Design on toast: why specialists eat generalists for breakfast

Dave Turnbull

Just as power is nothing without control, technology is nothing without design. And as the boundaries between humanity and technology continue to blur, Wellington agency Chrometoaster sees itself as an interface between the two.

Founded by industrial design and visual communications students from Wellington design school 20 years ago, the multi-disciplinary agency took a human-centered, product-development style approach to digital, long before ‘user experience’ was a thing.

“We’re industrial designers for the digital age; we’ve been doing design and digital engineering since 1998,” says Turnbull. “We’re what happens when a design studio was created in parallel with the internet. We haven’t had to transform our business model to incorporate digital, as many ad, marketing and communications agencies have. We haven’t crowbarred a technology-led IT software firm into the fluffy world of customer experience.”

NZ Marketing asked a few questions to find out what sets Chrometoaster apart. 

What does Chrometoaster offer?

We are a specialist design and engineering agency who take great care of digital projects from start to finish. Our skills range from digital resource, product, service and site design to the marketing of the projects we deliver. We specialise in tailored open source solutions.

Aside from digital, our multi-disciplinary design team are working at the highest levels across conventional channels too. We do it all in-house, featuring on practically all of the NZ Government Web Services Panel categories – one of the few digital agencies to span strategy, user research, content and interface design through to development and delivery. Our digital engineering exceeds the strictest Government standards – routinely independently audited for best practice, top-tier security and sustained performance of mission-critical services.

We have specialists skill in brand communications too, and together, our team delivers marketing creative, campaigns and social media content, information and media-rich websites, digital publications and products, web services and both public- and internal-facing tools, online resources and games, as well as content design for mission critical projects. Being integrated full-service digital means we can deliver better quality at lower cost to our clients – there’s less lost in translation and far fewer surprises. 

If it hasn’t already, your online presence is likely to become the primary interface to your customers; the depth and integrity of your digital capabilities will define your competitive advantage. You’ll know this as digital transformation. We’re geared to meet the demands of organisations who must become digital-first, or face slow ruin.

Co-design and collaboration underpin all we do. We’re transparent and we’re responsive. We ask our clients to work directly with our designers and engineers (and their own customers, for that matter), rather than through layers of process and governance. It’s a hallmark of digital-first agencies and once you’ve experienced it, I’d imagine it’s difficult to go back.

What we do has deep, long-term positive impact within the organisations we work with. We establish digital-first brand guidelines, design systems, software and development standards, hosting environments and devop routines for our customers. The people we put on a project tend to stay on the project, and/or with the client, as if they were an extension of the business. This relationship may last for years, and often does.

How do you collaborate with other agencies?

Sometimes we’re the digital crew in the back room. Most of the time we have a seat at the table, working directly with our client and their other agency partners. We’re fairly flexible, but we find that clients get better results when there is full transparency and equal status among agency partners. It’s important to acknowledge each agency’s strengths and specialties, and also to allow the shared contribution of good ideas.

A great example was during our tenure as the digital partner for sorted.org.nz. Between 2012–15 we worked directly alongside a fantastic client and some of the best brand, advertising, PR and media talent in the country: GSL Promotus, Sputnik, Doublefish and OMD. Quite a meeting of the minds. Marketing activity was fairly constant during that period, typically with the calculators and website we’d designed getting a lot of the attention.

The analytics we’d woven into the tools gave the client remarkable insight into the financial literacy of the visitors. Media was optimised to emphasise channels delivering the most evidence of behaviour change, rather than simply the most entrances.

Do you have any examples of where your specialist skills have helped beat out traditional full service agencies?

In a pitch for a tertiary provider’s digital marketing platform we presented the quality, cost, time triangle and announced that, “for the sake of your brand and your customers, we don’t compromise on quality… so that means we’ll need to talk about which of the other two you want to relax”. We won the work.

What stood us apart from those who approached it with a campaign mindset, we were told, was our clear desire to gain a deep understanding of the users and the business needs, and deliver a comprehensive, high-quality, long-term solution which could be built upon over years.

Why are specialist digital agencies a better option than generalists?

Clients who want great user experiences with a strategic focus, high-quality design and development, personal customer service, responsive and knowledgeable technical support are shifting toward specialist digital agencies.

What we hear is that although many agencies can deliver a full range of services, specialist firms are able to put creatives and engineers closer to clients. There are fewer layers to get through and more close collaboration than they’d previously experienced.

What may look great for a media deadline may lose its lustre pretty quickly. Modern digital properties, large and small, need to be user- and mobile-first, highly-accessible, web standards-based, open source, reusable, measurable, incredibly fast and fully secure. We’ve seen things tend to go a bit sideways for agencies who are primarily oriented towards optimising click-through and reach, yet can easily spin-up a WordPress site or theme a SaaS solution. The technical debt (not to mention the design debt) that builds up over various campaigns and across brands can be considerable.

We hear about large-scale digital projects being awarded to companies who specialise in development, and preferably fast development. What we see with those types of projects is that design can be compromised and the project fails to meet the business objectives.

While many companies offer development services, the problems confronting these types of projects require design thinking, experience in the specialist fields of content design, user experience, service design, interaction and interface design and creativity.

