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"New Media Creative" Magazine
July 2001 - Independence Section


Anything But Typical
Words by Neil Gillepsie, Photography Jan Eric Posth

Tight deadlines, on budget and smart designs are something Web design agency and self-financed record label JohnJohn is more than familiar with. Make way for the little guy.

Working from a flat in Whitechapel , East London, JohJohn is a two persons team creating quality online content. At a time when big agencies are feeling the strain of large overheads, and are passing these costs on to clients, it's refreshing to know that small companies are delivering inspired design online, on budget and on time.

JohnJohn consists of Benoit Viellefon, founder, and Christine Boulanger, Creative Director. The French couple came to England after meeting in Paris, working for the design agency Art Presse. "We were pissed off with the state of the Internet in France in 1998, although it's really taken off over there since there" says Viellefon.

They moved to England to take on freelance work and formed a company in March 2000. They decided the name of the company had to be something typically English, because Viellefon felt a French name would lead to confusion. "I'd missed a lot of emails because no one in England could spell my name" laughs Viellefon. "We wanted something that was easy for English people to pronounce and spell. First we came up with things like John Smith, but this became JohnJohn" explains Viellefon. This had led the company 's web site being explored twice by the FBI, since JohnJohn was a nickname for John F. Kennedy.

In the last year, JohnJohn has done a variety of design work, mainly for continental clients and outsourced work from big UK design companies. "It's been difficult over the first year because we don't have the connections in the UK" says Viellefon. A lot of people in the UK know each other from university and we don't have these connections".

JohnJohn is starting to get known for its work though. The company has designed a lot of products for Wanadoo, France Telecom's ISP. The first was a CD-ROM called Net Express which was sent free to wanadoo subscribers. NetExpress is a beginner's guide to using the Internet and how to design basic Web sites. The guide was built in Flash and is a serie of 30 different animations, taking users through the Internet step-by-steps.

"France had cold feet with the Internet, there was a low take up", says Viellefon. "France already had the Minitel information system and didn't see any need for the Internet. Net Express was designed to show people how the Internet was different and what they could do with it."

Since Net Express was a large production, Viellefon managed a production team of his freelance contact in France. "Although JohnJohn is only really Christine and myself, we have a team of seven people in France who we call on when we have a big project." Viellefon says.

In April last year, JohnJohn created two games for the new Ribena Web site. The work was outsourced from Netsite Pro which was building the site. "Netsite Pro had taken on the contract, but they couldn't fulfill it all themselves. They came to us needing four games and we were the only people prepares to deliver it within the budget and the deadline." says Viellefon.

The result was a group of games based on classic computer gameplays, reworked to feature the Ribena-berry characters. The graphics are quite simple due to the file size constraints, and the games are simple and intuitive to play; by way of example, there's a multi-players racing/athletic-type game and a Ribena version of the classic Breakout-style bat and wall game.

The engine of these games have proved useful again in September last year when Dresdner Bank of Germany contacted JohnJohn for a job. "They wanted us to create a one minute movie, a CD-ROM, and a game. They gave us the brief on Friday and wanted the products by Monday 9am."

JohnJohn managed to complete the work by finding a range of images to use for the movies on the Internet, and by reusing bits of coding from the breakout-style game created for Ribena. "People often came to us with tights deadlines, to get them out of trouble." says Viellefon. "Since the new media industry has suffered its slump, things are actually better for us. People don't want the expense of a big agency and we're able to do the jobs quickly, cheaply and deliver quality results."

Electronic Arts (EA), the computer games company, is another of JohnJohn's clients. EA has localized Web sites for its products in several regions, which require translation and updating. JohnJohn had the task of working on EA's Fifa 2000 Web site and the other EA Sports site in Europe. "On top of designing pages, we had to do a lot of updating, most of the time without any style guide or technical documentation". he says "This means you have to work out what fonts are being used and follow someone else's design."

Frustrated by the restrictions of this commercial work, Viellefon and Boulanger set up JohnJohn Records in November last year. This is a record company centred around an online showcase, which also provides promotion , management, marketing and music production. This allows Viellefon to be more creative with the Web design and focus on his other passion, music, since he's a trained musician.

There are 10 bands signed to JohnJohn Records, including the established saxophonist Ted Milton from the group Blurt. Johnjohn Records receives artists portfolios, CDs, albums and demos from Europe and the US but it is very selective about the bands signed. The label has links with music producer Peter Dry, who has produced albums for several of JohnJohn's bands.

The Web site for JohnJohn Records is rolled with the site for the design agency. Delivered in cartoony Flash Animations the home page features a high street, with each shop representing a different aspect of JohnJohn. There is a design shop, a press area, stores for JohnJohn Records, the recording company and indie music. There are also shops for games and an art gallery, since JohnJohn also showcase artists and illustrators.

A lot of graphics on JohnJohn's site were drawn by Boulanger, who used to work as an illustrator. "We wanted to use a comic strip style because it's a universal language. Not so much in the UK, but in most of Europe and in the US, people grow up with comic books and there's a strong tradition" says Viellefon.

Incorporating a design agency, a records label, and an online art gallery, JohnJohn achieves a lot for a two-person operation. In these hard times for the new media industry, it's refreshing to know that there's even more room for the little guy.

- 2nd July 2001 -