How do you foster great ideas and unleash breakthrough thinking? How can technology help or, better yet, enhance that process? Those are the ambitious questions we’re exploring in today’s dispatch on our recent London adventure.
In case you haven’t been following along, after our FC/LA conference last spring, Fast Company and Virgin Atlantic awarded five attendees an all-expenses-paid trip from L.A. to London. (The airline flew them over on its new tricked-out Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Read the first story here.)
The group consists of marketing, social media, innovation, and startup pros from entertainment, food, and beauty, among other industries. Their assignment/reward: embrace Virgin Atlantic’s “Business is an adventure” philosophy as creativity scouts gleaning lessons from some of London’s most cutting-edge companies.
That’s how we find ourselves geeking out one morning on the creative process itself at the Foundry. The global software developer, based in a quiet, unassuming, techy office in central London, makes the secret sauce in movies, TV shows, ads, music videos, video games—you name it. Artists and designers use its computer-graphics software to build increasingly elaborate and realistic-looking digital special effects. The action scenes in the Iron Man, Harry Potter, and Spider-Man movies. The battles and sweeping vistas on Game of Thrones. Taylor Swift’s new “Bad Blood” sci-fi music video (304 million views and counting). When a movie wins an Oscar for special effects, they were usually created with these products.
“We’re behind the behind-the-scenes,” Simon Robinson, the Foundry’s cofounder and chief scientist, tells us one recent morning. Its specialty is a suite of postproduction applications that allow artists and editors to composite various footage and digital images and build a scene one layer at a time.
The key to empowering creativity, says Robinson, is working as closely as possible with the creators to understand their needs—to hear the imaginative what-if questions that drive innovation. “We’re in support of geniuses,” Robinson says. “They force us to the edge of what works well in software.”
Lately, the edge refers to speed. Starting with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, TV shows have increasingly been turning to the Foundry and its Nuke tool kits to elevate visuals to cinematic-quality sequences. “The trend is driven by the audience now,” he says. “I’ve got two daughters who can spot low-quality media now. That’s the new generation of viewers.”
The problem is that TV, ad, and music-video teams want to create those special effects in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. So the Foundry’s software has to keep evolving. The new version of Nuke is especially nimble, designed for more small-group collaboration and quick previews. The special effects on “Bad Blood” took just three weeks.
The Foundry team shows the Fast Company/Virgin Atlantic group newer tools and concepts aimed at the broader population of creative types, in particular product designers. Software for product design is a newer, fast growing area for the company.
Chris Cheung sketches a figure on his tablet using Mischief, an inventive sketching app acquired by the Foundry last year. “This is how every movie begins,” he says. “Every product.”
It all starts with a single idea. A starting point. A doodle that your imagination runs with and builds on, exploring new directions, new characters, even entire worlds. In the earliest stage of the creative process, says Cheung, you need the freedom to go wherever an idea takes you. Rather than flipping to a new blank page of a notebook or screen, you have what he calls “infinite space” on Mischief.
If you sketch a building, you can zoom in one of its windows, sketch a room in that building, and zoom into, say, a photo on a shelf and then go even further, sketching the world inside the photo—and so on and so on. You just keep drawing and brainstorming, following one idea to the next. At any point, you can pin any portion of your work, saving it to review later, share with colleagues, or combine with other elements. (You can download a free version of Mischief here and try it.)
“I think of it as a new format, a new way to communicate,” says Cheung, the head of Made With Mischief, a Foundry subsidiary. “Customers say they’re thinking differently with it.”
David Atkinson, the Foundry’s head of design for commercial products, demonstrates computer-assisted design (CAD) tools to further improve brainstorming. “How can you have tools that give you insight?” he says. A new tool called MODO performs computer-generated design; an algorithm riffs on your original model, creating new variations, new possibilities. Another product concept that’s in the works looks for patterns between sketches, connecting ideas.
“People think they know what a design tool is,” Atkinson says. The company’s job is redefining that notion without going too far. “We want to support how you work, not supplant it.”
At another stop, the U.K. offices of Etsy, we find a sophisticated tech company that’s trying to get out of the way of the artists on its platform. The tech has to be so easy to use that it’s almost invisible. “We’re a tech company, but in many ways we don’t think of ourselves first and foremost as a tech company,” Nicole Vanderbilt, vice president of Etsy’s international team, tells us. “We want to connect people.”
Not just buyers and sellers, but also sellers and other sellers. Eighty percent of the artists producing all the handmade goods, from birch iPhone docks to painted silk dresses, have gotten help, often inspiration, from other Etsy artists, Vanderbilt says. A quarter of them meet up, which also functions as an effective recruiting tool for new sellers. The site fosters these connections, with a new sellers app that launched last year, a popular Quit Your Day Job blog written by successful sellers, and 10,000 teams of local sellers around the world.
In a cozy upstairs area of the office known as the treehouse, we watch a few London artists toil away making their goods. Zack Mclaughlin, a former children’s book illustrator, cuts fingernail-size feathers, each with an intricate vane, to create a remarkably lifelike bird. On Etsy, he says, he’s running a business without having to focus on the business, just his sculptures—they take 100 hours or more to make.
“With a camera and an Internet connection, you can go from nothing to being in business and reaching buyers around the world and managing hundreds of listings,” says Vanderbilt. “The mantra for our technology is make hard things easy.”
That’s sound advice for any company—and, of course, easier said than done.
In the next article, we’ll explore how some London tech stars adapt to fast-changing trends.
Chuck Salter for FastCo Works, Fast Company’s content studio.