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Poke

“We look beyond what might make things easier for users to what could truly delight them”

Founded: 2001
Based: London Staff : 50
Notable clients : EE, Ted Baker, Mulberry, Diesel, Skype
Website : pokelondon.com

London-based Poke was founded in 2001, when the web was “a curious, frightening thing that people nudged with sticks and whispered about”. 14 years later and the company is one of the most recognised, and respected names in digital design. After bursting onto the scene back at the start of the 2000s, co-founder Nik Roope is candid about their early experiences. “We were chewed up and spat out by the dotcom bubble but were more enthusiastic than ever about digital media and interactivity,” he says. “The seeds were sewn for what was to come and we were a start-up again who could shape ourselves to fit this new world.”

With 50 staff (broken down as 10 designers, 10 creative, five strategy, five UX, five developers, 13 in accounts and project managers and two who plan and run the studio), Poke has a very defined idea of what kind of work it excels in and what values it stands for, honed you’d imagine over the past decade and a half.

“We tackle big digital presence jobs which touch everything from social and content architecture to ecommerce and publishing alongside more communications and campaign focused work. Clients come to us because they know we'll make the tech, experience, architecture, design and expression all work, but beyond all these really capture the spirit of the brand and bring it fully to life across all the digital platforms.

Brands can really live and breathe in digital space, but you need to approach it with the same human sensibility as you would making a film, because it’s as much an expressive medium as it is a mechanical one. Poke was founded on the belief that we should strive to build real passion and personality into digital products, services and campaigns.”

When pressed on how they build this personality into their products, Nik responds with comparisons to other creative disciplines. “How do architects breathe personality, character and texture into their buildings when they still have to perform a function? It is the same question for us and the answer is in being artful in the process of design. Digital is made of code but that doesn’t mean it’s not expressive and emotional – quite the contrary.

“When you remember a movie you might remember the pictures that made the deepest, most lasting impact on you, but you rarely credit the editor in creating the passage that led to that moment or sensation. Editing is abstract and complex and because we can’t see what’s on the cutting room floor we disregard it. The art in digital media is managing all these layers, visible, structural, visceral to create something that transcends the parts and takes on a life and a spirit of its own.”

Whether it’s creating websites for discerning high-end fashion clients like Ted Baker and Mulberry, innovative campaigns for charities like the RNLI or self-initiated projects like The Global Rich List (which allows users to find out which percentile of the globe’s entire population their income bracket puts them in), Poke starts with the user-experience, but thinks about it in a nicely ambitious way.

“We look beyond what might make things easier for users to what could truly delight them. Because digital is so open and flexible it makes sense to aim really high rather than just look for incremental improvements within known frameworks. It's also why I believe there's a critical role for creative agencies working with digital, as imagining and inventing these new realities is essentially a creative process.”

But Nik admits that getting the basics wrong, and failing to properly plan the experience can undermine everything else.

“Digital media is a tactile media and thus the functionality, mechanics, architecture and feel are at least as important as aesthetics, not only in enabling processes to flow but also in generating emotional expression and conveying meaning. Unless users are particularly tuned into aesthetics, they’re generally effected by all stimulus simultaneously and the combined effect leads to their overall impression. If I’m on a fancy fashion brand site and I can’t use my credit card to buy something in a checkout because its poorly designed, I’m going to think that brand is stupid, irrespective what photographer shot their sexy, swirly new campaign and what Williamsburg-based-hybrid-hotshot did their web stuff with animated gifs dancing strangely around.”

Poke has just moved from its long-time home in Shoreditch, east London, to the more central (and culturally quite different) Baker Street. It’s a big change for Nik and his colleagues but adaptability is a key part of being successful digital design pioneers. “When I started 20 years ago designers couldn’t predict how their work would end up on each browser, platform variant. Images would literally be thrown left and right by huge distances across our crumby, flickery monitors. You had to take a completely different stance to make things work. Then it settled and designers could breathe a sigh of relief as things standardised and finally we knew if we designed something it would hang together (apart from the inevitable screen colour rendering variation and it completely falling apart on some ancient Explorer version the client was adamant to support for all its three remaining users). This was how things were when Poke started. The smartphones and tablets happened and fucked it all up again. The designer could no longer, can no longer lock anything down. The designer is no longer the dictator but the modeller of adaptive design systems. To be a great designer now and in ten years you also need to be a great architect, working not in brick but in jelly!”