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After graduating from an Ivy League school, Hello Design CEO and Creative Director David Lai considered attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He had heard great things about the school, but in the early days of interactive design, its program wasn't fully developed. Flash forward only six months and David was teaching at Art Center. It’s this passion to learn, discover, and teach that propelled Hello so quickly to the front of the interactive pack. With prestigious clients like Herman Miller, The Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Taylor Made Golf, they innovate as they create. Hello draws from a bottomless toolbox, trying the untried and making it sing.
In this installment of Creative Inspirations, watch an iPhone conduct a symphony orchestra, a golf club sell itself, and a talented designer learn to make a fine espresso as we present Hello Design, Interactive Design Studio.
There's something really exciting I guess about creating something. To make something. That's really why I like this business. Hello has been a place for me to do that. Things are constantly changing. In digital actually anything we do is living. Technology is evolving very quickly, even interface design changes. So we actually strive to sort of not create the perfect thing. We actually strive to create a solid foundation, a solid base that we can evolve and grow over time with our clients.
The web has been probably at the heart of what we do. We've never called ourselves a web design company. The reason for that is because we've never just done websites. We continue to do interface, application design, product design, touch screen, kiosk, mobile applications, and games. We've had clients that come to us and they've got everything under the sun. They're like we're on iTunes, we have Facebook, we have blog, and we've got Twitter. But there's no thread that connects these. One thing could be saying one thing that's different than another.
They're all sort of chaotic. We're trying to figure out what is the thread that can connect this back so that there's a meaningful story to tell. There's a meaningful dialog, engagement, and relationship that consumers can have with their brand. That to us is really the challenge. It's creating simplicity out of chaos. David Lai: For me that journey at college to "what do I do afterward" really was sort of a big question.
Even if I went to school I felt like I wouldn't really be studying what I wanted to do, which was really more web digital interactive design. So I sort of figured maybe I should go learn from the people who are doing it, that are doing it right now. I found this amazing digital shop called Cow in Santa Monica started by five Art Center students. They too were really passionate. Because I think even when they were in school they wasn't a digital program.
So they created their own. So I went to work there and that's where I met Hiro, a really talented designer. I never would have I thought we would be future business partners, but you never know. You never know where you run into somebody where you may find synergy or a way to sort of work better. Hiro was freelancing at the time and I was figuring out the chicken and egg dilemma, like do I just start a company and get clients or do I have clients and then start the company? And as fate would have it, the Getty Museum called and asked me if I wanted to pitch them to redesign their web site.
That's what I invited Hiro to co-pitch this together. We actually crafted this little booklet actually. On the cover Hiro had written something like "why the Getty should hire us" or something and I deleted it and put in big green letters "Hello, meet David and Hiro." I think when we gave that to the Getty they thought that was the name of our company. So we laughed, but when we thought about it, it made a lot sense. I mean "hello" is about communication. It's a greeting. You don't say that to somebody you don't want to have a relationship with.
And actuarially, what the web is about; it's not about just disseminating information. It's about creating experiences for people to build those relationships, to have dialog and connection. That's what we do as designers. We're connecting people. We made the commitment though to make this a real company, that we weren't going to just be a band of freelancers sitting in our living rooms. We really wanted to make the commitment of separating work and sort of personnel life. So probably within the first month we actually started scouting spaces.
This is where we started back in 1999. This is our first space in Culver City. You can see this is side street off of a main street here, but really it was perfect for us, because we didn't want to be on that main retail street. We wanted the side street. The smaller the better. We actually built one thing in the space, which was a little wall with a counter so we could sit and eat lunch there. That was the only thing we built and then this space back here was just workspace. This is where we started.
So we moved from the smallest space in this building actually to the biggest space within six months. This place was all empty. There was nothing. There was no wall or no conference room. There was literally nothing. So as designers we felt like we had to design this space. We tried to make workstations to be really simple and practical. So these are half-height cubicles that we made out of plywood. All of the desks are actually just solid core doors. So really simple. This was probably our biggest splurge was to create this glass conference room.
