Computer Arts meets Chris Hassell of DS.Emotion and finds out what happens when a bunch of normal design bods start to shout a bit.
"We're a bunch of people who won't blind you with bullshit and try to get one over on you," says company director Chris Hassell. This is DS.Emotion in a nutshell. But you might be forgiven for thinking "DS.Who?" DS.Emotion is the design agency behind the brilliant Franz Ferdinand website, but the team also boasts an eclectic client list that includes Nickelodeon, Orange, Fox's Biscuits, Remington, and many more.
The company's history dates back to the nineties: "We were very much a Leeds based agency at the time, and were just beginning to creep into new media," Hassell explains. "Before 1999, the company was primarily a design and marketing agency for property development, but the web side of things soon took off." As Emotion Inc, the company won a pitch for a BT Cellnet project that evolved into phonefactory.com - BT's first foray into selling pre-pay mobile phones online.
"It was a fantastic project," says Hassell. "We were involved in the branding and development of the site, right through to fulfilment processes, as well as designing all of the packaging and stationery." But Hassell isn't one to blow his own trumpet: "One reason we haven't done much PR is because we just crack on with things. Most work comes in via word of mouth."
Hassell is aware that being personable is proving increasingly important in the current market. "You read about some companies, and they come across as quite arrogant," he says. "I think one of the things people like about us is that we're down to earth."
So they're just normal blokes doing design, then? "Very much so," Hassell admits. "Actually, we just won a pitch with a government-funded body, and the final presentation was more like an informal chat - very much a team chemistry meeting, to see if we all got on." According to Hassell, the company's open, relaxed and honest approach has paid dividends with all of the company's clients.
Telling it like it is
"If a client asks for something and it's not rocket science, we won't say, "Oh, that's complicated and will cost you thousands". We'll say, "That's fairly easy: only a slight tweak"," says Hassell. "We're not idiots - we charge money - but you have to be honest. If a client thinks something will take a few minutes and you have to say, "Actually, it's a bit more involved than that and will take a day", they're more likely to take this well and trust you if you've been honest and up-front right from the start." So does this way of working mean that clients give the team more space? "I think they do," Hassell agrees. "Clients always want to feel that they've added something to the project - and more often than not, they do - but often we'll have a client, Nickelodeon, for example, who'll ask us to do something for a promotion. We'll send some concepts, they'll pick one, and then we'll pretty much finish the job. Typically, we only ever have to make a few minor tweaks - and that's it!" Hassell is surprised at what he hears some people say to clients: "Sometimes you think, "Well, maybe they're earning way more than we are", but I don't think that's true. Clients are becoming more aware of the industry." And that, presumably, makes the "no bullshit" approach even more important.
"Initially, only a few people understood the internet. Clients thought it was complex, so there was a lot of bullshit flying around - and huge costs for everything," says Hassell. "Now, everyone's more computer and internet literate and clients have been through website projects a number of times. They understand more about what's involved and appreciate an honest approach."
But what about the few that still don't understand the business? "Well, they're never going to go away entirely," says Hassell. "You get clients that, for some reason, want to design everything themselves, omitting you from the equation, or those that complain that they've paid you loads of money, yet there's space around the edge of the website when the browser's full screen. And we're like, "We could design it so it flowed to a 23-inch screen, but the design won't work as well". It's not like we charge by the size of the design that we do - we don't charge by the pixel!"
Luckily, few clients work like that. In fact, DS.Emotion has found that some clients impact on the business in a positive way.
"We did some music sites for Universal a couple of years ago, and then Franz Ferdinand happened. We did the website and then everything snowballed," says Hassell. The team enjoys creating music websites because people want to visit such sites and the feedback is immediate.
"The fans are straight up about everything, but to generate that kind of feedback around a brand website is much harder to do," Hassell explains.
Starting to shout
The Franz Ferdinand site marked something of a turning point for DS.Emotion, not only in terms of recognition, but also because the company started dabbling in a little PR. "We met Harry at Hot Cherry, and he got incredibly excited about the fact that we were doing the Franz Ferdinand site," Hassell explains. "So we thought maybe we should just start shouting a bit now."
