Three tales of ustwo

Our first event of 2020 was an exploration of design in music and in digital, with warm-up act, musical composer Kambiz Aghdam, and our headline talk, independent design, technology, games and venture company, ustwo. What a way to kick off the year.

Kambiz is a film and television composer for brands that include Amex and Nike. Not a bad career start for someone who struggled to find his place creatively while at school. Kambiz guided us through his upbringing and education and explained how both inform what he does now, from his foundations in music thanks to years as a very reluctant Cathedral choir boy, to frustrations at a school system ill-equipped to nurture his creative talents or signpost alternative career paths. After a series of random jobs, his big break came when he got a job making music for adverts, after a BBC producer saw him conducting an orchestra as part of his Masters course. Shortly after, Kambiz pitched for an Amex ad and won it, and this gave him both the impetus and the financial security to leave his job. A lot of hard work pitching in Los Angeles and offering to work all hours (including Christmas Day!) paid off with a job for Nike.

As Kambiz says, creativity is as much about working hard and doing what other people want to get where you want to be. Wise words indeed from a creative whose determination, stubbornness and self-belief has most definitely paid off.

Kambiz Aghdam

Next up, we were lucky to hear from all three of ustwo’s businesses – ustwo Studio, ustwo Games and ustwo Adventures – and how each makes space for creativity. 

First up, Senior Design Strategist Rachel Jones spoke about how to find the magic’ of making people feel something. Although emotional design is neither new nor reserved just for digital, Rachel explained how they want their designs to appeal in three ways: viscerally, behaviourally and reflectively. 

To ensure that processes are not allowed to overtake creativity, and that finding the right moments for magic are not lost along the way, ustwo reflected candidly on the good and bad of their past projects, and Rachel talked us through some of them. When coming up against a brick wall, taking the time to recognise, pause and make space is often the key to unlocking the problem. 

Rachel’s top five lessons when designing for clients are: ask the right questions of yourself; get a big emotional idea in early; make it everyone’s job; don’t let the process become the work; and make space for the unexpected.

Rachel Jones, Senior Design Strategist

From this thought-provoking standpoint, it was Lead Games Artist, Chris Cox’s turn. Ustwo approach games in a way that’s completely different from the traditional’ shoot-’em-ups and zombie killing. If you’ve played Monument Valley, you’ll know they’ve succeeded: dreamy design inspired by Brighton Pavilion, while Assemble with Care inspires nostalgia with its carefully thought out visuals, colour palette and use of textures.

Chris took us behind the scenes of the design of Assemble with Care, with advice that could be applied to any design project, like taking inspiration from outside your usual genre. Chris revealed the range and depth of his inspiration from the books of Ursula le Guinn, paintings by Ernst Kirchner, and an image of RuPaul in all his glory, that directly inspired the look and feel of a scene in Monument Valley.

He gave us real insight into the dedicated design process that delivers ustwo’s visually sophisticated approach. There were examples of his (rather accomplished) messy sketches’, a delightful journey through the development of one character, and a behind-the-scenes peep at some discarded approaches to the art direction of Assemble with Care. And my favourite bit of advice, to Keep iterating until you surprise yourself”.

Chris Cox, Lead Games Artist

Finally, it was the turn of Creative Technologist & Investor, Neef Rehman to talk about ustwo Adventure, which invests in and supports the next generation of creative companies, who talked about the importance of patience. It can be hard to have patience, but it’s important when nurturing new companies, and it takes practice. He also introduced us to succailure”, an ustwo portmanteau that neatly communicates the art of failing successfully. From every failure or problem comes the opportunity to learn and grow, and this has changed the way the business operates today.

Ustwo Adventure invests in new business and now has 20 companies in its portfolio, all with the same values and creativity at their core. He advocates two key pieces of advice which have come from this. The first is that Early design decisions persist much longer than anticipated,” and the second is Take risks to create the unexpected and have the patience to get them right.”

He also imparted the wisdom of rubber duck programming: that is, by explaining a coding problem out loud, you will invariably come to a solution on your own. He also tries to be the rubber duck” – by being patient, by letting colleagues talk, and by listening. This is a patience multiplier’, which culturally encourages better emotional engagement.

Ustwo’s First Mile’ initiative is a mentoring programme that offers 12 months of personalised support from ustwo and £10,000 to help them grow – applications are open now and close on 6th April.

We came away with so many takeaways from these four talks. But to take one from each, we’ll be keeping in mind these mantras: work hard; stay messy; make space for the unexpected; and be the rubber duck.

Neef Rehman, Creative Technologist & Investor

Photography by David Gillett