Balancing innovation and usability, with digital creative studio Future Corp
Building sleek, boundary-pushing sites for the likes of The xx, MoMA and Manolo Blahnik, Future Corp has amassed a wide-ranging list of iconic clients since setting up shop in 2011. Starting out as a one-man undertaking, founder and creative director Marc Kremers soon expanded, and now leads a team of five, spanning developers and designers. Something of a creative maverick, Marc was also behind the founding of Studio Three, the East London co-working space that houses Future Corp. Launched in 2008 alongside photographer Tara Darby and designers Thomas Traum and Damien Poulain, Studio Three was created just ahead of the co-working boom, and has played host to an impressive array of talent, from Malika Favre to Jesse Kanda. We caught up with Marc to hear how Future Corp has blossomed, their approach to balancing innovation and usability, brilliant side projects and steering clear of design studio ‘bro culture’.
As a designer brought up in the cultural blind spot that is ’80s South Africa (think Apartheid in its death throes), I had to get myself out there in any way that I could. I was acutely attuned to signals coming out of Europe – keeping in mind that we had cultural sanctions. So seeing a video tape of MTV for the first time, sent over by my Belgian cousins, was like blowing a lid off my reality and entering a magical world, where visual culture was a thing; whereas in South Africa, rugby and causal racism was a thing. So what helped me, and still helps me to this day, was a deep desire to escape and put myself into the heart of the action.
“As a designer brought up in the cultural blind spot that is ’80s South Africa, I had to get myself out there any way that I could.”
It was a job at design studio Hi-ReS! that brought me over to London. There I met Thomas Traum, and we formed a partnership called Digital Club. As Tommi [Thomas] explored digital image-making and started his studio Traum Inc., I got more and more into UX and UI, so we closed Digital Club. But in 2008 we started a co-working space Studio Three, together with Tara Darby and Damien Poulain, where Future Corp is still based.
The calibre of creative talent we’ve had at Studio Three over the last ten years still makes my eyes water – from Field and Malika Favre to Jesse Kanda. It’s also been the garage story for other companies; Adam Rogers and Stefan Endress went on to create International Magic, Carl Burgess and Tom Darracott went on to create More and More.
Future Corp came about in an organic and fluid way. Everything comes from a very DIY attitude, which could be attributed to the fact that I’m a single founder. Until a few years ago we simply traded under my own name, and it was just me, working with exceptionally talented developers on a project-by-project basis.
Then after a few years I had a team of five. Hearing my team say they “work at Marc Kremers” started weirding me out, so we switched to ‘Future Corp’. I wanted something super-generic sounding (something that would have worked in a film like Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop), which belied the fact that it was really just a one-man band. It was a liberating change, as the company stopped being an extension of myself, and became something new, made up by the sum of its talent.
“We aren’t afraid to punch way above our weight in terms of project size or client.”
Most of our clients come to us for bespoke, custom-built websites, but we do a lot of consultation too. We appeal to a broad range of sectors; we’ve made sites for photographers, artists, galleries, bands, magazines, restaurants, hotels, clubs, property developers, architectural firms, interior designers, brands, startups and fashion labels. The common thread between all of them is how good they are. I still feel the urge to pinch myself when I think of the talented groups of people and individuals we’ve worked with over the years.
We aren’t afraid to punch way above our weight in terms of project size or client. Through some trial and a little tenacity, we’ve always entered pitches and RFPs [requests for proposals] with all guns blazing – creatively and strategically speaking, and it’s allowed us to start some great relationships.
Our approach is defined in human, cultural and emotional terms, before technological ones. Every project and collaboration is totally unique to the client’s needs and world view, so we make every effort to understand what excites them personally or collectively. This includes what they like aesthetically, emotionally and culturally, and then we grow something that feels authentically theirs out of those references.
That said, while working on these solutions, we are not oblivious to our own tastes and paths within the digital landscape. Being passionate about UI and UX, we collectively have a bank of ideas for interactions and design, which we exploit within the context of a client project when the fit is right.
“When you create sites that are more innovative, you need to make sure that your ideas work. You have to test your assumptions.”
In terms of exciting recent projects, the site we made for Jacob Sutton was a treat. Building photography portfolio sites has become a bit of a bread-and-butter job for us, and with Jacob, he left us to get on with it and was so happy with everything we did. It was a good example of how we look at interface and user experience in a very holistic way. We try to remove all potential dead ends at the end of a project, and make the flow of the overall site as fluid as possible.
We also completed some exciting work for Unmade. The site focuses on presenting information in the most functional and beautiful way it can, with an intuitive and innovative navigation, stripped back typography and interactive demos setting it apart from the formulaic B2B2C [business to business to consumer] websites we’re used to seeing. We shortlisted and commissioned copywriters, illustrators, photographers and videographers to create content and build narrative for the site, working collaboratively with Unmade’s in-house team to focus the messaging and visuals into one cohesive direction.