Partially because this is an L-shaped space. So by pulling the conference room out, we could let light in. By using glass it doesn't feel so small. It lets it feel more open. We've got designers sitting next to programmers, next to strategists. So it's really a hodgepodge of people. We really try not to have departments or areas that people have to sit in. I think that really creates a good sense of cross pollination, letting people get up and talk to other people. When we first moved in obviously we didn't have this long row of desks actually.
We had this big empty space in the middle and I think we had a ping-pong table in the middle. I think we've always had this slow growth mentality, even when it came to do we open up another office in New York, we made the conscious decision that we weren't going to just do it to do it, partially because we felt like the connection, needing to be here. To look over the work is really part of the process. So again I think that that sort of environment is really important to being able to do good work. So we created one of the first touchscreens for TaylorMade Golf at retail.
So that basically means it's a touchscreen that you can come up to when you're looking at clubs and you can learn more about the clubs and you can get tips and things from the pro golfers and things like that. Hiro Niwa: Basically, you touch anywhere to stop the video and start the kiosk. So as I touch it at first you're being presented with a simple menu. There are categories like Metalwoods, Irons, Wedge, and Penta Ball. And these are the main categories of products that TaylorMade specializes in. There are also sections like Tour Pros, which is where they can get the news about the shows, and this kiosk gets WiFi enabled.
So this information can be remotely changed from a central location. So right now the TaylorMade is offering two main Metalwoods groups of products. One is Burner and R9. So TaylorMade offers new clubs every year so this next year they're coming with a new set of R9s and different Burner system. So again this is easily updatable to be refreshed next year. David Lai: We're really talking about things we truly believe in. If we don't feel good about it, we're not going to sell that to a client.
We realize that we needed to shift the way we think about our business a few years ago, because we realize that we in way we're already sort of like a digital agency for some of these clients, where we've done work for them year after year. We start thinking, well, why don't we just be their digital agency? So we started forming relationships with our clients. Clients are investing in us and we're coming back with investing in their business as well, through ideas, through the time and energy we put into that.
That sort of base retainer allows us to think about our clients on an ongoing basis so that we're just thinking about them on a per-project basis. It's a very different model. Scott Arenstein: One of our newest clients is Tillamook. Tillamook is a dairy products company and they're most famous for cheese. Specifically their medium cheddar. It's award-winning and here is baby loaf of the medium cheddar cheese. So they came to us with a challenge of really, they were revitalizing a lot of marketing stuff and really came to us with how can we have a digital presence that really speaks to the brand and speaks to the product, but also they have a very loyal and enthusiastic fan base and audience.
When they called us we're really excited, because we had a ton of Tillamook in our refrigerators. We are now their digital agency of record. It means that we're truly invested in their brand. It means that were constantly thinking about Tillamook 24/7. Meaning that everything they're doing online to social media to physical experiences like their events or the cheese factory, we're constantly thinking about how digital translates to their consumers. David Lai: Right now our focus is on building a foundation.
That foundation starts with the web platform. So it's really their web site. Currently, they have something like five separate web sites. We're really trying to consolidate those experiences into one place. They have this tagline of "Tastes better, because it's made better." For us, we really wanted to understand what that means. That meant that we actually had to go and experience that for ourselves. We actually had to go onto the farms, we had to see why is their milk better, we had to pet the cows and see that they really were there.
As we think about the web site, we're actually connecting back to our experience on the farm. You get to see how they make it, you get to actually obviously taste it. They make, as Scott was saying, cheese, but they also make ice cream. So we got to eat a little bit. Actually, we got to eat a lot of both. So, yeah, of course, for research that's really an important part of our process. Scott Arenstein: We're 100% behind the brand and 100% behind their idea. If it works, that's great.
If not, we're accountable for that. Then we learn from it. David Lai: We really want our clients to feel like we are a specialized unit, but we are a part of their team. We are a partner. We are a collaborator. And ultimately that's what leads to great work. Scott Arenstein: We've always loved Herman Miller. I mean, we have sort of our dream client list and Herman Miller was like on the top of it. We have been sitting in Aeron chairs for 12 years now and one of our jobs is to really bring new ideas to the table, whether that be looking at how the digital toolset changes to new creative ideas.