How has the market changed in its attitude to the use of digital agencies?

We come across varying attitudes to how digital agencies are used – from the “get two companies to do different parts of the same job, that will keep them honest”, to the “we tried the cheaper guys and got burned; we want to use an agency we know will do a kick-ass job”.

It’s fair to say digital design and engineering is becoming indispensable. The pressures the market is under to make what they do digital, and market it digitally, are clearly immense. Fast-moving digital-first startups are revolutionising industries in the same amount of time established businesses are building a corporate website.

Unfortunately, due to this increased pressure, the market has been experiencing (very public) failures: cost blow-outs, usability disasters, social media meltdowns and project cancellations are not uncommon. One side-effect of this is that vendors are being asked to take on increased risk. This is often by way of fixed-cost, fixed-timeline contracts that are formulated before anyone has a clear picture of the project scope and complexity.

What we’re seeing recently is a maturing in the approach to digital, as organisations are beginning to view digital agencies as partners to be trusted, not expendable vendors to be swapped-out. Trust is building as the market understands that digital projects can be complex, critical and are important to get right.

As a specialist agency, you rely on specialist talent. How hard is it to find?

We hire specialists who openly collaborate across a wide range of disciplines. We don’t have juniors, or generalists on staff. That’s been the way we’ve always run things.

All our staff have broad experience; they’re familiar with what goes into the work before them, and know what happens after they pass their work on. That’s actually quite critical to having design and development dovetail so well.

Machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, blockchain and other disruptive technologies will soon impact much of the work we do, and we’ll have specialists designing and engineering these experiences too.

High-end work requires high-end talent, which means high overheads. This is what makes a great digital agency, and it’s one of our strongest competitive advantages over teams who are constrained by corporate salary bands.

What are the pros and cons of working with clients on a project basis?

On one hand, projects are a fantastic vehicle for testing new approaches and team dynamics. On the other, the short-term, siloed nature of projects tends to increase overheads for all parties (procurement, pitching) and can lead to longer-term digital debt and increased risk (budgets set before the project is defined by the design).

The scale and depth of the project ought to be considered closely when deciding whether a campaign-style approach is suitable or not. A website, for example, may initially be considered a good ‘project’. However, as websites often aren’t just websites (they’re becoming core business; reputations and sales are on the line), a ‘programme’ approach may suit better, as it provides greater opportunities for stakeholder engagement, coordination and access to ongoing budgets.

Doing ‘new build’ digital work within the constraints of a project comes with risks. We’ve seen instances where recommended media budgets are in the millions, yet the website where traffic is directed is briefed-in at 1–2 percent of that. These kinds of imbalances aren’t uncommon and it talks to the state of digital design in New Zealand: true ‘conversions’ and behaviour change metrics are sometimes confused with optimised ‘click-through’.

Customers can retain control and reduce risk by giving specialist agencies a seat at the table, rather than a seat behind the suit at the table. Specialists are used to (and often expect) direct collaboration with both clients and agency teams.

What changes have taken place within your agency in recent years?

We’ve grown our content and UX team in response to a massive shift toward specialised content strategy and content design. Many clients appreciate the importance of high-quality, well-structured content, single-source publishing opportunities and web-based ‘sources of truth’. We’ve also developed our own front-end Design System to routinely deliver best practice, bespoke digital design at speed and at scale.

Clients are increasingly keen to be involved in co-design with end users, so we’ve fitted-out our studio space with custom-built collaboration rooms, complete with floor-to-ceiling whiteboard walls and digital cinema equipment.

In response to larger projects running in parallel, we’ve also grown our teams – more strategy, design facilitation, content design, research, prototyping, visual design, programming and project management.

And have you had any major successes recently?

We’ve had great fun developing Game of Awesome, an educational card game we designed for the Ministry of Education. It exemplifies what we do and works on all levels of design. The brief was a well-articulated ‘wicked problem’ and we were left alone to solve it using our intuition, and all the tools of the trade. It was a no-holds-barred, month-long journey to the heart of design and what emerged has proven to be an exceptionally powerful resource that blends literacy with laughs – it’s education by stealth.

Game of Awesome is a 2018 German Design Award Winner for Excellent Product Design in the Baby and Childcare category. The GDA is the top international prize of the German Design Council; it is by invitation only, and is one of the most well-respected design competitions in the world. We also won ‘Good Design of the Year’, which is the most prestigious honour in Australasia, across all design disciplines, judged by over 30 international experts. It’s the first time a New Zealand company has achieved this. It feels great to say that we’re acknowledged for being at the top of our game. We also hold the ‘Best Public Good Design’ Purple Pin, as judged by the Designers Institute of NZ.

But it’s not just one project. I’m most proud of the team that makes Chrometoaster what it is. We all want to make a difference. The culture is creative and supportive. It’s a pleasure to come to work. Everyone is able to have a personal life and interests, and this is important. I think our customers and collaborators appreciate this too, and it’s part of the reason we work on such challenging long-term projects. Because we’re refreshing to work with in an industry littered with egos and unpaid overtime.

This story is part of a content partnership with Chrometoaster.

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