Seeking perfect iPad client, digital design firm hires itself

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A friday afternoon at work. ()
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This Spring, former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder got some cocktails with the co-founders of boutique digital design shop Hard Candy Shell to discuss Apple’s just-released iPad.

Snyder was used to meetings where big media asked what to do about the web, but this conversation was different. The co-founders of Hard Candy Shell were not publishers, but interactive experience designers. For the past several years, Kevin Kearney and Dan Maccarone had quietly built a reputation as go-to guys for some of the most high-profile media companies in New York, building new websites, mobile applications and other products for Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Condé Nast and other start-up companies. They recently launched the redesign of Newsweek’s website in the midst of their Jonathan Meacham reinvention. They also created an iPad-friendly version of Gizmodo, Gawker Media’s spritely tech site.

But Kearney and Maccarone had their own ideas for new products that would be completely native to the platforms like the iPad, ones that people would actually use and find helpful. They were tired of searching for the perfect client, the one that saw the new platform just the way they did.

Like architects who start developing their own real estate because they want the perfect commission, the duo set out to find an editor to make the content for the kind of iPad experience they wanted to build.

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Snyder told us in an email that their conversations were not "anything more than a few casual conversations over cocktails.” He eventually took a job as executive editor of Newsweek Digital. (And Hard Candy Shell is still looking for ideas.)

"That said,” Snyder added, “there's a race underway to create an editorial experience that is native to these new tablet devices and I wouldn't be surprised if they cracked the problem first."

In the mid-2000s, back when mainstream media organizations were just starting to amp up their digital strategies (largely unsuccessfully, it seems), Kearney and Maccarone were working for Razorfish, an interactive agency and a top digital ad buyer in Manhattan. Kearney had just finished working on a project for CNN when he was thrown together with Maccarone, a Columbia J-school grad-turned-experience designer, to build a website for a record label. The site was commissioned by Simon Fuller, the executive producer and creator of American Idol, and the initial design was already underway.

"It was a total shitshow," Kearney explained on a recent hot spring afternoon at Think Coffee on Bowery. He was sitting in a corner table, in a slim, button-down western shirt and jeans, with thin leather straps tied around his wrist. "There were all these quote-unquote 'creatives,' designing things without thinking of the UX," he nearly spit out. ("UX," for the uninitiated, means "user experience," or more simply, intuitive ease of use and navigation.) "We worked together to fight them and that's how we found out we were like-minded," he said, nodding toward Maccarone, who was sitting across from him.

"It's all about creating a strategy and focusing on the experience, the people, rather than creating this foofy junk that's beautiful but useless," Kearney said. The record-label site never launched.

In 2007, the two designers were flown to California to build the prototype for Hulu. It would be their last project for Razorfish.

By October, they quit to start their own digital design shop, Hard Candy Shell. Dow Jones was their first client and their work for WSJ.com is still live today.

But now their small start up has hired a general manager and six other strategists, visual designers, and user experience designers and set up shop in the Village Voice building, where they are crammed cheek-by-jowl with two other startups: buzzy mobile-social app Foursquare and Lockhart Steele’s local lifestyle blog empire, Curbed (they have designed products for both companies).

"We like to say that we design products for actual people," Kearney wrote me in an email after our meeting. "Lots of companies come up with hypothetical 'users' in their heads that will use their products for a variety of reasons but it tends to be wishful thinking."

"We also try to avoid the trap of thinking all users behave like the tech-forward people we're surrounded by all the time," he added.