Friends since childhood, the duo worked together at the ad agency, Draft, before setting out on their own. With zero formal business education, their clients now include brands such as Dr. Pepper, the Los Angeles Times and Burger King.
Here, they give us a look into how they’ve grown their boutique design business from two employees in 2001, to more than 200 staffers, today.
Q: What is your design philosophy?
Dan Gardner: Design, for us, isn’t just about aesthetics. It’s everything from the front-end to engineering and everything in between.
Brandon Ralph: We’ve created a culture around collaboration, including how everyone sits in the office. You’ll have an engineer, a writer and a designer all sitting together in a pod. Even if they aren’t working on the same project, they can still collaborate and help each other.
Q: How did you cultivate this perspective?
BR: If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying. We’re constantly working towards empowering everyone in the company, not just creative directors. We don’t care if you fail, as long as it gets fixed, that’s the only way to continue to improve.
Q: You recently helped Vogue redesign its site. What went into the concept?
BR: We launched the original site about four years ago, and we had been doing maintenance in the meantime. We were trying to keep up with advancements in content and technology, but it got to the point where the site wasn’t representative of the way users were using the web. Starting with pitching ideas in October, the whole project took six to eight months.
Q: So what's different today about how people connect with brands' websites?
DG: Ten years ago, Users didn’t expect much from a brand website, as the Internet itself was still in its infancy. Today, users expect much more from a brand online. They want brands to be responsive to their needs and feelings in real-time.
What's the biggest mistake you see brands make today?
BG: All brands have a story about who they are, why they exist, and how they came about. The challenge is to find that story first, understand how to break it apart into smaller storylines, and learn how to tell it across every relevant platform. If you want to explore a new platform it is rarely a one-and-done deal. You have to take the time to understand the platform and the expectations of the users on those platforms.
Q: How do you manage working with such diverse brands, like Vogue and Burger King?
BR: At some level, behaviors are behaviors--regardless of if it’s fast food or luxury clothing. People consume certain types of content/engagement in a very similar way.
DG: It’s also what makes us unique. Working with all of these different clients lets us understand how different users interact both on the brand side and on the product side in all realms.
Q: How do you stay true to your ideals while growing your company?
DG: One plus one should always be greater than two, especially when we hire someone new. From the first hire, we’ve looked for people that can bring in something new that we don’t have.
BR: A lot of places will figure out a philosophy that makes them successful, and then be very afraid of leaving that. If we get to a point where we are stagnating or only incrementally improving, we will break everything down and put it back together again.
Q: What about when you disagree?
DG: Disagreeing is what has made us so successful. We never really know what the best answer is, so by disagreeing and talking we can find what works.
BR: We never say "I told you so," we just laugh about it and move on.
Q: What's next for Code and Theory?
BR: We’re continuing to develop a complete ecosystem including brand design, product design, and a new discipline, industrial design, which overlaps both. Our Industrial Design practice was born out of our desire to connect everything--designing the physical object, creating the interactions around it, and telling the story about it, all from the same point of inspiration. To us, it’s three specialized teams, one unified company.
DG: We now have offices in San Francisco and London in addition to New York. With those, we can bring in new types of talent and allow it to diffuse throughout the entire company. There’s interesting stuff coming out of all of the offices soon.