Ian Russell lead designer Structured Abstraction

I didn’t even realize you were the same Ian Russell that runs Flemish Eye when organizing this interview.

I tend to keep those two things separate most of the time. Sometimes there’s a crossover between them but other points I don’t need my one email address getting cluttered up. When I’m working on something I don’t need people to know that I do something completely different.

Have you been with Structured Abstraction since it started?

Pretty much. Most of us worked together or worked in the same building as the Fast Forward offices. We worked either in Evols or Webcore labs and I was one of the founders of iStockphoto in that space. And then when all that stuff got sold off a few of us had decided not to stick around when it got sold we decided to sort of start working together as freelancers working from home. We ended up getting more solid and eventually got an office that we could work out of. We always manage to keep our costs really low. We’re pretty lean.

You keep your client roster pretty lean as well.


Intentionally so?

Oh yeah definitely. There’s only five of us and we do do some outsourcing of work we bring in contractors and we get to use a few other designers as well. Generally it’s just the five partners that work on everything so we do have to be picky. We’ve always chosen exactly what kind of work we want to be doing but we do sometimes supplement it with other stuff. At this point the last couple of years we’ve just focused on stuff we really want to be working on.

Does Structured Abstraction have a design style you try to focus on for websites?

I think there’s a variety. It’s a combination. Some of the other guys would like to say they come to us for the design but I like to say they come to us for some of the tools. It’s a balance of both. I think there’s a certain aesthetic that’s pretty consistent through a lot of the sites we do but I’m really interested in making each one stand on its own and be distinctive for each client. They each have their own identity. Certainly you can find commonalities like between the Sled Island site and Free and Easy Traveller which is another big one we’ve done recently. The opera for instance is very clean very minimalist. The Sled one is a little more grungy.

Free and Easy Traveller is a different beast and you do other stuff but you tend to focus on arts organizations.

Yeah with the exception of Free and Easy they’re friends of mine and I gave them a quote to do something for a three-page site a few years ago thinking they weren’t going to be able to afford it and they sort of begrudgingly said yes and they’ve just blown up over the last few years and we’ve kind of gone along with them for the ride because they’re awesome guys and just good friends. Apart from that really all our clients are from the arts and culture space maybe a couple of environmental ones as well. Focusing on the arts is what we set out to do in the first place. I said I didn’t want to work at this any more unless it has some meaning for me. We’ll see. There’s only so many you can do in Calgary. We’re going to run out pretty soon. There’s only so many arts festivals and arts organizations. We’ve done the Leighton Arts Centre The New Gallery Calgary Underground Film Festival which I’m a big fan of. I mean until any of those groups need a redesign…. So eventually at one point we’ll have done all of them and we’ll have to do an oil company or something. I hope not.

The update thing is interesting. The sites you design are like your resumé so if people don’t update for a while does that worry you? I mean our site for example you did it and we haven’t paid you to update for way too long.

Yeah we should talk about that. It changes so much. No offence but I think your site was fresh for about six months and that was a long time ago. It needs an overhaul. That happens definitely. The problem with it is that things get lumped on along the way things kind of change. It’s not like doing a print piece where you can look at something and think well it still looks pretty good like album art that I did 10 years ago or posters I did for a show five years ago and think “yeah that still looks pretty good” or “maybe that’s a little dated but I can still appreciate it.” Instead it would be like looking at a gig poster but someone would have stuck an event calendar on it and there’s an ad in one place where it didn’t used to be or something’s kind of exploding or looking weird and they don’t really have a budget to redo it just yet and that’s kind of one of the problems. It is nice when you can build one that is fresh enough. Like the Calgary Opera one I think it will look good for several years. One thing that’s really nice is to work with companies that have a lot of their own character. With the Opera it’s really about their photos and really letting that shine. As long as they have good photos and good identity that will work really well.

Did you go to school for this?

I went to ACAD. I have a painting degree. While I was at ACAD I took a few design courses and then spent a lot of time in the computer labs working on various web projects and then just ended up doing it. I talked my way into a job right after school. I actually was on the bus to work I’d be reading the manuals you get from the libraries.

So do you just sketch things out for the programmer?

It’s basically all composed in Photoshop. There’s a lot of different aspects to the mock-up process. It’s nice to be in a position where I can art direct some projects too bring in talent like Mark Rimmer and a few other people as well.

Are you working on anything fun right now?

We’re doing Alzheimer’s Calgary which I’m pretty excited about. It’s a really serious subject and they’re massively overdue for a website. I get really excited to work with a company that has the opportunity to really stand out and be a benchmark in a particular area. I think we really did that with the Opera. With the Alzheimer’s society there’s this sense that they all have to look a certain way that they all have to be designed for older people or to look old. Fifty per cent of the people looking at it are in their 30s and 40s and are concerned about their parents. There’s people who are only in their 50s and 60s who are concerned about it. It’s nice to give it a really fresh identity. There’s also Sask Culture which is a big cultural granting organization and we’re doing a lot of work for them right now. It’s a big project for us. We are ridiculously busy. We’re booked all of next year.

Learn more at structuredabstraction.com .