An interview with Simon Piehl, of Bureau for Visual Affairs

Oct 28, 2009Design

Can you tell us a little about the history of Bureau for Visual Affairs?

Bureau happened about 6 years ago, when Tom Elsner (then running Artificial Environments) and myself (from a spell at Pentagram, Imagination and Spin) decided the time was right to finally work together (having decided that we would one day do so whilst attending the BH at the (then) London College of Printing.

How did the Creative Review project come about - did you enter into a pitch situation or were they aware of your work and ask you to explore the project directly?

The relationship started with us winning a pitch to develop the CR owned Creative Handbook, a kind of yellow pages and for creatives. The relationship really developed form there, though they had been aware of or work for some time having been kind enough to make us their ‘ones to watch’ in the past and featured bits and pieces of our output over the years.

Bureau’s approach is very collaborative, and the relationship with Patrick and Jess (editor and publisher respectively) worked very well. They then asked us to develop the CR site, which carries many of the magazine’s aspirations, in terms of transforming a word-wide readership into a community.

Creative Review

Creative Review

If you entered into a pitch, how did you approach it and why did you think you were successful?

In the case of the CR website, the commission was a continuation of an already existing and good relationship rather then a pitch.

In terms of pitches, Bureau does approach them in a conceptual rather then in a visual way, as we think this is where our strength lie. I always feel that with a pitch presentation that relies mainly on visuals, one is taking chances without having had the proper conversations first — any pitch in our view therefore is more akin to starting a conversation then to showing how pretty it might all end up being.

Typically when you enter into a large-scale project like CR, do you start with lo-fi wireframes or do you go straight into design and rough prototyping? What tools do you use to do this?

There is no set way in which we approach projects of this complexity, but we do start with the core motivations of the user base, and the user journey — in an old-fashioned sitemap. The pages design and functional spec is then developed together. This more integrated approach in this crucial stage of the design process allows a wider gamut for technology and design to contribute and work together. And yes, we do use Omigraffle for sitemaps…

Did you find the initial design process paradoxically difficult, given that the client understands the industry and how the client/creative agency relationship works?

In many ways the CR Job was different to most of our projects, but not so because it meant working for one of the de-facto mouthpieces of our own industry, but because the parameters were different — in many ways more commercial then Bureau is used to. As any other magazine, CR’s income is generated largely by advertising — so the site had to be effective about the way it enables advertising to work alongside the content. This is in stark contrast to most of our clients who are based in the cultural sector, where advertising plays little or no role at all.

The CR website is equally a technical feat. How - as a studio - do you delegate the design and technical development of a website: are your designers also technical, and vice versa, or is there a very clear delineation between them? How do you best manage the designer/developer relationship?

Bureau’s process differs in many ways to the traditional way of doing things, where a design team is let loose on a brief, and a technical team is then introduced later along with a project manager to referee the two sides. We use no project managers as we find this keeps the communication of a higher quality, and instead the people working on the projects talk directly to our clients. In terms of the split, we try and keep the divide between technology and design as small as possible, with both sides in constant conversation about the project.

How has the feedback been for the website? You mentioned earlier that people either love it or hate it - are you bothered about negative and/or non-constructive criticism, particularly for high profile launches like this?

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, though (possibly more importantly) the site performs well — having near tripled the traffic (and advertising exposure, too…). This means that the core objective of using CR’s great content to its best effect has been reached.

BVA have a very distinctive web design style: can you describe it, and has it come directly from a print design sensibility or a new way of looking at web design?

Hmmm — we think of the design of websites in particular in very pragmatic, almost utilitarian terms, which I think is at the heart of what you refer to. The thinking is less about style but about ways to communicate often large and changeable content which needs to be accommodated both in a visual but also in a technological way. This flexibility and modularity in the design to change with the client’s demands or circumstance is key to what we think separates our work from that of others — and this is crucially as much a technology decision-making process as it is a design one. In addition many of or clients are based in the cultural sector so have very strict guidelines in terms if accessibility, which of course also influences design decisions.

blog comments powered by Disqus