Toaster: The explorers of new digital frontiers
Web Designer goes behind the scenes with cutting-edge digital design creatives Toaster and discovers there passion for indulging in truly innovative work.
WHO: Toaster | WHAT: Explorers of new digital frontiers offering a striking aesthetic sense while looking to innovate with current digital technologies | WHERE: 10-12 Grape Street, London, WC2H 8DY | WEB: www.toasterltd.com
Looking at the portfolio of this agency, you could be forgiven for thinking that they had been operating for several years. In fact, Toaster has been creating cutting-edge digital design for less than three. But this hasn’t stopped them blazing a trail as one of the leading creators of digital campaigns. Together with their clients and partners, they have brought to life truly innovative work. Recognised by Cannes Lions, D&AD, Creative Review, The FWA, plus the Revolution and Tomorrow Awards.
Toaster collaborates with Google Creative Lab, working on innovative ideas which push the boundaries of digital marketing. Past projects include YouTube’s ‘Life in a Day’ crowd-sourced cinematic experiment with Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald or the NASA-supported ‘Space Lab’ project challenging kids to send an experiment to the International Space Station (ISS). Toaster’s creative ideas combined with pixel-perfect attention to detail has caught the attention of a global audience.
The agency was born through a long-term collaboration between three designers working for Google Creative Labs; Aidan Sharkey, Rich Mills and Tom Dunn. Their complementary backgrounds offered them a chance to begin Toaster. Rich’s specialism is web design, Tom brought the animation skills to the table and Aidan’s background is in branding and graphic design. These three individuals offered the trinity of skills that all digital design agencies working today need, in order to offer a full service to their clients.
Aidan outlined the approach that they took with the early days of their agency: “We had a client who liked our particular design approach and we recognised we complemented one another with our combined skills. The idea of forming a company and hiring additional help sounded like it made sense. As we are designers, questions like ‘who would be in charge’ or ‘who does the admin’ were not easy ones to answer. We believed the best thing to do was just get on with doing great work and the rest would fall into place.
“We quickly gave our new company a friendly sounding name that was easy to drop into conversation and off we went. We started off with just the three of us and a couple of exciting new client briefs to work on. Our initial creative pitch work on these briefs helped our client sell these ideas internally and when they got the green light they took on a life of their own. When we recognised the scale and opportunity of the projects, we hired some great freelancers and are proud to say these guys converted to full time within a few months.”
The online presence that Toaster has created also speaks to their design sensibilities, as Aidan explained: “We’re on the second incarnation of our website, and working on a third at the moment. It’s important to keep things moving. We like to keep things simple. The key thing is that our work speaks for itself. We are working on some prototypes to explore what a website can be on a smartphone or tablet, but that is more than just a responsive site. We’re exploring how our site can tell a story through the interactions that are now possible. Sometimes we need to push the technology ourselves to show clients what’s possible. Our team loves to be given research time to explore the technologies.”
As Google’s Creative Lab was a hotbed of innovation, the three founders of Toaster were asked to work on cutting-edge projects for the search leviathan. In addition it became clear that digital campaigns were rapidly moving away from Flash and embracing a raft of new technologies. Rich Mills explained: “Ironically when we began the execution of our ideas it was not as straightforward as opening up Flash and going to work in ActionScript. Flash was becoming outlawed, which was a challenge but we recognised the opportunity to start producing sites in HTML5 early on. We invested in building a team who could take our ideas and develop them using HTML5. We now consider our ability to produce Flash-like sites in HTML5 to be our competitive edge.”
In the past, animations and 3D effects were commonplace with Flash. Now these effects need to be hand-coded using complex algorithms. It’s a quirk of the industry at the moment that producing an effect in HTML5 might be impressive to Toaster but not that impressive to the user who is already familiar with these effects through Flash websites they have visited a few years ago.
Toaster approaches each of the projects that they are asked to undertake from a completely different perspective, as Aidan explains: “We fall in between traditional advertising and digital production so I think that the key [point] that I want to try and make is that we are asked to come up with ideas for digital solutions and platforms. This is opposed to a traditional advertising agency that will try to retrofit their traditional campaign into digital format. We begin with coming up with ideas on how to provide an experience digitally as opposed to trying to crowbar in a traditional print or TV campaign to work digitally.”
Producing digital campaigns is a combination of a strong idea visualised in a striking way, which creates a memorable experience. As designers, the Toaster team approaches creative briefs with a vision for what they need to communicate and how it will look. They’re often asked to come up with a visual wrapper for an idea. Toaster creates visual mood boards to help clients identify the right visual identity to dress the ideas with. This work leads Toaster to exciting collaborations with the best photographers, illustrators, video-production companies, developers and music companies in the business.