One thing that we always talk to Herman Miller about is how do we elevate the brand? How do people associate an Aeron chair with Herman Miller? Because what we heard we talked to people is that people can identify what the Aeron chair is, but they don't necessarily know who makes it. So one of our ideas was Design for You contest. Over the course of about six to eight weeks these different prizes unlock and the more people that sign up, the more prizes thaat get unlocked. They start off smaller, so there are some smaller prizes you could win early on and as the contest goes on, the prizes get bigger and at the very end there is this grand prize.
We got very excited about partnering with artists who created one-of-one limited edition chairs. David Lai: So you'll see here actually drawing, painting, using X-Acto knives. We wanted to bring in some of their own personalities and elements. So you see like his tattoo. The notion was sort of creating beautiful chairs. And that was what the artists were doing, but then we sort of joked about what are we're doing? In a way we're creating art from their art.
If you think about it, because we needed to tell the story, we needed to show their art, with great photography, great video. Because otherwise it's not like these chairs are just sitting in boxes and getting shipped out to people. Rather it's the fact that we are trying to bring that story to life. So that's sort of our art. We made conscious decisions. We shot. We talked about shooting really close-up shots of brush. Hajime Himeno: Really like really beautiful shots. But also kind of like getting these behind the scenes kind of, showing the... David Lai: Yeah. You didn't always know what you're looking at, I guess, but at the end of the day if people go "I really want that chair," then we've done our job.
So ultimately that was what we were building, is telling that story so that people don't go, "Yeah, it just looks like somebody painted a chair." Rather they see the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it. There is the beauty even in just seeing them work. We found that interesting. We felt like other people needed to see that. So that's really the reason that we did this. (Male speaker: Herman Miller? so you see the cities like that.) (So each one of these? you know maybe in between is like?) David Lai: My parents used to say that I wouldn't go anywhere without my crayons and paper.
I mean I kept loving to just draw stuff. For most kids, they like to draw, but I think for me, I carried on that love of drawing far into elementary school and high school and from an early age I really liked paper and pen and creating something out of that. I actually started playing with computers through simple programming languages like BASIC and things like this. I think, I had taken an after-school class or something and learned how to program really basic things like GOTO 10 and things like that.
And you could make little basic programs run. And that was really exciting for me. So that was sort of my introduction to computers. Sort of the fact that it went beyond just writing things. It actually started to go into really basic programming and understand you could create something that sort of could come alive. So, as the Macintosh grew and evolved, I think I probably grew and evolved with it. I sort of kept upgrading to the next Mac. I think when the first color Mac came out, it was like 256 colors.
And I remember looking at one of the graphics that you could create with it. And I just thought that was amazing. You could animate something. You could make it interactive. That was something I really hooked on, really early. The first book I ever wrote when I was a senior in high school. I was doing a lot of icon design for fun and so my friends asked me, "Hey, like, we'd love to learn how to do that. Could you tell us?" And I thought, you know what, I will just write a little tutorial or something and share it with them.
I wrote this book. I just sort of just decided to do it. It comes just like a floppy disk even. So back then, we had floppy disks. One of my first sort of experiences is this sort of design at the pixel level where literally pixel by pixel you created these little works of art that were 32x32 pixels in size. Whether it was like a little person or animals, it didn't really matter what. I mean I think there is just something really fun about icons that you could really have a lot of expression in such a small space and so again I think at first we had something like 16 colors, I don't even remember.
Not really many colors to work with and very few pixels that we could actually influence. But if you just look at the fact that you could actually create a thousand of these icons with that little space, it just tells you the potential what you can do. For me, it was really about sort of just figuring it out. It could be frustrating at times. I mean there was points where I didn't know what I was doing or it didn't work and things like that. So, I had done design freelance or independently throughout high school and college where any opportunity to design something, whether it was a flier or a brochure, poster, whatever it was I would jump at that opportunity.
This initial sort of step of just doing icon design was really sort of naive in a sense that I just wanted to create something better. I mean that's really where it started. I was using some applications that I really loved. I thought the user interfaces could be better, so I took that challenge upon myself to try and make them better. And being sort of naive, I sort of like packaged them up and emailed them to the company and said "Hey, you guys should use these icons. Here they are!" And funny enough, they emailed me back and said "Yeah sure, we like your icons.
