Legend has it that he can spot a pixel off on the screen from as far as 30 feet away! Late last week, I met Brandon Hill to confirm this story, and also to get to know his company btrax and get the real story behind why he decided to organize the 1st in a series of cross-cultural tech event that we are calling “Japan Night”. So here goes….
You call yourself a cross-culture branding and web consulting company. So, what exactly do you mean by that?
Brandon: The people in this company are all multi-cultural, basically, most of them are 100%. I myself grew up in Japan, so I have a background of Japan. I came here 15 years ago so I have a background. As a matter of fact, my father is American. So I have a dual cultural background. Likewise there are people who came from Japan in this company and there are some Chinese people and even some Americans in this company have some multi-national background. Such as guys who used to live in Japan, who used to live in Asia.
We ourselves are very mult-national and multicultural. When it comes to what we do most of our clients are related to Asian Countries? Or other companies in Asian countries. Our core service motto is doing design web consulting for companies in the United States who are connected to the Asian countries or companies in the Asian region. So, that’s exactly what we do.
That’s why we call ourselves cross culture branding and web consulting company?
Can you tell us what your major offerings are?
Brandon: We mainly do three things.
One is web strategy, web consulting work. So anything related to web, including web design, web development, mobile website design development for the United States and overseas countries.
The second one is branding. We design logos, we come up with branding strategies and we do brand positioning and brand marketing.
The third one is localization. Specifically for localizing web services to the oversea countries.
Those are the 3 key services we do. At the same time we do provide web design and development services in general. Some of our clients are US companies for the US market, we can definitely provide services to those clients.
Can you walk us through your design process briefly? Do you start your process analytically with sketches on paper, or wireframes? Or are your main initial concepts for a web design client or branding likely to come in a flash of inspiration?
Brandon: We have a very solid process on web design branding services. We start the process by listening to the client, their objectives, their goals, time-line, budget, whatever they have to say. We listen to them first and we come up with the best possibly solutions to match their objectives. Starting from there we go through a whole process of pre production. Pre-production process includes things such as creating function specifications, wire framing, creating flow charts, coming up with brand concepts, design concepts, usability goals and branding ideas.
Once the pre-production part is finalized we move onto production. Production is design, web design, UI design, branding design. The actual design work is done by designers and developers. Then the next step is post production. Post production includes usability testing, marketing, creating marketing plans, things we do after the website goes live or the design elements go live.
That’s pretty elaborate.
If you think of yourself as a web designer do you generally see information architecture as being part of what a web designer, either you or somebody else in your company does? Or do you bring somebody else onto your team specifically to do information architecture work?
Brandon: That’s a very good question. Information architecture is very important role for web design field because it really decides the usability quality and usability experience for the users of the web site. In this company, I used to do that type of work myself. Fortunately one of the designers in this company has computer science background. So she understands anything from the system to usability and the user experience, UI design. There is a designer who specializes in commercial architect part. So she does both design and IA type of works.
Many formally trained designers are also artists. So, do you consider yourself to be an artist and do you have any specific artistic skills or experience that you sort of incorporate into your design that you consider as unique?
Brandon: My answer would be really controversial. I define artist as somebody who creates something without making any money. I really value a person with artist skills who can also contribute his design or artistic skills to the society. We call those people designers. Those who can not possibly contribute to society or make money, I call them artists. It’s a really convenient word I think. I do think design and art, mostly design consists of 90% of training and education and 10% inspiration and artistic talent. In this company in particular, I do not hire a designer without having basic knowledge and design skills, but only relying on the artistic talent.
So artistic talent is very important, but 9 out of 10 times basic design skills and knowledge and training work a lot better in the real world.
Some people say a web designer who does everything is a thing of the past and the future will be increasingly specialized. Meaning the web designer doesn’t do everything so that translates into larger teams. What’s your experience like with this? Are the majority of the people you have here, including yourself wearing a variety of hats? Or, do you have specialists for each role in the design and implementation process.
Brandon: I think web design process takes a lot of talents or skills. It’s definitely possible that a person creates a website without any problems. That’s definitely possible. However, in this company, each person has 2 to 3, 2 to 4 specialized skills. Such as, wire-framing and UI design. Or UI design plus html coding. Or htmls css coding plus php coding. Or, flash design plus flash development.
So, I tend not to tend somebody who specializes in one particular field. But, usually I look for somebody who has several different skill sets. Otherwise we would need to hire 20 or 30 people.
