OKFocus thinks your web design sucks, and they’d like to intervene.
The fledgling digital agency, co-founded and led by artists Ryder Ripps and Jonathan Vingiano, has been releasing a steady stream of projects, both commercial and creative, that they describe as an interjection to modern web design practices, but which often read as artfully crafted inside jokes and commentary on the topic of internet culture, and by extension, culture at large.
Humor is a big part of what drives their work and informs their aesthetic. “There’s something about contemporary web design today that is so serious. Then it gets really playful and cartoony and it’s trying to be fun, but in its idea of fun, it’s even more serious,” says Vingiano. “There’s something about this lack of humor in modern web design that is just so appalling.”
“It’s not even just lack of humor, it’s lack of human voice,” offers Ripps. “It’s like fear of not being accepted by everyone. I mean, think about making any other form of media besides web stuff with that same ethos. For instance, imagine making a movie like that—‘This movie has to be liked by everyone.’ Ok, so we can’t do sci-fi, we can’t have violence… basically we’re gonna film a river for two hours. You’re left with a movie that’s not entertaining at all and nothing goes on because you’re questioning everything. To be honest with you, Toy Story would be racy by most web design standards. It has more of a voice than most web design.”
OKFocus has been causing quite a stir lately with playful games and web applications like Where’s The Pixel?, where users race against the clock to locate a black pixel on a white screen, Lemme Tweet That For You, which allows users to compose fake tweets as their favorite celebs, friends or enemies, and Whodat.biz, a spoof project that was launched as the “debut product” of Kanye West’s new design company, DONDA.
Although the media has been painting them as merry pranksters of the internet, they maintain that their goal is not, in fact, to take the piss out of everyone (except for maybe Kanye because “he deserves it”). Instead, their goal is much nobler and loftier: to create experiences that affect culture and change the aesthetic foundation on which our world is built.
“For us, the rewarding thing isn’t fame or money, it’s about putting something out and seeing the exact response that we wanted transpire on Twitter in real time,” says Ripps. “Just knowing that it’s affecting people is really rewarding. It’s about changing perception and the visual climate of things.”
Even in their role as designers-for-hire working with clients like Nicola Formichetti, Beautiful/Decay, and Liberty Science Center, their approach seems firmly planted in their artistic roots. A strong concept is at the heart of every project and in true Modernist fashion, form always follows function.
Take for instance the conceptual portfolio site they created for artist ITEM/IDEM. Since his work is centered around commerce, OKFocus decided to create a fake e-commerce site to “kind of draw a weird line between art and commerce,” explains Ripps. Each work from Item’s portfolio is listed and labeled with an arbitrary value in a made-up currency. Users browse the site and, if they like an item, can add it to their “Concept Cart,” then when they head to “Check Out” they’ll be able to download or email themselves a PDF bill of sale representing their “conceptual investment.”
The entire site was custom built and designed especially for Item with the e-commerce concept central to its aesthetic. Ripps and Vingiano looked to sites like Target.com, Walmart.com, Amazon, and eBay for design inspiration, appropriating various visual cues popular with e-commerce giants on the web.
“It’s communicating ideas about how you sell something online and being able to understand how that has been articulated by modern web design,” says Vingiano. Ripps chimes in: “Design as communication is really interesting and important to us. Whether you’re communicating the UI so people know how to use something or whether you’re communicating culture, like in the case of Whodat.biz, design is an important communication tool.”
For the project, OKFocus also designed and developed a magnifying glass tool that they then published as an open source jquery plug-in. Creating and releasing tools for other people to use is another important part of their practice. Not only is it a way for the team to give back to the open source community that helps support them (the majority of their projects are built with open source tools), it’s also a way to proliferate and spread their own aesthetic across the web.
Today they released a new project to celebrate the launch of Svpply.com‘s API. Called Tug of Store, it’s “a real-time game where coolness is decided democratically.” Think of it as the “hot or not” of e-commerce sites where users are battling one another to determine the “coolness” rating of products in real-time.
The project, like much of their work, has a simple lo-fi aesthetic that is utilitarian and completely steeped in the culture and aesthetics of the web—which is perhaps why their work has such a high “virality” potential. It continuously succeeds in finding mass popularity online because it speaks the language of the web more fluently and naturally than most other sites.
“The foundation for the way us three came together is through a passion for the culture of computing and creating stuff on the internet because it’s a really free space to do so,” says Ripps. “You can create a lot more with a lot less money and throw things away, and try stuff, and be really creative, and have fun, and explore in ways that you can’t really do in other art scenes or in the physical art world. I think that way of thinking has been a through point for us, and I don’t think it’s something I’d ever want to go away. I’d get bored. I want to keep pushing myself and boundaries.”