Studio Profile: Sons & Co.

Nov 02, 2011Design

It’s a joke that every time Tim sends me a link to one of their new sites, it goes straight onto siteInspire. Their work is stunning – both aesthetically and technically. We catch up with them to find out more about the way they work. — Daniel Howells

Can you tell us about Sons & Co.

Sons & Co. makes websites. There’s four of us, working in a weatherboard cottage in the backstreets of Christchurch, New Zealand. We share our block with a church, two migrant families and some friendly drunks. We like working in a house, it has a sunny backyard and if you’re uptight you can run a bath.

We’re not big talkers - Tim always says “talk less, work more” - and we work quietly and studiously. We’re very like-minded and that’s important. We like the same things, there’s never any conflict, and we’re very honest with each other. Crap ideas are instantly ridiculed and killed quickly and cleanly, which saves a lot of time. “Suggest that again and you’ll regret it” is far more productive and helpful than “okay…let’s work up that idea and present it as an option”.

Duke Ellington said “there are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” Design is the same.

We’re not particularly intellectual in our approach. Design theory can be interesting, debate is entertaining, but you know good design when you see it. Duke Ellington said “there are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” Design is the same. For that reason we never wade too much into lengthy rationales and justifications. Analysis can be a real party pooper, it kills the fun. Our favourite tools are common sense and the bleeding obvious. “Trust us” and a cheeky smile is surprisingly effective when questions arise.

There’s a lot of emphasis on process these days from both studios and clients. Many agencies have trademarked names for their creative process, which is funny to us. Briefs will often say “in your response please demonstrate the process your company will take to complete the project” or something like that. It’s tempting to say “we just show up and get to work” because that’s really how it happens. When pushed we say our process is thinking then doing, in that order.

We don’t have much stuff in the studio. Just a phone, laptops, A2 pads and black pens (never blue). We started that way because we had no money, but found we didn’t need much else. We recently sold our printer because we never used it except to print joke notices like “Tuesday is nude day”. We do have a lot of chairs though, we seem to collect them like strays, and we have some nice paintings too, on loan from an art gallery client.

The thing for us when getting a brief is to make sure we find an interesting problem. Eric Gill has a good quote about that, paraphrased, “boring problems produce boring solutions”. The first thing we do, before any design, is write. All designers should write, we think, words are an important part of design. Design concepts with Lorem Ipsum are academic and unconvincing. On words, artist John Baldessari said a nice thing about art writer Calvin Tomkins, “I love him because he would rather say house than edifice.” Small words and few words are fine.

Our clients are all very different, we don’t specialise in a particular industry, more a personality type. We’ll work with anyone who is intelligent, adventurous and has good taste and we’ve been lucky enough to find a few, but we’re always looking for more.

Nizo for iPhone

Nizo for iPhone

Early sketch for Nizo

Early sketch for Nizo

You recently launched the teaser site for Image Mechanics’ new iPhone app, Nizo, to massive acclaim. Can you tell us more about the process of how the project came about, how you worked with IM, and how you handled design through to development?

We’d worked with Jason and Vicki at Image Mechanics on their studio website. They’re in Sydney, but seem to like working with New Zealanders (Kris Sowersby of Klim Type Foundry worked on their identity). We emailed him some rough sketches and a treatment and they sent back a note saying “Fucking love it”.

Someone remarked that the site “looked like it had been done in a weekend” which is an unintentional compliment, we think. We’ve seen some imitations recently too, which is also complimentary.

Crane Brothers

Crane Brothers

Crane Brothers

Crane Brothers

Crane Brothers

Crane Brothers

And Crane Brothers?

Murray Crane is a well-known New Zealand fashion designer. He’s an intimidating guy; he stands uncomfortably close, is highly opinionated and difficult to please. Read this job ad and you’ll see what we mean. But he’s a great client because he loves design and has excellent, idiosyncratic tastes. The website is a glimpse of his unusual aesthetic: “unsafe” colours, “wrong” imagery and highly detailed layout and typography. The brief was pretty simple: Tradition meets modern. No pin cushions, no scissors, no measuring tape. Fuck it up and I’ll kill you.

We may allow one or two practical jokes a day, but they’re squeezed in between solid periods of getting shit done.

As a small agency, how do you actively market yourself and find new clients?

We don’t have a studio website, or blog, or Twitter or any of those things. Which in part is due to the “less talk” policy, but we also enjoy the contrarian approach. Yet we still find work, which is a constant surprise and relief.

Our marketing is our work and that’s where we spend our time. The exception is we enter the New Zealand Best Design Awards which has been a good way to promote ourselves locally. Awards are good for self-esteem too.

Black Estate Vineyard

Black Estate Vineyard

Tell us about New Zealand and Christchurch: is there a large design/digital community that you integrate with?

New Zealand is the same as anywhere, but smaller. Design studios tend to do a bit of everything: graphics, web, moving image, interiors, but we’re a little bit of an anomaly in that we only do one thing: websites. We’re just sticking to our knitting, learning all we can, trying to improve.

There’s some superb designers in New Zealand and lots of people we look up to. The good design work in New Zealand is equal to anywhere in the world and the nice thing is you can call the very best people up, they’ll answer the phone personally and invite you round for a beer.

Now the techy bit: can you tell us a little more about the technical aspects of your sites: what sort of CMS/back-end do you use (for Crane Brothers, for example), and how do you keep up with the rapid developments in Javascript and new technology?

We use pretty standard technologies, nothing out of the ordinary, but I think we use them well. That’s to say we use what’s appropriate and never anything for the sake of it. Behind the scenes, our sites are built on Django.

What are your studio’s daily distractions - what do you read, do, browse, or play with when work gets a bit too much?

We try not to get too distracted. Outside of hours we spend a lot of personal time looking at art and design things, but when we’re in the studio it’s business time. We may allow one or two practical jokes a day, but they’re squeezed in between solid periods of getting shit done.

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