What are some telltale signs that a web designer needs more education? If someone comes to interview with you as a web designer. What do you look for in him or her, and what tell you this person needs more training or experience?
Brandon: First of all I look at the portfolio of designers. Portfolio is definitely important. However equally or more equally I look for personality. Especially the designer has to have a normal personality. Many designers who call themselves designers or artists, they have weird personalities. This could turn into a communication problem. Because unique people are okay, but if a person is too unique I find myself having a hard time communicating with the person. That has happened before so I make sure that I can communicate with the person and the person can express what he is thinking to the team. Otherwise, the team work doesn’t work. So, I would say 50% is in skills, 50% personality.
What is the percent of projects where you actually meet the clients face to face? If it is less, is it because you’re using Skype or other online collaboration tools or is it the distance?
Brandon: Facetime pretty much depends on where the client is located. If our clients are located in the area, we definitely go meet the client or invite them to the office, so that we can better communicate with them. I do think that in person meeting is better than skype, phone or email communications still. If that’s possible we try to do it. If that’s not quite possible we do use Skye phone, basecamp to communicate with the client. Which is okay.
Currently we have a client in Malaysia and we have several clients in Japan. We used to have a client in the UK and we do have clients all over the United States. So it definitely requires good communication skills to communicate with remote clients.
What is the most recent client work you have executed?
Brandon: We are executing an average of 5 to 10 projects at the same time. So we are working on several different projects. But one of the projects we are completing pretty soon is the web design, web marketing for an Iphone app from a Japanese company. Who is trying to distribute Japanese Manga, which are comics through an Iphone App.
You must have obviously heard of site like 99 design and other online branding, logo, and web design sites. How do you differentiate your service from that? Do you think these types of sites are affecting companies like you?
Brandon: I think if we were doing normal web design or design services, maybe. But again, we provide all the unique services in terms of cross-culture. So, it is not effecting much or at all, I’d say. Even if one can get a good design from crowdsourcing or sites like 99 design we still need to provide the consultation in terms of the localization or cross-cultural works.
There are many clients who like to work with real humans. I’d say maybe 90% of clients can get services from sites like 99 design, but at the same time there is a 10% who do want to get services from people like ourselves.
Now we move onto a different section, background. Tell us about yourself, your background. I mean you spoke about it a little bit and how you ended up in San Francisco and founding BTrax.
Brandon: I grew up in Japan. I was born and raised in Japan, area called Sapporo which is the Northern part of Japan. After high school I came to San Francisco. The reason why I came to this county is simply because I have US citizenship. I spent 18 plus years in Japan so I thought that would be enough for me to live in Japan. I decided to come to the United States to see how the life would be in this country. So that’s the reason.
The reason why I came to San Francisco was simply I wanted come to California which is closer to Japan, although my Dad is from the East Coast. Why specifically San Francisco ? Because I just thought LA was just not a safe place to live, for the most part. I started going to college in the city and quickly realized that this multi-media and web industry is very cool. I once was struggling with whether I should pursue my career as a musician or designer or artist. Because I really enjoy playing music, at the same time I have been very good at drawing or creating art pieces. I was trying to pursue those too but I didn’t know what to do to accomplish that. When I took a multi-media class I quickly realized that was the thing that I should pursue. Because you can merge sound, music, motion graphics and design. I got so attracted by the field and later in the 1990’s the city was full of web businesses. The first .com boom was coming. So everyone in the school was learning about web I got attracted to web design development field. I started taking web design development classes by the time I was in my second year in college I started working as a freelance designer. Mostly for Japan related companies, or Japanese companies. Immediately after I graduated from the University I started this company BTrax, which is 6 years ago. Simply because my ego was too strong so I couldn’t work for somebody else. I thought I was the best designer or developer in the world, and I thought I could do the best work. Immediately after I started this company I realized that there are so many better designers out there and I shifted my thinking from expressing my skills to hiring better designers. Which makes things easier for me because I do not have to struggle myself in terms of designing things.
What about BTrax, the company, how many people do you have and what’s the distribution in terms of designers, illustrators and coders?
Brandon: We currently have 15 people and those 15 people are roughly in 3 major groups. Design team, development team and marketing team. I would say those 3 teams are equally divided. Unlike other design firms we are very heavily on the marketing part because we understand designing and creating the website is important but more importantly promoting the site or doing marketing for the client is important. So we have a really good balanced team in terms of marketing the design.
Are you guys hiring?
Brandon: We are always hiring. Even if we aren’t, and if I see anybody who is a good match to the company there is always an exception.