Two Beers with 10,000ft: argodesign
only been 22 months since it was founded, but argodesign is already 35 very
passionate people strong. Based in Austin, Texas, the team combines years of experience with emerging technologies to expertly design and build products with uniquely
crafted user experiences.
In this Two Beers interview, we shared beers over video chat with Mark
Rolston, Founder & Chief Creative and Jared Ficklin, Partner & Chief
Creative Technologist and discussed argo’s unconventional approach
to engaging clients, creative contracts, and welding steel
on their office floor.
I’ve essentially been doing this since high school.
Frog Design’s digital design team in 1994 and led as Chief Creative Officer for
the last 10 years, before leaving to start argo. “Over 20 years, I built
something special at Frog, but it wasn’t mine,” said Mark. While growing up as
a “really bad programmer”, Mark studied fine art and eventually dropped out of
school to become a designer. “I started a design firm when I was 19, and we had
grown to 25 people when Frog acquired us in 1994. So, I’ve essentially been
doing this since high school.”
spent 14 years at Frog creating products that pushed the boundaries of
technology. “I grew up playing with computers in New Mexico. All schooling fell
to the side and computers became my occupation,” Jared shared. “After Frog, I wanted
to join Mark to get back to my roots and re-focus on product design.”
at Frog for so many years, what lessons have you carried with you into argo?
Mark: When I started at Frog, I’d go to a meeting with the founder, Hartmut
Esslinger. He had this beautiful skill which I’ve since – and I think
successfully – emulated. He’d go up to a client and say, “Your product
is utter shit.” He wasn’t doing it to be rude, but it wasn’t polite, either. He
would just say what needed to be said, “Look, your product is a mess. It needs
to be fixed.”
But in the way he said it, the client could tell that he was really
earnest and interested in fixing it. He wasn’t trying to embarrass or insult
them and they knew that. They would totally buy into it. They’d even start to
compete and say, “Oh yeah, it’s terrible. It’s
It’s an incredibly delicate interpersonal act to go there. Some of the
other industrial designers who worked with him would attempt it and completely fail
and the client would be upset, naturally. There was a nuance in Hartmut’s
presentation that made it believable. In one scenario, they would get off on
the wrong foot because it started with an insult, while in the other scenario,
the client would be apologizing for their work and saying, “Can you fix it,
please?” and begging for Hartmut to work for them. I think argo is in a similar
boat right now. We’ve found a package that’s working.
So what’s your
Jared: At argo, we wanted to eliminate the bottle rocket form of
project management, which is: this is the budget, here are the people, now take
off. In that situation, you’re just tracking burn rate. We wanted to get rid of
that because a lot of opportunities get lost. You’ll lose the opportunity to over deliver and do better, quality work. You’ll
lose ways to pivot. It’s very
hard to steer a rocket once it’s been launched.
It’s very hard to steer a rocket once it’s been launched.
You can’t put your team in an iron box. You can’t say that these five people are going to solve this particular problem for three months. In general, that works when you have really smart people, but if you run up against a wicked problem that needs a solution, you need to have the flexibility, presence of mind, and business systems to go get the best person without doing twelve layers of paperwork. If you’re really going to deliver quality, you need a way to be able to do that.
How are the dynamics of creativity different with a smaller team?
Mark: At a large agency, you have to manage through policy and some very generalized statements about creativity. The dispersion of individuals working on a vast number of projects often means they ultimately have little in common. But in a creative environment, you can’t set up too many policies unless it’s a product you’re repeating over and over. That’s the antithesis of what we’re doing - we’re trying to make new things every day. The policy has to be open for that to work. We’re intentionally not bound by a canned process. I’ve tried to hire people who are knowledgeable in traditional methodologies related to both industrial and software product design. They’re well-trained and they know what they’re doing.
Instead of bringing them into a rigid framework, you simply need to establish a set of ideals, which at its most abstract for us just means a bar of quality. I’d say that’s probably the number one thing creative organizations can do to differentiate themselves. They can change processes, deliverables, or any number of things over the course of their lifetime, but the number one thing that makes them interesting and better than another group is whether they care to deliver better work - whether they set a bar and live up to it.
The truth is, even talent comes and goes.
Obviously there’s some capacity that has the be available to the team - either the talent is there or it’s not there. But the truth is, even talent comes and goes. Frog is a great example. Over the years, there were a lot of different people, a lot of different deliverables and technologies coming through, but Frog maintained an unwavering commitment to delivering beautiful, high quality work. To me, that’s a foundational aspect that everything else sort of fits within or orbits around.
What role does technology play in your process?
Mark: To me, Jared is the most ideal business partner because he has a way of looking at the world that defies convention. Jared’s lens is that technology is an actor that can disrupt or reframe the way we look at a problem. It’s not simply a means to an end, but also the very spoil to ordinary thinking.
Jared: It boils up to our creed of “think by making”, which is a big creed and can be applied many ways, but one way we apply it is by acknowledging that it’s okay to use technology itself as a tool for exploring solutions. It might sound a little weird, like using a car to design a car, but it’s not like that at all. When you’re working inside of a system that you’re trying to improve, technology makes it a lot easier to understand where the viable moments are. That’s the secret.