We would like to use them." And the next time that around that company, that software company called me up and said, "Hey, we are doing another program. Would you be interested in doing the icons for them?" And I said, "Yeah, sure, definitely. But I am going to have to charge you." And so that's sort of aspect of sometimes you just got to do it worked for me, being a business designer. I wrote my second book when I was a sophomore in college. I basically wrote this book because I wanted to teach myself how to use Photoshop.
I actually didn't know. Huh. This is actually the book. So, this was the actual book that I have wrote, right here. So, this was the original. So, this basically became my cookbook. It was more self-taught-- I mean of course I was learning from books. I mean I love books. I think books are a core sort of way to learn, but some of the stuff like I just sort of did just by learning on my own things, like what's a layer or what's a mask? Other things like, actually I went online and learn from other people too.
I think if I looked at my work today and it's the same thing in ten years, I've probably stopped learning. Learning is constant, so you are never really the master of anything, and so the idea is that we are always trying to learn something new everyday and that was sort of the philosophy when I started and I think part of that reality was that by sort of thinking about that next thing that you wanted to learn, you got better. For me, it was always about being okay with not knowing something. I didn't need to pretend that I was really good at everything, because I wasn't, and really the difference was being willing to go out and learn it and try to figure out how to be better at it.
My parents wanted me to find a secure profession, as any parent would. They pretty much said, "I really think you should go get a liberal arts education and you could always go to design school later." I think that's sort of how they convinced me of it. I applied to Cornell as a sort of Arts and Science major. I was in biology and really headed on the premed track. I mean I think you know parents wanted me to be a doctor. For me, what I quickly realized is just because you are good at something like science or math, which is things that my parents thought why it would be a good fit for me, is different than having a passion for what you want to do.
Between my junior and senior year I had probably about six months to go and work and I got an offer to work at Clement Mok Designs in San Francisco. The web was sort of coming to the marketplace, in the sense that not a lot of companies had done big web sites yet. Companies were still trying to figure it out and explore what is this web thing? What is this Netscape? There is a lot of limitations to that medium. We had 216 colors.
At one point, we only had gray backgrounds. It was quite a challenge. Often it was sort of like you had to just jump in and figure it out. A bunch of designers were working on the Nintendo web site. And I had asked one of the design directors if I could participate, if I could throw my hat in the ring. And he said "Sure, why not?" I think as I started to work on that design, he became one of those design directors became like a mentor to me and really showed me how to do it.
He would sit down next to me and I could watch. Overall the client liked my direction and I got to work on that web site. So, its one of the first web sites I got to work on actually was Nintendo's. For me that really confirmed this was something I was really passionate about. I think it was really a confirmation that I could do this. I have seriously thought about going to Art Center. I really admired the work that was coming out of there. But at the time, since the Internet and the web and digital was fairly new, there wasn't a lot of programs with that kind of education so the curriculum wasn't really there yet.
Second option was go and work for a design firm that I admired. I worked for Cow where basically, when there were students here, they had actually set aside a little room in this building to do digital design, because there weren't digital design classes back then. Clearly, whatever they have learned, I felt like they are passing on to me as well. So, in a way I was getting my education through these Art Center graduates. And one of them said "Hey, one of the directors of the digital program is looking for new teachers" and said they recommended that he talked to me.
And so after talking to him, he basically offered me a position to teach at Art Center. So, the school that I thought I was going to apply to 6 months later I was actually teaching at. It wasn't just about me telling students what they should do. In fact, students challenge you and they challenge the way you think as well. To hear from students and to get their thoughts about this space, this medium, this digital medium. What they wanted to do with it. What their hopes were of. What they wanted to learn. I definitely enjoyed that. I had a class that was pretty diverse.
It was a digital media class and web design. So that basically meant that I was teaching classes that had students from all disciplines. Transportation designers, product designers, graphic designers, you name it. Really what I was trying to teach is the fundamentals, how do you really learn to conceptualize and think about interface design as a real discipline? How do you actually take the fundamentals that you have already learned in design and apply those to this new medium? So, this is the classroom where I taught for nearly five years. I was here probably three hours a day every week.
