Setting Sail Across the Ocean of the Digital Media Industry; Baby Tech Prodigies and Specialisation.
I have been concerned, to say the least, about the rip currents flowing through the sea that is the Digital Media Industry. As a design student, I have gravitated toward web design and development but I cannot help wanting to dive for more digital pearls like motion graphics, 3D modeling and animation. My dilemma? Technology is growing exponentially in its advancements and accessibility; 15-year-olds are offering software tutorials on Youtube; babies are swiping through iPads and taking selfies. Joahn Sharpe (Founder/president of motion graphics talent agency, Sharpe + Associates), in an interview with FIDMDigitalArts.com, described the changing media landscape as the “Wild West” (I’m sticking with the ocean metaphor). Is it possible to set my sails and conquer the skills of several different digital mediums; Will I need to in order to stay afloat and compete with these tech prodigies that will exist as the norm in the coming generation of designers, or should I anchor myself and specialise?
To answer these questions and soothe my anxieties, I braved the ocean and posed my questions to a few digital seafarers: George Katsaras (Associate Creative Director, Melbourne) and Gabriel Tamborini (Art Director, Sydney). These super creative and tech savvy gentlemen are leading members of the global digital agency, Reactive, which specialises in website design, digital strategy and web development. Tamborini was art directing the tear-jerking, awe-inspiring, award-winning campaign, The Most Powerful Arm.
This campaign was launched to raise awareness of Duchene Muscular Dystrophy with the force and impact of a robotic sort; the petition-signing bionic arm brought technology and people together in an interactive and emotional experience in order to call attention and action from the government. Both Katsaras and Tamborini have been designing and directing in the digital industry since graduating from studies 13 and 10 years ago, respectively. With a plethora of experience and knowledge, their wisdom is a valuable treasure.
Today, web design offers great possibilities and creative results going beyond the screen. For me it seems natural, and not entirely crazy, to be attracted to obtaining the knowledge and skills of several different digital design mediums because of the world of integrated technology we surround ourselves with. A single creative project, now, is developed to span and communicate across multiple digital formats. Katsaras and Tamborini chuckle together as they recall their early web design days:
“It was more about just getting content on the internet and hopefully it will bring sales,” says Tamborini. Client expectations, for Katsaras back in 2000, was “unknown,” he says, “I don’t think they knew what was good or what was bad, there was no ‘this is an x type of website that should do y and produce z, we just need something.'” Today, Katsaras notes, the industry is very different, “Where the industry is moving now is going beyond the screen and how people just interact in their day to day lives; the physical world and the digital world coming together; a whole new space”.
This has also effected how a web designer perceives and conducts themselves, Katsaras explains, “we don’t see ourselves as web designers; we use the medium which is digital interactions and the internet to create whatever we want, basically, that fits a really good idea. It is all essentially about coming up with the right idea. It is a website [The Most Powerful Arm Ever Invented] but it is also not a website and that’s what’s so great about it; it transcends what we think traditional websites are. They’re the best ideas…Now it’s – we need an idea people can engage with.”
Similarly, for Tamborini, the importance was behind “creating that integrated approach,” there is still a problem that needs to be solved. He explains that today the process is about “looking at the brief and asking ‘what’s the challenge; how can we solve that challenge in an interesting way?’ It’s not just about making a print ad, it’s about creating an idea that can then be a bus shelter, that can then be in a physical space, that can then be on a billboard and can then be in the cinema. It’s about creating that integrated approach.” He says, “when clients come to us it’s less about ‘we need a website’ and more, ‘this is the problem we have, how can we fix it or solve this problem’…It’s always a problem you’re trying to solve, that’s just the way you approach it…design itself is about problem-solving.”
The continual advancements in technology today creates the exciting challenge of cross communicating ideas but are designers getting distracted; is their conceptual thinking suffering as a result; are problems being solved or just entertained with new effects and technology? Katsaras and Tamborini were emphasising problem-solving and good ideas being the essential parts of design but did they fear that technology could stifle those fundamental principles of design in the digital industry, particularly with the tech savvy generations to come?
