During my last trip to Amsterdam, I stopped by one of the most innovative and cutting edge studios in Europe, Present Plus. The studio is responsible for some of the most useful and gratifying tools on the web. WeTransfer, Kuvva, One Minute Wonder and The Creative Class are some of the projects amongst their incredible portfolio of works. Head of Design Thijs Remie was kind enough to welcome me on a sunny Friday morning to show me the studio and have an informal chat about design, pixels and beyond.
(T)hijs: Hey, welcome.
M: First of all, how do you spell your name?
T: It is written ‘Thijs’, but you pronounce it as ‘tice’. It is actually quite a common name here in the Netherlands. It is a shortening for Matthijs, or Matthew.
M: Cool. Could you tell us who you are and what is your role within Present Plus?
T: Well, my name is Thijs Remie, and I am the Head of Design at Present Plus. My role is a bit fluid, constantly changing and evolving depending on the team, the project or the client. I mainly try to be a mentor for my team, get them to create the best possible work. At the end of the day it’s about having a humble ego and enjoying working with amazingly talented people.
M: Could you introduce Present Plus to our audience?
T: Our Amsterdam office focuses on digital design. In London we’ve housed the film production team, responsible for all film projects we do for Elle, New York Times and such. We do client-service work, launch our own products, shoot films and invest in joint venture partnerships. We are in a constant process of learning, unlearning and relearning, making it a different company today from what we were last year, and hopefully from what we’ll be next year. Simultaneously, the world around us also keeps changing, so we are constantly in a process of adapting, adjusting and reinventing ourselves. Hahaha, perhaps the company’s founders, Damian and Nalden can describe it better. Everything start with them and…
M: And ends with them?
T: Well, they have final say over what we do, of course, but they don’t always use it. They trust the teams very much. I sometimes think of Damian and Nalden as the Coen Brothers. I once read an interview of an actor coming on set looking for directions, but the only directions he got from the Coen Brothers was “Do what you do.” At first it must have been incredibly weird for the actor but it turned out that the preparation done was so detailed and precise that the actor could just be himself from there onwards. That’s what Damian and Nalden are great at. They really take care of the preparation process, talking to clients, defining goals, creating projects, so by the time a project gets started at the studio, we can just… “Do what we do.”
M: Could you define Present Plus’ philosophy?
T: Once the design process starts we strive to create products that are simple, easy and delightful to use. The world around us is constantly getting more complicated. We want to work on projects that have meaning and that have a beneficial influence in people’s life. The projects have to be interesting too, and category-defining. We are keen to work with brands that dare to innovate. We strive for simplicity and functionality. Trying to make people’s lives a little brighter, better and easier by design.
M: I’m sure you’re often called “the WeTransfer guys”, but I know you are responsible for an outstanding selection of works spanning from film to web and beyond. Could you describe what are the most important projects for Present Plus and how you got where you are now as a company?
T: WeTransfer is a client of ours and it is a great project to work on. We’ve designed the current version of the site and are currently thinking about what the next version could be and how to get there. Recently we’ve been working on a design vision for PostNL, envisioning what postal services should look like in the future. Although it is a significant project for Present Plus, the work we’ve done is not necessarily a very visible from the outside yet. Hopefully, the things we do now to define the future of PostNL will soon find their way to reach the general public.
Kuvva is a consumer oriented platform for artists and illustrators to showcase and sell their artwork. We sell licenses for professional use for a wide community of businesses all over the world. With Kuvva we wanted to make it really simple to buy high quality artwork, cutting through the long and expensive bureaucratic framework surrounding the purchase of art. We really wanted to make the process simpler and the work of illustrators more visible to buyers, helping artists make a living out of their work.
M: How is Present Plus structured?
T: Organically, hahaha. It often depends on the project. There was a project a year ago for which the whole studio got together. Everybody across the board was involved. Strategy, content creation, video, design, development, UX, UI. Other projects sometimes are more content focused, others tend towards film, or digital design. It depends really by the project.
M: I would like to shift the discussion towards an analysis of the current situation of UX, internationally and more personally here at Present Plus. What is Present Plus’ approach towards user experience?
T: When it comes to the digital aspect of Present Plus, user experience is at the center of everything we do. Good looks only count for the first 10 seconds of any digital product. Once you start using something, aesthetics sort of fade into the background and how something works becomes much more important. We try to balance it but at the heart of everything is really how something works. It should be simple, understandable and delightful.
M: Do you have a UX design specialist here at Present Plus?
T: Since UX is such an important aspect of the things we do, we need every member of the team to be involved in UX design. It is an embedded skill of everyone here. The original sculpting of the project by Damian and Nalden has very much to do with the final UX. It really comes down to asking, “how can we make this project work well for the user?” And that holds true throughout the entire design process until the very end when it comes to optimizing your images, since even page-loading time could be considered part of UX design. From strategy to loading time and everything in between, we take UX extremely seriously. Anything you do as a designer affects user experience.