So, really this was an unusual place for some of the students because one of the first things that we did was actually draw with pencil on paper. And actually try not to really touch the computer, get into Photoshop, maybe until halfway through the term. So I was really trying to teach the students things that they couldn't learn in books. We could literally sketch hundreds of interfaces and really it's sort of paper prototyping, before you actually commit to the computer and you are sort of invested in that. You feel like "Oh, I have spend so much time in Photoshop, I have to keep going, whether this works or it doesn't." It was a lot of fun, but after five years, I realized that I really needed to focus on Hello and growing the business because Hello is really actually starting to gain a lot of momentum and I still do invite students to come into our studio every year.
We always have classes come in and visit. It's really nice to still have that connection back to school and I always told the students this is the place where you could really push yourself and you can experiment. You don't have a client and so in a way, it's sort of nice to be back in that environment where you can sort of have that "blue sky" thinking again, that reflection of how do I become better at what I do? (Instead of cities, what if it was a silhouette of like 5 cities that we're going to visit? And they're connected?) What I do best is the creative side, the conceptual side, the strategic side.
I don't know much about like health insurance and benefits and all the nitty-gritty of running a small business but I have to deal with that day-in and day-out. To be able to have partners who can either give us advice, that can hook us up with the right partners, allowed us to sort of free of some of that concern. Early on when we started, we had a relationship with an ad agency called Crispin + Porter and Bogusky, and Chuck Porter, who was the chairman of Crispin, Crispin had basically sold a potion of themselves to MDC partners and he sort of introduced me to this idea and said "What do you think about becoming part of the MDC partners network?" We loved the idea of collaborating with other talented people and that was one thing that attracted us to this MDC network, that there was other talented people on this network that did other things that we didn't do.
Whether it was advertising, whether it was PR, whether it was-- it could be anything actually. It was really this diverse set of people and that was attractive to us, that we could collaborate with others within this network and so we don't have to pretend to be the experts anymore. We still are a fairly small agency, but with MDC partners, we have got the backing of a public company basically. We never used to do monthly financial reports and things like this because you know, we are a creative company and it's very hard to have that side of the business discipline that you need to have.
We are able to just sort of balance the two, like how do we stay entrepreneurial but at the same time understand that there is this responsibility of how you measure your sort of business success, like to make sure that you do operate as a business. So, if we'e got ideas for expanding, they are there for us and it's more a decision of should we do it strategically than can we do it financially. So, we see them as a sounding board. The other thing was that they are hands-off.
MDC never wanted to meddle in our business and to this day, 5 plus years later, they don't. They don't meddle in our business. They let us run our business the way we should. So, they really are a partner. They invest an equity stake in your business. But they don't outright own you, and the reason for that because they want us to be vested in this business. So in a way MDC allowed us to sort of do what we do best. To work here you've got to be open to working on all kinds of projects in the first place.
We really have never been specific to a kind of project or a kind of client. You sort of have to just be a curious person. But we have a balance too, in that we try to find the right fit for people. If somebody is passionate about something, we try to line that up with their passion so that it comes through. I think that's what drives us. I mean, really the opportunity to find things that pique our curiosity. Scott Arenstein: I spend a lot of time in music. I played the violin since I was like four or five. I have always had a very strong connection with classical music in particular.
I followed the LA Phil for many, many years. I mean most of my life. And David and Hiro, they've always known I've loved classical music and I think even when we got the RFP, like David forwarded it to me and was like, "Here you go violin boy," or something funny, like sort of hinting that I would be very excited and very happy about it. The LA Phil was in a huge transition last year. I mean, Esa-Pekka Salonen had been here for many years. He was transitioning to some other things. And so there was a big search for this new music director and conductor.
And I mean, everyone in the world wanted Gustavo Dudamel. He is very energetic, very passionate and innovative musician and conductor. Every major orchestra in the world wanted him. Basically, the LA Phil came to us and the concerts that he was conducting that year, they were all sold out. They had been sold out for months. So the reality is, how do you sort of market this new person but then also say like, oh, sorry, you can't actually see him? When I first started seeing video clips of him, I mean just when he is conducting and his hair's going all over, I mean, it's not very typical of what you see in a traditional environment.
