In one sentence, can you explain what Anton & Irene does?
We are designers. It’s as simple as that.
You both honed your craft at one of the most awarded design agencies, Fantasy, before starting your own. What made you decide it was time to venture out on your own?
There’s an unfortunate thing in agencies where if you’re good at something (which in our case is design), you tend to get promoted away from the thing you’re good at and get moved into a management position. We were directors there for many years, but the last three years of our stay at Fantasy we started to become extremely agitated and bored by the number of management meetings we were required to attend on a daily basis, leaving us very little time for actual design work.
And at some point, it kind of struck us, “Wait a minute! We’re designers! How did we end up doing these performance reviews, managing other designers, and in status meetings with the directors of the other disciplines all the time? This is not what we signed up for. This is not our passion.”
We knew that if we continued down that path, we would probably be very comfortable financially, but extremely dissatisfied personally. We wanted to get back to the thing that we loved most. Design. And we knew we had to start our own studio to do so. So we did.
We deliberately named the studio after ourselves so that it would be clear that we’re designers, and not an agency. We no longer call ourselves directors. We’re designers.
When a new agency is in its infancy, there seems to be a lot of pressure to boast about how big and successful they are—”fake it ’till you make it,” so to speak. You seemed to embrace the opposite. Have you found that transparency helps or hinders your ability to win certain pitches?
We are 100% transparent about how we work and how small we are, and so far it has only worked in our favor. Our clients seem to like that they are getting “us” and don’t have to worry about some bait and switch situation where the A team pitches but then the B team gets assigned to the project (which let’s be honest, happens very often).
With us, there are no surprises. We’re also very transparent about the fact that we only take on two projects at a time (one large one and one small one). We’re selective about the projects we work on, and we let our clients know that we probably won’t be able to start their project right away because we have a waiting list. There are also days where we won’t be working on their project at all because we’re either presenting at a conference, teaching a workshop, or teaching at Harbour.Space in Barcelona (a design program we helped set up), or at SVA in New York.
What they get in return, however, is the knowledge that we will be the ones working on the project, and that the success of the project is just as important to us as it is to them.
Are there any client traits that help you deliver your best work?
We got awarded a new project recently, and when our client called to let us know, they said to us, “We just want to let you guys do what you do best, and we will support you in any way we can on our end to ensure you are able to do so.” I think that pretty much sums it up.
As designers, how do you handle the business of running a business? Do you feel pressure to take jobs that may not be as creatively interesting to help keep the lights on?
The nitty-gritty of the business side of things is handled by Irene, but we discuss everything together and agree on things before any decision gets made that would impact the business.
Luckily, since we only take on two projects at a time—and we get to be quite selective about the work we can take on—we haven’t been faced with having to take on work we really didn’t want to do. Some projects pay a lot better than others of course, but every project we take on has to have some interesting challenge for us.
Talk about your approach to delivering projects end to end, like the recent Shantell Martin website, which has some very cool interactions. Dan Mall refers to the Hollywood Model, bringing in the right people for the right project. Do you ascribe to that as well?
Yes, I think the Hollywood Model is a good analogy. We don’t have people on staff, and we don’t want to have people on staff. We have a very wide network of talented creatives we can tap into on a per project basis.
Most of these people are our friends, and not web specialists, like our frequent collaborator (writer) Jon Earle, or (illustrator) June Kim. Others are true partners with their own agency, like our development partner Astroshock. This allows us to have a wider variety of design output.
In the case of Shantell Martin, all the design and UX for the front-end and CMS was done by us, and the development of the front-end and the CMS was done by three of the guys from Astroshock, so the total team was five people.
For a team of two, the volume and consistency of your creative output is impressive. Do you follow any rules or rituals that allow you to stay focused and productive?
Not really, other than that we ensure we are at the studio between 10 am and 7 pm, five days a week. It would be quite easy to let that slip here and there since, of course, nobody would tell us off, but we pride ourselves on our self-discipline, and we take our work very seriously.
It doesn’t hurt that our new studio is a lovely space that we both love being at. We’re both still excited to get to work every morning.
