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BKWLD's Jeff Toll: designers should "show passion and get weird"

Californian design agency BKWLD has a stellar reputation among both clients and designers. Creative director Jeff Toll explains where it all went so right.

Toll is "continuously inspired" by his colleagues

There are many ways to judge a design agency. The notability of their clients. The size of their paychecks. The quality of their work. BKWLD scores highly on all these criteria. But there's something else, slightly indefinable that helps raise their standing amongst the community to level of, well... hip.

Maybe it's cool, subversive campaigns that always get people talking, such as their recent campaign for MacDonald's in which hidden cameras shoot passers-by interacting with tech in unexpected ways. Maybe it's the way they engage the community with things like their interactive GIF Booth at this year's SXSW. Or maybe it's just that their employees enjoy a free keg and a Starbucks espresso machine in their offices. Whatever it is, whenever you hear BKWLD mentioned, your instant reaction is: "Wow - I'd love to work for THEM."

"I work with a very talented, tight knit crew of people"

And creative director Jeff Toll suggests this is no coincidence. Because what soon become clear is that, for BKWLD, the value of the company lies squarely in the people work there.

"I've worked with a very talented, tight knit crew of people at BKWLD over the last eight years or so and have continuously been inspired by each and every one of them," he enthuses. That's largely down to a laser-like focus on recruiting a particular kind of creative. "We're looking for a high level of passion, life balance, unique outside interests, and, of course, a tasteful eye for design," Toll explains.

Passion and stories

It's not just about having an impressive portfolio. "It's the people who are passionate about outside interests who are the real gems," he argues. "The ones that have a story to tell, lived a life on the road with their band, are into collecting odd things, ex-pro skaters/skiers/snowboarders, people who had a unique upbringing, and so on.

Worlds collide, and authenticity exudes. It’s called getting weird

"When you put all those uniquely different people - who all share the same passion for what they do - in the same room, that’s when the real magic happens. Worlds collide, and authenticity exudes. In our office it’s called 'getting weird'.

Telling the truth

BKWLD believe honesty is the most effective policy when it comes to business

Toll believes that's part of the reason BKWLD attracts such big name clients. "I think it’s about our honest approach and voice," he says. "We are naturally drawn to telling the truth. We don't enjoy 'spinning' things - that causes more friction than simply finding a creative solution that exposes the truth."

We don't enjoy 'spinning' things - that causes more friction than simply finding a creative solution

It's also keeping a keen eye on trends and technical innovations, of course. At the moment, it's responsive design that's transforming the way they work - even though clients often don't know what it is. "When RWD really started to present itself, it became a challenge to describe to clients how a site with breakpoints or a liquid layout would translate into mobile," Toll recalls. "So I've been exploring prototyping tools such as Webflow and Reflow to help paint that picture - not only for clients but for myself as well.

"Proto.io has really captured my attention too lately," he adds. It's an extremely rich and intuitive prototyping tool that works super well for touch as well for click. I researched them all and Proto.io is by far the best in my opinion. Plus I've been using Podio for project management. I've only scratched the surface using it since it's so scalable. You can use it for pretty much any industry."

Instant gratification

Targeting the 'me me me' generation is uphill work, says Toll

But technical issues are the least of Toll's worries. What he really feels challenged by is "pleasing a culture fueled by instant gratification, the 'me me me' generation recently named as such by Time Magazine.

"Over the last few years making the target audience achieve 'internet fame-dom' - or at least in their own minds - has been a running theme," Toll says. "The majority of ideas are spawned from aggregating popular social media sites in a creative way. You know them all, Vine, Instagram, Facebook etc. For me, this has started to feel like the default 'starting point' or the classic 'microsite' solution.

Vine, Instagram, Facebook... this has started to feel
like the default 'starting point' or the classic 'microsite' solution

"I'm not saying it's either good or bad," he qualifies. "It's just been a major focus and a challenge for the industry handling the question 'How can we best leverage social media channels in an authentic and creative way?'"

California dreaming

Sacremento offers a "good life balance", says Toll

But despite the challenges, BKWLD have got a good thing going, he says - not least living and working in Sacramento, California. "It's a good life balance," he says. "There are some select areas just outside of Downtown Sacramento that are unique and established neighbourhoods, filled with trees and beautiful mid-century Eichler- and Steng-designed homes. It's an affordable city to raise a family. I have a wife and two young kids and it's treated us well."

And of course he loves his work, his proudest achievement being Getgoingtoday.org, a site built last summer for Drexel University. "Its success boiled down to the client - Misfit Agency - trusting and believing in us," he notes. "It started with a simple objective and approach from the agency, and they allowed us to really push them and run with our vision. We made something out of nothing using pure creative ingenuity. I’d love to sink my teeth into another project and client like that."

Staying fresh

Keeping things fresh at BKWLD means "staying sincere"

Importantly, the work never gets boring. "We stay fresh by staying sincere, by being ourselves and doing what works best for us both as a whole and as individuals," he says.

Things that creatively excite him personally are "things that are built on vulnerability and are personally expressive. For example, for the last year or so, I’ve been designing and researching how to best strategize and monetize a 'non-evil' free-to-play social game called Nomii. This game is just as much a human factors experiment as it is a moneymaker."

We want to make things people can relate to, that  move you in some manner

We can't wait to see how it turns out, and we can't to see what BKWLD comes up with next. Because, as Toll says, nothing they do is ordinary.

"We want to make something that people can relate to," he explains. "It could range from a story, a tool, a game... anything really. You should either learn from it, be inspired by it, better your life by it. It should move you in some manner. It must be beneficial from either an emotional or physical perspective. You should feel like your time has not been wasted, but rather well spent. For me that equals satisfaction."

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