While we have been developing WordPress projects since the mid-2000s, over the past five years, we have invested a lot of energy into elevating our focus on this pervasive technology. As a result, we’ve been working to improve our technical skills, grow our WordPress team and become more active community members. With us relying on WordPress as our Content Management System of choice for about 50% of our projects — and over 40% of all sites on the internet — it is a crucial part of our workflow and in turn, has affected our company and culture.
We feel it’s important to reinvest in the ecosystem and have recently taken some specific steps to make it happen.
WordPress websites can take many shapes and sizes, from simple, template-driven personal sites to large custom design and development platforms like those in which we specialize. Our goal is to create different partnerships that allow us to do our jobs better and serve our clients and partners well. So, when it comes to development, plugin choices and hosting, we need robust options that fit large, complex and highly trafficked WordPress projects.
Partnering with WordPress VIP
WordPress VIP is owned by Automattic, the creators of WordPress, and offers a hosting solution for enterprise-level web projects with WordPress as the core CMS platform. The VIP platform is a series of different solutions and approaches to managing WordPress projects in unique ways that focus on content strategy, analytics and support, stability and modern architecture. VIP is not the solution for hosting a personal or small business website but for high-trafficked websites that matter to a global user base.
Not too long ago, our WordPress Team Lead, Dave Kellam, mentioned that one of his professional goals was to work on a WordPress VIP-hosted project again. Earlier in his career, he was at an agency that had done quite a bit of work on big projects with WordPress VIP and was curious if we could do the same at Plank. So, loving a challenge, I decided to reach out to WordPress VIP directly and see what the process was to become an official partner of theirs.
Once we started our discussions with WordPress VIP, it became clear they had evolved a lot since Dave last developed a website on the VIP platform. In addition to their WordPress-specific hosting solution and high-end customer support, they have robust solutions to ensure code quality, testing and site stability. We also have come to appreciate that working with them has been like a genuine partnership where we feel like we are a part of something much bigger than our team and get a different perspective and support than any similar partnership.
Continuing to invest in WordPress
Intending to launch at least four websites on the WordPress VIP platform in 2023, we see it as one of the key parts of our WordPress strategy this year. So, while we will still see ourselves contributing to WordPress-related open-source projects, attending WordCamp Europe and the US, and hanging around PostStatus’ Slack, our partnership with WordPress VIP will define the strategy of 50% of what we create this year.
For years we’ve organized an event at the end of the summer that we’ve come to refer to as Plank Appreciation Day (PAD). The intention is to take a bit of time off of work, celebrate our team and organize a few fun activities and meals. We’ve done things like boat rides, mini-golf, museum visits and even karaoke (which is a particular no-go right now). We usually ended the day with dinner and some drinks as a way to say thank you for making Plank a special place.
While we had a restrained PAD 2020 event with an afternoon meeting in a park — thanks obviously to some of the uncertainty around getting together during a global health pandemic — we wanted to do something different for 2021. We wanted to connect in an even more present way and enjoy as much of each other’s company as we could. The past 18 months have been hard for everyone in different ways, and we wanted to use our appreciation moment as an opportunity to celebrate more than we ever had before.
We decided that instead of celebrating our team for one day, we would celebrate by turning Plank Appreciation Day (PAD) into Plank Appreciation Week (PAW). For the whole week of September 27th, we offered at least one substantial event daily to connect but also keep the work we had to do on track. Since we knew that not everyone could join us in person for PAW, we went out of our way to ensure that the online and remote experiences were as good as possible.
In the end, most of the team took the opportunity to connect in person, share a meal and visit our physical office. In fact, some of our remote team members took the opportunity to visit Montreal and meet each other for the first time in person. In addition to enjoying four meals together, we had a trivia contest, wandered Montreal on a scavenger hunt and got to hear some presentations about things that our team is passionate about personally.
Overall, I think that the event was a resounding success. While some of us were exhausted by the end of the week from the non-stop interactions, it was a special time to pause, look around and realize how lucky we are to have each other in our lives. Plank doesn’t ever claim to be a family — because of all of the bad, as well as the good that comes with family — but we are more than co-workers. It feels like we are all a part of a community, we share values and care for each other. If anything, PAW 2021 reinforced that reality. As a result, Plank Appreciation Week will live on beyond 2021 and now is a part of our annual calendar.
I want to also take this opportunity to thank Paisley Nyberg and Stephanie Beasse for all of their hard work on conceptualizing and organizing PAW 2021. While Steve, our Managing Partner, and I cleared the week for festivities, it was their ideas and hard work that gave us the best week at Plank that we’ve had in a very long time.
At the end of 2020, as a part of a week of strategy and planning for 2021, we had a brainstorming meeting with some members of our team. We decided to break off into three different groups to discuss what Plank’s vision should be for 2021. When we came back to compare notes, there were a lot of expected, common themes. One term mentioned by one of the teams impressed me and consumed my thinking for the next two weeks over the holiday break — designing ethically driven websites.
The idea of developing ethical websites was an exciting challenge and one that, as I thought about it more, made completely perfect sense.
If you’ve been following along with some of the recent stories posted on our site, you’ll notice that we’ve been sharing our approach on topics like accessibility, responsive design, security, environmental concerns and development standards. For years, we have had a particular way we chose to develop digital projects, but never clearly and completely articulated our approach. We have specific standards and expectations that our team clearly knows, but we haven’t as clearly stated them to our prospective clients and partners.
What is Ethical Website Design?
When we first started throwing around the word “ethical” to describe some of the themes in our work that we were seeing, I found myself slightly uncomfortable. Using the word meant that we were taking a stand that insinuated that our position in how we were going to start approaching our work was going to be of a moral standard, higher than others. As someone who tries not to judge others and their choices in life, I didn’t want to take such a dogmatic stand.
Upon reflection, I found myself more comfortable with the word not because I found myself judging others, but setting a minimum benchmark for what I found acceptable for us as an organization. It became clear that to be responsible citizens of the internet, our work must meet specific standards.
We are proud today to share with you the culmination of our recent standards, which we are launching as our Ethical Web Design Framework version 1.0. Plank’s Ethical Web Design Framework is a set of user-centric principles that ensure all of our websites meet our five core goals;
- Accessibility & Inclusion
- Privacy & Security
- Device-First Design
- Development Best Practices & Sustainability
- Environmental Considerations
If you want to review our Ethical Web Design Framework, feel free to download our PDF. If you want to discuss the document or suggest changes, we are open to your thoughts since our goal is to strive towards being a better and more responsible company.
Introducing the Plank Foundation
For most of Plank’s history, we have taken on pro-bono projects of various sizes to support many different causes. While we are a small organization, we have been proud of the impact we’ve been able to offer non-profit and community organizations. About ten years ago, Steve and I even discussed the idea of formalizing our efforts into something more concrete, so we decided to register a URL and promptly did nothing with it.
That’s what happens when you think you can do everything yourself. You can’t.
Fast forward to October 2020, and during a meeting with an old friend, past client and advocate David Moss, a discussion started surrounding our recent pro-bono initiatives. David replanted the seed that we could be doing more and that doing more aligns with our values and goals as a company. As we brainstormed and dug deeper into the topic, it was becoming clear that there was an opportunity to explore the concept of a Plank Foundation again. We eventually agreed that this would be an excellent project for us to collaborate on, so we decided to commission David to take the next few months and develop a Feasibility Study around what the Plank Foundation could and should become.
With David on board to help push forward the feasibility study, he could move forward with some concrete plans. He started by doing interviews with members of the Plank team to get a sense of what resonated with the group and the overall commitment level to the Plank Foundation concept. As I expected, he discovered that, for the most part, the team is committed to doing more than their work, but is mindful that it can and should make the world a better place. Next, we reached out to some key partners and advocates that we know to see what the reaction would be to the concept of the Foundation and the initial direction under consideration. Given the diversity of perspectives, the external consultations gave us ideas we hadn’t considered before. It made us realize that we had to think deeply about what we were aiming to do and be sure that we could effectively do something that no one else could.