You don’t seem to confine yourselves to any one medium, producing websites, short films, watches, and even Olympic uniforms. As digital continues to encompass so much more than just websites and apps, do you see it as a necessity for agencies to possess an increased knowledge across mediums?
No, we don’t see it as a necessity—every agency or studio has their own rules for why and how they make the work they do, and that is totally fine.
For us, the reason our projects span wider than just digital design is that our own interests just happen to be a lot wider than just digital design. Most of our experimentation is born out of personal passions or obsessions, and then we try to see if we can make a proper project out of it.
The projects we self-initiate sometimes bring in new clients who pay for something similar (like the Olympic uniform), or they open us up to a whole different market we never had access to before (like our interactive documentary film “One Shared House”, which was screened for filmmakers at Lincoln Center, and brought IKEA to us as a new client).
How do you schedule your time between paid work, personal projects, and the many conferences you now speak at? Is it difficult to schedule client work that has specific deadlines or extends into other priorities?
Typically, conferences get booked quite early in advance—somewhere between 6-9 months before the actual conference—so we have a pretty clear idea of how much we want and can take on based on how many invitations we get.
That also allows us to communicate these dates with any potential new client. We have “block out dates” in our project plan that we share with our clients, so they know that on certain dates we will not be able to work on their project actively. It’s surprisingly easy to schedule around it as long as it is clear from the start and you’re honest about it.
Our clients have commented that they like the fact that we teach and speak at conferences, as it shows that we are thought leaders in our industry and not just some production shop.
Some independent agencies seem to be in a consistent state of growth and hiring—two areas that appear to symbolize success. Talk about how you measure progress and success as an agency. Do you have a clear 1-3-5 year vision?
We do not have a clear business plan or vision. The only thing we try to ensure is that each year we spend 60% of our time on paid client work, and 40% of our time on free self-initiated work.
The client work is supposed to fund our self-initiated projects, so as long as that balance is intact and we can produce work that we are proud of for both, we consider ourselves successful.
Most of our experimentation is born out of personal passions or obsessions, and then we try to see if we can make a proper project out of it.
Your case studies are some of the best in the world—pretty much required reading for any creative starting out. You seem to take great pride in delivering the story behind the work. What is your motivation behind doing those?
Two-fold. The first reason is altruistic. We believe in the flow of positive karma, and we believe in returning as much of that as we receive. We have been incredibly lucky in our career in that we have been able to learn something new from every project we have ever taken on. It’s important to us that we share that knowledge with young creatives to either inspire them or help them on their way. We do that by teaching, or by doing workshops, as well as with our case studies.
The second reason is selfish. It’s really helpful to sit down at the end of each project and think about what it is that we learned this time around. Or what was different or challenging about it. Putting that story together helps clarify these things and can also feel a little therapeutic. And it’s nice to have a “diary” of all our past projects together in one place.
We’re proud of the work we do, and it feels really good to add to that “collection” in a real, thoughtful, and honest way by laying bare all the nuts and bolts that went into getting something made. The end result is nice of course, but we’re always more fascinated by the process required to get to that result.
What’s next for Anton & Irene?
We’re about to give a workshop and talk at SPACE10 in Copenhagen (an IKEA incubator) around the future of co-living, and we’re working on a separate project for them around that topic as well. They reached out to us after seeing our interactive documentary “One Shared House” and are super interested in what the future of communal living might look like. So we’ve been heads down in the research phase for that for the past couple of weeks, which has been super interesting.
We’re also working on a project for Spotify, and we just got awarded a pretty exciting and large new redesign project that will start in June and will take us through 2018—but we can’t go into much detail about either one at this point.
Lastly, this is the year we are going to be producing the NURO watch, and we have already selected our factory in China who will be producing it. We are working with two watch specialists to ensure the watch gets built to our exact specifications and have already gone through all the legal processes to make sure everything is on the up and up.
If all goes well, we should be launching the Kickstarter campaign (where people will be able to pre-order the watch) in the fall, with a fulfillment promise of Spring 2018. (Editor’s note: Having seen an early prototype, I’ll be one of the first in line.)
One last thing: What advice would you give to someone considering starting their own agency?
If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.