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37Signals Spotlight on the Firms
FL: Where does the name 37signals come from?
37: In the mid-1980s a group led in part by Carl Sagan conducted a five year project in search of signs of intelligent life in the universe. Using a radio telescope, they analyzed trillions of signals from outer space and of those trillions, only 37 signals were identified as potential signs of intelligent life in the universe. We felt that that was a fitting name because our goal is to provide our clients with intelligent interface design and as we all know, there are precious few signs of intelligent life out on the web today.
FL: How did you choose to present site visitors with a list of 37 links rather than some flashy, colorful design as most firms do? Has this hurt or helped business, do you think?
37: It has definitely helped us because it immediately lets potential clients know the kind of design they'll get from 37signals; simple, streamlined, efficient, and useful. If a prospective client enjoys our site we can be fairly certain that we share the same goals and vision, namely to provide their customers with a site that is useful and provides real value by simplifying their lives in some way. If a prospective client thinks that our site isn't "flashy" enough, then we can be fairly certain that they won't be a good fit for us. In that way, the site is a great "qualifying" tool for us and helps us to avoid having to "sell" ourselves to our clients.

By the time they contact us, they are already believers.
FL: If your staff had to choose 5 of the favorite office quotes, what would they be?
37: a) Simplicity beats complexity.

b) People visit web sites, not "users".

c) "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, commited people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Meade

d) "In most agencies, account executives outnumber the copywriters two to one. If you were a dairy farmer, would you employ twice as many milkers as you had cows?" - David Ogilvy

e) "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke
FL: Does your company follow the mantra of "bring your dog to work" or does it have some other motivating/uplifting mantra to keep people excited about work?
37: The way we keep people excited about work is 1) we hire people who love doing smart interface design and 2) we let them do smart interface design.

Because we are small and specialize in smart interface design we don't have to spend a lot of time in meetings coordinating amongst ourselves, we can simply let everyone do what they love doing, and that tends to keep people excited.
FL: What's been the development in web technology/business of the last year that has had the most impact on your business?
37: The increasing number of clients who've been "burned" by large, "full-service" agencies or by their own lack of knowledge of the interactive space. As more people on the client side have gained experience in real-world, high transaction, web site development, the more they've come to realize that 1), the behemoth "full-service" agency don't have all of the answers (and cost and arm and a leg, or two, to boot) and 2), people want a simple, streamlined experience on the web. This has been great for us because we like to work with clients who've been burned before. It's people who've been through the ringer that really understand our value as a small group of specialists who can help them understand and address the needs of their customers quickly and efficiently.
FL: In an industry full of consolidating web shops, when are you going to announce a merger? When are you going to open your doors in 15 cities nationwide?
37: Never. That would run counter to our core values of staying small and focused, which is what enables us to provide our clients with an incredibly high level of service in the area of smart interface design. We will never become eNormicom.
FL: How did a project like enormicom.com come to be? How has that helped in terms of generating clients? Do you get people with hurt feelings because of this parody site?
37: eNormicom, like all of our internal projects, comes to be when one or more of us has an idea and someone decides to run with it. In the case of eNormicom we all had this general feeling that the interactive services industry was becoming ridiculous and Matt ran with it. We have another site coming up very soon called ShirtSignals, which is based on an idea that Jason had and brought to fruition.

