VERSUS: Exploring Opposites and Choosing Sides in the Interactive Industry / Part 1 of 5 (the Introduction)

Back in November, 2013, I gave a presentation at the University of Oregon titled, “VERSUS: Exploring Opposites and Choosing Sides in the Interactive Industry.” This is the first in a series of five posts, taking the presentation and parsing it out in blog format.
Part 2

“Why Substance?” This was at the root of my presentation, asking the question on a number of levels… why Substance exists as a company, why Substance is the best interactive agency for our clients and prospective clients, why Substance is a great place to work…

I chose to break this question down into five sections to not only answer this question, but to present some of the questions that the students in the U of O Journalism School will need to ask themselves as they work on their school projects and choose their career path upon graduation.


I’m a hypocrite. I swing from one end of the spectrum to the other, sometimes within a single paragraph. Hell, sometimes within a single sentence. My cynical pessimist side makes me question everything, think the worst, and wonder about motivations. My emotional optimist side makes me think the best of everything, to care, to aspire to a greater good. I bounce between the extremes, trying to find at least the middle ground if not erring towards optimism. I say this at the start because I know what I’m going to be presenting could be seen as a series of contradictions. Maybe that’s the point, that there is no black and white in what we do as “creatives,” as agency owners, or as human beings.


I don’t remember many of the projects from my first years as a designer, but one I specifically recall was a packaging project for a company that made those little plastic training potties. This photo isn’t the packaging I worked on, but represents generally what the task entailed. Along with this potty project, I recall flowing in hundreds of pages into a human resources binder, making sure there weren’t any weird hyphenations or text widows/orphans, and trying to get the text to fit in fewer pages to reduce printing costs.


Moving on from making box comps with large printouts and a can of Super 77 spray mount, I arrived in Portland and worked primarily on designing websites. One of the last projects I worked on before starting Substance was a website to support skier Bode Miller in his bid for greatness at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately Bode didn’t fare so well in Turin, Italy, but the website showed (pre-social media) some of the possibilities of user generated content through the “Bode Tree.”


We started Substance because we felt there was a better way to work.

We thought a top-down, waterfall approach to interactive projects was inherently wrong. We thought keeping strategy and creative and development from talking to each other was definitely wrong. We felt that limiting ourselves to a specific technology or implementation plan limited what we could dream up.

We started Substance because we felt there was a better way to think.

Put a group of smart people around a campfire and great things will happen. We don’t have to do something the same way the next time if it doesn’t make sense. Think scrappy – can we use an existing technology or platform to accomplish our goals without having to build it ourselves. Think about the WHY of the project first, not the WHAT.

We started Substance because we felt there was a better way to live.

Work hard and play hard isn’t what we do. Work smart and live a fulfilling life sounds much better. We’re not here to build a cult. We’re here to build a great place to work but when the work day is over, you can decide if you want to hang out with your coworkers for a beer or maybe head home to the family. Or maybe both.

We started Substance because we felt there was a better way to do better.

Every day is an opportunity to do better than we did yesterday. This applies to everything: how we work, how we think, and how we live. The ways we interact with each other. How to approach problem-solving. Why would we want to keep doing things the same way if we could do them in a better way?

From January 19, 2007 to November 22, 2013, Substance grew from two people to twelve. To some, this would sound like massive growth. To others, this represents their growth over a week. To us, it represents hiring the right number of people to do the right work the right way.

“Growth doesn’t mean success. Growth doesn’t mean happiness. Growth means getting bigger.”

We’re currently twelve people so we can focus on adventure brands: brands that promote, equip and enable adventure. Does this mean we’ll never get bigger or smaller? No. It means we need to be the right size to do the work we care about doing.

Why twelve? Because we realized “interactive brand” is the end product – how something works – not just the thinking and design, we needed to hire developers. Because we realized “interactive brand” is how something looks, how something is organized, and how something feels, we needed to hire designers and user experience experts. Because we realized “interactive brand” only happens through organization, we needed to hire project managers. Because we realized “interactive brand” disintegrates at the first non-working experience, we needed quality assurance and testing involved in projects from the start. For Substance (so far), twelve is the right number of people to accomplish all these things, and still let us focus on the work we want to do and not having to take on work because we have to from a revenue standpoint. Sure, revenue is important, but you need to focus on the types of clients you want to work with and staff accordingly.

Being a smaller agency, we can focus on what we do best: interactive solutions for adventure brands. It’s no surprise that we do our best work for clients we are excited to work with. We also love the challenge of building complex, dynamic sites that are content-rich, controlled by content management systems. So…

Adventure Brand
Content-Rich, CMS-Controlled
Love and Excitement for the Client
Awesome Work


This is the first in a series of five posts based on a presentation given in November 2013 at the University of Oregon titled, “VERSUS: Exploring Opposites and Choosing Sides in the Interactive Industry.”
Part 2

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