Next up was a meeting with Jim Coudal, the genuinely visionary head of Coudal & Partners. (Although something tells me he’d squirm a little at that adjective.)
Just in case you don’t know, Coudal used to be a traditional design agency until Jim got sick of having his success depend ‘on the whims of people who are stupider than we are.’
Forced by financial straits into a reassessment of the agency’s very raison d’être, he changed that raison completely. Instead of selling other people’s stuff, Coudal now sells its own stuff – most famously the beautiful, idiosyncratic Field Notes notebooks and other products.
‘If you have the skills to do client work, you have the skills to make your own product,’ Jim says in an interview with 37 Signals that tells the Coudal story very well. ‘You’re selling yourself short by selling that on a work-for-hire basis.’
Coudal & Partners’ office is on 400 N May Street, so I tapped that address into Google Maps and off I went. (Google Maps basically got me to everywhere on this trip. It was brilliant. Whatever did we do without it?)
The walk gets a little hairy, at least for the out-of-towner. Suddenly I was walking through scrubby industrial back lots, with very little to see except a huge truck idling on one street like the juggernaut in Duel, and a street sign that seemed about as far from home as I was:
I persevered, though, and eventually came to the warehouse building where Google insisted Coudal & Partners resided.
Much as the home of Path had surprised me, so did this place. Could this anonymous building really be the home of the wry, laconic and restlessly creative Coudal? Apparently it couldal. (Sorry.)
Inside, Jim met me at the reception desk and immediately apologised for not being able to spare more than an hour and a quarter.
‘I have to pick up my daughter from basketball,’ he explained, quite unnecessarily, as an hour and a quarter sounded like a generous slot indeed.
Very quickly, I realised I‘d been a fool to wonder about Coudal & Partners’ location. It’s perfect. This is no brushed-steel, shimmery-glass Creative Consultancy sort of place. It’s a wonderfully practical, working space – a place where they Make Things. You know, like people used to. So an industrial site makes perfect sense.
Not that the offices aren’t attractive. Especially in the bright January sunlight, which floods through the tall windows into the high-ceilinged, brickwork spaces. It felt like a lovely place to work.
Jim took me on a little tour, revealing just how much of a workshop the place is. There were boxes of materials, and cutting mats thick with sheets of sample paper and card. (Jim showed me the stock they’re planning to use on the next Field Notes cover. Lovely.)
Around a corner and through a door, we came to the heart of the Field Notes enterprise, with tall ranks of neatly indexed, blue storage crates, each containing some specific piece of merchandise.
‘Let’s get you some swag,’ Jim said, and loaded me up so generously with notebooks and other gifts that I won’t be short of anything to write on, or with, for some considerable time. Then we repaired to his office for a chat.
I mentioned the 37 Signals interview (see above), and Jim agreed that was the one that sets the story out best. He was off for New Zealand soon, to give a talk (at Webstock).
‘I know they’re basically expecting that 37 Signals interview again,’ he said a little wearily, ‘But I’ve done that. I’m going to do something different.’
He wanted to talk, instead, about working across analogue and digital media. Coudal’s two key ‘products’ – Field Notes and advertising platform The Deck – are from opposite ends of that spectrum.
‘Field Notes is totally analogue. There will never be a Field Notes iPad app,’ he said. (Of course, you can order your Field Notes stuff through their website, but I know what he means.) The Deck, on the other hand, is entirely digital.
And in the end, Jim said, those distinctions barely matter any more. I suggested that in many cases they’re different expressions of the same thing. Like journals – you can get your newspaper in print or digitally. It’s the same product, albeit treated in ways that differ according to the medium. But the essence remains.
Newsweek had just announced its final print edition, for example. That didn’t make it any less Newsweek.
‘Right,’ Jim agreed. ‘Actually, I might steal that example.’
All this reminded me of my chat with Naz Hamid in San Francisco. The point is no longer about the method of delivery. The novelty of digital has more or less gone. It’s a mainstream channel now – and has been for quite a while. We’re back to ‘Is this a quality product or service?’ Not, ‘Look what we can do with digital!’ (Thank heavens.)
In Coudal’s case, as Jim said, ‘It’s the same people. It’s the same business, just doing different things. Some digital, some analogue. It wasn’t planned. There is no plan.’
He presents it as a wonderfully ad hoc proces – just have ideas, do stuff, and it works or doesn’t. Or, as in the case of Coudal’s Jewelboxing service, works for a while then starts to wind down.
And he says he takes a similarly laissez-faire attitude to his team and their work. Rather than standing over their shoulders, keeping a Creatively Directorial eye on their progress, Jim takes a far more hands-off approach:
‘If they’re making a film or a website, I just let them get on with it. I often don’t see it until it’s finished.’
It might sound hopelessly flaky, but there’s an obvious secret to this, which Jim went on to reveal: ‘You hire good people, and let them get on with it.’
There’s the rub: good people. Good people have good ideas. Suddenly ‘just do ideas’ really means ‘just do good ideas’. And the process doesn’t sound quite so flaky any more.
Even so, it is brave, in a way that many businesses would quail at. What is a good idea? How do you know? Where’s the Good-ometer? And if there was such a thing, what would it read when wired up to the idea of producing a boxed set of notebooks ‘Celebrating the Mighty Crops of the North American Agricultural Landscape’?
The lovely thing about Coudal (and it reminds one rather of McSweeney’s) is that despite the fact everything rests on the quality of their ideas, and their ideas are genuinely unusual (even outlandish), there isn’t a focus group or a research paper or a a ‘benchmarking process’ in sight. Just trust in the ideas.
There’s clearly a culture here of just trying stuff out. Even when it was a traditional service agency, they had a trick for clearing the way for ideas.
‘If we had a naming brief or something,’ Jim explained, ‘And you put your hand in the air when you spoke, that meant, “Look, I know this isn’t the answer, it’s not even an idea, I’m just talking.” If you had your hand up, everyone knew you were just riffing. It’s not a real idea, so no one can shoot you down. And it might be something stupid – but that might make me think of something brilliant.’ It’s a great trick for any creative workshop.
And for those of us still not quite brave enough to turn our creative talents to making products of our own, Jim had another useful trick to impart.
‘We used to say we’ll do quality work for little money, or mediocre work for lots of money,’ he explained. ‘But not mediocre work for little money. The formula is, if it’s shit work, or shit people, you double the usual quote. And add 20%. That way at least you get paid well.’
Good thinking. Which is exactly what Coudal and Partners is all about.
(Many thanks for your time, Jim. It was a real pleasure.)