For the uninitiated, it can often be quite tough to suitably justify what it is about Joy Division that forms their legacy. The English foursome was formed in 1976, achieving critical acclaim and a wide fan base – only for their time as a band to be cut short just four years later with the tragic death of their iconic front man Ian Curtis
Rising out of the raw DIY spirit of punk rock, the band drew on its own dour, grey Manchester roots to forge a unique sound that still remains relevant and resonates today. Despite releasing just two studio albums, the band’s brand of droning minimalism would eventually influence the remaining members to form the more electronically infused New Order.
This month Joy Division find themselves at the heart of a microsite project that only serves to underline the band’s reach. French digital agency ultranoir was hired by alternative rock radio station Le Mouv’ (www.lemouv.fr) to create an event experience for some exclusive new content. The dedicated website would present a never-heard-before interview with Joy Division bassist Peter Hook, shedding new light on the band’s myth via intimate anecdotes. Culminating in a refined multimedia sound and visual experience, this albeit small project would have an impressively rapid lifecycle without compromising on vision. Both graphically and typographically the resulting microsite remains true to the band’s musical and aesthetic ethos.
An identity that’s true to the spirit of Joy Division
“The design issue was to create and bring to life a complete graphic identity which would not betray Joy Division’s spirit”, explains ultranoir’s own portfolio case study. Let’s just say a dash of artful doom and gloom would not be out of place when it comes to this band. So, if the story of every digital project has ‘Unknown Pleasures’ to uncover, let’s get a ‘Closer’ look at ultranoir’s Joy Division tribute from the beginning.
This particular project really started with a prior collaboration between the two parties. After being commissioned to deliver another microsite for Le Mouv’, promoting scientific docufiction CO3, they had in many ways passed the ultimate sound check. The site, viewable at co3.lemouv.fr, not only garnered numerous Site Of The Day awards on launch but proved ultranoir’s credentials at excelling under tight timelines. Coming straight off the CO3 gig and given a month to turn things around, the new project resonated so personally with the agency they couldn’t really turn it down. “Radio France entrusted us with this second project which features musical inspirations and aesthetics that reflect that of our own”, explains the team. “As a matter of fact, our French digital studio founders are known for their rather rock-oriented personal tastes. This partnership sounded like an obvious choice and the result is a creation we hold
very dear to our heart.”
An inherent love for Joy Division would therefore be the catalyst, even if this brought its own additional perils. How would they transcribe the band’s universe without betraying fellow fans? That challenge of weaving a new visual experience based on a scarcity of pre-existing material was surely a daunting one. “We try to find the right balance between aesthetics, function and an easy-to-use approach. For our creative projects, every detail is carefully analysed and checked to ensure that we can guarantee total artistic coherence at every phase of user navigation. Our byword is ‘useful design’, since we believe that the role of artwork is to serve the application, its objectives and the end-user – not the other way around.”
A deadline that could not be missed
With the project scheduled for release on 2 May this year (2013), marking the anniversary of Joy Division’s final concert, time was clearly a major concern. All those worries over acknowledging a precious musical legacy would be heightened by a natural anxiety over deadline. “ultranoir is used to short delays and intense project deliveries but the stakes of this particular attempt were as high as our own expectations. We wanted to work fast and well. Our big break was that Radio France had enough faith in our results’ quality that they gave us carte blanche on the design and we were able to dive into the production right away.”
“At ultranoir, a project starts with one or a few shared brainstorms with the client team at our atelier or workshop. We recently opened this functional and minimalistic space to receive our clients or to use as a war room during calls for tender. For this particular case, that was the moment when Radio France presented us with the opportunity to work on a Joy Division-themed website orientating the creation around the content. After an agreement on a budget, our creative team core works on the first concepts. That is when our creative director and our UX designer work together on the first storyboards, wireframes, or even some mockups. Then the rest of the team joins in and completes the basis we have agreed on.”
The importance of project management
Out of this process the team derives a ‘full project perimeter’, chiefly identifying core functionalities and, in this case, a rough number of pages to produce. This is used to communicate an initial commercial proposition to the client, reworking the draft until both parties reach agreement. “This is when the project manager comes in and becomes the agency interlocutor with the client. They will be the one introducing each expert to the client when and if needed and follow the whole project from the beginning to the delivery of the final product.
He or she also is accountable for the whole history and to make sure the whole team stays focused on their goals. Once we agree on a design trend and concept, we usually work a lot through mail and phone conferences with our clients. It is the fastest way to get where they want without having them lose time. That is when the project manager is the most important as they will act both as a buffer and a ‘translator’ in a way. For Joy Division everything went very smoothly during the the project, so there wasn’t a lot of discussion involved.”
This seamless and fairly straightforward progress would again be crucial in moving things along quick enough for the May deadline. So when it came to imagining a design, they envisioned the exclusive interview forming the heart of a real treasure chest for fans. A repository for Joy Division enthusiasts that would stretch out to reference the music and the band’s lingering aesthetic – looking back but going forward. “We started to think about creating the interface for this content and not the other usual way around. Usually our initial concepts are more about the global theme or subject we are working on.
Trying to formulate a brand new idea with a reverse reflection made us really excited about this particular project. It did not imply a revolutionary way to work, we did not change our processes but it forced us to work with a different point of view. It gave us a possibility to refresh our creative performance.”
Embellishment of original content
Although the primary concern was creating a module for embellishing this new interview content, the microsite could embrace other Joy Division assets. Indeed the team was pleasantly surprised by the amount of related videos, band tributes and exclusive Spotify playlists. “Although it was nice to work with such a rich content, it had to be presented in a more palatable way. New audiences had to be equally enticed by the project as die-hard fans would be. In the end, we chose to present the content as a whole sound and visual system, which demonstrates that even in 2013, the group still possess the same attraction quality and a very strong emotional impact.”
Much of that emotional impact was of course down to Joy Division’s often quite bleak and ominous sensibilities. To graphically honour that with the visual design would be essential, finding an iconography that wouldn’t betray such a strong identity. The designers elected here wisely to follow the source directly, referencing the classic ‘Unknown Pleasures’ album art. “From their first album cover artwork, a sound wave pulsar sets the tone of the geometrical and spatial abstraction. The soundtrack is transformed into a data visualisation and divided into tags anchors as many rays around a black sun. The elliptic transitions animations are reminiscent of a vinyl disc rotation for a most contemporary presentation of the audio format. It was a static website so we didn’t have to work for a front-end integration.”
On the development side, the strategy was split across two principles: the audio and facilities for social interaction. Both would require a balance between a creative technical approach and the client’s requirements to achieve the ambitious objectives. “The immersive audio context, which included on new browsers a reaction to levels of frequency. As for the design principles, in this specific project, content lead to form and navigation. At last, the use of CSS3 combined with GSAP helped create a genuine principal navigational module. Secondly we had the social aspect, spanning the partnership with Spotify to host the audio tracks, the customisation of the HTML5 player and the possibility to share the experience on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+.”
Before long of course, the microsite’s build had to be readied for the actual launch. The target day for going live would provide its own hurdles ultranoir would ultimately negotiate. Once it was live the agency could watch calmly at how it was received, leveraging the publicity Le Mouv could command as a client. “As a media, they benefit from a very long list of press relations, so we were lucky enough to be featured on various important French cultural webzines such as Telerama. Finally, they planned a Joy Division special night and organised events on social media for people to not miss out on the website launch. The final product was very successful. Just as for CO3, the web industry, the Le Mouv community and the fans were very eager to discover this work and very thrilled once they were given the opportunity to try it out.”