WNW CONNECTS: THE COLLECTED WORKS & STARRY
We love when creatives and companies come to us with Working Not Working success stories. Makes us feel all warm and fuzzy. The recent collaboration between design studio The Collected Works and startup Starry is a perfect example, especially given the impressively sleek and innovative outcome. Starry, which offers a pioneering touchscreen anti-router with perfect WiFi, used the WNW platform to discover and hire The Collected Works with the challenge of "visualizing the internet."
Below, we talk to Collected Works duo Justin Colt and Jose Fresneda, and Jane Huschka and Don Lehman, Starry's Creative Director and Head of Product Design. The conversation's pretty insightful, hearing from both sides simultaneously as they walk us through each step of the collaboration, from first contact to finished product. The Starry team tells us what they saw in The Collected Works that made them a perfect fit, and how the creative studio ultimately exceeded their expectations. The Collected Works duo goes in-depth into their creative process for this project, which included bringing in fellow WNW all-star Nick Hum.
P.S. Interested in connecting with Starry and The Collected Works? Good news: Starry is hiring. "Don is looking for Product Designers. Jane is looking for Art Directors, Designers, and Copywriters. Definitely reach out if you’re reading this and are interested." And The Collected Works is down to meet up. "If you want to talk about a project, are starting a studio of your own, want to explore the virtual reality, or just want to chat, we make time whenever we can. Hit us up!"
Tell us a little bit about your creative backgrounds. Who are Justin Colt and Jose Fresneda and when did you start The Collected Works?
We met each other at The School of Visual Arts when we were both pursuing our Masters in Design. During school, we often collaborated on assignments, and generally helped each other out as most of the students in the program do. We were also taking on occasional freelance work. It was beneficial to team up as it made us seem more legit as a partnership. We were also both working part time at other studios in the city. Jose was working with Dark Igloo, and Justin was with Milton Glaser.
When we graduated in 2013 we were at a bit of a crossroads. We could take full-time design jobs or take a chance on starting our own studio–a personal goal for both of us. We had one client at the time with a project budget that could keep us afloat for a month. We took the plunge and started The Collected Works together. We applied what we learned in school, at Dark Igloo and Milton Glaser, and hustled to find as much work as we could. That was 3 years ago. Since then we’ve been lucky to not only stay afloat, but work with really talented people on rad projects.
Who are Jane Huschka & Don Lehman and how did you both wind up in-house full-time at Starry?
Jane is the Creative Director and part of the founding team at Starry. She’s specialized in branding, marketing, visual and experiential design. Before Starry in 2014, she was with much of the same team at Aereo. Previously she worked at the small branding agency called RED with clients like the NFL, Civic Entertainment Group, and Apollo Theater.
Don is Head of Product Design (UX & ID) at Starry. His background is in industrial design and user-centered research. Before Starry, he ran his own design studio, More/Real, working with clients like SiriusXM and Rubbermaid. He also happened to be a big fan of what the team at Aereo was building (which, as Jane would say, is how he was lured in).
We met in early 2015 when Don first joined Starry. We were excited to work together for a ton of reasons. We saw what a huge project and opportunity it was. We’re the type of designers that are very comfortable wearing a lot of hats, so working at a startup is appealing to us. But most importantly, we’re both passionate about making people’s lives easier. If there is a way to make anything we touch more useful and delightful, we will find it.
Since the very beginning, everything has been incredibly collaborative. We started small with finite resources. We worked together on everything. Engineers, developers, designers, marketers… anyone who could contribute would. We’re slightly larger now and it’s still the early days, but we strive to work this way. We’re all on this fantastic mission to make something great.
Had you heard of Starry when they first reached out to you on WNW to help with the design of their new router?
COLLECTED WORKS: We had very little idea of the concept, the project, or really anything Starry was planning to do. This was prior to announcing anything publicly, and they were still working with a secret codename. In our first meetings, we didn’t know if Starry was a product, a service, or anything about their general mission. We did know it was going to revolutionize how we use the internet, and was founded by an incredibly talented team. After we said we were onboard, and they felt we were a good fit, we got all the info.
Can you give us a little insight into how Starry got started and what its core mission is?
STARRY: The internet is amazing. But internet service? Not so much.