The success of the study — and any study, in fact — is not just to affirm things that we already know, but to challenge our assumptions, and discover new ideas to help shape our project. David invested a lot of time understanding the current state of the philanthropic landscape, specifically the challenges that a digitally focused organization like ours could offer. As a result of the pandemic and its damage to all cultural organizations and communities, we were curious about what we could do to affect change and have the greatest impact.
I also had the pleasure of having twice-a-week check-ins over the life of the study, allowing me to be a partner in the project and allow David to get a feel for what it is like to be a part of the Plank team. I wanted to be sure that he heard what we say we are all about and experience it firsthand. I wanted to be sure that we were completely transparent with him.
In March 2021, David shared with us the results of his study and it was fascinating to see the results of his months of research and thought. It was clear that he pulled together a solid vision and set of goals to get the Foundation fully fleshed out and offered us a direction that we can get behind. We can now see what the purpose and mission of the organization should be and we need to come to a final decision on the official mission. If you want to see some of the results of the feasibility study so far, feel free to take a look at our stakeholder update.
The most important thing that we have to do now is ensuring that we build on the work we’ve done during this feasibility study. As a leadership team, the essential first step is to recognize that we cannot move the Plank Foundation forward without the help of our current team, new team members, partners and supporters. To increase our social impact and move the Plank Foundation forward, we are committed to accomplishing the following goals by the Fall.
1. Set the Strategic direction
While we have a general framework for what the Plank Foundation should do and with whom, thanks to the Feasibility Report, we need to commit to the Foundation’s mission. We will summarize the goals and scope of the organization so that anyone involved knows what we will be doing.
2. Establish a non-profit entity
While we are aware that receiving charitable status to accept donations takes a while, we want to start that process sooner rather than later. Our goal is to set up a non-profit organization separate from Plank to run independently eventually. While we want the values of Plank to drive the Foundation, we want it also to be independent of our for-profit business.
3. Develop Partnerships
As a small, humble organization, the Plank Foundation’s success will be based on the relationships we develop and the organizations we partner with. If we can find other like-minded individuals or organizations, we believe that adding to our capacity will greatly increase our ability to affect change and ensure the success of our endeavours. Our goal is to be able to offer as much help as we can to selected projects so that we can develop projects with even more impact that can help multiple organizations and individuals.
4. Build a Team
We recognize that one of the reasons that we have only been able to pull off some humble initiatives within Plank is because the time we could invest into projects was limited. By taking an hour here and there from everyone’s schedule, we couldn’t devote enough time to do much. If we are going to build a real organization with real capacity, then we need to have actual full-time staff devoted to its development and growth. Our goal is to start doing interviews for a full-time coordinator as soon as possible.
The next few months will be exciting as we define the direction of our Foundation and bring onboard our first team member. If you are interested in hearing more as our non-profit develops or want to get involved, we encourage you to reach out to us directly or check back here for more information and updates.
We announced earlier this month our sponsorship of the Digital Boot Camp for the Arts and now we are happy to share our guest post for Capacity Interactive’s blog written by Warren. Being that 2020 has been quite the year to pivot we wanted to highlight UI/UX insights. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s important to consider what changes you can make to your website to get you through this time of upheaval and connect better with your audience and patrons than you had before. To help guide you through how to use your website as effectively as possible with the tools that you currently have in place, I want to offer four tips to improve your websites’ user experience in the face of the current crisis.
Read the full article at Capacity Interactive.
In December 2019, I sequestered myself in a Toronto hotel room to develop a new 3-year strategic plan for Plank. It was harder than I thought it would be. By the time I got on the train back to Montreal, I had everything organized and ready to roll for the next 1,000 days.
Roughly 75 days later, on March 13th, 2020 we closed our physical office as a result of COVID-19. I was convinced that I should delete everything and start over.
Luckily, I didn’t do that. When I looked at the document a few weeks later, I was surprised at how relevant it still was. Who we wanted to be as a company, the kind of work we wanted to do and where we wanted to be in three years still made sense. In fact, there was one area where we exceeded our goals long before we expected: Plank’s environmental impact.
With the pandemic shutting our office, our team quarantined at home and with all business travel off the table for the foreseeable future, our environmental impact was already substantially lower. With no flights, driving or even public transit use, our 2022 goals were already within reach.
Our office opened back up on July 13th. Some of our staff are now taking public transit and driving so our production of greenhouse gas emissions has certainly increased, but nowhere near 2019 levels. When the pandemic does end – and it will end – the question becomes, will we swing back to pre-pandemic habits?
For some people who crave the life they were leading, the return to “normal” may be swift. Personally, I plan to use this time to make a series of commitments that ensures Plank as a whole reduces its carbon footprint. How? By implementing the following four permanent changes:
Reduce plane travel by 75%
While in-person meetings are crucial to developing relationships with our clients, video conferencing has proven to be an effective way to build on those relationships. When we choose to travel, we will make the most of the time and the emissions we generate via air travel. Gone are the days of one-meeting trips. Moving forward we will ensure any travel is of deep, strategic value.
Lowest Impact Travel
When we travel, look for the lowest impact options. For example, while the train – especially in North America – is not the most efficient way of getting somewhere, any trip under 1000 km can be done by train.
Additionally, conferences we feel are important to attend usually alternate between the East and West Coast of North America. Moving forward we will attend in-person regional events and in the off-year, attend online.
Each year we will do a full audit of our carbon footprint to quantify all of our travel, transit, heating and cooling usage to fully understand our impact. Once calculated, we will pay to offset that impact in our goal to become a zero-emission company.
Encourage remote work
While we love our team and want to spend as much time together as possible, this pandemic has clearly shown the value of remote work. It isn’t ideal for everyone, so our office is open for those who want to return. Right now, about 75% of our staff has chosen to continue working remotely. Our goal is for the remote work experience to feel just as successful and team-oriented as those who choose to come in.
What I am proposing for the company I founded more than 20 years ago is not going to be easy, but our commitment to our planet’s health is more important than doing things the way they have been done in the past. If becoming better at video conferencing is all it takes not to add tons of CO2 emissions to the environment, then this is something we can and should commit to.
Does this mean that we aren’t going to travel anymore? No, but it does mean we are going to think harder about the necessity of the trip. I feel confident that we can reduce our air travel by 75% and still have strong and successful partnerships. If we can do it, others can. And together we will help build a healthier world.
Important update to clients and partners regarding our response to COVID-19.
As we all know, there are daily changes and ongoing concerns with COVID-19. At Plank, we are acutely aware of our responsibility for the health and safety of our team, our clients, our partners and the general public.
As a result of the severity of the current public health situation, we are, like many other organizations, figuring out the best way to deal with a situation we have never encountered before. Continuing with the status quo is not acceptable, as the public health risk now outweighs any need to be present in our office.
That being said, we are very well prepared to have all team members working remotely, with no interruption to the care and services we provide.
Beginning March 13th, 2020, Plank will be working fully distributed and still reachable through our same standard methods for work-related requests.
All scheduled in-person meetings will change to Zoom video conferences. Any meeting that requires us to meet in-person will be rescheduled. All other communications can be done over phone, email, or text message. Look for updates to any scheduled meetings to come from your Project Manager over the coming days.
We feel that the safety and health of our team members, clients and partners is paramount, and that we as an organization must do our part to take responsible action during this time.
Please be in touch if you have any questions or concerns.
Warren Wilansky & Steve Bissonnette
Mise à jour importante pour nos clients et partenaires concernant notre réponse au COVID-19.
Comme nous le savons tous, il y a des changements quotidiens et des préoccupations persistantes avec le COVID-19. Chez Plank, nous sommes pleinement conscients de notre responsabilité pour la santé et la sécurité de notre équipe, de nos clients, de nos partenaires et du grand public.
