The Firm List > The Firm List Spotlights > twothirty

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twothirty Spotlight on the Firms
FL: First off, I'd like to say Vancouver is a beautiful city. I was just there visiting and I almost didn't come home. How are you able to get any work done when you can go to the ski slopes on the city bus and, well, just have so much cool stuff to do?
Paul Jarvis, President & Creative Lead: funny, that's what happened to me. i came out here from toronto 5 years ago on a creative director gig and didn't leave. it is hard to get work done when it's such a gorgeous city. from my office i can see both the mountains, the downtown core and the ocean... but thankfully it rains quite a bit so i try and schedule more work in the winter when it's rainy than in the summer. summertime it's all about the beach and drinking beer on patios.

oddly enough, i've never actually taken the city bus or hit the ski slopes since i moved here though...
FL: I'm looking at my watch and it's 6:30pm, but I don't gather your firm is only open at 2:30pm (or 2:30am) every day. What's the origin of the name? How many scratched heads do you get when dealing with prospective clients and others?
Paul: i read once that having a brand that doesn't immediately make sense, but does once you're "in the know", helps with recognition, since it makes people always ask the question "why?". every client i've ever worked with has invariably asked what the name means. with twothirty it was just a fluke - i had been trying for about a week to find a company name that had the .com associated with it, and one night, at 2:30am, i was so tired that i typed in what time it was instead of the name i was thinking of. the words looked good all typed out in lowercase, so i went with it.
FL: You've mentioned that one of your key focuses is on web applications. To me, this is always "a website that does something" versus a historically brochure-like site that simply "has our logo." What do you see is the difference, in any, on what your firm's focus is on the web-space versus many other firms?
Paul: i think a lot of companies, especially the huge ones, get bogged down with large spec docs, tech requirements, and discovery processes. with twothirty i like boil it down to two things: what a person has to do and how to make it easy for them to do it. some planning and research has to be made of course, but i like to get through that as soon as it's completely understood and then get right to focusing on how specific designs can help people get what they need to do done.

it's sort of weird trade-off i think, because the most successful designs of applications help people get in and out of that application as fast as possible, so in a lot of cases it's successful if you don't have to use it for very long. i get a lot of clients that are surprised how quickly i move from talking about the project to designing actual screens. i find that clients have much more valid suggestions when they're looking at something concrete like a mockup, than simply talking about a use case scenario.

another aspect of the "unique approach" (in quotation marks because more and more firms are starting to do this as well) to projects is the fact i really like to leverage web standards with the front-end. i know it's been talked about almost to death, but it does really make sense to separate the presentation layer (graphics and style) and structure (code). since a lot of web apps that are made available to consumers or other businesses are now "skinable", i get a lot work simply for the fact that i know how to make the front-end of an app work with any skin by just changing css and not any html (sort of like how dave shea's zen garden works).
FL: When I crossed over the border from the US, I was hit by signs that said "think metric." In that same vein, what do you think are the differences between web design in Canada versus the US (or anywhere else)? Is it as simple as a conversion formula or something deeper?
Paul: i think there are differences between designers from each country, but it's a subtle sociological/cultural thing that only other people in the industry could pick up on, and sometimes even they can't. since design is really rooted in culture, if two cultures are kind of similar, then the same will show through in designs. another item to think about is that since the web is "global" most of the cultural influences are from the same source (the web), regardless of country, since anyone in any country can see the same sites.

