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Why This Renowned Digital Design Agency Is Going Analog

The next frontier for the 1,500-person agency Huge? Meatspace.

In 2015, Huge did a funny thing. The design firm–best known for digital experiences like websites–opened a coffee shop.

A “modern, simple, clean” coffee shop, one Yelper puts it, with bare wood finishes and Japanese small plates that could placate any aging hipster.

But soon its customers will see that it’s not just any coffee shop. The shop will eventually enable a customer’s phone to auto-order her coffee on the way to the store, thanks to GPS, which can order for her when she’s nearby. And the cups will have sensors that can see when a customer is low on crude so employees could bring them a refill. “Digital is imbued through the entire system . . . but it’s not like there are giant flat-panel screens all around,” says Huge CEO Aaron Shapiro. Huge is building a coffee shop of the future that will actually feel a lot like the coffee shop of today. And that’s only possible because Huge will be able to control the entire experience–the digital back end and the analog front end.

Which brings us to the real news of today, that Huge–the digital agency with 1,500 employees worldwide and clients including Nike, Audi, Pfizer, Target, MoMA, and, in full disclosure, Fast Company–is opening a physical design practice. Out of its Toronto office, Huge is building a small senior team, led by Matt Hexemer from Jacknife Design, to both create physical products and build physical experiences, each complemented by Huge’s existing digital practice. Jacknife is known for designing diverse projects including the Kobo e-reader and a pair of Salomon snowboard boots.

“It’s extremely difficult for standalone firms to be successful in this world and meet client needs without that full solution,” says Shapiro. That’s in part because so many companies are building robust design teams in-house, ranging from banking companies like Capital One to Silicon Valley mainstays like Logitech. But that’s also because we’re at a moment in history when the digital services we’ve created are echoing back into our environments, a trend enabled by 4G connections, artificial intelligence that can recognize our voices, and countless sensor technologies.

“You think about, back in the early days of web design when Huge was running, the content was websites. Digital was websites,” Shapiro says. But over time, screens have shrunk smaller and smaller, from TV to laptop to smartphone to wearable. “What’s fascinating now is, because digital is so pervasive, we can create full ambient experiences imbued with digital that don’t necessarily have web as part of [them].”

From retail to hospitality to health care, plenty of environments are due for a digital retrofit, and Huge’s physical design team is already consulting on multiple projects within the company along these lines. Consider a concept like Amazon’s upcoming grocery store–a digital back end turns shopping into just grabbing whatever you want off the shelf and walking out. But Huge is also interested in more traditional industrial design, too–which design firms like Frog and Ideo have always had as part of their consultancies.

“We actually have designed a phone for a company–we just can’t talk about it,” says Shapiro of past work, but the consultancy isn’t getting into products it will sell itself. “The way we think about it is, we create the end-to-end brand experience for customers. [That includes] every way people connect to companies–digital experiences, physical experiences, the 360-degree ecosystem.”

Huge’s evolution is notable to anyone who follows the industry of big design consultants. But it’s more compelling to me as a signpost: that the companies Huge serves are so interested in new, smarter experiences that aren’t covered with the countless screens of a sports bar, and electronics that don’t look like iPhones, that Huge has built an end-to-end development pipeline to create whatever that future is. It means tomorrow’s brands will be integrated so smoothly into the real world that they will, more often than not, simply feel like our real world. For better or worse.

[All Photos: via Huge]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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