When AOL listed David Martin's first web project as "position number one for funny pictures", it kick-started a process which not only led to the creation of Fantasy Interactive, but also the dream of a better internet.
"That project awoke something in me that had been there all the time," says Martin, who now heads up Fantasy Interactive, the "multi-million dollar" design firm with a client list that reads like the first few lines of the Fortune 500.
Fantasy Interactive has come a long way since 1999 - from the back office of an internet cafe in downtown nowhere, to the boardrooms of corporate America in just five years. Martin self-effacingly puts it down to teamwork: "There is no limit to what the team here can do," he says. "The concepts and designs they come up with on every project make me both proud and surprised."
The future today
Asked about what first drew him to the internet, Martin slips into a reminiscence about his upbringing in Dublin, where building box carts with his younger brother and sister was a favourite pastime. The link to broadband wizardry isn't immediately obvious, but Martin can explain: "I think that was a major inspiration for the whole "working-on-a-cool-project" feeling."
But when Fantasy Interactive first came to the web back in 1999, all was not well: "We were extremely disappointed in the internet," Martin remembers. "It was cluttered, with badly-designed content and navigation." It was all very last century, and something needed doing.
It wasn't the cool project Martin had quite dreamed of, but the challenge was evident: "There was so much potential in this media, but it was polluted by the way it was handled and used," he says. But at the time, the web just wasn't up to it. There was frequent talk of "meltdown" and "gridlock". "We wanted to offer colour TV when only black and white was available," says Martin.
So while it was clear that the web promised great rewards "for those who could imagine its possibilities", there was a shortage of people willing to take the next step. But the people at Fantasy Interactive would need more than imagination if the concept of Internet 2.0 was going to fly; they'd have to drag the World Wide Web into the future by the scruff of its neck. They'd need to "create the future today".
Although the team had plenty of ambition, Fantasy Interactive at first lacked the clout needed to pull in the kind of jobs they attract these days. "We first needed to prove our work and to be recognised," says Martin when asked about the strategy he hoped would bring them closer to Internet 2.0. Luckily, another part of the strategy was already paying off: "Challenging people with the next internet level brought us lots of attention."
This attention was quickly converted into credibility as Fantasy Interactive began to build up an impressive portfolio while developing the muscle it needed to realise those long-term goals. "We developed a strong backbone of dedicated staff who shared the vision of reshaping the internet as we knew it," says Martin.
Following success with sites such as www.starbreeze.com and the acclaim that greeted the first Fantasy Interactive website, the clincher finally came into sight. "Our breakthrough job was Road Runner," says Martin. It was this site, Time Warner's online showcase for its US cable broadband operation, that finally brought the company into the limelight.
When asked to define the FI's style, Martin's response is astute: "Our work has a style, an FI-style. Actually, we call it FIquality." Alongside attempts to create the web's next iteration, it's this drive for perfection that's behind the company's rise from zero to hero. "When beautiful design and technology complement one another, you have balance," says Martin. "That's an FI site. That's our style".
After years of considerable hard work, the Fantasy Interactive team is applying its feverish dedication to prestige projects for some of the biggest companies in America, and earning big kudos in the process. From even a brief look at the shiny new website, it's clear that everyone there used to be exactly the kind of kid that would jump up from their books and go tearing round the playground like a badger on acid.
Putting it all together
"Without a doubt, Flash is the way forward for us and our clients," says Martin. For Road Runner, Ford and Xbox, this technique pushes them into exactly the market they're chasing.
While this setup is pretty standard for many designers, huge database-driven sites often keep the overheads down with a mix of XML and XHTML on the front end. "The speed of Flash has been questioned by many and is said to use up a lot of the bandwidth," says Martin. "But we're fighting this argument and have proven that our Flash sites are even faster than the HTML version."
The secret, as ever, is good planning. Fantasy Interactive is streets ahead in terms of a commitment to a strong development phase on every project. "[Clients] trust our expertise," Martin admits. "They want us involved from the very beginning, to help with the creation of concepts, requirements and specifications."
Fantasy Interactive's detailed specification process leads to a set of functional templates, "These are interactive and text-based descriptions of how the application will work," says Martin. The upshot? The project is that much closer to being fully realised by the time it reaches the design phase. "This process enables us to "feel" the application," explains Martin.
All Fantasy Interactive sites have a common theme - they're all hungry for bandwidth. Though not popular with the dial-up constituency, this approach has helped the company earn a reputation for developing cutting-edge applications. And, as connections grow ever fatter, demand for their services is growing.
"Booming internet connectivity, ever-increasing connection speeds, expanding networks and the merging of online and offline media make the internet the most futuristic and widespread tool for communication," says Martin. Certainly, the figures speak for themselves In the US, Fantasy Interactive's major source of work, "The total number of people and businesses on broadband rose to 32.5 million in the year ending June 2004, compared to 23.5 million in June 2003," Martin reveals. "Where there's demand, there's sure to be a supply," he says. "We're here to supply the content for that demand."
But it's not all about supply and demand. Without quality the whole thing becomes self-defeating - you just have a faster and more rapidly disappointing medium. "We're here to ensure the internet is used to its very highest capability," says Martin. "We want to deliver interactive user experiences that make our clients stand out from the crowd."