The Media Whisperer: Code and Theory’s Brandon Ralph is the Digital Designer Du Jour

03 The Media Whisperer: Code and Theorys Brandon Ralph is the Digital Designer Du Jour

The offices of Code and Theory

“Code and Theory’s sites get attention for disruption,” said Nicholas Daniel-Richards, former CTO of the company. “Making something that’s completely different from what you’d expect might not even make sense at first. Then the industry takes notice and starts trying to do the same.”
The difference between Mr. Ralph’s shop and the larger agencies, Mr. Daniel-Richards told The Observer, is that the big firms will churn out “a very efficient German machine, like a Mercedes: very powerful, with perfect craftsmanship, but no personal touches. And then you have these alternatives like an Aston Martin, which are creative and funky, and have soul. That’s Brandon.”

Code and Theory’s name has become synonymous with old media’s more innovative forays into new media. The most recent example would be last month’s launch of Jason Binn’s 1%-er magazine, DuJour, which sought to create a unique web entity separate from but associated with print. For the project, Mr. Ralph came up with the idea of having the site resemble the physical product: it begins at the cover, and readers have to flip through pages of content, like they would on an iPad (or an actual paper product).

“It was this insight I had,” Mr. Ralph recalled. “No matter how old a magazine is, or if it’s at your house or a dentist’s office…you’ll go from cover to cover.” So Mr. Ralph created a “focused” digital product that didn’t show the top news stories of the day.

When first viewing the DuJour website, readers might be confused by the cover photo and lack of a scrolling content bar. But once the user is accustomed to the unconventional design, the images pop, the stories breathe and the overall effect is uncluttered and refreshing.

“We’re not showing you 100 things on every page, like some websites that have all these links that scream, ‘Please, look at me!’” Mr. Ralph said. “I mean I think that works for websites that need to be very timely,” he amended quickly. (He did design the layout for the scream-worthy TMZ.com, after all). “But for a magazine that needs to be very luxurious, we told the editors, ‘Invest in your content. Users will scroll.’ ”

For Vogue.com’s 2010 overhaul, the challenge was to modernize the site’s color way and typefaces and create a brand-specific social community. In a response that typified reviews among the fashion set, Women’s Wear Daily wrote: “Love the oversize features carousel and the locking navigation bar! A beautiful redesign work by (once again) Code and Theory.”

For the record, Vogue.com is more than happy with the results, editor Caroline Palmer told The Observer. The “relaunch was one of our brand’s most important recent initiatives, making it essential that we collaborate with the right agency. Now that we’ve worked closely with Brandon and his team for more than two years, it’s clear to us that they are one of the top agencies in their field.”

That doesn’t mean Mr. Ralph and company will work for any media entity with a blank check. Without naming names, he told The Observer, “We’ll tell clients we want to work with them, but we don’t think they should do this project, because it’s set up to fail.”

Bossing around big names is a far cry from the firm’s humble beginnings 11 years ago, when Mr. Ralph opened up shop out of his Lower East Side apartment with childhood friend Dan Gardner. The two had $500 to their names.

They had grown up on Long Island, and spent time working in the dot com age with smaller, online agencies before being asked to create the digital department of a traditional ad firm, Draft. When Ralph and Gardner got the opportunity to strike out on their own, they went for it. One of their first jobs was creating a site for Sony using Flash Video Player.

Today, they employ more than 100 people at Code and Theory, which Mr. Ralph stressed, was another kind of collaborative process. “There are creative people who have moved into the strategy group, and creatives who have taught themselves how to be engineers.”

“Everyone here is a Swiss army knife,” he boasted.

Like many arty types that have taken the corporate route, Mr. Ralph—who also dabbles in interior design, fashion, and photography—worries that he’s sold out his craft. Meanwhile, his colleagues sometimes wonder whether they can possibly execute his outside-the-box ideas, according to a former employee.

“Brandon has the ideas, but then there are the realities of the situation, and they’re not always feasible,” said the employee. “You can’t expect people to work 110 hours a week and not get burned out with the crushing hours and a volatile employer, but that’s how they get things done there.”
In January of last year, Code and Theory helped recreate Interview magazine’s web site, and then the two companies traded spaces. The design shop’s new space is more than 20,000 square feet, all the better to branch into print design and TV commercials, Mr. Ralph’s next moves.

After we had turned our recorder off and packed up, Mr. Ralph offered to give us the grand tour, culminating in his favorite place in the never-ending floor of Code and Theory. Leading us through a side door into a cramped, almost hidden corridor lined with two stories of books, he flung open the heavy wooden doors to the library: a gigantic room with thousands of books left over from the Interview days.

“Now if we could only figure out the Dewey Decimal System they were using when they organized everything,” Mr. Ralph grinned.

Mr. Ralph shook his head at the archaic line of code that had created order from the massive amount of data. It was a design he could respect, and for the first time since we had walked into his office, he looked genuinely happy.