With the business effectively looking after itself, how did "shouting" change the business and its relationship with clients? "Well, I've noticed that people know our name a lot more," Hassell admits. "We're not into egos, but the recognition certainly builds confidence in the team, and we've also noticed that our existing clients have even more faith in us now. Someone sees us being asked for opinions in the press and it somehow reaffirms for them that we know what we're talking about!"
So what does it take to work at DS.Emotion? "Personality is a big draw for us. It's more your passion for what you do than the degree you've got," says Hassell. Having been burned a little by the "dot bomb" fall-out, the company has focused on staying small, but there are plenty of diverse personalities: "This works well for us - we don't want to be an agency with a "house style". We want the flexibility to put the relevant people on the briefs we get in."
Hassell says it's essential that each member of his multi-talented team has skills in the development process. Although most have some agency experience, others were recruited from school. Hassell joined straight after taking his A-Levels and rapidly learned how to deal with clients and run the digital side of the business.
All the indications are that DS.Emotion will continue to flourish. Hassell believes that digital marketing spend is on the up, and that this will only increase in the future. "We believe that digital will soon be leading campaigns, rather than being something of an afterthought," he says. "We see the company working on bigger projects, and getting increasingly involved in the strategic side of a client's marketing." But the company will never move away from production, because "that's what keeps us all going".
And, presumably, the company's approach will continue in much the same way as it always has? "Absolutely," says Hassell. "Although the work itself is a massive part of your success, a lot of clients contact us via word of mouth, so the relationships you build with stakeholders - employees, clients and suppliers - count for a lot. After all, the sooner a client "gets" what you're trying to do, the more smoothly the rest of a project should run."
WHAT INSPIRES THE DS.EMOTION TEAM?
DAVID ELLIS - SENIOR CREATIVE
Ellis's current designer favourites include Saul Bass, Stefan Sagmeister, Ian Anderson, Jonathan Ive, Mark Farrow, Pete Fowler, Ralph Steadman, Baseman, Nathan Jurevicius, and "far too many others to mention"! The list changes dailyâ€¦
MATT PINDER - AUDIO/VISUAL PRODUCER
"I've been reading 2000AD every week for over 20 years now and I'm still finding it a source of inspiration," says Pinder. Other key influences include Shigeru Miyamoto - the creator behind Nintendo's Super Mario and Zelda - and Steve Jobs.
PAUL CROFT - FLASH DEVELOPER
Croft cites videogames as a key influence. He's a big fan of Nintendo: "The company constantly comes up with new ideas, always ensuring its games are fun and easy to play." On the web, experimental Flash site www.bit-101.com is a favourite.
IAIN BARRINGTON-LIGHT - SENIOR CREATIVE
Barrington-Light is inspired by fashion and music - and, oddly, "the eighties revival and neckerchiefs". He revels in classic art: "Miro was the original innovator." He also finds time for modern creatives, such as Paul Davis.
CHRIS HASSELL - FOUNDING PARTNER
Hassell, the main voice of our interview, responds with "the new" when asked what inspires him. Regarding favoured illustrators, he mentions Ralph McQuarrie's Star Wars concept art: "I poured over those paintings for hours as a kid!"
GARETH JONES - DEVELOPER
Jones likes sites that look fantastic and make use of existing technology in interesting ways - like www.macromedia.com/software/flash/flashpro/video/gallery/?trackingid=BGYP. "Pixel art and any use of clean design is also an inspiration," he says.
JAY ARMITAGE - FOUNDING PARTNER
Hailing from Leeds, Armitage cites Hillman Curtis as an influence, and states: "The company has a great ethos and way of working". He also praises the talents of Stefan Sagmeister .Online, newstoday.com grabs his interest.
RAJ GORSIA - WEB APPLICATION DEVELOPER
"Viewing other sites enables me to learn new concepts and come up with ideas about how to do the same," says Gorsia. With the claim, "I don't have the right-hand side of my brain", he declines to mention any favourite designers.