Centre Gallery
Kioken Design
Adobe products used:
Adobe® Illustrator®
Adobe Photoshop®
Adobe After Effects®
Top New York Web design firm sports a killer game culture and a client list to die for

By Joe Shepter

If you poke your head into New York's Kioken Design( U.S) around 9 a.m., the only people you're likely to find are the ones who have been up all night. In a dishevelled room full of PCs and empty Coke cans, you'll stumble upon bleary-eyed staff members sitting enraptured in front of a wide-screen TV, locked in various stages of virtual combat as they frag their way through the video game "Street Fighter."

"Please don't write about the games," pleads Josh Davis, a top designer for the firm. Davis's request only emphasises the Kioken mystique. You see, the kids from John Street are game freaks, and a whole mythology has bubbled up around their obsession. The founders of Kioken met playing "Street Fighter"; star designer Davis was hired because he liked to play video games; new employees are given game consoles before they get assignments; and you have to be able to beat somebody at the firm before you can get hired. Okay, some of that's untrue.
However, it is true that the firm's partners, Gene Na and Peter Kang, met playing "Street Fighter." Kang had just arrived in New York City. "I was a college preppie with Timberland boots," he recalls, "and Gene was this East Village guy with spiked hair."

There the story begins. They continued to play games together. Kang found a job he hated, clerking at Banana Republic; Na already had a job he hated, working in fashion. But if you were a geek in 1995, you got into the Internet. Ergo, Kang and Na got into the Internet.

"When we first started we didn't know anything about graphic design," says Na, Kioken's creative director. "We would look at the Web and we would look at TV and print design — and we would wonder why the Web didn't look anything like the other [media]."

Their first adventure was a private project called Fine Magazine. That helped bring them to the attention of Eliot Kang (no relation to Peter Kang), the Korean-American founder of Kang & Lee Advertising (U.S). Kang gave the boys Fifth Avenue office space and expert lessons in the art of business. Soon, a Web venture called Kioken was off and running.

The kids did good work, and word got around, as it tends to do when a guy like Eliot Kang is paying the cab fare. Soon Kioken was doing projects for Canon and Lucent, through which the firm later picked up a site for the pop singer Brandy. Their work for Brandy brought them a reel of entertainment clients, including their much hyped, now client-altered Jennifer Lopez site.

Their style is unusually inventive and innovative: Floating palettes and high-impact graphics dominate. Movies and TV are often the models, while careful typography and the traditional Swiss grid are reserved for Switzerland (where Kioken does not have an office). "People in our generation grew up playing video games," says COO Tony Lee, "and we assume they have that understanding of interfaces."

"Most studios assume that the average user is an idiot," says Davis, "and they design in a way that everyone remains an idiot. We try to design sites that at least educate the user."

Their best-known site these days is an image project for Puff Daddy's Badboy Records (U.S). "We tried to think of how to go beyond the limits of page-to-page information and create sequences of information," says Na. "It starts out much like a credit sequence and then you're in." The site has even created a new word in the Web community. "Having your Badboy" now means to have the perfect client who lets you create a project that really shows off the strengths of your firm.

But the best trick of the firm, actually, is hiring — and retaining — top talent. "This office is a playpen," says Kang, "and I wouldn't have it any other way."

It's got to be these days. A fellow like Davis can command a professional athlete's salary on the open market, but Kioken has worked hard to recruit and retain people like him. Na and Kang think nothing of flying prospective employees in from Europe and parking them in Manhattan hotels. And for people like Davis, there is nothing but encouragement for the myriad experimental sites he maintains, such as Praystation (U.S) and Once Upon A Forest (U.S), both of which took top honours at the recent Flash Film Festival.

"Gene and Peter see the value in the experimentation, and that seeps into Kioken projects like Badboy," says Davis.

"I'm fiercely protective of the environment here," Kang says. "The moment anyone feels like they have to come to work, then that's a problem." In other words, he sees no changes in the future.

In fact, only one basic thing has changed in these few years — and that's the preppie kid named Peter Kang who came to New York in a pair of Timberlands. "I've got spiked hair now," he says.

Adobe.com Senior Editor Joe Shepter could not beat anyone at Kioken at any video game.
back to top