So when we saw this energy from this artist and the fact that he was from Venezuela, he was 28 years old, and we saw all these huge opportunities of how that could translate to reach a younger audience here, to reach a more diverse audience here, a more Latin American audience as well. So for us, our initial thinking was, how do we translate his passion? How do we translate his energy into something that people can experience digitally? We also were very interested in how can we sort of replicate a very physical performer and sort of explain to people maybe why he does that and educate them there.
So here's Disney Hall. What I loved about the space is that you could sit in so many different places. I mean, I had never seen sort of this back seating here, where you're pretty much like in the orchestra if you're sitting there. You can really see Gustavo. One thing that I really saw as something cool with this project is, how do you take this environment, this amazing space, and then create an experience so people can really feel that? It made total sense for us to really use a mobile device.
What we did was really we partnered with the LA Phil and were able to leverage some of the music that Gustavo actually conducted. And what we did was we sort of sliced it up and put it into the phone and created an application where it was sort of like a virtual orchestra in your pocket. Basically, if you load the app, you can select a piece that Gustavo actually conducted and recorded. So we have four excerpts here. If you click one, it loads the piece and you're ready to conduct.
(Music playing) So it's really leveraging the accelerometer every time I hit it. (Music playing) And if I go faster, I mean you really can sense it. If I go slower, you can really draw it out. (Music playing) [00:35:44.00 And then it will just loop.
And you can constantly be conducting in Disney Hall a virtual orchestra. (Music playing) The media attention and the press and everything was great, but when I saw kids playing this outside of Disney Hall, and even personally, my five-year-old nephew. Whenever I came home, he would ask if I could play that music app and he would grab my iPhone and load it himself and be swinging it and really getting into it.
So it was really that initial exposure into classical music I saw as just being something amazing. So for me this experience has been really cool and I hope other people have enjoyed this app and enjoyed the game and getting to know Gustavo Dudamel. David Lai: Being a little paranoid, we immediately secured two spaces instead of one. We quickly realized that we didn't really need two spaces and we said well, maybe we can do something with it.
My wife and I, we knew nothing about setting up a cafe or running a restaurant, But we had this optimistic sort of belief that it wouldn't be that hard, which, again, I think is the way you learn. Building out Tea Forest was probably more painful and stressful than building out Hello. We went to expos and stuff like that and really tried to understand this business. Running a cafe is very different than running a design business and I knew nothing about making-- I didn't even know how to make espresso, to be honest, when we first started.
So I think one of the challenges was like, I think we had two floor sinks back here, for example. We had to literally channel out the concrete with like huge concrete saws and dig dirt up here. I mean, it was crazy. This mural was actually painted by an artist named Philip Lumbang. We pretty much created this place to be a creative space as well. So we invite artists all the time to come in and show their work. And so Phil came in and painted this for us. Phil's work that's been here at Tea Forest is now blending over to some of the work we're doing over at Hello as well.
A lot of artist collaborations are friends or they are people that we've collaborated with before. Jon Burgerman, Dave Kinsey. A really eclectic mix of people just to, again, share that art with the community. It was never meant to be a real gallery per se. Oddly enough, there's a ton of art galleries down the street, some world class art galleries and in a way it's sort of nice. Even those people who work in those galleries come in here and grab coffee and stuff. I think within the first week of opening up Tea Forest we probably knew more about our neighbors and the neighborhood than we had ever know in like three years prior.
So we have definitely invested in Culver City. This was considered the redevelopment zone. So there wasn't very many places to eat, hang out. We love the fact that this has been more a community place than it has been trying to be a restaurant or a cafe rather. I think it has been more about a place where people can meet other people and talk to each other. We got to learn about the community far more than we ever would have just being here as Hello. I think that's because the nature of our business is, you know, you shut your door and you are sort of like doing your work here and nobody knows what you do, where a cafe is all about being open and inviting people in from the street and to have a conversation.
So Tea Forest has become sort of a pleasant surprise for us. It was always meant to be this sort of experimental business and we would just do it for fun, kind of stuff, and it sort of grew to be something else. So yeah, you never know where things will take you.
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