Innovator: A profile of Florian Schmitt

Florian Schmitt, Hi-res
Florian Schmitt, Hi-res

Hi-Res co-founder Florian Schmitt stumbled into web design almost by accident and won't stick around if something more compelling comes along. Unpredictability is the only certainty.

Florian Schmitt, co-founder and co-creative director of experimental web design agency Hi-Res, may be the closest thing the digital sector has to a contemporary artist in its midst.

A thinking man in an industry that often falls back on rote responses, Schmitt is not just a web designer, but an occasional musician and film-maker. He and his partner Alexandra Jugovic wandered into the business around a decade ago in search of creative excitement.

Even having built up one of the digital sector's foremost reputations, you wouldn't be entirely surprised if they decided to wander out again one of these days.

"I am still really excited about digital," says Schmitt. "It just sometimes feels, with this industry being so young and having grown so fast, that everyone has learned the language of the internet and is now stuck in the same old routine."

It was in 1999 that Schmitt and Jugovic - he a former product designer and musician, she a fine-art graduate, both recently arrived from Germany - opened their digital design portfolio in a first surge of folly and inspiration, excited at the potential of Flash to activate and synthesise their creative ideas.

Soulbath, a gallery of 'anti-banners' (check out soulbath.com as it's not at all easy to explain) was the pair's first website. Their second was an immersive, impressionistic production for Darren Aronofsky's harrowing junkie fable Requiem for a Dream. It was against this unconventional backdrop that Hi-Res was born.

"The whole thing was quite accidental, actually, which is what I have always liked about it," he says. "When you come to digital from a completely different angle, you have a different view on it. The longer you stay with it," he adds ruefully, "the more you become a specialist."

Schmitt and Jugovic have made it their business to run away from predictability ever since. Acclaimed work for cult hits such as Donnie Darko and Lost followed, establishing Hi-Res's ability to create sites with the narrative power, the tension and, occasionally, the impenetrability of their source material.

Schmitt admits, slightly sheepishly, that he doesn't actually look at other people's websites very much. "If you are influenced by websites when making websites, you get predictable results," he says. "But if you look at art or architecture for inspiration, you'll be able to take a much more original approach."

Telegenic and cerebral, Schmitt can easily be found on blogs and forums explaining Hi-Res's origins, inspirations and methods. And in these interviews, when discussing the work of which he is most proud, he can always be relied upon to note that it took far too long to finish.

"It does seem like everything we do takes too long to make," he agrees. "I think generally I'm a nightmare from a production point of view, because I blow every deadline they give me."

Schmitt says Hi-Res has never ground out work to a deadline, although he offers one exception.

It was an experiment, of course, in which the agency built a website in a week for LFO, the Nineties techno duo. Perhaps significantly, Schmitt and Jugovic were away on holiday at the time and had challenged the team to do it by the time they returned.

"That's the only time we have ever done a project in a few days and it actually worked out very well," he says. "But everything else just seems to take longer than expected."

If all this sounds like an art project, you get the sense that's how Schmitt likes it to sound. Take a look at Hi-Res's client list, old and new, and you'll see brands including MTV, Nokia, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, The Economist and numerous TV and film names, none of whom would hang around for long if the results and timescales were nearly as haphazard as Schmitt suggests.

"I think there's always compromise, and I have made my peace with that," he concedes. "In pitches, I always ask everyone to come in with the craziest idea that they can possibly think of. Along the way, it will be whittled down, and there will be a lot of people who want to add their voice, but at least you start at the right place."

An important trend, he says, is increasingly direct relationships with brands. As an example, he picks out Jagermeister, whose digital branding account Hi-Res won last year in a joint pitch with majority shareholder Syzygy.

"The amazing thing with Jagermeister is that it keeps expanding our canvas," he says. "The marketing team keeps saying, 'Why don't you think about this? Why don't you think about that?' It has now got to the point where we get to influence the above-the-line work as well."

By his own admission, Schmitt has been offering unsolicited strategic advice for years and getting short shrift from brands that don't need their 'web people' telling their ad agency how to do its job. But things have changed, and Schmitt's reaction, refreshingly, is one of candid excitement at finding himself well out of his comfort zone.

"There is a whole lot of stuff in the above-the-line space that we have absolutely no idea about," he says. "There is a lot of value in stupidity and naivety. Well, it can go two ways: either you come up with something brilliant that no-one else has thought about, or you come up with something completely stupid that is never going to work. There's usually not a lot in between."

Virtual reality

Schmitt recorded a jazz/drum and bass album, I Was Young and I Needed The Money, for Ninja Tune in 1998 under the name of Clifford Gilberto. "I am only in London to be closer to the label and the people I met on tour. In ten years I would love to be more involved in music and writing."

Reality

1999 to present: Co-founder and co-creative director of Hi-Res with wife Alexandra Jugovic

Pre-1999: Freelance video editor, product designer and musician

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