Geek Speak: Eric Karjaluoto, creative director at smashLAB

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      Eric Karjaluoto says writing a book is a bit like running a marathon. The 35-year-old, Prince George-born designer spent about a year putting together his first book, Speak Human: Outmarket the Big Guys by Getting Personal, which will come out on November 1.

      Karjaluoto, who lives in Burnaby, is the creative director at smashLAB, the Vancouver-based digital agency he founded in 2000 with Eric Shelkie. In 2007, smashLAB created Design Can Change, a Web site that encourages graphic designers to educate themselves about climate change and use their skills to promote sustainable practices.

      That same year, the company also launched MakeFive, an on-line community that invites users to create, vote on, and comment on top-five lists. In 2008, smashLAB created undrln, a Digg-like site that allows members to post and vote on stories of interest to the advertising, marketing, and design industries. Karjaluoto blogs about related topics at ideasonideas.

      The Georgia Straight reached Karjaluoto by phone at his office in Gastown.

      Why did you write Speak Human?

      Well, the big thing that we were seeing was that there were a lot of clients that would come to us that didn’t have the budget to work with us but needed that information nevertheless. The most common kind of challenge that we saw was that people would come in wanting a Web site, thinking that it would immediately change their business. They didn’t think about those bigger “What stories are we telling?”, “How are we connecting with our audience?”, “What’s our value?”—kind of these really basic principles, and we felt like the book was a place to share that.

      Additionally, the big part here is that it’s changed so much in the last few years, where even the notion of self-publishing that was sort of—how would you say?—it was a very amateurish kind of thing, let’s say, three, four years ago. People just didn’t see that as a viable alternative. We see people like Seth Godin, who are pretty much cottage industry. He’s probably the best-known marketing writer in the world, I would say, and a large part of his work has been done on his own independently. So, I think those opportunities for small businesses to connect with audiences—it’s just a lot easier for them to do that now than ever before.

      You mention early in the book that social media can be a drag for big companies. How does social media benefit small companies?

      I think the biggest part is it gives them a direct pipeline to the people who buy their stuff. So, here’s an example right now—just a brief one—of a challenge we’re having with a very big organization. We’re trying to run this book through Amazon. Eric’s on the phone behind me just trying to get a phone number for Amazon. It’s impossible. They don’t want you to talk to them.

      But, when you’re a small company, you really do want to actually have that interaction with your audience. I think that’s a huge opportunity, in that you don’t have to go through these—even being able to bypass—traditional advertising routes and really go directly to the people who really want your stuff. That simply wasn’t as easy to do as it is now. But, additionally, if you’re releasing a product, you can use social media to help kind of test it. Crowdsource the media that you’re going to use in marketing it. Crowdsource feedback on it. And, to have that direct back and forth going on with really limited cost, I think that’s a lot more exciting than all of the talk we hear on viral.

      I think viral is just a big—it’s like a lottery ticket. We’re hoping that something magically gets us a ton of free publicity. But the real gem of all of this is that—let’s say my mom used to run a company that sold cross-country ski gear and figure-skating gear and this sort of thing. For her to directly contact those audiences with the tools now and have kind of that instant back and forth and additionally to be able to kind of tap that audience for what they wanted, to be augmenting things on the fly, we’ve never had that before. I think that’s really exciting.

      You call smashLAB a digital agency. What is a digital agency?

      That’s a good question. Basically, we’re a bit of a funny thing. We help people figure out what their stories are and then articulate them mostly on the Web. Not in all settings, but most of time we’re using the Web to spread those stories. That’s the best kind of description I have for you.

      I think we’re a little bit of an odd hybrid in that we take on a lot of our own projects, I think, more than most companies our size do. We’re very hands on with our clients. We’re often involved directly in strategy and messaging and marketing but right through to build of assets. So, if they need identity systems, logos, taglines, we help with all of that as well. Something that we’ve really struggled with is that the capacity we’re often pulled in with is sort of a problem-solving capacity. We have clients with often very divergent challenges and we try to solve them, and often the Web becomes a part of that solution.

      Since you launched Design Can Change two years ago, what kind of an impact do you think that’s had on climate change?

      You know, it all depends on the day that you talk to me. The cynic in me thinks probably almost nothing—in that, when I go into the food court and I watch all these Styrofoam boxes walk out of there, I just don’t think that we’re making a big enough difference in this. I think that it came out at a time where there wasn’t that much written on that topic for designers specifically.

      So, I think it opened up a certain amount of dialogue. But I think we’re dealing with such small things. I wish it were a bigger impact than it has had, but I really don’t think it’s had a huge impact. I think it’s been good in that it spurred some discussion. But the kind of change we need to take on to make a difference is going to be much, much bigger, and I don’t see that happening yet. It’s a sad part.

      On the other hand, my flip thing is that a lot of people have come to us and said, “You know what? We do things differently because of that Web site.” We’ve met studios who say, “You know, we actually changed our processes.” But I really kind of vacillate. I think, as a society, we’re more sustainable when it suits us. So, we feel good about maybe buying, oh, more energy-efficient light bulbs or what have you. But, when it comes down to it, few of us want to get rid of our cars.

      So, we’ve really talked about it a lot, and we do want to take on another project like that but more of a consumer focus sort of thing. I think that’s what the next step is around sustainability for designers specifically. Not just to look at what we make things with, but how do we spread messages that kind of raise consciousness around the fact that everyone’s decisions actually have such a huge impact. But that’s a ways off. I’m hoping next spring we’ll be able to tackle that. Those are tough projects because we don’t get any outside funding for them. So, basically, we need a few lucrative months to kind of allow us to take that time out to do those things.

      What’s next for MakeFive?

      MakeFive, I think, largely is sitting in stasis. We put so much effort into it over about a year and a half timeline, and right now what we’re doing is letting it go on its own, letting it bubble. If a thing comes up that’s a major issue we need to address, then we tackle that. But we’re not really concentrating on it on a day-to-day basis.

      Curiously, in the last six weeks, our traffic has been up about 25 percent. So, it’s doing a pretty steady climb up, but much slower than we had ever hoped for. We really thought it would take off a lot faster. I don’t think we’re ever going to get rich off of MakeFive or anything. There’s no delusions of that occurring. But it’s nice to see that traffic is kind of getting more and more steady. Every once in a while, we make a little tweak, where we see that if we augment this it’ll make it a little better for the users.

      Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at