Katsaras and Tamborini were not worried about conceptual thinking lacking in the future, in fact, the opposite. Katsaras claimed that the “industry has grown up,” he says, “I think it’s scary, actually, thinking of the kids today growing up with it and how much better they’re going to be than all of us and really understanding better ways to use it. When we were starting out we were dealing with print guys that just didn’t get web or screen design but now it’s going to be kids that know how to used social much better than I would ever know. It’s kind of scary where it’s all going”.
Katsaras claimed that the challenge for the younger designers coming through was not the conceptual thinking or the technical skills but interacting with people; clients and collaborators. He says, “as you get older you become better at being in a commercial space. You get better at managing teams, managing people. I think a lot of what we do as well is taking clients on a journey, getting them on board and collaborating with them. There is always that tension around what we think is a good idea and want the client to buy into and not mess it up. So the more experience you get the better you can facilitate that. So you might have young people coming through, perhaps coming up with those ideas or executing those ideas, but there is still a lot to be said to carry those ideas all the way through.”
The incredible threat of the tech savvy generation coupled with the need for being able to cross-communicate and integrate ideas have been the greatest factors contributing to my dilemma to specialise or not. In order to be a successful and competitive designer in the future do I need to be able to offer a wider skill set in the production process or would that only lead to a Titanic-like fate – large and epic but sunken (the metaphor is back); is specialisation the way to stand out?
“Back in the old days we were more jack of all trades; bit of coding, bit of design, bit of this and a bit of that and now it very much starts with a good idea first and work out who are the best people to execute that…it’s all about what brings that idea to life the best,” says Katsaras, who, by the way, is only 34; the “old” days are not that old. He says,
“you can’t go wrong if you understand the principles of design and how good design is made and how you approach it. Doesn’t matter where the medium goes it’s still going to need good thinking; good design principles. If you’ve got that in your back pocket you can’t go wrong with the changing times.”
Tamborini could not agree more. He says, “Irrelevant of what your background is, if you’ve got the expertise to turn a problem into a solution it’s only the way you communicate it which defines whether its UX or advertising. Definitely, at some point, you need to focus. If you look at the specialties in this office [he looks over his shoulder as we sit on couches inside the Melbourne, Reactive, agency], you’ve got SEO, Project Managers, Front-end Developers, Back-end Developers. To say that one person could do all of those things is impossible but to be able to have an understanding in all of those things when you’re working in a digital space is pretty integral. But if you want to do something really great [yes, yes I do] you have to pick a focus that you aspire to. But then it comes back to how you collaborate with people to make that the best it can be. I think that’s what’s important. It’s better to work with an expert than try and wing it yourself and it ends up shit.”
Katsaras describes the best designers that he has worked with as having “a real empathy or skill for project management, to a degree, really get the medium and understand how code works, they’re not going to write lines and lines of code but they get the structure and the thought patterns. So I think being aware and privy to how the other parts of the business work really, really rounds you off if you are entering as a designer.”
A large part of staying competitive in an industry that is in a constant state of flux is being in touch with those changes; being aware of the new technologies and advancements. For Katsaras, feeling uncomfortable with pitching a particular idea to a client is a good indicator that your idea is cutting edge, “I think it’s really important to feel a bit uncomfortable about what you’re working on because that helps you stay up with the game.” He says, “Being up with the trends and innovations is the real trick. I think the medium is always changing and is always going to change but a good idea is still a good idea no matter when it comes about so as long as you’re wary of what’s out there you don’t have to program that screen or design that screen. If you’ve got the idea of what it might be that’s the key, that’s timeless.”
What is obvious about Katsaras and Tamborini is that they are passionate about their work; that is why they are still in the industry, in an award-winning agency, with leading roles. Their example, advice, and knowledge are valuable. Firstly you must have passion and then specialise – smooth sailing. Embracing a specialty will help you gain recognition for that skill and will earn you consideration when it comes time for collaborative projects. In the digital industry, the basic principles still apply no matter how hi-tech the new toys and software become. However, being aware of what is possible but not necessarily knowing how to execute the newest technology still gives you a creative edge furthermore you should have an understanding and empathise with the general production process and aspects involved in the different parts of a creative process and team. Having a sharp conceptual mind with problem-solving skills is still and, it seems always will be, the most valuable asset a designer can have. Ahoy!