What Do You Want in Your Black Box

April 12, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Only seven months out of the starting gate, BlackBOX — a rich media design firm — has created a name for itself by winning an Addy, creating Web sites for clients from Grand Rapids to California, and developing educational and entertaining marketing tools.

The owners — Anthony Underwood, Paul Ward and Bill Fischer — work out of Engine House 9 on East Leonard Street. All three have Web development backgrounds, but each brings something to the table that they say makes the company unique.

Underwood started his own business, CreativeBomb.com, about two years ago while still a student at Kendall. “I started the company basically to teach myself the programs faster than I could learn them in school,” he said. “I did some print and Web design and established a few clients in the area.”

Meanwhile, Ward was a designer at Trident who had never strayed far from his musical background and eventually found his place when he met Fischer.

As a member of the Kendall faculty, Fischer said he saw talented people come through every day, but saw one of the most talented when he started working with Underwood.

“I truly think we have one of the best designers I have seen in awhile,” he noted.  Adding that work with two young, fearless, creative people only makes the new company stronger. While working with both Underwood and Ward on a few projects, Fischer proposed the idea to start BlackBOX.

The name is derived from a product design term, an area in which Fischer has a background. He explained that engineers would define a black box — a finite space within which to work — and then define what needed to be in that black box and set the designers free.

“I see our ‘black box’ as being the monitor,” Underwood explained.

“We have this much space to work with, now we need to determine what will work best for each client’s purpose and what needs to go into their box.”

The three say they strive to create a unique user experience for each client, with Underwood doing many of the designs, Ward putting it to music or adding sound effects, and Fischer creating ideas and calculating the numbers.

Fischer explained that “unique user experience” means the firm takes a different approach to designing Web pages.

“We want the client and everyone that visits their site to be interactive with the site, to hear the music, see the animation and actually experience it,” said Fischer.

The group said that technology has gone so far as to bring you into the experience with smell. “People can actually smell the experience now as well,” Fischer added. And just how does that work?

“A box is being developed that would be connected to your computer; then you would mix different oils from the box on the site, and together they would produce a smell.

“That smell would then be registered as your company’s smell and would come out of the box when someone clicked on your site,” he said.

When designing a Web site or a piece of interactive material for a customer, BlackBOX meets with the client. “We need to know what things their clients are going to be dealing with,” Fischer said.

“What kind of computer will they have? How fast will it be? How big is their monitor? What kind of eyesight do they have? What kind of movement do they appreciate? All of those questions must be answered before we begin, so that we know what will be the most appealing and catch the most attention.”

“Everything begins with sketch pads and a round table discussion,” Underwood added.

“We draw everything out and talk about it and throw around ideas before we even begin on the computer.”

Currently on the drawing board and in the works are a few new projects BlackBOX feels will revolutionize certain aspects of business.

In a partnership with Commercial Printing Co., BlackBOX is delving into its area of brand resource management and creating a business card program.

“Often getting new business cards can be difficult because you have to write out what you want and try to get a design right; then it has to be proofed a few times and then go to printing, and then get sent back to you with a template, etc.,” said Fischer. “With this program all you have to do is type in your information in the required fields and it will show you an example of your card right on your screen. Your supervisor approves it and then you send it and you receive a box of your cards.”

Another aspect of brand resource management is the advertisement kit that BlackBOX is developing for Wolverine Worldwide. The kit would be formatted as a CD and sent to the stores, which then can view ads for the various brands. The store then sends the necessary ad to the printer.

“This process just saves on everything,” Fischer said.

“It saves time because the store doesn’t have to wait for Wolverine to send a print, which could be located anywhere. It saves money because there isn’t so much paper floating around. And it saves peace of mind because everything is located in one place and very easily accessed.”

BlackBOX works on some educational matters, too. Fischer, being a teacher, sees the need, and Ward and Underwood see the use as former students.

One CD-ROM will instruct students on color, space and other basic tools.

“When art students are starting out, they are required to take certain classes,” Fischer explained.

“However, most of these classes do not apply to technical design people,” he added, “so we are tweaking the process a bit and refining some of the pre-reqs so that it is delivered in a multi-media format — the format they are actually going to be working in.”

“When you are learning to mix colors in class, you are actually pouring and mixing paints together,” Underwood added.

“For those of us that are going to be working with multi-media, that isn’t going to matter; we are going to need to know how to mix colors on the screen.”

The firm received the 2002 Best of Show Interactive Addy Award for its self-promotion Web site www.getblackbox.com. The site piqued judges’ attention with its action, sound and interactivity. “We set out to dedicate three months to build the site and make it one of the best around,” Fischer said.

“It ended up taking six,” interjected Ward. “But we came out with a product we are very proud of.”

The site includes a portfolio of individual work and work created as a new firm, as well as demonstrates exactly what BlackBOX can do.

“We wanted to put our money where our mouth is,” Ward said. “Instead of telling what we can do, we wanted to really show it through a unique way — and I think that people who go to our site will see what we can do for them. Many times a site doesn’t portray the work, and we also figure that if we can develop this site now, we can only go up from here.”

From here, BlackBOX hopes to get into larger markets where the budgets are bigger, therefore allowing the three to continually push themselves and try new things.

“We are striving to get rid of paper,” joked Ward. “We see multi-media as the smart choice and in this business it is exciting to think that we will get there someday. We are just helping take our clients one step further.”

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