Matthew Richmond: Chopping Block Founder, Self-Proclaimed Design Nerd
If you go by The Chopping Block’s website, Matthew Richmond is Assistant to the Aide of the Scout Leader. But we know him better as partner and creative director of one of the most innovative graphic and interactive design studios around. The Chopping Block is well known for cutting-edge aesthetics blended with tons of tech trickery when working with clients like They Might Be Giants, Rachel Ray, and Nickelodeon. Matthew Richmond gives us a sneak peek at how the firm assembles their incredible concepts…
Q: Your interactive design work is almost always described as “fun,” first and foremost. Can you give us an example of a client situation where many designers would have chosen a serious solution, but you went for a more humorous, unexpected result?
Matthew: I’m not entirely sure that it works like that, we just make things the way we know how to make them. Most of the time somebody in the room just gets an idea and blurts out, “You know what would be cool…” and quite often what we think is cool is funny or fun for the end user.
Other times the design is created and approved and quite straightforward (boring), until the design technologist starts making things move and animate. We like making things that people want to play with.
Q: Can you give us an example of a project where the “You know what would be cool…” approach that you mentioned evolved into a really great finished piece?
Matthew: Surprisingly the “You know what would be cool…” approach is pretty much the cornerstone of every project we work on, more so when several of us work on the same project. It’s fairly common for us to add little things here or there, simply for the sake of amusing ourselves.
If you truly want an anecdote, then I default to Tom’s story of the older (now offline) They Might Be Giants website. (Tom is a business partner and designer at the Block.) When Tom asked The Giants what they were thinking for the website design, they didn’t have much input… all they really said was: “It has to be cool, and it has to have some presidents’ heads on it”. The shooting gallery, style and animations were all Tom. Jason drew the actual heads. The best projects always work like this, the more freedom a good design team has, the more invested they become.
Editor’s note: We just so happened to have a screenshot of that old TMBG.com site handy, presidents’ heads and all.
Q: When you plan a project, do you limit your concepts to what your software applications can do, or do you conceptualize it all first and worry about how to make it work later? When and how does the humorous side get worked into the conceptualization and development processes?
Matthew: We definitely do not limit ourselves. The day we stop pushing the limitations of our current tools is the day we might as well stop caring about what we make. There will always be a handful of compromises along the way, decisions based upon time, costs, and complexity, but those constraints are present in any circumstance.
Ideally we start a project with the best possible scenario, and then figure out how to get there. Sometimes the humor happens in the initial design, when it does it’s quite easy to present. Other times we have to take additional steps to make sure our client understands what we are excited about making. We have to make additional comps or little Flash animations to get everybody on the same page.
Then there are the handful of times that we just did something interesting or humorous because we believed in it, and the client had nothing to do with it at all. As a designer who spends a lot of time building stuff in Flash, I like to add little animation and interactivity details whenever I can. It keeps me more invested in the project.
Q: The sites you create contain so much intensive animation, illustration, and programming work—how are you able to get clients totally on board with your plans so you don’t have to go back and redo all those complex features?
Matthew: Basically, we are hands-on designers with a fascination for how things are made. Over the years this has resulted in a pretty solid ability to develop and produce well-made things.
Q: Your designs demonstrate limitless creativity and break the mold, but does this come at a price in terms of sticking to Web standards, quick load time, and accessibility guidelines? Do you have any tips for designers looking to merge creative visuals and standards/accessibility compliance?
Matthew: Designers need to pay good attention to standards, period… regardless of medium. We would not be helping anybody if we were not aware of what the medium expects from us. Most every project we do is a battle between what we would make if we had no rules and what are the right decisions for the project itself.
Like many others, we totally took our lumps a few years back, cramming too much data into Flash sites (version 5 at the time) and building redundant “What if they don’t have Flash installed?” versions of our projects. Then web standards (CSS, XHTML, etc…) happened and a lot of that pain went away.
Q: Speaking of technology, you’ve recently done some work in the Adobe Labs, creating Illustrator CS3 panels called knowhow and kuler. What do they do, and what types of Illustrator users do they benefit most?
Matthew: The kuler panel simply integrates Illustrator CS3’s color toolset with the kuler.adobe.comcommunity color sharing application, allowing seamless integration and color set creation from within everybody’s favorite working environment. The kuler panel benefits every Illustrator user who has ever been stuck or uninspired while picking colors.
The list of highest-rated color sets in Illustrator’s kuler panel.
The knowhow panel introduces lightning fast contextual based help, hints, and online tutorials to Illustrator CS3 users of all levels. Every illustrator user occasionally needs a refresher on the finer points of specific tools and panels inside the application. With the knowhow panel open, you now have hints, Adobe’s help, and, most importantly, all the best online demonstrations and tutorials two clicks away. As you select different tools the panel updates to show you the right information.
A look at tips for the Mesh tool in Illustrator’s knowhow panel.
Q: Can you share one of your favorite Flash tricks or techniques? (I’d love to know how you create the Rolodex-style animation on the current choppingblock.com homepage, for example.)
Matthew: Ha, glad you noticed that. That’s actually one of the more recent victories. It’s an ActionScript 3.0 (Flash 9/CS3) trick. The actual Rolodex trick is pretty straightforward. Place the same image (or Movie Clip) twice, mask the top of one and the bottom of the other, flip one along the horizontal axis using scale, and tween the scale back to normal.
The problem was that, traditionally, you would have to load every asset twice, which was kind of messy. Thanks to the way things work within ActionScript 3.0, we can now load the desired bitmap file once, then use the BitmapData class to essentially duplicate the loaded image. Add some shadows and mask appropriately.
Q: I see on your site that a new home page is on the way… can we expect something huge like the famous “Oranges” design featuring They Might Be Giants?
Matthew: Definitely. That’s why the latest site has taken so long to launch. It’s a full theme site, with a new They Might Be Giants theme song, and it’s planned to be top notch. We just keep getting distracted by cool projects for clients. Being busy can have it’s downside sometimes.
Q: What other projects do you have on your plate… can we get a sneak peek?
Matthew: New projects in the shop are pretty great. I can’t talk much about them, but I haven’t heard anybody complaining. We are pretty lucky.
The t-shirt venture has been our main creative outlet lately. About a year and a half ago Tom Romer and I actually started another company called Chop Shop with Jason Hillyer (Chopping Block designer, long time friend). We always wanted to make and sell t-shirts and posters, and Jason has been instrumental in helping to make this a reality. We currently have about 15 designs online at chopshopstore.com and a handful of really amazing new designs on the way. As usual, our goal is to make things for folks like us: designers, nerds, folks who appreciate funny, well-made things. Keep your eye on the “Featured Artists” section, it’s about to get really cool.
Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.