As Aidan explains, it’s always possible to include some level of creativity, no matter how restrictive the brief may be: “Because of our particular niche, we enjoy working with clients who are looking for solutions that are technology driven, and are willing to push boundaries. Our work has a focus on creating shareable design and technology. We want to create experiences through a good understanding of the message, the creative wrapper and execution. We’re happy to work on a project of any size. Our work for Red Bull Air Race for instance was a simple page. We could have knocked out a static graphic but we gave them a page with a fun animated interactive holding page, which worked across all devices.”
The evolution of the advertising industry as it adopts digital platforms has opened up opportunities to move from pushing a message to creating experiences. Advertising these days has so many touch points. There are now so many opportunities to tell a story and encourage people to join a discussion or follow something genuinely interesting. Toaster specialises in exploring ideas for this type of modern advertising and the equally important design and execution.
Aidan explained: “Ideas and visual treatments are only part of the digital experience. We include our creative technologists from the beginning. Coming up with ideas is one thing. Knowing which ideas are achievable during the brainstorming process is the key. Luckily we have a creative technology team who sit next to our design. It’s great to hear them working together. We present our ideas using a combination of storyboards, posters and mood videos. Our clients are included in the creative process. They are full of ideas that inspire us. We help them develop these ideas and execute them to a high standard.”
The approach that Toaster takes to each of the campaigns they work on is all about the idea. The insight into what the business issue is and what the brand wants to communicate or what their big idea is and how it can be visualised and brought to life are the key drivers behind Toaster’s approach to their work. It all depends on the idea and then the different ways of communicating that message. One of the key differences between the approach that Toaster takes and other companies is that they are a creative team, art directors and designers sitting next to the creative technologists and the developers. Toaster always tries to get these groups talking to each other that then inevitably leads to great collaborations. “It’s all about quickly knowing what’s possible so you can rule out different approaches and different directions. You can confidently put something in front of clients and say, ‘we can do this’.” Aidan explained.
The masterful manipulation of the latest technology is a clear trait that runs through all of the work that Toaster has produced to date. Aidan outlined one project that the agency is particularly proud to have created: “Our work with Google exposed us to the latest technologies that Google was developing. They encourage the use of their API’s to produce new and exciting digital experiences. [For] the Toyota project, we put together the new Prius Plug-in Hybrid website. [It] takes viewers on a personalised journey to discover how electric and petrol-hybrid technology can make a real difference to our everyday drive. Using the latest Google Chrome technology, the captivating experience asks visitors to input an everyday journey of their choosing. It then creates a simulation of their route by cleverly stitching Google Streetview and Maps info together while calculating fuel economy, CO2 emissions and range statistics.”
Toyota’s main objective was to relieve the perceived range anxiety associated with all-electric cars. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid model combines the benefits of both electric and petrol-hybrid engines. This website is the first of its kind; it demonstrates these benefits in a rich and immersive way and delivers a personalised experience for each visitor, directly based on their own everyday driving habits. “Google Maps was an obvious tool to demonstrate the range of a car, but what makes this truly engaging is the exciting application of the latest Google Chrome technology to deliver a fresh visual effect” Aidan concluded.
Another project that clearly shows Toaster’s technical prowess is concept for the YouTube Space Lab that was developed by Google and YouTube. Working in partnership, Toaster’s role was to develop a creative wrapper that could be used across the lifespan of the campaign.
The Space Lab competition asked students around the world to suggest experiments to be carried out aboard the ISS (International Space Station). Toaster came up with ideas which used the latest web technologies to create the Space Lab YouTube Channel. The channel houses a simulation that allows visitors to take off in their own rocket from anywhere on the planet. The site featured live NASA tweets and imagery, real-time ISS location tracking and technology from Lenovo who supplies laptops to the ISS.
Toaster’s head of creative technology, Alberto Giorgi explained: “HTML5 and CSS3 encompass a fluid set of technologies, the so-called ‘open web platform.’ It represents Toaster’s current focus – the direction the agency wants to undertake for most of our future projects, as the HTML5 platform itself gets stronger. The main challenges Toaster encounters are browser fragmentation, a strikingly diverse set of computational capabilities, a plethora of screen sizes and bandwidth bottlenecks. Every user presents a unique set of these, hence Toaster tends to create their web applications smart enough to learn where they have been served and mutate accordingly, so the user can still enjoy the content without having to suffer.”
