Airside's creatives explain to Dean Evans about future developments in animation for the web and their plans for a greener 2009.
Airside is a thoroughly modern design agency. It does a bit of everything - graphic design, illustration, animation, websites and TV commercials. The likes of Nike, Orange, MTV and Sony have all been through the Airside doors. Not bad for a creative collective founded by three idealistic freelancers who wanted to "get nice work and do nice work."
"We started off as a digital agency," explains Airside's managing director and co-founder Nat Hunter. "We then moved into doing quite a lot of animation, and we got distracted from digital by doing a lot of broadcast animation." Airside's work for Japanese courier firm Sagawa Express is a good example. They were hired to produce a variety of different animated sequences for the client, featuring an updated version of Sagawa's 'hikyaku' (foot courier) logo running through Japan to deliver a package.
"Sagawa do everything," says senior designer Henki Leung. "Anything that requires delivery... If you order a TV or some electrical goods, they will deliver it to you and plug it in and sort it out. It's an amazing service. They had 10 different types of service and we had to produce 10 different ads, each one 10 seconds long. So throughout the year, Sagawa is going to pick three ads and jumble them up into one 30-second spot. They all have their own separate look and message, which was good because we had to produce a variety of different styles for each service. We also had to tweak 'Hikyaku-kun' [the Sagawa Express character] to make him a bit friendlier and more loveable."
Animation is Airside's bread and butter. Over the past few years they've produced title sequences for the BBC film, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, several TV commercials for Virgin Trains and two short films for Live Earth. AKQA recently commissioned Airside to introduce Fiat's new ecoDrive technology and explain how it works. In short: the ecoDrive cleverly monitors your driving style (specifically your acceleration, deceleration, gear changes and speed), and stores this data on a USB stick that plugs into your car. The ecoDrive software application uses this data to show you how to improve your driving and save fuel. You can watch the animations that Airside produced at www.fiat.co.uk/ecodrive.
"Over the last three or four years, we've developed a nice little line in 'how to' movies," explains Hunter. The challenge Airside faced on the Fiat project wasn't necessarily creating a unique look and feel, but making the final animation interesting enough so that people would watch it for 90 seconds. "With animation you get caught up in a story," Hunter adds. "Whereas the minute you use video, you might think: 'I can't relate to that person', 'I don't like the sound of their voice', or 'I don't like what they're wearing'. Animation has a more broad appeal - it makes learning a new concept easy and fun. You can completely understand what the ecoDrive system is without reading a manual or talking to a sales person."
Airside dipped its toes into these 'how to' waters around four years ago when Greenpeace challenged them to turn a 72-page document about decentralised energy into something anybody could understand - an undeniable challenge. "We just looked at it for about a month," recalls Hunter. "Then Henki came up with this really simple, beautiful way to tell the story. It turned out to be a live-action film with animation bits in-between. Ever since then we've used animation as a tool when we need to explain something new or different."
Airside also leveraged its 'how to' expertise and web experience with an information film explaining Nokia's new mobile application, Nokia viNe. Designed for its N-Series mobile phones, Nokia viNe uses GPS to geo-tag any photos you take, video you record or music that you listen to. You can then upload the data to the Nokia viNe website so other people can see where you've been and what you've done. "We did this two-minute film that explains the software," says Anne Brassier, who handles PR and new business at Airside. "We worked with an agency called R/GA and their brief was clear, but quite flexible. They were really up for us inputting into it and helping with the scripting to make sure that the whole thing was clear, because it's not aimed at the people who know about these things, it's aimed at people who might be new to it."
Increasingly, much of the animated work that Airside is hired to produce is destined for digital projects. As Hunter points out, with the mass take-up of broadband, it makes more sense for modern websites to have huge amounts of moving images in them. It's a powerful way to communicate. Her favourite example of this is Japanese website Uniqlock. "It's a very good example of integrating moving image into a website," says Hunter. "I think it's got amazing rhythm and uses moving image in a way that is incredibly uplifting and inspiring, and yet very clever. It was a huge hit in Japan last year. And in the end they're just selling Uniqlo polo shirts."
These days the web is far from being the poor cousin to broadcast. Why spend £400,000 on one 30-second TV commercial, when the same investment will buy you a whole year's web presence? Yes, a web campaign will reach a different audience and yes, a web campaign might have lower potential viewing figures than a traditional 30-second TV spot. But with a website you have the unique chance to 'engage' and 'interact' with visitors; you have the opportunity to build a deeper relationship with people who are genuinely interested in what the website is selling.
Airside's latest project is a website build for furniture manufacturer Vitsoe. "We successfully pitched to do their website," says Hunter, "and what we realised by looking into their business was that they needed a huge amount of moving image. Mark, the MD of Vitsoe, had an example of what he wanted. The new MacBook Pro had just been launched and he looked at it online. He looked at all the beautiful camera work, showing the buttons and the detail, the quality of manufacturing, how they use less aluminium in the factory... and he was like 'wow, this is brilliant!' He went down to the Regent Street Apple Store, picked up the new MacBook and went 'oh, it's just a laptop'. But he'd been completely sold on it via the website."
Vitsoe has a similar design ethic. The company sells a modular shelving system designed by Dieter Rams, a now-legendary German designer who made his name as the chief designer at Braun in the 1960s. As Hunter explains, Rams considered the life cycle of a product and its sustainability long before 'eco' became a hot design trend. "He made the most beautiful objects that are very much the forerunner of the Apple products - Jonathan Ive is deeply influenced by Rams. When you get these shelves delivered they come in packaging that is then taken away and reused. The shelves themselves are much more expensive than if you bought them in IKEA. But they're very well made, you're never going to chuck them out."
Hunter reveals that about two-fifths of the available budget was spent on building the new Vitsoe website, while three-fifths was lavished on moving image and photography. "Vitsoe needed a huge amount of moving image because shelves are really boring. But they've also got this very interesting ethos that I've just described. If you go to a website and you understand the history and the sustainable nature of the product, and the whole ethos of how they work, you're much more likely to be hooked in. The website has a role in seducing you with beautiful photography and telling a story. Within about three hours of talking to Vitsoe, interrogating them about their business, I became a customer."
The idea of sustainable design is something that's close to the collective Airside heart. Teaming up with fellow design agency directors Sophie Thomas and Caroline Clark, Hunter has launched the consultant website Three Trees Don't Make a Forest. The aim? To evolve the design community and inspire designers to re-think the way that they work in the pursuit of sustainable design.
"In our own attempts to become greener and greener, it was hard to understand what you're supposed to do," says Hunter. "It was hard to understand recycled paper versus FOC paper, or how to choose a printer. Three Trees started about a year ago to share knowledge about this stuff... Sophie ran a Greengaged event during London design week, which was a whole week of sustainable events at the Design Council, and Three Trees did a couple of workshops as a part of that. We realised that there was a lot of demand - the workshops were sold out four times over."
Yet Airside doesn't shout about its sustainable ethos. "Every design company should now be considering their actions," says Hunter, "and we're just doing what should be normal. We're not labelling ourselves as a sustainable agency. We're an agency that really thinks about everything we produce. And so Vitsoe is a dream client for us... they're thinkers, they care about stuff, and they're up for taking a leap of faith and doing something new." And that sums up Airside nicely.