The Firm List > The Firm List Spotlights > Pelago

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Pelago Spotlight on the Firms
FL: Just recently, your firm changed it's identity from Reeve+Jones to Pelago. More than just a name change, it seems a shift that's taking place more often. Instead of identifying the main characters involved in the firm, there is the creation of an often abstract & mysterious identity. Do you find this to be freeing?
P: Reeve+Jones Design was our second choice for a company name. We chose it because we couldn't think of better name that described who we were. We needed to establish ourselves in the business community and build relationships with clients to uncover our identity. We needed to develop ideals before we could develop a brand or an identity. A year into the business Braden presented us with a dissertation on the metaphorical possibilities of archipelagoes and we all said "That's Us!" The archipelago was a perfect metaphor of what our company had become.

The concept of an Archipelago became distilled into "Pelago" after a few months of design and research by a local branding firm. The new identity is freeing; we are no longer selling John Reeve and Braden Jones, we are selling a concept, an entity, representing everyone. From a principal's perspective, it's an entirely different marketing experience -- The freedom allows you to push the name further, because your own name is no longer in the crossfire, and your employees really get into the brand you've created.
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FL: You call Pelago an "information design agency" rather than a web shop, a multimedia factory or a bunch of pixel-pushers. What about the information side of things is so important to emphasize? Why don't you just say "we do Photoshop & BBEdit"?
P: Understanding the tools of a trade is the bare minimum one needs to enter into a profession. It should be assumed that if you are a web designer than you know how to use those tools. An accountant shouldn't have to advertise that they know how to use a calculator. Value and differentiation come from what you provide to a client above and beyond the necessary minimum.

Picasso said that computers are useless because they can only give you answers. We see computers as a tool for executing our ideas, a medium for communicating our message. The ideas and the messages are borne from our minds and hashed out on white boards and sheets of paper. We approach information from a human perspective, not a computer's, and build an experience that people can understand and navigate.
Pelago Office Interior
FL: "Intelligent Design" makes me think of a website that asks me questions. Or at least the people who build those websites asking me questions. If I walked through your doors, as a new client, what question would you first ask me?
P: "Have you given any thought to using the web as a tool, instead of just an online brochure?" Everyone is certain they need a Web Site, but few know why. We love brainstorming with a client, learning the structure of their business, and coming up with new ways to use the web to facilitate their day-to-day operations or enhance their web presence.

Every once and a while, we end up asking "Are you sure you want a Web Site?" We believe it's our responsibility as professional web developers to be completely honest with our clients, even when that means convincing them to spend their money on something other than a Web Site.
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FL: In your opening mantra of sorts, you throw out a lot of "foreign" concepts in this industry... simple online tools... reliable applications... build them by hand... build them to last... Why don't you just say: "we manufacture complex applications that work until you're ready for version 1.5"?
P: The first thing every client says is "we want something simple". Our industry is so intertwined with the tech world that I think a lot of our clients are responding to other design disciplines (specifically product design and packaging). They have a sleek, easy-to-use PDA and a well-designed, reliable laptop, and they want the same thing from their Web Site - simplicity and reliability.

Each of our clients is unique and requires a certain level of customization. We don't rely on cookie-cutter templates or formulaic processes. We have to adapt our process to the needs of each client, which results in a thoroughly developed online experience.
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FL: What is pelago?
P: As we mentioned earlier, Pelago is a greek root taken from the word "Archipelago"; a large group of scattered islands that collectively form one mass.

We've focused solely on web development, becoming one island in a chain of many different design disciplines. We've forged partnerships with firms that offer complementary services, such as print design, content development, and advertising. We've built a network of companies, with a proven track record of working together, who can share ideas, refer work to one another, and develop a project as one seamless team. The concept of a collective group of specialists is especially important in these economic times. We're looking out for each other.

