Is there a project that typically defines the Teehan+Lax ethos?’ Lax suggested there is no definitive answer. “Wow, typically the one we are working on currently is always defining our ethos. The best projects for us are the ones that get used by consumers the most, so by that definition, the Beatport (www.beatport.com) site is up there, as is the work we did on the apps for Readability.
“There is one project we did for Bell here in Canada where you take a picture of a billboard and send it to this email address, and we send you a report of how your phone ‘stacks up’ against other phones Bell is currently offering. I love that interaction. It’s so simple and helpful for someone trying to decide on a new phone, and the best part is that the tech is super simple. Most people think there is something encoded in the billboard you are taking a picture of but all we do is read the EXIF data on the picture. You could a take a picture of anything and as long as you send it to that address, it gets parsed.”
While no project is the archetypal stereotype of a Teehan+Lax work, large-scale projects do take a more conventional path. Lax offers a brief insight into the timescale and process involved in bringing a project to fruition. “Large-scale projects are typically taking about six months to complete. In the past year or two, we’ve moved away from waterfall based methods where there are distinct phases of ‘design, development, testing’, to a more agile method where those activities are occurring daily.
“In terms of resources, a large-scale project would have a team of two or three designers, two or three developers, a project manager, a Partner, an IA; and that team would get help from our planning group, which would include content strategy, business strategy – maybe some analytics and measurement.”
Every project needs tools, and while Adobe is the popular choice, its not the only choice as Lax reveals. “We use Adobe for design. We rely on Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign to varying degrees. On the development sides, we use a variety of IDEs – Coda, Sublime, XCode. We are increasingly relying on GitHub. We use Basecamp for project wrangling. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, right tool for the job. In 2013 I want to standardise this a bit. It’s become a little chaotic.”
Tools are always accompanied by technologies, and the primary candidates are currently HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery. Lax believes these are important, but there are other ecosystems that may not grab the headlines but are equally essential. “I think these technologies are incredibly important and shifting how we work. When we began in 2002 we started by only delivering design to clients. Our deliverable was PSDs and a build guide/style guide. We did this because we didn’t want to build technology, and at that time everything was still being built on top of massive enterprise CMSs and application servers.
“Front-end technologies, frameworks, and APIs have all changed how we work. We build a lot more technology then we used to, including spinning up AWS servers for clients and building APIs. We still have no interest in building enterprise technology like .NET or Java servers, but we are aggressively doing more building than at any time in our history.”
As Lax mentioned, new technologies are changing the way designers and developers work. We enquired about what is it that is making the Teehan+Lax workflow more productive and exciting. “In general we look for tools that let us get to working software quickly. We love Twitter Bootstrap. Mark Otto is a good friend of ours and that is a fantastic tool for quickly prototyping. We’ve also been using Angular.js lately, with some very good results.
“GitHub is becoming popular in our workflow but we are still in the process of perfecting how to use it for total project management.
“Amazon Web Services has without a doubt profoundly changed how we work. We would never want to manage servers or build our own servers, but AWS changes that.”
Responsive design and mobile are two areas that are very much at the cutting-edge of digital design. However, designing and developing for different devices offers myriad different practices to reach a common goal. Lax suggests that responsive design is currently limited in its approach. “I think that responsive designs work for a certain type of content – mainly editorial content. But, I favour custom most of the time. I believe you need to think about the context that a user will call up your site on mobile, and design for those use cases. I don’t believe that your mobile web should just be a miniature version of your website. I think that if you are building a website today that doesn’t have mobile or tablet views, then your site is shipping broken.”
Design processes and practices bring a site to the web, but not the masses. Promotion is critical to getting visitors to a site. Social media is one popular choice, but Lax doesn’t give it too much credence. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about social in terms of awareness generation. Obviously it’s important and those are great tools, but I try to spend more time thinking about how to create something that can be useable and useful to customers. I think that if you can do that, it finds its own audience.
“It’s not that I don’t believe in the awareness part of the funnel, we just tend to focus on other things.”
Looking beyond processes, practices, and promotion, there is always a human element to every agency. Lax explains the agency’s values, and gives some sound advice for anyone wanting to take those first tentative steps toward getting a job in the industry. “A few years ago I went through an exercise to write down our values. I used to think corporate values were bullsh*t and a bunch of corporate speak, but I saw that if you did it right it has the potential to be incredibly powerful.
“So we now talk about our core value, which is ‘Make Epic Sh*t’. That is what we love to do. We like making things that people use. We have some qualities that we believe make up who we are. When we interview we look for people who have similar values. They say things in the interview process that let us know if we are on the same page.
“So for prospective employees or someone stepping into the industry, the advice I give is… what do you value? What kind of work are you looking to do? When you go to a company try to determine if you value the same things. For example, some designers value storytelling. They like crafting little movies and narratives. If this is you, don’t go to a company that values building technology for intranets. You and they will be miserable.”
Finally, the present is looking exceptionally bright for Teehan+Lax, but success isn’t built by only looking at the now. The agency has one eye on the future, but Lax admits that he doesn’t like growth for growth’s sake. “I’m really excited about the future, maybe more so than in the past few years. We are really focussing on product innovation for clients. Thanks to our Labs group we’ve instilled a ‘maker’ or ‘hacker’ culture here, and we are aggressively pursuing that. It just feels right to us.
“Growth or expansion is a touchy issue for us. I only want to grow or expand if the work we want to do demands it. I don’t like growth for growth’s sake.
“We’ve been spending increasing time on the West Coast in San Francisco and are currently debating opening an office there.
“In terms of exciting projects, definitely our collaboration with The Obvious Corporation on Medium is very exciting. Our partnership with Readability designing and building their mobile apps is amazing. We also have some things coming out with Google that I think will be interesting.
“We have a secret project that we are working on that I really hope we can unveil in the new year. I can’t say much about it other than it involves skateboarding. We’re very excited about it.”