For Belgian web designers group94, small is beautiful. Dom Hall finds out how the firm's approach has paid off.
Pascal Leroy, the founder and creative director of group94, is telling Computer Arts all about what the web means to him, and he keeps emphasising "the experience". "Websites don't necessarily have to be about giving people information," he says. "Sometimes the information is only a very small part of the overall experience - it's the experience that is really important."
For a generation increasingly accustomed to super-fast broadband and a blurring of boundaries between point-and-click and the latest rich, content-soaked uber-sites, the experience is indeed important - and it's companies such as group94 that are delivering it.
The firm was founded in Ghent, Belgium, nine years ago and is far from your average web design company. It has a boutique feel and a philosophy that Leroy equates with the niche, highly specialised engineering companies that produce lovingly crafted, but expensive, British sports cars. Even though Leroy is unwilling to increase the company 's current headcount of 10, group94 has an army of admiring clients including photographers, architects, art galleries, museums and corporations such as Nokia.
"The kinds of companies that ask us to work with them do so because they have seen our work and like what we do. We rarely pitch for jobs - it's just not the way we work," Leroy says.
This rather confident approach to new business won group94 one of its most ambitious commissions to date. The project is the rich-media mini-site it has created for Nokia's Nonstop Living range of Bluetooth headsets (see www.nokia.com/nonstopliving).
The site is based around a stunning movable panorama of a city square populated with five different video stories, each presenting a different character with a different headset.
Like most of its recent business wins, group94 didn't tout for the job. Nokia's advertising agency, Euro RSCG Finland, got in touch after being impressed by the designers' portfolio and approach. Euro RSCG Finland was also interested in the firm's belief in the importance of the user experience.
"We developed the site over a two-week period," says Steven Vanhercke, senior new media designer at group94. "The square at the centre of the site was based around an area of Sao Paulo in Brazil - we were looking for something that was both European and American. The experience the user gets from the site is really important and the way each character has a story is central to getting the message across."
Unlike some firms, designers and programmers at group94 get involved in lots of different stages of a project, part of the company's strong teamwork and no-boundaries philosophy which also stretches to Friday lunchtime frites-eating sessions and legendary pool tournaments.
Another recent job saw the company develop an experience-based site for the new EA Games release Crysis. Programmer Julian Hudson helped develop some of the central features and ensure the functionality was sound. He feels that an uncompromising belief in high standards in both design and function makes group94 special.
"We provide the whole package - clients get the website but also the content-management system behind it with the functionality," Hudson says. "It's the classic thing of doing something properly so that it will look after itself - you can hack something together quickly, but it never pays off because you're constantly getting phone calls from the client. That's not what we're about at all."
Leroy founded the company because he was growing tired of the print design work he was doing and wanted to try something new. Once the company took off and its reputation grew, it set out its stall in opposition to prevailing trends by remaining small and focused. Even its technology choices mark it as different: unusually in the web design sector, group94 is Windows-driven.
"We use Photoshop, Flash and FreeHand, but we all work on PCs. I prefer Windows - it's easier to design with. We have a Mac, but it runs Windows!" he says.
There's another major area in which group94 is at odds with its competitors - though, for the record, Leroy doesn't believe the company has any real rivals. For most web design companies, the homepage is an opportunity to dazzle visitors with a range of bells and whistles, or to impress them with a long list of clients and projects. However, Leroy has been using group94's site to run a soap opera detailing the failures of his project manager Tamara Schauvliege to focus the collective talents of the company on creating a new website.
Over the past 12 months, visitors have been greeted with grainy films of Schauvliege telling an unseen Leroy that the team has been too busy to develop the site because of commitments to an exciting array of clients. The site worked in a neat way: detailing new projects, new business wins and company news through direct-to-camera interviews in which an agitated Schauvliege berates Leroy.
"Our video blog is not something you'd expect from a company like ours - it was recorded on a digital camera and was very low quality, but people just really dug it," Leroy says. The new-look site will "definitely" be live at www.group94.com by the time you read this.
The company's idiosyncratic site, like much of its work, is clever and direct while creating an air of mystery. It also gives a starring role to hefty amounts of video and lots and lots of Flash. This has been a major trend in web design during the last year, but there are industry detractors who believe that the kind of sites group94 is known for should be classified as multimedia presentations.
"I wouldn't agree with that," Leroy says. "People think of websites too much as being about information. There's no rules, no recipes."
Though its list of happy customers is long and the number of new projects is increasing, he admits that there are things the company could have approached differently: "There are sites we built for photographers four years ago when Google was not as important and when the web was used in a very different way which I would probably approach differently now, though the design of most of the stuff we did then is still very good."
With this, Leroy is off again talking about user experience, making plans for the future and anticipating the midday pool contest. "In a way we're all nerds," he says. "We're obsessed by what we do, but it's a lot of fun."