Please give us a brief bio of yourself.
I’m the co-founder of the Brooklyn design studio “Anton & Irene“. Before that, I was the UX Director at Fantasy Interactive. I take 15 minutes flat to get ready in the morning, and at one point in my life I held diplomatic immunity.
What do you do for inspiration?
I know so many young designers who hang around Dribble or award sites or whatever all day as soon as they get a brief to get “inspiration”, and that is extremely dangerous. You can’t help but copy what you see so it’s best to just not be too inundated with other people’s design solution inside your own medium. So I deliberately don’t look at websites or digital products.
I spend a lot of time looking at ––and paying attention to–– photography, art, graphic design, city planning, architecture, history, psychology, fashion, product design, philosophy, film, etc. but I never do that with the purpose of using it for a specific project. It’s more like I have a large personal mental library that I can tap into for when a brief comes in.
Normally I let the brief perculate for a while and think about it while biking or when I am home alone, or when I’m in the shower. I’m quite a day-dreamer and love being alone, so my mind keeps spinning ideas around until something sticks. I also often dream about ideas which I immediately write down as soon as I wake up, and then I tell Anton about it when I get into the studio.
Please list 3 of your favourite sites.
Wikipedia, Reddit, Google Docs.
What do you regard as being your biggest achievement?
Starting our own studio.
When Anton and I were still directors at Fantasy Interactive, we both turned 30, had a very comfortable salary, had been directors already for many years, had a fantastic team of designers report into us, and yet we were bored and unfulfilled. Over the years we had slowly but surely been promoted away from doing the majority of the design work, and were now spending most of our time in meetings about things that had nothing to do with design, like performance reviews with our designers and management meetings with the other directors.
But, our passion is design and not management obviously. So we decided to leave Fi and start from scratch. We deliberately named our new studio after ourselves (Anton & Irene) to ensure that we would always be the primary designers of our studio. Even though it was a very scary decision, I am incredibly happy we did it as now we are once again, the authors of everything that has our names attached to it.
How many hours do you work each week?
Whereas in the past I was quite proud of being a workaholic (I would sometimes work 80-90 hour weeks, and was always “on call”), I have now mellowed out quite a bit and make sure that my normal work week does not exceed 40 hours.
I’m quite interested in psychology, and before I reached this decision I had started reading about what actually constitutes a healthy relationship with your work. Even though psychologists are still on the fence on whether “workaholism” is an actual disorder, they do believe that being a workaholic is quite similar to being addicted to drugs or alcohol, as the compulsive (and ultimately destructive) behavior is quite similar. The danger is that being a workaholic has super positive rewards in the short term — like, feeling proud of yourself for taking on all the responsibilities by yourself, the praise of a boss, or the praise of your “audience” on your social media channels. These rewards make it hard to see it as something negative, or as something that you should actively try to change. Towards the end of my years at Fi I realized that the amount I was working was not only unnecessary and often counterproductive, but was also hurting my ability to maintain (and put effort into) my personal relationships, and not only that, it was also very hard for me to let go of the reigns and allow other people to take on responsibilities that I would normally take on myself. In short, after working extremely hard for most of my twenties, I had a bit of a burn out at age 30.
With starting our own studio, putting more time and effort into my personal life was one of the things that I actively wanted to change in my life. Nowadays I bike to work every day, and usually arrive by 10am, and I typically leave work around 7pm. In the weekends I make sure that I do not have any work responsibilities and I deliberately try to not check my work emails outside of regular working hours.
And to nobody’s surprise, things are still getting done on time and nobody has died. And, more importantly, it has made me value and enjoy my time outside of work much more than when I was in my twenties, and I’ve learned to entrust certain responsibilities on other people.
How do you relax or unwind?
In the summers I love to go on long bike rides in the city, or get out of the city and go to the beach or the mountains or the woods. In the winter I hibernate and bingewatch TV, visit art galleries and museums, go to the movies, have dinners with friends, dance the night away or torture my friends at karaoke.
If you weren’t working on the internet what would you be doing?
Recently I have been getting quite into architecture and started reading a lot about it. Every time I am traveling for work (which is very often) I try to go visit the buildings that are architecturally significant for that place. I probably wouldn’t want to actually be an architect, but I’d love to study architecture. But my obsessions change every couple of years so who knows what will catch my interest in 5 years.
What’s your favourite part of your job? What’s the hardest part of your job? What do you do when you get stuck?
My favorite part of the job is the blank page, the very beginning, the thinking time. My least favorite part of the job is the completed page, the very end, the dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s time.
When I feel stuck I immediately switch to a different task or a different project. Or I’ll do something administrative that doesn’t require much thinking. Then I pick it back up when I am in a different mood. Typically I’m most productive in the early morning, so sometimes I wait to restart something until the next day.