“We’re also working closely with Google and do a lot of work exploring Google’s technology, their hang -out technology on Google Plus and video chats where people can collaborate together with applications and games and YouTube videos. In addition we were quite excited about 3.JS Web GL, which was used for the Toyota campaign. We have WebAudio API, Web RTC and CSF. We are also currently working on some prototypes at the moment and we’ve launched some Chrome experiments. [Plus] we’re working with Google for the ability to pair your [mobile] device with your desktop. Adobe Creative Suite, SketchUp, VRAY, Blender and Basecamp are all used on a daily basis,” Alberto concludes.
Of course the almost ubiquitous smartphone and tablet PC means that agencies like Toaster have to pay attention to the needs of responsive design. Aidan outlined Toaster’s approach: “Responsive design is an industry buzzword these days but simply reformatting and scaling a site to work on a smaller screen misses the opportunity to use gestures, the gyroscope or personalise the experience using the user’s location. But the only thing responsive about responsive design seems to be scaling to fit screen sizes. It’s obviously important for editorial, text-heavy sites, but interaction is overlooked. On one type of device we point and click, and on another we can swipe, tap and pinch. We avoid mobile apps unless they add real value. Instead, we’re exploring what is possible on a mobile browser. Prototyping animations, effects and interactions on live projects. We’re learning a lot quickly. And that includes adjusting our own expectations on what’s possible with devices.
“We’re also exploring multi-screen technology, with our Chrome experiments for Google we’ve produced fun projects such as Super Sync Sports, or a Google+ demo where you interact on your mobile, but the experience is on your computer screen. Some of our most exciting mobile explorations aren’t possible with current bandwidth. But we’ve parked these in a safe place and are ready to roll these out when faster 4G networks and devices are more commonplace.
“Also, we’ve moved away from our initial mock-ups. Our initial website design mock-ups are not on desktop. First of all we supplied our design contents and mock-ups on smartphones. Traditionally you might have shown clients a concept using the desktop platform, we’re showing that as mobile, which brings its own design and technical challenges. We’re trying to encourage clients to think about the interaction and on one device you use a mouse or a trackpad to point and click and on the other devices you are using slight gestures to pinch and zoom. We recognise that it’s a totally different device that you’re designing for. Specifically for experience-based websites, if it’s an information-led website obviously it needs to scroll and you’re showing lots of text. For other creative opportunities we think they are quite different things to design for completely. Responsive design doesn’t really apply to something really creative. It applies to text-based information websites.”
In today’s creative environment, social media continues to play an important role. “The key thing is that social media is democratising the web,” stated Aidan. “The ability for anybody across the world to have a say. Or better still – participate.”
The most socially significant project, Toaster has had the privilege to work on was YouTube’s ‘Life in a Day’ cinematic experiment and a collaboration with Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald. Toaster’s role was to create a digital campaign calling out to the YouTube community that touched millions with over 4,500 hours of footage submitted from more than 190 countries.
“Social [media] is extremely important but we need to be very aware of it and use it,” explained Aidan. “But, not try and force people into it or bribe people into using it. So it’s the things that are going to be shared. You’re not going to share somebody who’s shouting, you’re going to share somebody who is entertaining you and who is giving you some value, some benefit or something rewarding.”
At the moment Toaster has around 15 staff members, which does include freelancers. Aidan outlined what they are looking for with the designers and developers they want to work with: “We have a lead developer, our head of technology works across all campaigns and manages the technical side of things. I would lead the creative. We have an art director who leads the design and we have digital producers who try to keep an eye on and manage the different teams. But we are essentially one team.”
With regards to the kind of person that Toaster looks to recruit, Aidan describes them as a certain mixture of dedicated, curious and wholly creative: “We look for free thinkers, people who aren’t satisfied with what’s already been done, and people who love technology. And people who don’t take themselves too seriously. Our team is constantly surprising me with their desire to create something new. We encourage hardware hacking, multi-touch interfaces, and experimental UI. Curiosity in gadgets and inventions with a desire to innovate and experiment with consumer experiences and communication is also vital in the people we work with. Because of the projects we work on and the clients that we have, we have quite a huge interest from extremely talented, intelligent people who just want to get on and do things and work quickly. My advice for people wanting to get into the industry is that you can never stop learning. You have to be curious, because something new is always happening somewhere. If you can’t learn to do that, you shouldn’t be in this business.”
And, finally, the future is crucial for any digital agency, so what does the future have in store for Toaster? Aidan concluded: “We’re collaborating motion-graphic artists and some new clients who we’re working with to try and produce something that’s pretty special in terms of the visual and personalised experience for the users. We’re continuing to work for clients pushing the boundaries. We’re continuing to try and find good people to help us out and clients who want to work at the frontier of what is possible. If we can continue to do what we love with them, we will be happy.”