M: Recently, I couldn’t help but noticing an increase in number of creative companies employing psychologists, sociologists or anthropologists to improve the way they engage with users or customers. Did you ever need to collaborate with one of these experts as part of your design process?
T: We haven’t found ourselves in that situation but I do think it is incredibly interesting. One of my favorite designers here in the Netherlands, Wouter De Bres from Gibbon.co, has a background in psychology and I believe that’s a great angle to approach design. Sometimes I find it hard to think of design as a separate discipline, ‘designer’ shouldn’t be a protected title. People can have knowledge, skills and insights from a lot of different angles and the more angles you can get into a project, the richer the final solution. I believe employing a psychologist can only be beneficial for these kind of processes. Anybody can potentially be a designer.
M: What about the greater picture? What role does UX and UI play on society?
T: It definitely affects people’s life. A product with a shitty UI can get people frustrated, waste their time, cause accidents, etc.. The more digital our lives become the more UX and UI design matters, and the more responsibility we as designers carry. As a designer, I think you should be very aware of the way you affect people’s life with the work you do, depending on the type of project. Your design could make the difference between someone getting to their final destination safely or crashing their car.
M: Yhe, this is from a functional point of view, what about the UI or visual aspect of a digital product? There have been a number of researches on the relationship between anxieties and the aesthetic of certain digital experiences. What is your opinion in regards?
T: Depends what you define by ‘UI’. I often find it hard to draw a line where UX ends and UI starts. In general when it comes to UI I think clarity, simplicity and beauty are aspects that most people intuitively appreciate.
M: Carrying on from the previous question, what is Present Plus’ relationship with UI?
T: We have people who by nature are more interested in the visual aspect of something, and people who are more driven towards UX, or problem solving, or content structures. But here, UI and UX are very intertwined from the start. Me, personally, I don’t think it’s really important what shade of blue our menu is gonna have.
M: some people might argue for the opposite..
T: When you get to that level I think the perception of something is so heavily influenced by people’s cultural background, tastes, personal preferences, etc. That all plays a huge role – but perhaps that’s where my job ends then.
I do love the story of Google testing 40 shades of blue before choosing the right one. I think that’s brilliant. If you have the resources to do it, you’ll probably find there really is one specific shade of blue that works better – and Google found it, hahaha! (sarcastic laugh)
But at the end of the day it is way more important how Google’s search engine works than what shade of blue Google chooses.
M: Technology is becoming smaller and smaller, ever more embedded on our bodies and invisible. How do you see the design world adapting to that in the next years? What about UX and UI?
T: I think is super interesting. The whole design field is about to experience a dramatic change. The way we interact with a digital products (UX) will become less visible but increasingly important. Something that is tied to a screen now might have no mouse or touch screen in the future and could be controlled by other methods, gestures or whatever. But it will still be incredibly important how things works. I think there is a huge shift going on, but how the field will look in 10 years..? I’m not sure anyone can tell. If I could predict the future I’d be very rich… haha…
Personally I’m very excited. My background is in pre-digital, traditional, graphic design, I then left print and started working on screens across devices. In the future I might be working in fields even further away from my origins. If you constantly keep changing and evolving you are bound to keep learning and adding skills, keeping your job and life interesting and exciting. This can also be incredibly scary, because I honestly don’t know what I’ll be doing next. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next year, let alone 5 years from now. It’s scary and exciting.
M: What role is Present Plus going to play in this shift?
T: For Present Plus it will be really exciting since we are a fairly small studio, meaning that we can adapt quickly to what we think is relevant. That gives us an advantage over bigger companies that have to change 25, 50, 100 designers in order to adapt. They can’t adjust rapidly, like we can. As long as the people working at Present Plus keep growing and having a vision of what Present Plus should be, the future will be inspiring and challenging.
M: In this regards, what is Present Plus approach to R&D and innovation? Do you systematically deploy resources or time to idea generation detached from commercial jobs?
T: It is not structured in any ways, but it’s there. A lot of research and discovery is done through people’s personal interest and side projects. We try to innovate on any project. Trying new things is part of our natural process.
M: Like your website?
T: Yeah, that itself is a big experiment. A huge amount of work went into it to make it what it is.
M: What is the story behind it? Tell me more..
T: It originates from the previous website that we made, but was never launched, hahah. We had a plan, a content strategy, a user journey and all that. We designed it and coded a good part of it and… we hated it.
Or well, we didn’t actually ‘hate’ it but we were like, “Yhe, ok. looks good. Probably does the job… okay, next.”
And we asked ourselves, is this really what we want to do? Is this interesting? Innovative?
We then started over again trying to make our website more interesting. By demanding users to formulate, think and actively engage with what’s in front of them, instead of repeatedly clicking on something that looks nice, we tried to actively involve people in the way they use our website and access the information they are after.