It's hard to judge what effect eNormicom has had in generating clients, but the site has given us some great exposure and we've received an incredible amount of positive feedback from people who share our sentiments. If anything, I think that it works in the same "qualifying" way as our primary site, http://www.37signals.com. If they like eNormicom, they'll probably like working with us and if they don't like it, there are plenty of alternatives. We haven't heard about anyone getting their feelings hurt by the site, but I'm guessing that it's ruffled some feathers.
FL: Do you think that there's a place for ethics in the web design business? Have you ever turned away a client because your firm didn't agree with the business practices or industry that the client was in?
37: There's a place for ethics in everything. While we've never had to turn away a client because of their business practices or their industry, it's something that we would do if we felt that a client was behaving in an unethical manner. We do stand firm in our belief that speculative creative is bad for our industry and as such, will not provide "spec" work to win a client. You wouldn't ask a plumber to perform "spec" plumbing work for you, or a doctor to provide "spec" surgery for you, so why should a web design firm be expected to provide "spec" design work for a client?
FL: Do you have a company mascot? Do you have 37 of them?
37: Hmmm, I guess we don't have a mascot, although Ernest has been wanting one of those Sony Aibo robotic dogs for a while now (if anyone from Sony is reading this, he would certainly accept a silver one as a gift (he doesn't feel that that would be unethical)).
FL: On a "first date" with a client, what's the most important message you want to get across to them about your firm?
37: That we will provide their customers with an experience that is simple, efficient, and, most of all, useful. But, that in order to do so they, the client, must have the courage to listen to and act upon the needs of their customers above and beyond the pressures and intertia of their internal office politics.
FL: The swoosh was THE logo style for the last year or so, what's the new trend in logo mass-production going to be in the year ahead?
37: Unfortunately, it appears as though the swoosh will be with us for some time in its various guises. The only clear trend that we can discern is the continued adoption of bland, unimaginative, unevocative logos with the new Verizon logo being perhaps the best example to date. It makes us pine for the days of Paul Rand!
FL: Since you've been designing sites since 1994, are there things about designing websites which you miss? Are there things which you'd happily do without forever and ever?
37: Miss: The feeling that there was something completely new happening every day.

Happily do without forever and ever: <blink> tag, <marquee> tag
FL: Given that you started Signal vs Noise, what do you think are the future implications of weblogs in the corporate web design world? Will Fortune 500 companies soon have weblogs on their sites?
37: No, because most Fortune 500 companies want to maintain strict control over the way they communicate to the public and their employees. They probably wouldn't consider a weblog to be an "appropriate" forum for doing either (press releases and memos seem to be the preferred modes of communication).

Also, most companies don't want their employees spending a lot of time on the web whereas weblogs are all about discovering fascinating new things on the web that you never would have found yourself (a great example being http://www.mulletsgalore.com).
FL: You mention on your site, a disdain for awards. Is this because there just aren't any good ones for the web, or because you're afraid of success or fame? Do you believe there will ever be a web-focused award that really has any value - to help clients determine quality of firm, or for employees to determine how good a firm is?
37: Our disdain for awards is based on the our belief that the marketing and communication awards "industry" encourages agencies to misplace their priorities on the opinions of their peers, rather than the needs of their clients' customers. We don't believe that there will ever be a web-focused award that really has any value because, in the many years that advertising awards have existed, there has yet to be an award introduced that provides a true measure of the quality of a firm.

To us, the best measure of the quality of a firm is the success or failure of its clients in the marketplace and the firm's ability to retain those clients. In an industry with an incredible churn rate, over 80% of our clients have awarded us with additional projects after our initial engagment. That's the only kind of award that we're really concerned with.
FL: Writing seems to be a key to your firm's beliefs. Do you think that the state of writing on the web is bad merely for corporate sites or in general? Is there a way to save the existence of quality of writing online?
37: Writing is important to us because language, and its use, is critical to understanding. We don't believe that writing on the web is bad, we believe that writing in general has suffered a precipitous decline. Corporations have been issuing press releases since before the web existed which were full of jargon and non-sensical acronyms and a look at "Daily Variety" or the "Hollywood Reporter" is enough to make even a non-linguist reach for an Alka-Seltzer®.

The key to quality writing online is to understand the intended audience and to proactively address their needs with maximum efficiency.
FL: When developing the design for a site, does it help to picture your target audience when making UI decisions? Does it help to picture them naked?
37: It not only helps, it's mandatory. While we bring lots of prior experience to the table, there's no substitute for understanding the people who will be using the sites or applications that we design. Every client has an audience with a unique set of needs and requirements and spending time understanding who they are and what their needs are is a big part of what we do.

Picturing them naked is another story. We've tried it, and it's a bit too distracting.
(spotlight first ran August 2000)


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