Of all the projects you/your company have produced, which one are you most proud of?
Most recently we released an extremely personal project: One Shared House, which is an interactive documentary about my childhood home. Though we have launched self-initiated projects before (like the Urban Walks app or the Color Match game), this was the first time we released a project that was about something as personal as my childhood –– which to be honest, was a little scary.
The story is about the new “co-living” phenomenon, and since I grew up in a communal home in Amsterdam I draw parallels and comparisons to my own childhood. The reason we decided to tell this story is because whenever I tell people I grew up in a communal house in Amsterdam, it inevitably turns into a 30 minute conversation about the pros and cons of communal living and what it’s like to grow up in an environment like that. In my experience, there seem to be two extremes whenever co-living is discussed. On the one hand people can be extremely optimistic, and have an almost utopian ideal of how amazing it would be, and on the other extreme some people think it must be horrible, chaotic, with zero privacy or something only “hippies” would consider.
What I was hoping to show through this documentary is that the reality is a lot more nuanced than that. There are aspects of it that can be extremely difficult to manage (especially if you have shared finances), and there are aspects of it that can be extremely positive (like having the children of the house be exposed to so many different and interesting adults). After hearing my side of the story, viewers are encouraged to draw their own conclusions.
We have been very interested in using digital to push storytelling forward, and we wanted to try to see if we could make video and animations engaging in a medium that tends to get a bad rap when it comes to “long-form content”. The film is about 10 minutes long and requires your full attention. At the end of the film we invite the viewers to let us know what they themselves would be comfortable sharing long-term in their own immediate living environment, and the input they give at the end of the film is an integral part of the story.
I’m extremely proud of this project not only because I am proud of the design and the production, but also because it was the first time we told our own story. After we released it we received so many incredibly thoughtful and nice emails from people all over the world who were interested in the story not from a design perspective, but because it made them think about their own living situation and because it had opened their perspectives on what the alternatives could be.
If you were a student entering this industry or an aspiring FWA award submitter, what advice would you give them?
If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.
How difficult do you find employing and keeping the right people?
Extremely difficult. Rather than hiring people and having people on staff, we now employ a different model. We have a very solid network of talented designers, programmers, 3D artists, illustrators, motion designers, product designers and writers who we tap on a per project basis. Having these people join when we require those specific skillsets has allowed us to have a wider range in our design projects which we really enjoy.
What would be your ultimate vehicle to travel in?
No vehicle. Time-travel. I want time-travel.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the latest trends?
I don’t. Trends bore me and I never look at websites for design inspiration. Nowadays so many websites are these perfect little usable white boxes, and they all look and behave the same.
These boring websites really make me super nostalgic for the early days of the internet where everything was just exploding with creativity. Sure, most of it was impossible to use and even ugly, but at least it was different, and interesting. But those were different times. In the 90s only people like us who knew how to code were on the internet, so there wasn’t a need for making things too obvious or even usable as we were able and willing to figure things out on our own. And to be fair, it wasn’t really because we wanted to, it was because we didn’t have a choice, as often there wasn’t an alternative.
Now of course, everyone is on the internet, there are God knows how many websites, and we all agree that everyone should be able to use any website they need to. Even people like my mom, people with super bad internet connections, people with zero digital literacy, and people with ancient screens and browsers. And though of course I do agree most things should be universally accessible and easy to do and use (like signing up for Health Care online in the US should be WAY easier to do than it is now), the usability, analytics, and SEO nazis have scared a lot of clients into not taking any risks whatsoever by arguing against experimentation with “numbers”. And I personally feel that many companies and products could actually benefit from a little experimentation. Different can be good. Difficult can be interesting. I think in general, we have to help clients put a little bit more faith and trust into their users –– they’re not idiots.
So, through all of this, we have unfortunately lost a lot of the creativity in our medium because all interaction has to be designed for the lowest common denominator. And I think that’s a shame really. But if I think of our medium like any other art medium, this is just a phase. And if I compare it to architecutre, we are currently in the Bauhaus era of digital design, which means something else will come later.
I’m looking forward to leaving this boring-same-white-box-era of digital design behind.
There must be a project that you have always dreamed of doing, what is it?
So many things! I would love to make another interactive documentary. I would love to write a book. I would love to do an artist residency together with urban planners and architects to think about new solutions for physical spaces or living spaces. I would love to redesign the entire Air and Space museum in Washington DC. I would love to work with musicians to make music come alive in a digital and interactive way … Life is too short.
What is the most expensive thing you have bought in the last week?
Plane tickets. I am not a big spender.
Any parting words of wisdom?
“You already have a no, but you might get a yes.”
This little pearl of wisdom is something my mom always used to say to me as a child, and as part of our talk it is surprisingly also our most photographed and tweeted slide.