En raison de la gravité de la situation actuelle en matière de santé publique, nous cherchons, comme de nombreuses autres organisations, la meilleure façon de faire face à une situation que nous n’avons jamais rencontrée auparavant. Il n’est pas acceptable de maintenir le statu quo, car le risque pour la santé publique l’emporte maintenant sur tout besoin d’être présent dans nos bureaux.
Cela étant dit, nous sommes très bien préparés pour que tous les membres de notre équipe puissent travailler à distance, sans interruption des services que nous offrons.
À partir du 13 mars 2020, Plank fonctionnera entièrement en télétravail et sera toujours accessible via nos méthodes standards pour les demandes liées au travail.
Toutes les réunions prévues en personne passeront à des vidéoconférences Zoom. Toute réunion qui nous oblige à nous rencontrer en personne sera reportée. Toutes les autres communications peuvent être effectuées par téléphone, e-mail ou SMS. Vous recevrez des mises à jour concernant les réunions déjà planifiées à venir de la part de votre chargé de projet au cours des prochains jours.
Nous pensons que la sécurité et la santé des membres de notre équipe, de nos clients et de nos partenaires sont primordiales et que nous, en tant qu’organisation, devons faire notre part pour prendre des mesures responsables pendant cette période.
N’hésitez pas à nous contacter si vous avez des questions ou des préoccupations.
Warren Wilansky et Steve Bissonnette
How Plank’s passion for arts and culture began.
I Have a Little Secret To Share With You
Growing up, I never went to the theatre, walked through the halls of a museum or attended live performances of any kind. My parents never thought of taking me to see a play, visit an art gallery or go to a show (other than the circus). My dad was more of a sports guy who was happy to take me to a baseball game, and my mom was a homebody who was fine with TV as my primary source of entertainment. I grew up with Bugs Bunny and Gary Carter over Warhol and Chopin.
In hindsight, it’s not that my parents were trying to rob me of any specific experience, they just didn’t grow up with the arts themselves. As children of Eastern European immigrants, their parents were not highly educated and worried more about working hard and getting by. Instilling an appreciation of the arts simply wasn’t a priority.
Learning How to Learn
So, it may seem strange that Plank strives to work with arts and culture institutions. If the founder of the company didn’t grow up with an appreciation for the arts — which is how most people first connect with something — why would he choose to build a company that is laser-focused on working mainly with arts organizations?
The reality is, what I missed as a child, I’ve made up for over the past 2-3 decades.
When I picked up the bass guitar as a teenager, my appreciation for a specific kind of art — loud and noisy rock bands — got me thinking about music in a very different way. Rather than appreciating top 40 hits because of their popularity or style, I started to understand the intricacies of each instrument, and how they interacted with each other to create something significant.
When my interest in reading grew, and my curiosity about the world flourished, so did my desire to travel. Travelling led me to culture, which meant a city’s museums, art galleries and theatres. Add to that the availability of information online, I suddenly found myself with a passion for not only the newest punk band out of Washington, DC, but also what was playing at the Globe Theatre in London, UK.
Choosing a Focus
When Plank began in the late 1990s, we weren’t focused on any particular industry. As young, inexperienced designers, we were happy to work on anything, as long as we could design beautiful things and tinker with HTML.
After a few years, it became clear that when we worked on a project a team member was passionate about, it showed. They would take it upon themselves to invest deeply into the project, learn as much as possible, and do their best work. Seeing the results of a project that mattered deeply to someone, was humbling. That was when Plank’s future became crystal clear.
So What Mattered
While non-profit, literary and higher education projects, still held an important place for our team, projects such as music festivals, film festivals, performing arts and live music were crucial for us. Rather than continuing to believe Plank was for everyone, we accepted that defining our niche, and following our passions, was the best and brightest path forward.
The Benefits of Positioning
With our enhanced focus, we have grown, improved and elevated our work in substantial ways. By committing to a specific industry vertical — to put it in corporate-speak — we now have in-depth knowledge on a very precise series of issues and challenges, particular to arts and culture organizations, including:
- Expertise in industry-specific 3rd party integrations with ticketing systems such as Tessitura and Spectrix, as well as marketing platforms like Wordfly or MailChimp.
- Designing user experiences that target both traditional audience outreach, including subscriptions, as well as future ticket buyers, and the challenges that come with each.
- Representing your brand online, telling your story, while ensuring a seamless and streamlined user experience.
- SEO, accessibility, and page loading speeds – we optimize our work for all demographics, devices and connection speeds.
By understanding the particular issues arts and culture organizations struggle with, we know what is needed to ensure a project’s success. Everything we learn is applied to future projects; that’s more than 20 years of knowledge and an unwavering commitment to each and every client.
I can proudly say, focusing Plank’s attention on arts and culture has had a profound effect on who we are and what we enjoy working on every day. What have you done to differentiate your business, and what lessons have you learnt from it?
I’m always interested in learning about others’ successes — and failures — so that we can continue to grow our knowledge and improve our impact. Feel free to reach out at any time at email@example.com.
Here we are at the end of this six-part reflection on Plank’s 20 years of history. Since we’ve published “Year in Review” posts for three out of the four years covered in this chapter, I’ve tried to unearth some of the “deep cuts” of Plank.
2015: Reaching Farther
At the beginning of 2015, we were basking in the recent launch of a new website for the legendary band Rush, and about have a high profile launch at Hot Docs of One Sweet App, an iOS companion app to the documentary Sugar Coated. We were also deep into a website redesign for our long-term client The Sun Magazine and about to start a UX focused refresh of evenko.ca. We were developing good new relationships, like with the World War II museum the Juno Beach Centre and expanding our network of partners and collaborators. In many ways, we were flexing a lot of new muscle.
On the other hand, there were some projects, and relationships not going in the right directions. Some projects were off kilter, relationships were strained and we were worried about how they all would play out. After 15+ years of running Plank, and shepherding through hundreds of projects, I came to the realization there are inherently no bad projects or clients, only ones we don’t match.
The Travelling Salesman
With my time now focused almost exclusively on business development (and setting the vision for the company) I began to take on some of the traditional roles of a company leader. My life began to look more like how I imagined someone who was in charge of “selling” Plank. My day to day work life was now fully emulating how I imagined the travelling salesman of the 1970s. I was travelling and out of the office a lot.
While I came close the previous year, 2015 was the first time I visited Toronto every single month of the year. We’d had clients outside of Montreal since the early 2000s, and Toronto since 2004, but I hadn’t done anything specific to actively look for new work anywhere other than in Montréal. Recently, I decided to challenge myself by seeing if I could build new relationships merely by being in another city on a regular basis. Could I be there often enough it would feel as if I was always around and available? Would it be possible to have more than 25% of our work coming from the shores of Lake Ontario?
The answer was yes. I was completely able to invest 2-4 days a month into scheduling lunches, coffee dates, meetings and brainstorm sessions to new and interesting projects for my team. By attending festivals, conferences, speaker series and marketing keynotes, I was able to meet new people and rekindle old relationships.
Taking a Breather from Bad Neighbours
The Belgo Building and the surrounding neighbourhood is a great place for our Plank HQ, but the tenants in the office spaces right next to us have been, to put it nicely, troublesome.
When we had a women-only gym move in across the hallway from us, I was pleased with their mission and the comfort it brought to their clients to have an inexpensive and safe space. The people who ran it seemed a bit off but mostly harmless. Then one day they decided their new business model was to open it up to anyone and at the cheapest price possible (they were occasionally doing a $99.00 a year promotion). It was clear their new mission was to grab whatever money they could from as many people as they could. With no care for the building, their equipment, or neighbours, the feeling on our floor changed drastically. We now had to deal with shady characters who would harass our female staff, and make a terrible mess of our shared washrooms.
Then they expanded into the space next door to us and turned it into a weight room. We were routinely honoured with the sounds of people grunting loudly and throwing overloaded barbells on the ground. When the gym silently closed its doors one Thanksgiving weekend, leaving many angry members, the Belgo rented the space to a couple of psychics who customized their electricity so badly they caused a fire.
