Studio Profile: Tundra

Published:  January 5, 2011
Studio Profile: Tundra

For someone who came of age during the early 90s or earlier it may be hard to comprehend that children growing up today will not recall a time when they had to wait for a friend to get home in order to call them (no mobile phones back then) or actually having to print a photograph in order to share it (in an age when the internet wasn’t yet commercially available). No, instead these tech-savvy up and coming generations will grow up taking for granted that most of their information and services will be delivered digitally. As far as they are concerned touch phones, broadband and multiple core processing have always been the norm, and always will be. Until something better comes along, that is.

Also long gone is the time when people expected brands to talk at them. These days it’s all about interaction, and letting consumers discover your brand and services, enticing them in rather than pushing them through the door. Digital agency Tundra grasps this concept all too well, and testament to this understanding is its amazing output of web, games, virals, applications and more cool digital stuff than you can poke a stick at.


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Tundra was founded in 2005 by husband and wife, Rob and Minaal Lawn. Originally from New Zealand, Lawn studied photography before going on to teach himself Flash. Moving to Melbourne, he then went on to freelance as a Flash designer. Minaal on the other hand is a Melbourne girl who mostly worked in fashion (as marketing manager for M-One-11, then production/buyer for local independent fashion, and fashion designer for sindhu), as well as dabbling in PR for STA Travel.

Yet Tundra is what we are here to talk about and Lawn is more than happy to take us up on the opportunity. “Tundra was a logical extension of the work that I was doing beforehand,” he explains. “I’d been concentrating solely on Flash for a number of years. It’s a particular medium; there are so many ways to get it wrong! I guess that after this long period I formed some strong opinions about how and why to use it. I left freelancing and started focusing on client work as this gave me more freedom to pursue the things that I thought would work well. Tundra started with that notion and we’ve been refining and growing it over the last five years. We’ve been lucky to create a certain type of website that has attracted like-minded clients to us, and also to build up a team of talented people that enjoy working together.”

Working from a light-filled studio space on the sixth level of Curtin House in Melbourne, Lawn considers the space as much a personal gallery and music hall as a design space, advising that beauty and music are as important parts of their studio as the skills they themselves bring to the table, and only add to Tundra’s unique approach. “At our best, we combine a relaxed sense of playfulness, but with enough behind the scenes elbow grease to give the user a seamless experience,” he says. “We do our own thing; that is what we get approached for.”

Inspiration strikes at every turn. “In work, raw talent is inspiring. In play it is music, art and nature. Between us we have an extensive vinyl [record] collection and great art from talented people. Minaal is also partial to flying feathered types,” says Lawn.

While at home theirs is a Mac universe, Lawn advises that at work it’s another story equipment-wise. “While we have Mac laptops at home for play, or iPhones for the train, at work we all use stock standard PCs. The thinking is that we need to be working in an environment that is as close to the user’s experience as possible. For some strange reason we’ve all moved to ergonomic keyboards. I don’t know how it happened, but once you start you can’t go back!”



Since its humble beginnings as simply orange text on a black screen, the web has continued to evolve at a phenomenal rate, with users now expecting much more from online than ever before. No longer will static information pages cut the mustard, and a company’s online presence (especially the big guns) is expected to be entertaining as well as informative. “Our industry is expanding and maturing at lightening speeds,” agrees Lawn. “It’s crazy sometimes. The last two years in particular have seen a real period of change online, the blog revolution and the ideals of Web 2.0 (as clichéd a term as it is) have made their way into the minds of everyone. We are dealing with savvier clients, whose understanding and expectations are consistently growing.”

So how does Lawn know what will work online when it comes to a client’s wants and needs? The answer is that after over a decade in the business, sometimes it’s still necessary to rely on gut instinct. “It does become intuitive after years of working online. We are very straight up with clients, about whether an idea that they have will work or not. It can be difficult to refuse to do work that simply isn’t going to work. One thing that we have been telling clients for years is that you need to give something to your customer and be realistic about the importance of what you are giving, in order to take back. Requesting users’ details or asking for a log-in upfront needs to be backed up with what you give your customer in return.”

Another huge invasion in the online world, which has only recently been seen as credible, is the social networking phenomenon. But just how much an influence has the social networking monster had on online so far, and how much does Lawn think it will wield in the future? “It’s interesting,” he says. “There has been a 180-degree turnaround in advertising in recent years, which social media is directly responsible for. For it to work, companies need to make people like them. The customer is right again.

“In one sense clients are now seeing online as a communication tool, rather than as a place to put a brochure,” he adds. “They want to know what they can do to harness this. Should they use social networking? Do they need to be writing a blog? How they can update their site to best communicate with their customers?


“But they still want something that other people don’t have, an idea or an angle that is going to set their site apart. It’s up to us to give them a way to do this.”

When working on a client’s online presence, Lawn is quick to press home the importance of making the site attractive, not only aesthetically, but through functionality as well as with the bells and whistles. “Obviously it is usability – we [the industry] all know that now. However, to differentiate us we concentrate on personality. We give users a sense of a company’s brand through the way a site feels. People trust things that feel right, and it’s important that this flows through everything – you can’t break the magic, or the perception falls apart.”

In this vein, can he name a couple of websites he finds inspirational or that are simply standouts in a crowded net space? “We Are Hunted, which was released by a couple of guys from Brisbane. It’s a case in point of how a simple idea, and a singular focus, combined with a powerful backend, can work. We also like Eternal Moonwalk; it makes us think that if Andy Warhol were alive today he would like it too.”



Another kettle of fish altogether, which Tundra keeps in its back pocket for special occasions, is the wily coyote that is the viral campaign. And according to Lawn it’s not as easy as you may think to create something guaranteed to ‘go viral’. “Viral campaigns are incredibly difficult,” says Lawn. “They require a great, original idea, seamless execution and a client that is willing for their brand to take a backseat to their audience. One of the most difficult things is to manage to keep them small. The campaigns that work are generally the ones the core creative idea of which has made it through unscathed. It can be very tempting to water these down with extra brand messages. Especially when a client is investing a substantial budget in building something, it can be a case of them thinking ‘more is more’! A good campaign needs to do two things; it needs to make users want to tell other people about it and it needs to express an idea about the brand it is advertising. It’s like making a dog and a cat hold hands.”

And on that rather interesting visual we’ll leave Tundra, hoping that the future will bring them more of what they like best: “A simple brief that states – give me a website that has personality.”

Thumnail image: ACMI

All images copyright Tundra.

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