Always insightful, frequently funny and occasionally controversial, Hoss Gifford talks to Mark Penfold about Flash, the future and getting over second album syndrome.
How do you become group digital director for an international design studio like Marque Creative? For Hoss Gifford it's just the latest in a series of evolutionary jumps that his restless creativity has demanded.
From architecture to graphic design to Flash wizardry and smart phone development, Gifford remains light on his feet because, for him, it all comes down to the final experience. He sees the user's journey from start to finish - and he makes it compelling.
Whether he's working on Flash games such as the addictive Spank the Monkey or the promotion of an entirely new city in Malaysia, Gifford displays a rare talent for divining the best possible outcome and making it happen. How does he do it? For Gifford, "It's always about the idea".
Computer Arts: Is it right that you didn't train as a designer?
Hoss Gifford: Yes, I trained as an architect and since then I've worked on building sites and as a lifeguard, at an ad agency and as a graphic designer. I've written Lingo code for CD-ROMS and I've done a bunch of motion graphics. I've even developed software for Korean mobile phones. And that's just the maker jobs I've had. But in the past three or four years I've been doing the more strategic stuff.
CA: An architect? How did you end up moving into design?
HG: The thing I absolutely adored about architecture was the burst of pure creativity at the start of a project. The thing that distressed me was the fact that this was only the first one per cent of a job that could take years.
So, the idea of sitting down and creating something that could be artworked and back from the printer in a couple of weeks was a revelation. The problem was, nobody would give me a job in graphic design because I didn't have any formal training.
CA: How did you manage to get around that minor inconvenience?
HG: I found it was a lot easier to convince clients I was a graphic designer than it was other designers. So I did the only sensible thing and set up my own agency.
CA: When did you decide to make the move to digital?
HG: As part of my search for a graphic design job, I created a Macromedia Director presentation as a CV. I programmed a little game within it to talk about creative strategy, and animated it all in Extreme 3D. This was before CD burners, so I sent it out on zip disks.
One of the meetings that came out of that was with a designer called Gordon Black. He was looking at this Director piece and asked who I'd got to program it, who did the animation. I told him I had and he said: "And you're looking for a job in graphic design? You do realise you could get a job doing this?"
CA: So you started doing interactive work there and then?
HG: Yes. I remember we had a tremendous client in the shape of the Tunnel nightclub in Glasgow. They had a series of touchscreens throughout the club and they gave us a budget each month to create a series of mad shit for them. We even did a very early video conferencing system between there and the Home nightclub in Leicester Square. The stuff we did was way advanced. They were very exciting times. Then I got fired.
HG: Because the experimental Flash stuff I was also doing took up too much of my time. But it was great - just after I got fired for fucking about, fucking about got renamed as viral marketing. All of a sudden this thing had a name and was highly desirable and everyone wanted to buy it. That's how [the company] Flammable Jam got started.
CA: And then you created a game called 'Spank the Monkey?'
HG: Yes. I liked the idea of a game that needed no instructions. I wanted the mechanics of playing the game to be every bit as compelling as the game itself. If you hit the monkey fast enough...
CA: So you had the world whacking an inflatable ape?
HG: It was launched on the Friday evening at Flash Con in Amsterdam and the server it was on got more visits that weekend than the trailer for the new Star Wars film. For me, that was the pinnacle of getting my head around the fact that it's the idea that matters.
CA: How do you get spankingly good reactions to more serious projects?
HG: I obsess about the experience. The term 'user experience' is overused, but I obsess about the outcome. If you want this type of person to have a particular outcome then it's about working out the journey to get to that. For me, it's not about the clever application of technology - it's always about the idea. It's a bit of an old-fashioned way to work, but a good idea beats everything.
CA: Did you find that becoming a 'Flash celebrity' affected your work?
HG: As soon as you attract a degree of notoriety, people are looking to see what your next big thing is going to be and whether it's going to be as good as the last one. It's horrific and completely paralysing.
CA: It's like second album syndrome then. So how do you get over something like that?
HG: The reason most people don't create a lot of great things is fear of what might happen if it doesn't work out. If I fail, people will laugh at me. But actually, the punishment for failing is a short-term thing whereas the gain from success is potentially vast. Then, when Google started releasing software with 'Beta' attached to everything, I thought, "That's pure genius." Just sticking the word 'Beta' on things means you don't feel quite the degree of pressure to say, "Look - see what I've created."
CA: Do you still like to do the coding side of things yourself?
HG: A big tipping point for me came when I hired a graduate who very quickly became better than me at the things I believed to be my core skills. If I came up with the idea, he'd write the code a whole lot better, faster and cheaper than I could. That's when it occurred to me that what I brought to my job wasn't my ability to write code. Ever since then I've gone out of my way to try to make my job redundant. I need to recruit someone to replace me whenever I find myself spending a large amount of time in one area.
CA: Does your work have an aesthetic?
HG: 'Less is more' was hammered into me when I was studying modernist architecture. Now I think it's more like 'less but better'. A lot of what we celebrate as good web design is all whistles and bells. That overly Photoshopped, layered interface kind of thing isn't a world Marque Creative inhabits and it's not something we'd ever consider doing. I'm about a process of reduction and delivering that user experience.
CA: With Apple taking a stand against the Flash player, are you worried about the future of the platform?
HG: I think that's a bit of a red herring. There are bigger battles coming up. Technically, the future is very robust for Flash. HTML5 will eventually replace it for much of what it does today, but that'll be in several years' time and by then Flash will be doing different things. The only concern I have is the business model Adobe uses. It's a horrific experience getting someone to put Flash on a Windows computer.
CA: There was some controversy following the talk you gave at last summer's Flashbelt. Have you changed your approach since then?
HG: I made the mistake of giving a talk tailored for a beer festival to a Mid- Western audience. But, with hindsight, it has been a very positive thing for me. This year at FITC was the first talk I've given since. It's a new presentation and it's unlike anything I've done before. I sit behind a table and talk for an hour. That's it. And the feedback is through the roof. The talk is called 'Things I've Learned'. An experienced person is just someone who's made lots of mistakes. So it's essentially me documenting the mistakes I've made.