When they left, we let our building administration know we wanted to take over the lease of the space. We had no idea what to do with it but we were happy to take on the extra cost for some peace of mind. Steve had a great idea and approached the successful local start-up Breather to partner with us on renting out the location through their platform. While Steve wasn’t, I was surprised they said yes.
Once our 1,000 square foot space launched, it quickly became a hit and has been booked for all kinds of events. I wasn’t surprised to see it used for off-site company meetings, or by photographers for photo shoots, but I wasn’t expecting pop-up cupcake stores or children’s birthday parties. It’s also great to have access to another closed space for meetings, workshops, and our own events.
On Tour for Rush’s 40th Anniversary
With excitement building within the Rush community about the upcoming tour, we were seeing some really nice recognition for work we did with our friends at Happy Cog on the new website. In March, Communication Arts chose Rush.com as one of their Webpicks of the Week and then we were a runner-up for .Net Magazine’s Redesign of the Year.
While my partner in crime Greg Hoy made it to many more shows than I did, I was happy to not only get a chance to see Rush close to home (twice in Toronto and once in Montreal) but also in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the inaugural show of what was to be their final, 40th anniversary tour.
- The NASA probe Dawn begins its orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres on March 6. I was really hoping there was life on this rock.
- On February 27th, Leonard Nimoy passed away. He lived long and prospered.
- NASA’s New Horizon does a flyby Pluto and delivers back some pretty impressive photos.
- Amazon passes WalMart in stock market valuation. Congrats to the 21st-century version of the Sears Catalogue!
- Apple released its long rumoured Watch. I didn’t buy one.
The team as of December 2015
Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Cassandra Sera — John Hodges — Omar Faruk — Jean Frédéric Fortier — Andrew Rose — Jason Koskie – Debbie Rouleau – Hannah Partridge – Lisa Pomkoski
2016: Losses and Gains
The beginning of 2016 started off with an immense amount of promise. On top of the relaunch of evenko.ca, we were proud to work with Markham Street Films on the launch of the: Celtic Soul website, to support the premiere of the documentary starring Jay Baruchel and Eoin O’Callaghan. The Juno Beach Centre chose us to develop the first phase of their project, From Vimy to Juno which was funded by Heritage Canada’s Commemorating Canada Fund.
We decided to double down on events by hosting Shared Histories at the Black Watch, helping to get Owner Camp to Montreal and relaunching The Breakfast Club. After about 18 months away from our last Breakfast Club, we decided to give it a shot again. Now that we had our Breather space connected directly to the office, we had a very convenient venue where we could easily hold the 20-30 people who had regularly attended our events in the past.
Then in early February, I had to take some personal time away from Plank as my mother’s health had quickly deteriorated and she passed away suddenly. As a result, I was in Ottawa caring for her and my stepdad and could only offer Plank a limited amount of my time. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was worried by not actively doing my job for what, at the time, felt like forever.
The funny thing was I wasn’t at all worried about the team’s ability to do their job. I knew they would keep everything moving just fine and I have and had complete trust in Steve to handle things in my absence. What I did learn is the company now had enough momentum it could easily make it through without my being around for two weeks, and probably much, much longer. It was now impossible for me to any damage to Plank by being away for two weeks.
Milestones & Celebrations
Plank, at the end of the day, is all about the people who work there. So we enjoy when people are able to share with us significant work or personal milestones. It was a real treat to be able to celebrate four key personal milestones with our team.
In February, we were honoured to be able to celebrate Jennifer Lamb’s tenth anniversary at Plank. While she did actually start working with us in 2000, she left to travel and live in Taiwan for about 4 years and re-joined us in 2006. It was great to also see her evolve over the years and take over as our creative director in 2014.
One month later, Jason Koskie and his partner Shannon gave birth to their twins, Elliott and Izzy. The end of the year was marked by two weddings, with Sean Fraser marrying his high school sweetheart and John Hodges his long-distance partner.
The Hack Day
After deciding to find new ways to handle our annual pro-bono projects, we figured doing a Hack Day would be a good way to rapidly develop something of use to a new partner. We wanted to offer our time to local non-profits but also tackle something that wasn’t sprawling in scope. By working intensely on a project or problem we were able to get to know the other teams very well and come out at the end of the day with something of quality in “shippable” shape.
We were able to collaborate over the year on Hack Days that tackled projects covering a variety of topics such as Shakespeare, Accessibility and Artificial Intelligence. With this success, we decided to apply the Hack Day in other ways.
We realized that the Hack Day model could also be applied to our clients. Rather than have a usual project kick-off meeting, our aim was to start our projects by choosing a specific part of the project we all thought would be a challenge to solve without extensive and drawn out work. Instead, we would take our day with the goal of working through and solving that one part. It would allow us to move the project forward immediately and have the teams get to know each other quickly. It would allow everyone to learn what would be the best way to collaborate with the people they would be working with for the next few months.
While on my way to work the morning of November 23rd, I noticed a pretty large fire on Parc Avenue. As I got closer to the corner of Milton, I could see it was the restaurant Alto burning. I got off the bus and crossed over to the eastern side of the street to walk by and see the state of the building. The damage to the restaurant and the building was extensive and it was clear there was no salvaging it.
While I felt terrible for the owners of this decades-old family business, I found myself feeling emotional for losing one of my favourites restaurants in Montreal.
I have a thing for diners. I really enjoy restaurants with expansive menus that can satisfy most cravings my stomach may be entertaining. When I go to eat at a diner I don’t expect anything to be great, but I do expect everything to be a solid 6/10. Alto was always on point. If I had a craving for pizza, a cheeseburger, or chicken brochettes, I could always pick up the phone and get lunch delivered to my desk in 15-20 minutes without fail.
- David Bowie dies days after the release of his final album “Blackstar”. It becomes my soundtrack of 2016.
- President Barack Obama visits Cuba, the first U.S. leader to do so in close to 90 years.
- The United Kingdom choose in a referendum to depart from the European Union. #Brexit
- Donald Trump wins the US election despite losing the popular vote by 3 million ballots. Gotta love the logic of the electoral college.
- Leonard Cohen also passes away and my hometown mourns.
The team as of December 2016
Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Sean Fraser — Andrew Rose — Jason Koskie — Stéphane Boileau — Jerome Devillers — Erin Whitney — Courtney Miller-Trudel — Debbie Rouleau – Lisa Pomkoski
If you want to read our original 2016 in Review, after going through this opus, feel free to learn all about the work we completed, the recent additions to our team and overall happenings.
2017: You Never Can Tell
2017 seemed like an uncertain year and a sense of unpredictability was swirling around our little corner of this big, blue planet.
After almost 15 years collaborating with the Fantasia Film Festival on their website, we were happy for them to move forward with a different digital partner for the coming years. With decades of experience with clients, we are well aware not all relationships are forever and it’s very rare a relationship like this one would continue so long.
We were also happy 2017 gave us the opportunity to start new relationships with organizations like Ryerson University and Pressbooks, rekindle older one with the Student Society of McGill University and Concordia University. We were happy we got to relaunch projects with long-term partners like The Sun Magazine and deepen the relationship with others.
While I was extremely proud to be able to call Evenko a client for the past ten years, the way the relationship changed in 2017 made me even happier. It was a very special moment to realize within a few months, we went from designing and supporting two of their digital properties (Evenko and La Centre Bell) to six.
When we heard the rumours a few years earlier the Groupe CH / Evenko was planning on building a new venue in Laval, I made sure to let Evenko know we were very interested in the idea of working on the website for Place Bell. When it came time for this sizeable concert venue and home for Les Rockets to begin construction, we were excited to be involved in developing their web presence.
For years, we have had evenko’s suite of music festivals on our radar. While we were interested in working on them, we were also sensitive to the concern of centralizing too much of their work with one team, that team being us. When they did reach out to us at the end of 2016 about the redesign of Osheaga, Ile Soniq and Heavy Montreal, I figured now was as good a time to take them on. I felt confident in our ability to deliver them a solid technology platform they could build on moving forward. We made it clear to them how much we wanted to work on these projects and they kindly gave us the opportunity.