So we set out to reinvent how you get the internet. We’re creating radical technology that’s wireless, fast, affordable, and easy to use. Just one company for everything you need including your service, products (including Starry Station), and support. We think people deserve more choice and a better experience.
If building our own ISP from scratch sounds insane, believe us, it is. But everyone here is scary-smart. Most of the founding team (including Jane) came out of Aereo, the internet-TV service that allowed you to stream over-the-air TV (the kind you usually need an antenna for) to any device. Kind of like Netflix for broadcast. It was considered slightly controversial, and after spending several years fighting the broadcast companies, Aereo ultimately lost its case in the Supreme Court.
Obviously, that’s quite the way for a company to end and you would think something like that would’ve forced the core team to call it quits. But the amazing thing about this group is that we didn’t just rest on one great idea; we moved on to the next. Like how to use millimeter-wave technology to deliver Internet through the air! After Aereo closed its doors, we immediately started the development of Starry Internet.
What was it about Collected Works’ WNW Profile that most stood out to you?
STARRY: All of their projects have such a unique look and feel. They’re smart. Thoughtful. Bold. And even though Justin and Jose are both classically-trained designers, everything they create feels so totally fresh and playful. We hadn’t planned to hire a studio to help bring our wireframes to life (at the time, Jane was looking for a full-time designer to bring in-house) but we came across their profile on WNW and felt right away like they were the right match.
Was there a particular past project in their portfolio that clued you into the fact that they were the right fit?
STARRY: For us, what really stood out about the Collected Works' portfolio was the combination of experimental and practical work. On the experimental side, we appreciated their Nike light paintings, the sound visualizations for Red Hot, and the countless little animations that they’ve sprinkled throughout their portfolio. That was something neither of us could really capture in our wireframes and we hoped that their imagination would help bring the experience we’d designed to life.
What was the brief?
COLLECTED WORKS: In short, the objective was to “visualize the internet”. That’s a really broad question, but an exciting one. At this point, we knew Starry was building a touchscreen router, called Starry Station, that was part of a bigger internet ecosystem. It also had a larger objective: to help people understand how they’re connected to all these devices in their home.
The router itself was already beautifully designed, and now they needed to figure out the UI for the touch screen. This is how people would interact with and understand what was connecting to their network. How do you show a complex web of devices? How do you interact with them? How do you quickly understand your internet health? How do you fix problems when they occur? These were some of the challenges we needed to figure out.
STARRY: When we started our collaboration with the Collected Works we had a fistful of wireframes and early prototypes but knew we needed help if we were going to redefine a category. Our competition? The router. Your stereotypical ugly, black, blinking box. A device designed by utility companies – not something you’d set out in your home that's kind of scary for the people who use it.
So we asked Collected Works to imagine we had designed a router that was easy to use. Fun to set up. At a glance, it could tell you that your internet is working, what devices are connected, and what’s using the most bandwidth. And when there is an issue, it could tell you how to fix it. On top of that, make it beautiful and intuitive. A touch magical. Something that belongs in a home, not in a science lab. Easy, right?
Did Starry give you a lot of freedom to run with it? Or was it a very collaborative process?
COLLECTED WORKS: Overall it was the best sort of collaboration. We could run with ideas and come up with lots of different directions we could take the project. On our end, we did a lot of animation mockups of what a visualized internet looked like. Sometimes it was a blob. Sometimes it was a chart. There’s really no definitive right answer, so it was all about playing with and testing a lot of different options. Then we’d all get together and talk about what made sense. We’d also talk about what was possible from a technology standpoint. This was also awesome because the Starry development team could build and test these prototypes we were conceptualizing at the studio.
Did you find inspiration from other products in this arena? Or were you in more of a futuristic sci-fi frame of mind when “visualizing the internet”?
COLLECTED WORKS: During our initial research sweep we found a lot of examples of what NOT to do. Most data visualization, especially in this field of internet speed and usage, is incredibly clunky and confusing. We needed to make this information understandable and engaging. It needed to feel more organic, almost like the router was a microscope, looking at the DNA of your internet. Soft shapes, simple color logic, and data visualization that was easy to understand were all the underlying goals.