A lot of our clients are very creative, but they won’t know how to make something work digitally. So it will be up to us to find a way to communicate their ideas. We get the best outcomes when we collaborate closely with our clients, and remember that we are making things for users and not designers. When you create sites that are more innovative, you need to make sure that your ideas work, and that people enjoy using it. You have to test your assumptions; sometimes you watch people use what you’ve made and they have no clue how it works.
User experience is a big part of our work. It was something that not a lot of people knew about until quite recently, but it’s really come into its own now. When I’m looking at UX with my team I will question everything – more from an experiential, rather than a creative, perspective. You have to wear two hats: you’ve got to be innovative, but not so innovative that people don’t know how to drive the site.
“It’s about finding that sweet spot between creating something usable and memorable, that pushes things forward.”
A lot of sites are boring because they will keep using the same patterns, but we’re very much about trying new practices. The aim is to create something that people have never seen that before, while avoiding performance issues by testing and developing it to a high standard. We always try to make a site entertaining and interesting, but you don’t want to make gimmicks just for the sake of it. It’s about finding that sweet spot between creating something usable and memorable, that pushes things forward.
Self-initiated work is also a big part of what we do. Having a DIY approach means you can’t always just be making work for clients. It’s good to push your limits, and creating a project like vvatch.tv [a platform to share and curate video content] has allowed me to do that to the extreme. Another example is Syndex, a Tumblr theme I made on the side, which has about 900 to a million active users at any one point. When I go home I will often continue to work on my own stuff. It’s something I’ve done my whole life, and pushing myself outside of service work ultimately comes back to strengthen client projects.
The Team and Culture
I love my team so much. They’re driven, ambitious, disciplined, know how to keep an eye on the bigger picture, extroverted and opinionated. They all have a good sense of humour, so it’s a great vibe in the office. There’s a stereotype of developers who stay very much behind the scenes, but that’s a cliché; our developers are outspoken, charming and eloquent, which really bucks that trend.
Right now we are six people: myself, two developers, two senior art directors, and one designer. We don’t currently have a producer, but the team are so good at production that they’re able to manage everything themselves, and we all watch each other’s backs. I’ve worked with great talents who didn’t have the ability to make something happen on time or in a controlled fashion, but at the moment our projects are all running really smoothly.
“There’s a stereotype of developers who stay very much behind the scenes, but that’s a cliché; our developers are outspoken, charming and eloquent.”
We are constantly reviewing and optimising our internal processes, so it’s important that everyone is confident enough to make suggestions for change. We are definitely geeky about tools and best practice, and often share articles and tips via our Slack channels for must-read ux and tech articles. As soon as someone finds a better way to do something, it’s shared with the team; if we agree then it’s immediately adopted. Natural agility is the wonderful thing about working in a small studio.
In terms of finding people for the team, I receive quite a lot of emails from digital designers, as well as requests for internships, otherwise we will put an ad up on If You Could Jobs. I’m on a mission to make sure that Future Corp doesn’t follow a typical ‘bro culture’. I don’t think there are enough women in digital creative studios, so we actively look for women to create a good mix. It’s not easy but we all have to make an effort, ensuring we have people from different cultures, countries, orientations and genders.
We usually have one or two interns a year. When you’re a company of our size, interns have to have some understanding of digital. We hear from a lot of people with really great print portfolios and very little digital experience, and it can be hard to make that work. You need some understanding of UX and things like transitions, micro-transitions, single-page apps, and technical overheads. There’s room for progression with internships. Both Yuli (our digital designer) and Stefan Endress (of studio International Magic) started internships before becoming valuable full-time designers on the team here.
I think there are three points to running a successful studio that all feed off each other: A great team, creating great products, for great clients. Take one of those away for too long and you’ll lose momentum quickly. Maintaining this is both rewarding and challenging!
I knew that starting my own studio was going to be an interesting and sometimes difficult ride. The responsibilities are intense as it’s on your shoulders – there’s no middle management. On a typical day I can be creative directing my design team, working on UI for VVatch, responding to an RFP, quality assuring an e-commerce build, speaking to my accountant about research and development tax rebates and ordering hand soap for the loo. They don’t teach you that in college. You have to be responsive to the needs of your clients and your team, all the while ensuring the business is running smoothly.
I’ve had offers for jobs at both Nike and Apple, and easily turned them down for this. You get to build your own story, and create your own opportunities. You have to be a little crazy, you have to be intensely self-motivated, you have to build a team of individuals who are game for the challenge, and you can’t take anything for granted.
Photography by Andy Donohoe
Interview by Indi Davies
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