They were also kind enough to refer us to their sister company, Groupe Spectra, who asked us to work with them, Telus and Cossette on the redesign of the renamed venue MTelus (formerly the Metropolis). While our role was limited to development, we were excited to get the opportunity to collaborate these leading agency and technology partners.
Down with Jerks
I found myself thinking quite a bit more deliberately about our team, our clients and the trends surrounding us and the technology industry. I was more and more aware of the behaviour of some people and the language being used within the technology industry, which I wrote about here.
I started to become mindful of the way I expressed myself, and the type of words I used. Plank is the one place in the world I am at my most comfortable and least guarded which also means I can be at my most playful, obnoxious, and unfiltered. I realized my pushing boundaries could sometimes go a bit far, so I began to work quietly on how I expressed myself.
I was also very happy to see our investment in diversifying the team was having a direct impact on our culture and dynamic in the office. As a company founded by and run by anglophones in a french-speaking city, we were acutely aware we didn’t represent our city well. While our common work language is still English, having more french speakers from Quebecois, French and Belgian backgrounds means the conversations in the office sound a lot more Montreal-like, a mix of both languages.
This year was the first time since 2000 where we could proudly say we were a majority female company. Women were represented in all areas of our company and were able to affect all aspects of our culture. As a result, we are more mindful and respectful of everyone’s needs, and willing to accommodate alternative schedules that fit each team member best. We still have a ways to go as we figure out how we can better reflect the ethnic diversity of our city, and create more opportunity to hire outside of our usual circles and networks.
Turning Interns into key Employees
With Sean Fraser departing the team in the summer after almost five years with the team, it got me thinking about his path and trajectory at Plank. Sean started with us as an intern in 2011, while he was studying Computational Arts at Concordia. When he finished university, he reached out in the fall of 2012 and then again at the beginning of 2013. While we didn’t have a job for him, his interest in wanting to work for us meant we had to create a job for him, and we did. By the time 2016 rolled around his natural leadership skills had really blossomed and he had made himself the leader of the development team. So when he decided to move on we were sad to lose such a good team member but felt like we had graduated him along to the next stage in his career.
It also got me thinking about Massimo Triassi, a recent intern from Vanier College who soon after found himself with a part-time job here while he continues on with his studies at Concordia. He seems to be following much of the same path as Sean, building his skills on the backs of real projects, while his leadership and collaboration skills grow.
It’s clear while not all internships will lead to quality members of our team, some of them have a real impact on our company.
Bye Bye Breakfast Club
In hindsight, I don’t think starting the Breakfast Club was such a great idea. While they were successful in their own limited way, there was one major problem with the format. Quite simply, the two people who were responsible for arranging and organizing them — principally Erin Whitney and me — were not morning people. So, both of us weren’t in our finest form at 7:30 am.
We finally asked ourselves, why don’t we organize an event in the evenings? With that fateful question, three years too late, we launched our first event called the Dinner Party. It was clear from the start of the first edition it fit us much better. As a private, informal event for a curated group of fewer than 15 people, it created a sense of comradery and trust we were never able to create. It was a pleasure for our first event to dig into the topic of how performance art and digital technology could influence each other.
Traditional Marketing Wins!
I held firmly for the longest time that small digital agencies like ours don’t need to advertise or do any kind of direct marketing. Word of mouth was supposed to be enough to keep us busy and we didn’t have to stoop to traditional marketing, let alone the idea of a tradeshow booth at some event. It wasn’t how we did things and it wasn’t how all other similar companies did things.
As I’ve gotten to know other digital agencies like ours, I’ve learnt yes, most of them do some type of marketing and very few of them are run solely on “inbound leads”. Now, our marketing efforts may not be about putting ads in the Suburban, but we are slowly adding some more traditional marketing avenues to our efforts.
In April 2017, I attended the Museums and the Web Conference in Cleveland, Ohio to present with the Juno Beach Centre to present our work in a trade show booth format. At first, I found myself a bit uncomfortable but once people started to come over to chat, I was in my element. As someone who isn’t good at approaching people at networking events, having a booth to spark conversations felt natural. Later in the year, we chose a traditional sponsorship for an event in New York City called Digital Marketing Boot Camp for the Arts. I had attended the previous year and I decided Plank should have a more formal presence at this tailor-made event for the types of clients we work with.
- Scientists discover Oumuamua, a high-velocity space object believed to be from outside our solar system. Yay, aliens!
- Canadians commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I at the Vimy Ridge Memorial.
- Uber’s company culture and behaviour is exposed and its CEO is forced to resign.
- Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary and Montreal celebrates its 375th birthday, non-stop and all year long.
- Canadian musical icon Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip passes away on October 17th from brain cancer.
The team as of December 2017
Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Jason Koskie — Stéphane Boileau — Jerome Devillers — Erin Whitney — Courtney Miller-Trudel — Debbie Rouleau – Lisa Pomkoski — Christina Garofalo — Chloé Freslon — Véronique Pelletier — Massimo Triassi
If you want to read our original 2017 in Review, after going through this opus, feel free to learn all about the work we completed, the recent additions to our team and overall happenings.
2018: Happy Birthday to Us!
While the beginning of the year was busy with our ongoing relationships, the year began slowly for me. The volume of work needed to get us through to the first half of the year hadn’t yet turned up. So, while winter was turning into spring, I became very concerned with what the summer was going to look like.
Once our new relationships turned into new work in the spring, I knew we were in for a strong year. With an even better fall, we were able to keep the team busy, add a couple of new members and start considering if we could in the next few years get the full-time team to twenty people.
A team of misfits aka The Moneyball team
While other technology companies may have the ability to recruit and hire aggressively thanks to their scale and resources (re: hundreds of millions of dollars in investment money) we need to find people looking for something different. We realized long ago that to try and emulate the culture of Google or Shopify is a fool’s errand. We were on the lookout for people who weren’t ninjas or rock stars and had no interest in hustling or crushing it. We were always on the lookout for people looking for something different, a place where they could be themselves, express themselves and feel accepted no matter who they were and what they were interested in.
We were looking to build Moneyball team (yes, I know, I had to make a baseball reference), which means we were looking to discover people whose abilities we valued that others may have missed, and not care about some things others obsess about. We were looking for the misfits, which I use and mean in the most respectful way possible. When I use the word misfit, Apple’s “Think Different” campaign comes to mind:
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.Steve Jobs, 1997
While there are fancier, higher profile teams, I’ll take the one we have right now. They are a unique bunch, from lots of different backgrounds. They are tied together by a passion for their craft, oh, and in quite a few cases, Dungeons and Dragons.
Sasha Endoh Design
While we may be the sole holder of our lease at the Belgo for over a decade now, I’ve always enjoyed having others share the office with us. From our original co-tenants Black Eye Design to our friends at People Like Us, new people always breathe life into the day to day office happenings. I like this space to be full of people and will do whatever it takes to make it happen.
After having met Sasha Endoh for the first time at Owner Summit in San Diego, CA in 2016 — which is crazy given we live a few blocks away from each other — we decided to keep in touch and check in on each other on a regular basis. I always enjoyed her company so when she mentioned she was looking for a new base to work from and I immediately suggested she camp out at our office. She decided to take us up on our offer and she has been a great addition to the office vibe and culture.
Mila (and Roxy and Cliff and Nobu)
Over the years, we have had three different regular canine visitors to the office. First, there was Nobu, Michel Vrana’s black pug who was a lot of fun but loved to bark at the passing cars. Cliff was with us for a few years as Christiane’s and then eventually Emerson’s little buddy. Roxy was Cassandra’s friend who was always very excited to get to the office first thing in the morning.
In May, I got word Chloé had gotten a dog and wanted to bring her to the office. Without hesitation, I thought it was a great idea and so did most of the team. Other than the occasional accident, she is a near-perfect office dog who doesn’t bark and gets appropriately excited when new people arrive at the office. She may have a dirty old slipper she wants everyone to yank on but her excitement to play is infectious.