the majority of my clients are american though, and i think if my designs were recognizably canadian, i wouldn't get as much US work. in proposals and filler text though i always try and excert my canadianness as much as possible with adding "u"s to words like colour and favourite and writing cheque with the que instead of the eck.
FL: In addition to web applications & websites, you feature various other projects, including twotiny, a set of icons. Tiny icons. First off, why tiny? And then, how does this fit into the overall picture you have for twothirty?
Paul: "tiny" because the icons are smaller than most other icon sets and only come in that size. they fit into the overall picture in so much as they are a new area for me to explore that i haven't before. i've run many startup companies, but they've all been service-based. so having, marketing and selling a product was something new to me. it's been pretty good so far, and i've already broken my initial sales goal (which really weren't too high to begin with). another side project of "twothirty" was, which is still online, although doesn't get the visitors it used to (at it's peak it was breaching 500,000 visitors a month).
FL: Your firm's site seems to be what I call an "information-focused" design rather than an "image-focused" design. In addition to many things, I include in this a focus on usability. This includes standards & accessibility validation. Is this something you espouse for all your clients/projects? What's the upsell, as you pitch it to them?
Paul: ha, is "information-focused" a nice way of saying it's boring? there's actually two reasons the current iteration of the site is nothing but a list of work. the first is that i plain don't have time for updates and two because i've never really cared about marketing the company in any way other than showing off the work. even the tagline is as un-salesy as possible - it's just a statement of what the company does. i carry that same feeling through to talking to potential clients, and they all seem to appreciate it. my standard response when someone asks "why should i hire you?" is to look at the work and talk to my past clients. the work is solid, since i won't anything unless everyone is happy, and all my old clients are all more than willing to give glowing references.

i don't think i've ever pitched or tried to upsell a client to be honest. my sales skills are horrible, which is why i spend all my time making sure every client i work with is so happy with the outcome of the project that they sell my services for me (which is how i get most new clients). i've found it's much easier to do it that way than to take a cut from each project and use it for marketing or to hire sales people.

also, i really like the word espouse. i think i'm going to start using it. but not in pitches to clients.
FL: Many professionals in this industry found their way into it from some-related, or sometimes wildly different backgrounds. What sort of education/background did you have before twothirty? Why were you drawn to building web applications?
Paul: my background is in computer science and network/systems admin, so it's not that wildly off course. i actually started out in computer science in univerity, but dropped out after 2 years because i was offered a job doing network administration for a huge corporation. while doing that i had a blog (this was almost 10 years ago though, before the term blog was coined), which was apparently designed better than most other company sites, so i started getting job offers to be a graphic designer. i had never done that before professionally, and never done anything even close to art or design in school, but i figured what the hell, it's something new.

as far web apps specifically go, i like designing those because they're more of a challenge than just static websites. they go beyond just design issues and much further into how people react to certain workflows and processes on the screen. i love that stuff!
FL: What central styles, themes, or practices do you think are core to the product that twothirty delivers to clients? When you are called upon to differentiate yourself from the competition, what would it be that sets your firm apart?
Paul: i think the main thing that i'm concious of in every project is how normal people who will be using the site/app will react to the design. none of the work is very bell-and-whistle-like because i know average people (plus i happen to be one), and they don't like excessive marketing ploys like that. some marketing people and executives love to show off their products/services with 10 minute flash intros, but they don't seem to realize the general populus isn't as impressed by that sort of thing, most people just want to get to reading about the product or service as quickly and easily as possible.

the second thing i make sure of with every project is that every deadline is met and the work is the best i can do. i've worked really hard to build up a solid reputation, so i don't want to ever have that tarnished by missing a deadline or doing second-rate work.

the last thing which i think is a differentiating factor from "most" other design companies is that i never try and sell people on the work and won't work with companies if i don't see a good fit. if they like the work, great, then i'd love to work with them. if they aren't impressed by my work, then they wouldn't be impressed by any work i'd do for them. i also say no to potential clients sometimes. if i'm not 100% sure i can deliver when something is needed or if i think the client isn't a good fit for how i work, i'd rather politely (hey, i'm canadian) turn down the work before it starts than have problems during the project. or start a project where the client won't like any designs i'd do.
FL: If you woke up tomorrow with a Mountie arriving at your door with a large bag full of $1,000 Canadian bills, what would you do with it? How about a large bag full of Loonies and Twoonies?
Paul: first i'd wonder what the catch is, since mounties typically don't do that sort of thing. then i'd probably go spend it all on guitars before they realized they were in err. if it was a bag of loonies and toonies, i'd see if i could buy one of their funny mountie hats.
(spotlight first ran March 2005)

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