Eliminate theoretical thinking as soon as possible and get tactical as quickly as possible.
We try to simulate one small part of whatever we’re trying to do so we can see how it feels. Right away, you eliminate massive amounts of speculation and find where the real value is and begin pursuing that in a product or a flow. A lot of our processes revolve around eliminating theoretical thinking as soon as possible and getting tactical as quickly as possible. This is why we want senior people who are quite good at their toolset and their talent, and like jazz musicians, they can now play with it.
Mark: When design is too declarative, it can be like trying to create a granite sculpture - you can’t do it without imagining a good answer to begin with, otherwise you’ve cut away the wrong part. For us, we think of it more like clay, where you’re constantly shaping and the material is talking back to you. We allow the technology and the team the freedom to go wayward a bit, as long as they know the tools really well. There’s a certain level of dependency on people knowing what to do.
How do you ensure you’re delivering quality work to your clients?
Mark: Look, the general part is that you try to bring a lot of good, quality
people together and do interesting work – that defines you. But the thing that’s
been most different and most memorable about us so far is that we’ve set up a
very unique business framework with our customers.
of all, many of our deals have been equity-based. In that sense, we have skin in
the game. This gives us the faith in the project to take risks with staffing
when you would normally be asking the client to cover those risks. Otherwise
you get boxed in. As Jared talked about, we avoid the bottle rocket that takes
off to no return. It allows us to be flexible and pivot. As a designer, if you
get boxed into little tasks, you get upset because you don’t really get to be
involved in the outcome, and it all goes south. We wanted to get rid of that.
We’re partners with you and we’re going to bend over backwards to get this product right.
have contracts that don’t focus on deliverables as much as is typical in this
industry. Rather, we lay out that our goal is to create certain things. We
structure our contracts so the customer pays for using a certain number of
resources for a certain amount of time. The formula is simple: people and time.
We can be fluid if we figure out the challenge is more complex than we
originally estimated, or if they want more or if they want less. It also means
there’s an even-handed understanding and we’re not having to apologize for
making those changes. They know we’ll do everything we can. We’re partners with
our clients and we’re going to bend over backwards to get this product right,
but the reality of scope and changes must be something we both share.
How does your
team react to this creative contract approach? It must be pretty
different from what they’re used to in the typical agency set up.
allows us to have honest discussions about what it will take to build something,
which means we have more relevant creative output. It means they realize we’re
truly a partner in this equation and we can say, “No, that’s maybe not a great
idea.” Which is something you need the freedom to say, right? It also helps the
client understand that they’re better off if they respect your role. We tell
clients from the beginning, “Look, ultimately, in the end you’re paying us.
We’ll do whatever you need us to do.” But that’s only at the far edge of the
line. Until then, you’re paying me for my expertise. By setting up those
boundaries early on, you end up winning the freedom that tends to be essential
to do a good job. When you have that moment of inspiration, and think, “Oh man,
this would be amazing,” you can actually do it.
equity part has been the most important lever in changing the entire mindset
and framework of traditional business. By not having deliverables-focused
contracts, we’re able to align on objectives on a constant basis, as opposed
to an arbitrary three-month deadline with a big presentation and lots of slides
because it’s ceremony. F**k the ceremony. We want to ship something.
clients reacted to the equity structure? How do you get them comfortable with
the “race to prototype” approach?
Mark: Initially, most
clients aren’t open to the equity conversation. But as we
demonstrate that we understand the structure and the different kinds of equity
and shares, they start to listen and realize that it’s often a better
arrangement than the cash flow alternative. It’s part of helping them
understand how critical design is to their business.
of our startups are very well-valued now and it’s easy to recognize that design
is central to that valuation. One of our partners, Wrap.co, is doing fantastically. At the
start it was just the founder - Eric Greenberg - and us, working together.
We designed the product together and built it out. Today it’s been invested in
by Salesforce, ProSieben, and a lot of other top names. That sort of thing
doesn’t happen without the client understanding the value of design in the
first place. Some folks simply won’t be our customer because they don’t
value design enough. Luckily, the atmosphere is changing and more companies are
waking up to that idea.
When you’re at the table of a startup, there can be no dead weight.
Jared: A little reputation, a little resonance - there’s a
space you have you get in with people. You’re going to be in a very tight
partnership with these folks. When you’re at the table of a startup, there can
be no dead weight. You have to be all-in for the journey. You can’t approach it
as you might with normal design services, thinking, “Oh, this is going to end in six
months anyway.” This isn’t like that at all – it’s your soul, your culture,
do you balance the risk that's inherent with any type of equity share?