20th Anniversary Party
After missing the opportunity to celebrate our 10th and then 15th anniversary, I wasn’t going to let this milestone pass us by. Early on in the year, we committed a budget to organize a party to celebrate our 20th anniversary. The goal was to invite everyone who ever worked at Plank and some key friends and partners who have had a major impact on shaping our company.
I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be to our event so I was pleasantly surprised when a large part of the invitees chose to attend. Some came in from Toronto, Boston and St. John’s and even as far away as Australia.
There was a genuine feeling of comradery and happiness pervading the room all night, with some people catching up after years since they last saw each other. I was touched by all the speeches and the outpouring of kind words. The event was a lot of work to get organized and I have to thank Erin Whitney from the bottom of my heart, as without her the event would have never happened.
Plank ♥ WordPress
While we are completely dedicated to the LAMP development, and specifically the Laravel community, we decided to also invest more seriously into WordPress, which accounts for a large portion of our work. We felt like we weren’t giving it the attention and focus it deserved given the number of our projects that are currently using it.
When we added a new member to our development team this year, we chose to bring on someone who didn’t only do WordPress development but was an expert at it. We chose someone who for much of his professional development career has been invested in WordPress.
It was also quite interesting to reinsert ourselves back into the Montreal community first by attending WordCamp and attending a Q&A session with Matt Mullenweg.
- Europe’s GDPR goes into force and, as expected, everyone scrambles to figure out what it’s all about.
- Facebook and Google are finally being taken to task for their approach to privacy, data and their social and political responsibility. Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai are both asked to testify before Congress.
- Facebook’s share price drops by 20% over a data leak scandal.
- Canada fully legalizes cannabis and the world doesn’t end, except the country smells a bit different.
- In December 2018, Plank turned 20 years old.
The team as of December 2018
Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Jason Koskie — Chloé Freslon — Véronique Pelletier — Debbie Rouleau — Megan McEwan — Jerome Devillers — Courtney Miller Trudel — Massimo Triassi — Christina Garofalo — Lisa Pomkoski — Dave Kellam
If you want to read our original 2018 in Review, after going through this opus, feel free to learn all about the work we completed, the recent additions to our team and overall happenings.
2019: Onwards and Upwards
After 20 years, I’ve given up on predicting how the next year or five are going to unfold. Plank has changed and I have changed so much and in ways I would have never considered.
I want to thank the team from the bottom of my heart for the hard work they do on a daily basis. They are dedicated and constantly striving to be better at what they do. I am really lucky to be surrounded by so many quality people every day.
If it wasn’t for all the people who have come through our company, Plank would not be what it is today. Yes, Steve and I set the overall direction and vision, but a company is a reflection of all the people that have worked there.
We have to also thank all of our clients who decided not only would they trust us with their important projects but pay us a fair amount of money to get them done. The challenges they offer us keeps us learning, advancing and improving our skills.
As I look at Plank through the eyes of someone who is 47 and not 27, my perspective on what we are doing and what we have accomplished is very different. When we were first starting, the idea of looking ahead more than a year or two seemed crazy while, now, I have no problem thinking now in 5 or 10-year eras.
For the first time, I find myself thinking about what Plank’s future is beyond me. What can we do over the next few years to make sure we turn this organization into something that can continue on for the next twenty, fifty, or one hundred years? I’m looking forward to that challenge.
Regular readers of our Journal know that we are marking our 20th anniversary as a company this year. To celebrate, we invited our alumni and friends to come together and party like it’s…1998.
Last Saturday night, we filled the Lion D’Or with over a hundred pals of Plank and, we can safely say a great time was had by all. Steve and I want to thank absolutely everyone for coming out, especially those alumni who travelled from far and wide to be there.
We also wanted to take a moment to thank Erin for organizing the affair, and give a shout-out to all of those who contributed to the evening:
Allen Mendelsohn, our emcee, for shining a light on Plank’s history with a very entertaining presentation.
Alumni Christiane Magee, Geoffrey Weeks, Nancy Beaton, and GW Brazier for sharing their memories and well-wishes.
The band Natation for bringing the rock ‘n’ roll.
DJ Marc Beauchamp for keeping us dancing late into the night.
Co/Crea Studio for the unique handmade ceramic gifts.
And Paul Stewart for taking beautiful photographs, some of which you can enjoy below…
If you’re on teh Facebookz, check out our photo album and get to tagging!
The Fabtastic Plankers (Steve, Christiane, Jenn, and Warren): by Luke Séguin-Magee circa 2002
Plank was founded in 1998, by some fresh university graduates hoping to make a go of it on our own. It wasn’t easy. The first chapter of our company history was full of ups and downs then, fortunately, ups again. Plank’s growing pains included more than a few layoffs, as we learned how to do that whole financial planning thing. But we made it through the dot-com bubble and its aftermath, managed to rebuild our team, and landed a high-profile client who challenged our abilities and helped define us for years to come.
2000: New digs for a growing team
As the ‘90s came to a close, Plank was starting to feel like a real company — not just a room full of freelancers. Not long after officially incorporating as Plank Multimedia Inc. (doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?) we were evicted from our first office. With the building going condo, we had to quickly move our growing team to new digs.
We pooled our resources with another company and good friends of ours, Black Eye Design, to find a space we could share. We settled on the Belgo Building, a gallery-filled building in the heart of downtown Montreal.
Work-wise, we built on some solid client relationships (like NYC development company Standpipe, and Montreal PR company Columbia Communications), and launched some of our first larger, full-scale projects for fast-growing local businesses and artists.
Montreal’s tech scene was burgeoning, and we were happy to lend our design sensibilities to two leaders in security-focused solutions. The first was a website for e-signature product OnSign, a division of Silanis Technologies, which led to a redesign of the main company website. ZeroKnowledge, a privacy and security-focused “start-up” (although those were just called “new companies” at the time) called on us to develop some digital communication tools, specifically newsletters and a mini-site called Privacy Zone.
We also launched websites for local fashion photographer Daniel Cianfarra and graffiti collective Urban X-Pressions. In both cases, we were encouraged to push the boundaries of what was possible from a design, animation, and technology perspective. We chose both sites to be 100% driven by Flash — at the time still owned by Macromedia — so that we could offer a fully animated and interactive experience. Both sites won Macromedia Site of the Day that year, and quickly raised the profile of our small company.
- The Dow peaks at 11,722.98 before the Dot-com bubble bursts.
- Sony’s PlayStation 2 is released, and much Crash Bandicoot playing occurs.
- Apple introduces the public beta of Mac OS X.
- Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich files a lawsuit against Napster. Napster bad!
- George W. Bush defeats Al Gore in the U.S. Presidential election, but the final outcome is not known for over a month because of disputed votes in Florida.
Warren – Christiane – Steve – Jenn – Molly – Mamma J
2001: Blame the bubble
While the bursting of the dot-com bubble marked the second half of 2000, we started the year confident with Plank’s direction. We had a strong team and what seemed to be a sizable amount of work and clients, with a good mix of ongoing, recurring work, and passion projects that allowed us to grow and experiment.
What we didn’t have was business experience. We blamed the dot-com bubble for our first financial struggles as a company. The reality was that we didn’t have any type of financial plan to last for one month, let alone three or four. We had no concept of saving, planning, or projecting the company’s health. So, we laid off two members of our team early in the year and moved forward, hoping for the best.
Despite our financial struggles, our confidence and momentum as a company got a boost by a series of interviews, events, and press. In March, I was interviewed by Hour Magazine, a Montreal weekly paper. A month later, the Montreal Gazette did a photoshoot with the women of Plank for an upcoming women and technology article about Digitelles, the Montreal chapter of DigitalEve. I was asked to speak at the Youth Employment Services’ 4th Annual Entrepreneurship Conference, and Christiane was interviewed by Hour Magazine, Pixelsurgeon.com, and Unwind Magazine.
