“God, have you ever walked into a meeting and thought, This is not going to go well?” Code and Theory founder and creative director Brandon Ralph moaned. “That’s what it was like when we went to pitch to The Daily Beast.”
Sitting with him in his 5th floor SoHo offices, it was easy to imagine what the handsome and lanky 33-year-old was talking about. The Observer had come in to meet with the man who had been hand-picked by Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, Peter Brant, and Jason Binn to create their online platforms. With long, dark, wavy hair; leather bracelets; and a penchant for John Varvatos; Mr. Ralph looked more the part of a hip New York restaurateur.
He was quite press-shy: his only major interview since he co-founded his company in 2001 was with Ad Week, and he obliquely referred to not being happy with the results. In addition, some recent layoffs at Code and Theory had attracted unwanted attention by MediaBistro’s Agency Spy, leading Mr. Ralph to be even more reticent in front of a recorder than usual. So yeah, after five minutes in Mr. Ralph’s office, we actually could visualize a meeting that wasn’t going well.
“They were trying out four different design teams, and I think we were the fifth,” Mr. Ralph told The Observer of his first meeting with Ms. Brown’s staff. “We only had two days to prepare specs, and the whole presentation, people were just checking their watches.”
As they were about to be ushered out, a deus ex machina descended in the form of a bomb threat, forcing the whole building to evacuate. Somehow, Mr. Ralph and Ms. Brown were separated from the rest of their respective teams, and ended up at Cookshop on 10th Avenue, where they drank coffee and connected.
“We just sat at a coffee table, talking about designs and different approaches to the site,” Mr Ralph told The Observer, still incredulous over the series of events. “People kept asking how it went. I told everyone it was ‘very strange, but then very intimate.’”
“Twenty minutes later, we got a phone call telling us we were hired.”
But Ms. Brown and Mr. Ralph didn’t immediately see eye to eye on how to approach the digital news site’s layout. When Code and Theory presented a mock-up using gibberish—a standard design practice—the Newsweek editor demanded to see actual content in its place.
“We ended up having to create a new site mock-up every single day through the launch,” He grimaced. What he learned from the exercise was that his design couldn’t rest on sexy photos; it had to have energy even on a slow news day.
Ms. Brown remembered her first scuffles with Mr. Ralph as well. “He wasn’t used to clients saying they were coming down to the studio to sit in front of the screen and try stuff out,” she told The Observer. “He freaked out at first, then realized how fun it is to marry news adrenaline and digital design.”
Ms. Brown and Mr. Ralph still keep in touch. He refers to the media mogul as one of his greatest teachers. She, meanwhile, gushes about some of Mr. Ralph’s other impressive qualities.
“Brandon’s a heartthrob,” she told The Observer. “Every single woman in the office is a bit in love with him.”
Tina Brown’s colleagues aren’t the only ones vulnerable to Mr. Ralph’s charms. He and Lenny Kravitz became close personal friends after Code and Theory redesigned his web site and filmed and edited two of Mr. Kravitz’s music videos.
“I invited him and his wife down to New Orleans to visit me,” Mr. Kravitz told The Observer. “He’s brilliant designer and a great thinker and a great friend. He’s inspiring. We’re constantly emailing each other things, like photos of camera gear, architecture, art. We like to bounce things to each other. He’s got this amazing eye, for photography and design and everything.”
Mr. Ralph’s LennyKravitz.com is a fresh-looking aggregator of web content about the artist, one that employs bold hieroglyphics and symbols where there otherwise would be titles. Such a heavily accessorized look is risky these days, but somehow, it works—especially considering the rock personality it reflects.
“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.