Mark: Well, it's been very risk-worn. We've been lucky though, because
we're taking a reduced margin in cash for equity. We've had two investments go
flat, but we also have several that are achieving very high valuations right
now, so that's the upside. It's a potential pay day that equals our annual
revenue. So I think the risks will have turned out well worth it. Fingers
And, look, that's the economic argument. The truth is, underneath this
is ultimately a creative argument, that this kind of relationship breeds a
better, more respectful engagement with our customers so we can turn out really
good work. With consultancies and even in-house design teams, I'd say 80% of
the argument about whether a good job happens or great work gets made rests on
a framework to be able to do that great work. It's not necessarily the talent,
because I've been able to demonstrate that you can take someone who was doing
average work at another agency, bring them in here, and they start doing
fantastic work. Not because I've coached them in some magical way, it's simply
that I gave them permission to do better work. To me, that's everything. We
could talk about a lot of other stuff but, if you're going to walk away with
one juicy bit, that's it.
Jared: It means that even our project managers have to be creative and
find solutions just like our designers. We don't want someone who comes in and only
runs by spreadsheets - you have to solve problems daily, to the benefit of our
team and our clients. I've been at places where it's like, “Nope, that person
is ours until this day because that's the date on the contract." That doesn't
produce the best work.
Do you think
other creative teams will start trending towards equity-based relationships
with their clients?
Mark: Look, it's permissive strategy. It's not something you could
standardize. But I don't know the answer to that. It would be cocky to say only
we can do it, but it has to be a whole company strategy. It's not just, “Hey,
let's add that to our contract…you know, here's our bill, and…please give us a
piece of your company." It's the whole package.
The world is changing and we're trying to change right in front of the wave.
Jared: There's another layer, too. Technology has been shifting and enabling
a whole new development cycle where people can attack markets without a billion
dollars in their pockets. In fact, they're attacking them in their garage
accidentally. Oculus Rift was like a Kickstarter that people just started as a
passion project. Three guys and some crowdfunding took advantage of
everything from open source software to micro-manufacturing to modular microelectronics.
What used to be a $10,000 computer now sits on a small stick. That has really
changed the landscape and a lot of categories aren't as vertical as they used
to be. $100 million markets are happening more now because set up costs aren't as
big as they used to be. The world is changing and we're trying to change right
in front of the wave.
us about your design process.
Mark: Practically, we make our team create a lot of
artifacts quickly and display them frequently. We use the hell out of our
printer and plotter.
Jared: Let's say you're going to do a bunch of wireframes
for a software interface problem. You can make a lot of quick decisions and steer yourself way off course before you've realized it. Whereas, if you quick
and dirty the entire experience into a moving, interactive form and put that in
front of somebody, you know really quickly if you're hitting your attained goal.
If we have questions, we're going to ask those with a motion or interactive
study so we can find out, “Does this feel good?" Rather than, “Is this theoretically good?" If
it lands in someone's hand, it better feel good even at that surface aesthetic
level, and if it's a technology like voice or gesture, this multiplies even
Mark: Feel has become a real factor and we're trying to
figure out how to capture all the design processes that expose feel early
enough. Wireframes were a great methodology when things were purely aesthetic,
but that doesn't hold up nowadays when most of the innovation in something like
a mobile app is really around feel.
argo has expanded pretty quickly. How do you picture future growth?
Mark: We imagine that we'll give ourselves a ceiling in
order to enjoy life. There's kind of a nexus where you can be large enough to
be meaningful to the clients you want to engage, but small enough to shut down
on a Friday and go play mini golf with the group. That's the sweet spot. I can
say that confidently because I've been at every size for 25 years.
Tell us about
the race car your team is building.
Mark: When we started, Jared and I were sitting together in my living
room with the other two partners, and we really committed to a “maker" attitude.
It's all about showing what you want instead of saying what you want. Well, in
doing so, we're all sitting at computers way too much. So a maker's studio is a
great answer to that. It inspires us to recognize that we're living in physical
world. I'm an avid race car builder and driver so I thought, “Hell, let's build
one of my cars in the studio." It makes us get up from the computer.
Steel is unyielding. CSS is yielding.
Jared: You can't just sit and stay in a virtual space all the time,
where you're asking for constant changes. When you're sitting at a car and
wrapping dead bolts, the piece just has to fit. Steel is unyielding. CSS is
We have another thing where when you start at argo, you get wobbly Ikea
desk legs. Once you've been here awhile, you go with me into the garage and you
learn to weld and you actually build your own desk legs. It takes a good, solid
8 hours. It's really brutal work.
Mark: All of the furniture, including this table we're sitting at, we
designed and built ourselves. Our conference tables, the cabinetry. We're
trying to build just about everything. That physicality is the perfect antidote
to the sterile computer space that we normally exist in.
Jared: The really important rule is to not lose the place in the car book.
It's like a Lego manual, but I guess a little bigger and more important. Please don't lose our
About: argodesign is a product design firm located in Austin, TX. We are designers and inventors. We love design – for the software and the machines, for the simple joy of the craft, and ultimately for the experiences we create. Learn more at argodesign.com.
Know a ridiculously creative team who should be profiled? Interested in having your team interviewed? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the fourth interview in our series. Check out our conversations with Skookum, Hanson Dodge, and SOAPOINT.