We kept picking up new clients and projects and exploring different creative directions. We got the chance to make some animated commercials for CBC’s Galaxie Television, and started working with a new entertainment company, TheFunniest.com. Despite the North American economy being deep in a recession, everything felt like it was going in the right direction. We even sent Christiane to our first industry conference, NXNE in Toronto (we’d heard about this thing called ‘networking’ and figured we’d give it a try).
Then one fall day, I walked into the office and sat down at my desk like any other day. After a few minutes, Michel from Black Eye hollered from across the office that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York City. My first reaction was “that’s a shame, I hope no one other than the pilot of that small plane was hurt”. I couldn’t have imagined what we would learn over the next few minutes. It wasn’t a small little plane. It wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t the last thing that would happen that September 11th, 2001. As the day wore on, it became increasingly clear that an uncertain world lay ahead. On that day, everything related to Plank felt wholly insignificant.
- Wikipedia is launched on January 15.
- The U.S. Justice Department decides that it won’t break up Microsoft.
- Almost 3,000 people are killed in the September 11 attacks.
- Napster is closed down by court order, Napster still bad!
- Apple releases the iPod, we know what’s coming next!
Warren – Christiane – Steve – Jenn – Molly
2002: A skeleton crew rights the ship
We learned from our financial struggles in 2001, put in place some of our first financial plans, and started to get some external advice. We may not have been good at acting on any of it, but we finally knew how the company was doing. It wasn’t great. At the end of the first quarter of the year, we realized we’d need to make another round of layoffs.
We scaled back to a core team of myself, Christiane, Steve, and Jenn but a continued dearth of new work ended up seeing just the two founders, Christiane and myself, as the last two standing.
On a personal level, this was a major blow. I figured that Jenn and Steve would be with Plank for years to come. They felt like family, and I couldn’t imagine Plank without them. For the first few weeks after their tearful goodbye, I questioned if the company would continue to exist. I wondered if it even should exist.
After a few weeks of reflection, I decided to use every bit of my effort to ensure Plank’s long-term existence. This little thing we built was ours to mould, change, and adjust as we saw fit, in any way that we wanted, and that was still exciting — despite the uncertainty. Even with so many things hitting rock bottom at the beginning of 2002, there were some positive signs of things to come.
TheFunniest.com, who we had done a few small projects with the year before, renamed themselves Airborne Entertainment and were growing quickly thanks to their new focus on developing licensed mobile content. They were coming to rely on us as a design partner for their growing suite of branded content.
Seeking inspiration, I attended SXSW in Austin and boy, was I rewarded. For the first time, I felt a part of a broader community of like-minded people, working hard to create inspired work on the internet. The interactive part of the conference was still small, and I was able to meet a substantial amount of the attendees and have many meaningful conversations.
Perhaps still a little high from the experience, I acted on a whim and emailed documentary film legend Michael Moore offering to help with his web presence. To my surprise, he phoned us that very afternoon. Later that spring, we launched a redesign of his main website and by the end of the year, a new website for his film Bowling for Columbine. Quite suddenly, the profile of our company grew enormously, as did the traffic to our website. It was the beginning of an eight-year relationship and a game-changing opportunity for Plank.
As the year came to an end, we could safely say we had righted the ship and could to hire again to cover the growing volume of work that myself, Christiane, and some freelancers couldn’t handle any longer.
- NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey space probe begins to map the surface of Mars using its thermal emission imaging system.
- WorldCom files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the largest such filing in United States history.
- The Canadian Dollar sets all-time low against the US Dollar (US$0.6179).
- Michael Moore’s documentary, “Bowling for Columbine”, premieres at the Cannes Film Festival.
- UN Security Council under Resolution 1441 unanimously approves a resolution on Iraq, forcing Saddam Hussein to disarm or face “serious consequences.”
Warren – Christiane
2003: Getting the band back together
We were beyond thrilled that, less than a year after laying them off, we’d be in a position to hire Steve and Jenn back. Unfortunately for us, Jenn had already taken off for Taiwan. Steve hadn’t gone quite so far, having taken a job at another digital agency nearby.
“I’d still see Warren and Chrissie and always knew they’d make it through. When the time came that they could hire me back, it wasn’t a tough call. I am still thankful for that short break as I learnt a ton — and was able to bring this back and apply it.”Steve Bissonnette
Taking this first step to “get the band back together” helped to develop some pride in ourselves and what we had fought so hard to build and keep alive. We also got the opportunity to start working with a few new part-time friends, Geoffrey Weeks and Matthew Morrow.
We kept ourselves busy with work from the Canada Health Infoway, more TV and print ads for CBC’s Galaxie Television, and Lux Productions. We also redesigned the website for Montreal’s legendary Fantasia Festival, beginning what would become a decade-long relationship. And that Michael Moore fellow kept us busy with his growing web presence.
For a second year, I headed back to Austin to attend SXSW. This time around, I went into the event with a different level of confidence as I knew what to expect, had some friends to catch up with and was very comfortable navigating the event and the city. It helped that our work on the website for Bowling For Columbine was nominated for Best Film Website. At the award ceremony when the film was announced, we got a much larger ovation than any of the other nominees, but the MC reminded the audience of a little fact, which echoed exactly how I felt about our chances.
“Hey, don’t forget that this is an award for the website, not the film!”
We lost to Ice Age: The Movie, that groundbreaking and culturally relevant film. Ah, well, it was a fun website.
- The Iraq War begins with the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and allied forces.
- Concorde makes its last commercial flight, bringing the era of airliner supersonic travel to a close, at least for the time being.
- The Recording Industry Association of America (or RIAA) files copyright lawsuits against Internet users for trading songs online.
- Apple launches iTunes which is an immediate success.
- In the biggest blackout in the history of North America, some 50 million people in the northeastern US and southern Canada lose power.
Warren – Christiane — Steve — Matthew
2004: A wild ride
Early in 2004, a major change was brewing that would shape Plank’s direction more than anything else in the past five years. To keep ourselves from operating in “survival mode,” we got some outside help to do some more long-term planning. It was during one of those meetings that I mentioned something like “…when we get to that issue in about five years, we can handle it this way…” Christiane went pale white. It was only later that she articulated her feeling in that moment — doing this for another five years (or more) wasn’t what she saw for herself. We began to put plans in place so she could move on to new challenges in June.
“Choosing to leave Plank was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make in my life. But the relationship Warren and I had meant that we could discuss it and explore what my reaction was really about. I will never regret that decision and, in retrospect, it helped Warren to be able to take on a full leadership role that was not possible when we were co-leading. He is a natural and the result is evident. I’m proud that my short 4 years as Plank’s co-owner helped to form it’s foundation, but Warren has really moulded Plank into what it is today.”Christiane Magee, Plank co-founder
While the volume of work was increasing weekly with our partners over at Airborne Entertainment — I can count 12 different projects we launched for them that year — we also got the opportunity to work with the National Film Board on the redesign of their project Citizen Shift, and collaborate on two projects with Federation CJA. We were also proud to be profiled in Taschen’s Web Design Studios 2. But there was one series of projects that defined us this year and helped to define the company as a whole for many years to come.
When it was announced publicly that Michael Moore’s next film would be Fahrenheit 9/11, an exposé on the first four years of the Bush presidency, we knew that we were in for a wild year.
With a US election campaign in full swing, working with Michael Moore was a deeply rewarding challenge. We discussed and decided that, for the run-up to the election, we would turn MichaelMoore.com into an anti-24-hour news network, gathering and sharing news from all over the country, but submitted by the people, by individuals. On election day, the site took in stories of voting irregularities, and heat mapped them for the world to see. The site managed to stay alive even with the influx of tens of millions of unique users. We survived DDoS attacks, floods of emails, and attempts by websites like the Drudge Report to discredit us.
While the US election didn’t go as any of us had hoped, we had to be proud of our hard work on a project that, at the very least, changed the minds of some people for the better. As a tiny team, we got the opportunity to expand our skill set on challenges that we wouldn’t normally get access to. We learnt what it meant to work under the pressure of a fixed deadline, with real consequences.
