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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Joonyong Park
Joonyong Park
photo joon1 Joonyong ParkCreative Director
Firstborn is a design and technology studio. This means that when places like Wieden+Kennedy, 72&Sunny or McCann San Francisco need to get the ever tricky website part of a campaign done they call on them to turn little scribbles on napkins into full blown out 1024×702 realities.
We’ve managed to track down the place’s creative director, Joonyong Park. At only 27 years of age, he already has more than ten years interactive design experience. His work has been recognized at all the top award shows and has received various accolades from the likes of the One Show or Cannes.
ihaveanidea starts up the old 56k modem, and gets the notepad ready as Joon tells us about the inner workings of the other side of our business…
ihaveanidea: Why don’t you tell us a bit more about your background. How does one become creative director at a place like Firstborn?

Joon: I know you guys interview a lot of creative directors, but my background is somewhat different. I’m originally from South Korea. I followed my father back and forth due to his business. I was eight years old when I first came to the US. I stayed here for six years, then went back and studied there. It was a lot of back and forth, and the transition was very tough.

The cultures are very different. It’s crazy. Believe it or not, people there go to school on Saturdays, so that was tough. Anyway, my mother was an architect, and my whole family is very artistic. I had it in my blood to be an artist of some sort, and wanted to be a painter in the beginning…

ihaveanidea:  But you quickly realized there’s no money in that, right?

Joon: (laughs) Yeah. And then when Windows ‘95 came out, it all started for me. My family bought this computer, and I would be the only one using it and playing on it all the time.  Like I said, the constant back and forth was very tough for me, so I dropped out of middle school in 8th grade. My mother had this art studio, so I wanted to go there and just draw. That was more interesting to me. And Korea was really restrictive and didn’t offer much in terms of art classes.
ihaveanidea: So you actually dropped out of school in 8th grade? That’s fantastic.

Joon: Yeah (laughs). I was really young, but my mother trusted me. We had a really long talk, and I promised her I would study by myself and graduate. So for a couple of years I studied by myself and I think I graduated high school when I was 14 or 15. At that point I got more into computers, and that’s when I started professionally, I guess. I didn’t have a design background so it was really tough for me to get a job in the beginning. I couldn’t even get an internship at first, because I didn’t have the proper education but everything sort of happened.

I wasn’t even sure what I was doing, to be honest, but I had a computer and Photoshop. Then I met this guy and he gave me a chance to work at his company. Obviously it wasn’t paid, but I was just happy to have a desk. I was learning everyday from everyone, helping out, doing all the dirty work, you know. Then I finally got a chance do some design directions and that got chosen and it just flied through from there. It was pretty hard.

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ihaveanidea: And all that was in Korea, right?

Joon: Yes, I started my career in Korea. I love Korea but the design industry was really limited there. There weren’t any big clients like in the US.  I was bogged down working on the same clients. That’s when I knew I had to move to another country. Luckily I’d lived in the US before so I was used to the country and planned to move back here to New York and start my career.

“So I dropped out of middle school in 8th grade.”

ihaveanidea: Did you work at advertising places in Korea?

Joon: No, I never saw myself as an agency guy. I went back and forth between design studios. But I wasn’t even sure about what I was doing at that time, it was all going so fast and I had so much to learn. Every year I’d tell myself : “ok that makes sense, that works this doesn’t’’. Slowly getting more clients, more opportunities to work with better people.

That’s when I sent my resume to Firstborn, five years ago already. I came first as a designer and developer for two years and then went back to Korea.

Then Michael Ferdman the owner called me and offered me the Creative Director position. But I’m pretty young, I’m 27, but I have a lot of working experience. I’ve been doing this for 11/12 years. But I still feel like I have a lot to learn. There’s always something new to figure out because the interactive industry is always changing. It’s always so hard to define.

“It’s all pretty much the same really. We’re all people. Whether you’re talking to clients, creating boards, or the final outcome, it’s all the same”

Technology is changing so fast. I was pretty amazed at how behind New York was compared to Asia. Asians love technical stuff. People were a lot more analog. The US didn’t like change right way. They like to keep their system.

So at the time, if I had this amazing idea for web, I always had to step back and see if it’s right for the user too.

ihaveanidea: What would you say was the most telling difference between the Korean market and the US market?

Joon: I don’t know if it’s a difference, but in terms of scale the US is the biggest market in the world. For me it was a dream to work here. Don’t get me wrong, there are great clients in Korea too, but it’s much smaller, there are just not as many opportunities.

ihaveanidea: What would be the difference between solving problems in the US compared to Korea?

Joon: It’s all pretty much the same really. We’re all people. Whether you’re talking to clients, creating boards, or the final outcome, it’s all the same . I guess the US clients were more open to new approaches. That was definitely the main thing and the most exciting. It’s not just about us, we want our clients to get excited too.

ihaveanidea: You work with a lot of the traditional agencies. Could you tell us a bit more about your degree of involvement with these guys?

