The Brisbane design studio tasked with rebuilding Myspace tells CNET Australia about its vision for bringing Myspace its sexy back.
Picture a racehorse wearing blinkers, galloping across the turf, completely oblivious to its competitors. The animal runs its own race, at its own pace, never for a moment considering whether it's leading or whether it might ultimately win. This is the image used by Ben Johnston, co-founder of Brisbane-based digital design studio Josephmark, when describing the ethos of a unique Australian team that has just put the finishing touches on a refreshed version of Myspace.
Speaking exclusively to CNET Australia, studio director Johnston was enjoying a rare opportunity to touch base in Brisbane with Josephmark's general manager Carl Watney and creative director Jess Huddart. The studio's 21-strong team has scarcely been in the same room in the last year, when Josephmark landed a contract to retool the world's first truly global social network.
Johnston prefers the racehorse-with-blinkers analogy because he lives by the same mantra in his personal life. "[The point is] not to win a race, but to not get distracted by what's on either side of you," the 29-year-old said. "You set your own benchmarks, I guess. That, joined with a sense of curiosity, is what drives us to work, to go beyond a brief — to invest heavily in our own learning."
The blinkers are evidently helping. All three Josephmark leaders told CNET Australia that they can't name any other company in the design sector that they aspire to emulate. "There are aspects of other companies [that appeal], but I think we inherently live those traits," said Johnston. "It feels good, because it means that as a company, we're leading — even if we're going in the wrong direction!" he laughed.
Though Josephmark has driven unique web design projects in recent years — including real-time music chart We Are Hunted and Australian independent journalism hub The Global Mail — this is the first time it is competing on the world's stage as Myspace's design and vision partners.
Five design studios were invited to tender for the Myspace partnership; four of those were based in North America. The invitation arrived at just the right time for Josephmark. "Past clients helped firm up our resolve about what we know, and how we know things can work, too," said general manager Watney. "If you're going to do something bold and radical, and it's design-led, the design has to overcome bureaucracy and egos and whatever else might be involved, and actually push through it. We have to stick to our guns if we're committing to something of this size."
Josephmark's approach to the Myspace tender was straightforward. They simply asked themselves, "If Myspace was ours, what would we do with it?" Though the brief was "quite thorough", creative director Jess Huddart said that the team soon decided to ignore it.
"We looked at it and went, 'if you do what you think you want, then we're just going to end up creating what you already have. That's not going to solve this massive problem that's ahead of you'," Huddart recalled. "Then we took ownership of it, and I think that's a massive difference between us and perhaps other studios in their responses. Rather than just simply doing what the client's asking you to do, we actually own it as if it's our own project."
"There's a certain boldness in that [approach]," admitted Johnston, "but effectively, it comes back to how we value our own time." Josephmark didn't approach the project with a pay cheque in mind. The studio saw this as an opportunity to make a real difference to an ailing, yet historic online media brand. "Obviously, there were certain things in the back of our minds, like, 'it's f***ing Myspace! Is there a chance for this thing to turn around?" And what would it take to turn it around?'" Johnston said.
The solution developed by Josephmark was delivered as a video pitch — which Johnston described as a "two and a half minute narrative capsule with a voiceover that painted a picture of what Myspace could be" — accompanied by a more traditional pitch document. "Unbeknown to us, the video went down extremely well, to the point where [Myspace executives] called everyone in and showed the whole company, saying 'this is where we're going!' This is before they even engaged with us." That video then went on to be used in the company's sales pitches as they sought potential partners.
Josephmark's pitch became the company's decisive flag in the ground, allowing the company to state proudly: "This is what we're doing."
Finding a new space
The "new" Myspace has been in private beta for a few months and today, it has opened to the world.
It's a high-stakes game for all involved, and the slow boil to opening the proverbial doors to a world of curious users has been a careful process. The revolutionary vision, put forth by Josephmark, made a big impression in September when co-owner Justin Timberlake released footage of the new site in action. Many in the tech media sector were suddenly optimistic for the future of the former social network titan, finally rebuilt around its core strength: music.
It helps that the site looks like nothing else before it, thanks to Josephmark's bold visual design, which does away with many traditional user interface conventions. Johnston said that within Myspace, there was an initial train of thought to become a "utilitarian music consumption service" and to attempt to beat existing service providers, like Rdio and Spotify, through sheer weight of music catalogue. He hinted at extensive internal discussion to stay focused on the original vision: to truly connect music and social elements better than any site or app before it.
Balancing different internal opinions and developing a coherent product was a challenge. "Every aspect of it was [a challenge]; from the horizontal [scrolling user interface], to the contextual navigation — which was a f***ing massive one,” Johnston said. "That break-away from having your key navigation items in the top left hand corner, to having a bar at the bottom and an experience where your navigation is changing on each page — they're bold moves for such a big site."
It's remarkable that a small group of Queenslanders are so heavily involved in what might well become one of 2013's biggest tech success stories. When asked about the factors that have influenced Josephmark's slow growth and success, creative director Jess Huddart focused on in-house support. "I think that our internal culture always drives the best outcome; the way that we treat our co-workers and team members, and the respect that we have for each other," she said. "If you feel supported in what you're doing and equally motivated to do the best you can for people around you, then you're always going to put your best work out there."
Huddart believes that small teams can do "really big things", and it's hard to disagree in the face of the studio's achievements thus far. "There's a short-hand that comes with a small team, where there's not so many layers of management or areas where communication can fail," she said. "We've grown really slowly. Over the last four or so years, we've really been aware of the impact that a new employee can have on an existing team. We've almost been scared of growing too big for that reason."
When not jetting to meetings in Los Angeles, California, the studio operates out of a former electricity substation on Petrie Terrace, located in inner Brisbane City, Queensland, a space that Josephmark happily shares with a handful of other creative ventures: T-shirt design outlet Made In The Now, motion graphic designers Breeder, Indigenous creative agency Gilimbaa and tech business Wolfbyte. Johnston is also the part-owner of an inner city bar, The End, and has been an active and integral part of Brisbane's creative community since founding Josephmark in 2004 with best mate Josh Capelin.
The sum of these diverse friendships and influences is a truly unique design studio — not that Josephmark is all that comfortable with a static label like that. "We've been talking about ways to describe ourselves," said Huddart. "We know that we're not a traditional design studio, but we are designers and we apply design principle in every facet of what we create. We're playing with this term: "design ventures practice", which doesn't mean that we only work with start-up ventures, but that we apply that same mentality as a start-up in the way that we approach any kind of project. To create a new thing, we need to be agile in the way that we approach it, so we rapid-prototype with our development team. We need to be able to respond to changes in market, industry and culture quickly. And we prefer to think of projects as our own, even if we don't own them, per se."
Johnston and Huddart have both been with the company for practically their entire careers. "There's this refusal to accept anything except absolute perfection, which is amazing," said general manager Carl Watney, who has been with Josephmark for under two years. "I've come from backgrounds where 'near enough is good enough'. Where, if you've done everything in the contract, then you're off. We don't do that. We'll continue working through nights and weeks and months until we get the result were comfortable with. It's a beautiful thing. It's definitely not about the money; it's about coming up with beauty in design and changing the world."
"It all sounds incredibly wanky if you're not on the inside of it," Watney laughed, "because all that terminology sounds like stuff you're going to read on the glossy brochure from an ad agency. But it is pretty special."