- Mark Zuckerberg launches Facebook from his Harvard dormitory room.
- Google introduces Gmail: the launch is met with scepticism on account of the April 1 launch date.
- The CIA admits that there was no imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
- “Fahrenheit 9/11”, directed by Michael Moore is the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
- George W. Bush is re-elected President of the United States. ‾_(ツ)_/‾
Warren — Steve — Matthew — Geoff — Lawrence
Your public is online — serve them there, too
In April I had the pleasure to visit Vancouver to attend the Canadian Museum Association and Museums and the Web annual conferences. They are two of the leading annual events for museum professionals, and a great place to learn more about the industry, meet new people and return inspired with new ideas. Since museums are one of the areas we are most passionate about at Plank, I’m happy I got the chance to immerse myself in thinking about them for days on end.
Ultimately, the technology and usability challenges of these essential organizations all come down to people. And the people I started to think about were those who visit a museum website but will never step through the doors of the physical building. I believe there’s a huge — often missed — opportunity to reach online-only visitors that museum leadership needs to pay attention to.
Online visits on the rise
During his presentation, Ken Amaral from the Department of Canadian Heritage shared some recently captured sectoral data from 2015. The focus of his presentation was to explore the current state of museums and where they might be headed. While he offered a vast array of data about the sector (did you know Canada’s Heritage sector employs 36,000 people?), it was the specific information on online interactions that got my attention.
- Online visits 203 million, up 50% since 2011
- 30% (60.9 million) of these are instead of a physical visit
- Online exhibitions have doubled since 2011
It’s great to see the growth in online visits, and it’s clear that museum websites are very useful planning tools. But what really interests me is that slice of visitors who choose the online over the physical visit, the proliferation of online exhibitions, and the associated opportunity for growth.
A childhood without the arts
Thinking back to my childhood, I don’t have any memories of going to a museum. I remember going to amusement parks, baseball games, and the circus, but don’t think I ever gazed in fascination at a painting. Growing up in a lower middle class, divorced household, exposure to arts and culture was not at the top of the activity list. I suspect art galleries and museums were seen as places not made for people “like us”.
When I was in my early twenties, I finally discovered the world of the internet and purchased my first 2400 baud modem. It was slow, and my Mac Classic could only display 256 shades of grey, but it gave me the opportunity to pursue my love of music and learn about album jacket designers. Eventually, that would turn into an interest in poster design, and magazine design and… you can see where I’m going here. My ability to discover and consume information online led quickly to an emotional connection with art and design that didn’t exist before.
When I consider the relationship with any cultural institution and digital technology, I think about my younger self. With no adult-driven introduction to the arts, I had no opening to experience it or have it become a part of my DNA. Today, with access to the internet, a child or a teenager has the chance to visit and learn about the arts online. They have access to a world I never did as a child of the 1970’s. Growing up now offers the freedom to connect emotionally with the arts, and that’s through digital, first.
Museums need to expect and plan for the vast majority of first interactions to happen online. In addition to the individual I’ve described above, anyone planning a trip to a new city will research what to do online. The chances of them visiting your institution are going to be greatly weighted by how you are presented on your website, social media, and reviewed by their friends and acquaintances. A potential visitor’s opinion of you will be shaped by digital, first.
Some people will never visit
While converting digital visitors into actual attendees to your museum is a key goal, I want to take the time to consider why you should invest into the people who may never visit your museum.
The reality is that a lot of people, for a variety of reasons, will never visit your museum, ever. The Louvre, the most popular art museum in the world, had 8.1 million visitors in 2017. For everyone on the planet to visit the Louvre, it will take 938 years at the current pace. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada’s most visited museum, with 1.3 million visitors in 2017, will gladly serve the whole world in 5153 years.
As special as your museum is, there are so many legitimate reasons someone will not or may never visit.
Even the most adventurous and well-resourced traveller can’t go everywhere. In larger cities, the competition is high for tourist dollars, and smaller towns may not get a lot of out-of-town visitors. Locals may be too stuck in their routines to visit, or perhaps they’re uncomfortable in crowds or have a physical challenge that prevents them from visiting.
Economic and class barriers will also limit your in-person visits. Some people simply cannot afford the time, transportation, and/or entrance fees, while others don’t see your museum as a place for them. I think this was the case with my own family. They saw a museum or an art gallery as high culture, places for fancy people. As a result, I had no frame of reference for what a museum really offered until much later in life.
I’m obviously not suggesting that your museum website could ever reach the entire population of the globe. But why not broaden your scope and think about how to engage people who will never walk through your doors?
A duty to serve with generosity
As an employee, patron, visitor, or supporter of your institution, I realize it may seem counter-productive to think about catering to someone who won’t set foot in the building and interact with a collection that you love. But I truly believe that museums have a duty to serve a larger community than those who are compelled to visit in person.
Museums and heritage organizations are driven by a mission to educate and to inspire curiosity. Their physical buildings preserve and interpret objects and artifacts carrying great scientific and cultural significance. While physical preservation is an important function of museum buildings, display and interpretation don’t need to be confined by physical walls.
Making collections available online may be initially costly but, if you serve researchers, it can significantly free up staff from responding to information requests. Offering interactive companion experiences to physical exhibits can inspire curiosity in non-visitors, and extend the engagement of an in-person visitor. Online exhibitions have great educational value and are an excellent classroom resource – with the bonus of exposing young people to your museum.
Whatever your institution’s mission, your goals should be outward-facing. You are entrusted with important knowledge, and I believe it’s a duty to share as much of this as you can. Making use of digital platforms to spread the knowledge you hold is a question of sharing access to information with a generosity of spirit. You exist to serve the public good, to make our society a better place, to ensure the next generation makes humanity better.
What comes next
By connecting with the next generation, you are ensuring the future viability of your institution. As each generation is different, the way you reach out to them has to be different. The way you get them involved is going to be very different than your current attendees, donors and board of directors. By using digital platforms effectively, you have the opportunity to inform, educate, and inspire this impressionable group. Digital is one of the main, if not the most critical touch point for outreach and connection.
In reviewing the Twitter accounts of different museums, I see an opportunity for digital growth. Comparing the number of annual museum visitors to 10 major museums to their total Twitter followers, roughly 1/6th the total annual attendees are social media followers. This represents the opportunity to develop a continued conversation with some commitment from the organization. When a visitor is at a museum, you have an opportunity to develop a deep relationship. With social media, you have the opportunity to develop a shallow but persistent connection, which you can grow and deepen over the long run.
While some museums have come to understand the importance of digital, in many cases, the financial commitment still isn’t there. Unless there is a commitment to build an internal team or have a dedicated digital partner, the digital budget is a small line item in your marketing budget. If you are willing to invest vast sums of money on the acquisition of a new collection or to update your facilities, you should consider your digital experience with the same level of thought and commitment.
As the main channel to communicate, reach new audiences, and connect with people who may never visit your museum, digital should be an essential and heavily funded part of your overall image and strategy. Let’s also remember the other benefit of digital, which is that you can measure your investment in many different ways.
Funding digital projects that have no associated fee requires a shift in budget allocations. But entrance fees tend to be a small percentage of a museum’s revenue. Sotheby’s states that The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC sees only 2% of their operating budget from entrance fees. (The aforementioned Canadian Heritage survey reports 10% of total revenues from admission fees.) They also suggest that museums look to licensing as an untapped revenue source. They’re pessimistic about donor revenue, but here’s an area where increasing the quality of your digital presence could make a big difference. The next generation of donors are out there, they’re digital natives, and they value emotional connections. It’s time to speak their language.
Connections beyond transactions
While your site can be a revenue generator and a great marketing platform to get people through your doors, your focus can be much more than transactional. You have an opportunity to do more than use digital to capture visitors; you have a chance to connect emotionally with people and offer them new, fresh and companion experiences. Your real opportunity is to ensure the long-term existence and relevance of your museum by developing meaningful connections, in person or not.