What were some of the challenges of delivering the goods on this brief?
COLLECTED WORKS: One of the challenges off-the-bat was to staff up as a studio so we could handle the workload. As it’s just two of us over here, one of the first things we did was hire a friend of the studio, and WNW all-star, Nick Hum. Nick had helped us with a few other projects, and he was a perfect fit for this one. We also really liked that everyone involved was from the WNW community.
Secondly, for the work itself, everything we proposed (all the UI, animations, charts, graphs, interactions and screens) needed to be incredibly flexible and able to accommodate any user's home network. So, a visualization for a network with 3 connected devices had to work just as well as a network with 30 devices. This took a lot of testing and prototyping to get just right. Which meant a lot of collaboration with the Starry team, to code and test what we were prototyping.
Finally, time was always ticking. The Starry team had a hard shipping date that was rapidly approaching, so we needed to be really efficient with our time.
Tell us about the finished product. How does it work?
COLLECTED WORKS: Starry Station is a router that allows users to control and understand their WiFi like never before. It’s a powerful piece of hardware that’s beautiful enough to put on your desk, and simple enough for your parents to use. No more blinking lights to decode, just a better way to stay connected to the things we love.
On the Starry Station touchscreen, there are a variety of different visualizations. “Ambient” view is the default screen, which represents connected devices as floating orbs. The more devices connected to your network (phones, computers, printers, TV, etc.) the more floating orbs. In the center of these orbs is a number (from 1 to 100) that we call your “internet health score”. This number represents how healthy your connection is. A variety of factors can influence this–from internet speed to the number of devices online. Overall, ambient mode gives you an at-a-glance view of your internet. You can see it from across the room, and understand if everything is cool, or if something is going wrong.
The secondary state is what we call the “1-foot view”. This is when you tap on the screen and the orbs and health score transitions to a simple dashboard. From here you get a detailed breakdown of your internet and can fix any issues. You can see what is connected to your network, and how those devices are using bandwidth. You can test your internet speed, and see your usage over time. You can also add or remove any restrictions, such as disabling your kids' devices until after they finish their homework.
In the end, the UI eloquently and simplistically answers a very tough challenge–to visualize the internet. Starry Station works so well that we use it every day, here at the studio.
In what ways did Collected Works surprise you?
STARRY: The Collected Works surprised us in a lot of ways, but what really stands out is how collaborative and unflappable they were. Despite the ridiculously tight timeline we’d set for ourselves and, admittedly, a constantly shifting set of deliverables. What you would call stereotypical startup problems. :)
This project could have easily turned into one of the worst experiences ever, but it didn’t. They met deadlines and exceeded our expectations every time. We’re still very proud of how much we were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.
When searching for and discovering creatives, what do you look for first in a portfolio?
STARRY: Outside of great work? The ability to explain and rationalize a process and the decisions made – whether it’s product, design, or copy. Attention to detail and craft. The desire to do something great.
Who are some other Working Not Working members whose work you admire and why?
STARRY: We’ve had the pleasure of working with and interviewing quite a few talented WNW individuals over the last year. Aside from Collected Works, we’ve collaborated with Sarah Lim and our own Justin LaFontaine is a member.
Profiles we admire include the talented Leta Sobierajski (who just gets geometry), Mike Lacher and Todd Lamb (who just get the internet)...the list goes on. We do a lot of our recruiting on our own so there’s a chance you’ll hear from one of us if we like your work.
What’s next for Starry?
STARRY: We recently started a beta program for our internet service in Boston. After that, hopefully coming soon to cities across the US.
Anything else you’d like to add?
STARRY: Yes! We’re hiring. Don is looking for Product Designers. Jane is looking for Art Directors, Designers, and Copywriters. Definitely reach out if you’re reading this and are interested.
COLLECTED WORKS: Thanks so much to Working Not Working for the continued opportunities, parties, lectures, connections, and adventures. You’ve really been a pivotal part of the studio.
Other than that, we’ve been very fortunate that many studios, agencies, designers and people we look up to have made time to meet with us and lend advice. We like doing the same whenever possible. So, if you want to talk about a project, are starting a studio of your own, want to explore the virtual reality, or just want to chat, we make time whenever we can. Hit us up!