The way we consume web content these days often comes down to lazy clicking. The default is to go on a website, see pretty pictures, click, another pretty picture, click, and so on. With our new site we weren’t sure how we would do it, what the effect would be, and what it would look like but we thought it was intriguing to try and figure out how to make it. Subsequently we went through a process of asking ourselves “how much can we actually demand from someone landing on our website?” Do we need to give suggestions? Show anything visual at all? A million different question on how this would work and look for the user. And again, this is an experiment, not our final answer to how our website should be.
It’s fascinating to see people’s responses, how it filters the kind of applications we get for jobs, internships, clients etc.. We’ve halved uninteresting emails, it really helped screening out the really unimportant stuff.
M: What was the design community’s response to it? Did you see a big change in the way users interact with the website?
T: There was an interesting series of discussions amongst the design community when it launched at the end of summer 2014. Comments ranged from, “hey, you can’t just do this!”, to “this is far too confusing for the user” and “hey this is cool, never thought something like this could be done.” To get a sense of what Present Plus is or does you have to put in a little work. It’s something that forces you to do your homework a little before you approach us. So either people are not ready for this and leave, or they might be interested in finding some information and dig into the content. There is a billion opinions that you can have of it, but at least it stops your automatic clicking exercise.
M: It must have been an incredibly hard decision for the team not to launch a ready site after months of work?
T: It was hard, but it was fun too. I think it is a huge compliment to the team and the directors who were happy to throw away 4 months of high quality work that wasn’t particularly interesting or innovative… and be like “fuck it, let’s start over again.” The design team was prepared to throw away designs to create something radically new. The central idea now is search. You get on a website to search for some kind of information, you can do that in a million different ways. Of course we thought about doing big full screen images in the back, or strong branding and colors but we ultimately didn’t go for that and instead brought it down to a white screen and some text. Very minimal.
M: It’s a sort of Google search applied to a website..
T: We are even more minimal, hahaha.
The process of getting to the final version of the website has been incredibly fascinating from a strategic, design and development point of view. We developed a whole custom made architecture behind it to make it work the way it does, to make the system learn from the questions being asked in order to give better answers.
M: Can you expand on that?
T: There is intelligence behind the system, according to particular inputs the site learns both automatically and from manual input. We can see and record questions asked, to later create tailored answers to questions we did not previously think of. This is something users don’t see, but it’s extremely useful for us and it will probably influence our next projects. There is always a ton of stuff that you don’t see on a project that is bound to affect the next one.
M: The Netherlands have an incredible history of design. Design is embedded in every aspect of society and culture like nowhere else. How do you see Present Plus fitting in this reality?
T: Personally I really don’t give a f… I’m not concerned with our position within the Dutch design tradition. I’m totally fine with people having opinions on the work we do, but I’m more focused on the actual work we do for the client or ourselves. How those projects fit within a greater tradition or broader context is not something that I much reflect on.
M: But again, if you allow me, as a designer you are influenced and shaped by the environment surrounding you and the works produced at Present Plus clearly reflect a history of functional, solid and innovative design- unequivocal attributes of Dutch design.
T: When I studied design, I was very aware of Dutch design history. I know my history and looked up to the best designers from the late 1800’s onwards. But as the world opened through the internet, it wasn’t as important or influential where you were from anymore. You know, that whole ‘global village’ concept. But now that I think of it, the relationship between Dutch design and Present Plus might be the focus on functionality and making stuff that just works well, not being concerned with the glitter of ‘Design’.
M: That’s what I meant, the approach you gained through academic education was probably influenced by dutch design and is now naturally making its way through the work you do for Present Plus, personally I see this as a very good asset..
T: Now that you mention it I can see the relation and how we can fit in it, but it’s not that I’m very aware of it. Or that Present Plus tries to fit within certain boundaries or styles. We just work hard on products we believe are interesting and useful. And if that fits within any bigger picture, fine.
M: Now to wrap it up, how does it feel to work in Amsterdam?
T: I haven’t worked in other countries so is hard for me to compare it to London, New York, Tokyo or other cities. The Netherlands is a small country. Amsterdam is a small city, you can be anywhere in 10 minutes on your bicycle. So It’s fairly easy to work closely together with a large number of people. That’s relevant. I think it is important for designers working on the same projects to be close together, to have lunch together, have a laugh. This way you can have direct communication. Other than that, the weather is okay, not too hot is not too cold.
M: ah ha ah..
T: But it’s a fact. In hot climates you might have less energy to focus on your work. In colder climates you might have to struggle to get to work, so I reckon this aspect is relevant when it comes to working in Amsterdam.
M: What about the creative community?
T: Amsterdam has a very strong artistic community, with lots of good painters, conceptual designers, sculptors, fashion designers, etc.. There is great talent when it comes to start-ups and digital companies. I’d advise any creative to come and work in Amsterdam for some time. I like it, it’s a nice city. You can hate on every city, Amsterdam too, but in the end of the day I’m a happy guy. I love working here. Here is my home.
M: Hey Thijs, thanks very much for your time and answers.
T: Thank you for a very interesting conversation.