Secondly, the root word Pelago is translated as "sea". Our firm is comprised of avid hikers, backpackers, surfers, fishermen, travellers, and wanderers, who just happen to be computer geeks. In this sense, Pelago is more than just a metaphor of our partnership model, it's an expression of who we are as individuals.
FL: How does being in Santa Barbara, almost the stereotypical California town, affect what Pelago is and what work it does? If Pelago opened a branch office in Boston, MA (and hopefully provided me with a cushy job) how would Pelago change?
P: Living in Santa Barbara reminds us that we need to occasionally step away from work and decompress. Being able to see the ocean and the mountains everyday keeps us balanced. It reminds us that there's more to life than just work; like Legos and surfing. So much of our work is influenced by how much we play. I don't think it would matter where we were located as long as we remembered to have fun.
FL: It took me a good while navigating through your site before I ran into the obligatory acronyms. Isn't it good CRM to use PHP to present the ROI possible with an ASP or MSP-like solution? What's wrong with the cult of acronyms?
P:I have three problems with acronyms. 1)They are too generic and meaningless; everyone has them. 2) They are only understood within an industry; most of our clients have never heard of CRM or PHP, nor should they. What do those terms have to do with their industry? 3) Acronyms are too easily hijacked by buzzword-splattering consultants (which you've done a fine job of mimicking in your question).
Pelago Co-Founder John Reeve
FL: An important element of Pelago's identity seems to be the notion of "sidecar projects." I am quite familiar with these types of projects and how they affect my own grasp of the medium and my understanding of the business. What is the importance of these projects for Pelago?
P: The sidecar projects were inspired by companies like 3M and IDEO who spend part of their time developing new concepts. Developing sidecar projects provide us with a release devoid of client control and profit motives. Coincidentally, the resulting product has often been one that clients license from us. They are a good testimony as to what will happen when you give free reign to a group of creative people. And they contribute to our overall reputation as experts in our field.

The sidecar projects are a creative outlet, a learning experience, and a lesson in collaboration for the members of our firm. Most of the time, we're more excited about them than client work. For me personally, the sidecar projects are an extension of my childhood affair with Legos. They legitimize my obsession with tinkering, taking things apart, and putting things together.
FL: In an industry which has seen it's fair share of small firms as well as mega-conglomerates, what is the value of being small?
P: The most valuable aspect of being small is the level of personalization a client can have with your development team. Our size negates the need for a company hierarchy. The result is a flattened company structure that is much appreciated by our clients.

Our size also enables us to specialize in web development. And by focusing on this one niche we can easily form partnerships with print design and marketing firms.
FL: Does Pelago have a particular style? Will someone exclaim "that's a Pelago!" someday?
P: Ask us that question again in thirty years.
Pelago Co-Founder Braden Jones
FL: Speaking of recognizable styles, and going back to the "build them to last" mantra, how does something created in medium of the web ever hope to last? Aren't all the cards stacked against any work lasting long enough for it to be recognized?
P: Building a Web Site to last means allowing it to grow. It means building a Web Site that can expand and contract, regardless of who's doing future development on it. We ensure expandability through good database design, well-commented code, implementing web standards, and maintaining consistency in design and code.

The dilemma of the web is that it can't be immortalized in the same way as print design can. Too much has happened in a very short amount of time. Could you imagine compiling a book on the history of web design? It would be huge and inadequate. I don't expect to be recognized for any particular Web Site. I would someday like to be recognized for a contribution to web development. That's why I developed Sigmund, and that's why I'll continue to develop projects like it.
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FL: Now this is the first Spotlight where I've actually met with the people I'm interviewing, which means this is the next logical step for this site's development. What is the next step in Pelago's development after the identity change?
P: Our next step is to focus on building relationships with clients and developing recurring revenue models. Launching a new Web Site is only the first step. We want to help our clients grow and nurture their Web Sites.

We've also got a list of sidecar projects that we're anxious to get started on.
FL: I seem to ask this a lot, but I believe it gives insight into the minds & visions of those running these firms... what would you be doing professionally if you weren't Pelago, doing intelligent design?
John Reeve: I'd someday like to try each of the following: electrical engineer, computer programmer, park ranger, Lego designer, truck driver, photographer, short-story writer, college professor, or architect, but not necessarily in that order.

Braden Jones: At this point in life I would dig starting another business with John Reeve and the rest of the crew at Pelago. We have such a great dynamic.

Other future professions could include pro-traveler (getting paid to travel by those that don't have the time), writer, fly-fishing instructor, sculptor, or a Monk wandering the American deserts.
(spotlight first ran November 2001)

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