Joon: Agencies always have this big issue with the campaign, the TV, radio, print and the website. The website is always a question mark for them, or was until very recently anyway. So companies would call us and say we have this campaign but we need ideas for the website. What’s ideas do you have for interactive?

ihaveanidea: That’s great, although I would think it’s restraining creatively if the agency came up with big idea and just asks you to extend it…

Joon: Well it is the nature of the industry.  If there’s a big campaign, or one line of copy about the brand we try to build the experience around it. It’s not a linear commercial, a radio spot or a print ad. People are interacting with it. What brand experience are they going to take away? What’s the message we’re trying to communicate? It’s always challenging because we never know how the user is going to interact with the piece we’re going to make.  We’re constantly testing; it’s a really hard and time-consuming process. There’s so many people involved.

“Like I said before if the user isn’t ready for that technology, then there’s not point in using it. The concept is the most important part”

We have designers, 3D guys, motion guys, and on top we have software engineers to make a beautiful and non-buggy flash piece. There are layers and layers of complicated stuff. Sometimes it’s crazy what we can accomplish in such a short time.

ihaveanidea: What work do you prefer? Building something for your own clients or getting work from agencies?

Joon: I’d say it’s half and half. Working directly is good but talking with the clients is hard sometimes. We have a lot of convincing to do, and we have to sell our product. It’s different with the ad guys because they get it, they’re on the same page, and the communications are really fast. But if the agency isn’t flexible then it can get quite hard too. We’re not just a production company. At some point we love making stuff and we love to put ideas on top too. We believe we can be creative too.

ihaveanidea: One of the main critiques thrown at the interactive shops is that you guys are so caught up in new technology that you’re just coming up with stuff to use it, disregarding the core brands problems. What would you have to say about that?

Joon: I see where people are coming from. We’re really familiar with the technology and are excited to use it but we always try to balance it. If the whole flash piece won’t work with the concept, it won’t work out. Like I said before if the user isn’t ready for that technology, then there’s not point in using it. The concept is the most important part. It also happens the other way around; some agencies come to us and say: ‘hey we want to use this new technology’ and we have to explain that it won’t work because we want to do great work too. So we try and balance that.

ihaveanidea: So you’re both guilty of that then!

Joon: (Laughs) Yes. But we always try to not build something for designers or tech guys but focus more the end user and what they think.

ihaveanidea: And I guess that’s sort of your responsibility as Firstborn’s creative director, you have to tell your teams ‘ hey guys, let’s try not to get carried away here’…

Joon: All our people are pretty aware of that too. To balance that we have internal R&D teams. Everyone makes demo of new stuff they like and then we have some sort of show and tell. It’s very cool because it keeps everyone up to date with what’s out there, but we try not to over use it. Everyone understands that. It’s like when Papervision came out and everything was three dimensional for no reason. We try not to do that.

ihaveanidea: What do you think will be the next big trend in interactive? What would you like to see in the next few years?

Joon: They always say everything is changing so fast, but if you look back ten years that much hasn’t changed. Yes, it’s Flash 10 instead of Flash 1, and hardware has improved quite a bit. I think the whole process needs to be more organic. We started as an interactive shop but we’re not limited to the web. We’re thinking out of the box right now.  How we can combine all these mediums together. With the M&M’s project, the client was so happy with the outcome they asked us to create a TV spot. They thought ‘you guys already made the 3D, the environment, so why can’t we use that for the TV spot?’. So we went back to the 3D company and we couldn’t get files for the other characters.  That’s when I realized every time they make a new spot they have to remake the M&M characters. So we had to go through two weeks of character approval.  I guess the process could be simpler, in that we should be able to all work together and not have to waste time remaking what some other company already has.
ihaveanidea: It’s all competition though. I’m actually surprised BBDO let you shoot the spot.

Joon: They wanted the TV spot to look like the site so it made sense. They had the core concept and we worked with them to come up with more ideas. They loved our outcome so they asked us if we wanted to shoot it too. We were really excited about that.

ihaveanidea: Could you tell us about any cool interactive campaigns are out there that made you think: ‘Shit, I wish I’d done that.’

Joon: There are so many. HBO Voyeur was a great campaign. It’s the best one that springs to mind. My personal interest however is in smaller clients. I get more excited when there’s not that much of a budget and it’s not a cool brand. We have to somehow make it cool. It’s more challenging. When you’re doing a multi-million dollar campaign obviously it’s going to be awesome. So many people are working on it, if it’s not then there’s a problem.  We love doing small projects and challenging ourselves, coming up with ideas, even if the budget is small we somehow figure out how to do a shoot or do a 3D or something crazy. That’s what really motivates me.

“They always say everything is changing so fast, but if you look back ten years that much hasn’t changed”

ihaveanidea: What if  the internet ceases to exist tomorrow. What would you do?

Joon: God, that’s hard. But I guess it doesn’t really matter if it’s on the web or not. My background is design and developing, I’m also a 3D artist so in my spare time I do a lot of motion, 3D, and design work. That’s my night time thing. After all the commercials. I just like to express my design even if there’s no big idea behind it. I never think of myself as not creating or making something.  That’s when I get really excited. So I would probably be doing something in that field.

Interview by:
Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS

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