Each month we introduce you to one of our partner agencies in Partner in the Spotlight. Giving you a look behind the scenes. Sharing some Dutch digital design insights. Or telling you about something that they believe the world needs to know. This month we talk with Amsterdam-based Rōnin. Not just another design agency but an independent design agency dedicated to creating amazing, meaningful and relevant digital design experiences. Keith Kornson and Yordy van der Werff - two of the founders and creative partners - chat with us about coming of age as an agency, why the work that they create is ‘designed different’ and, therefore, genuinely distinctive. And they tell us what they believe makes Dutch digital design genuinely distinctive.
Rōnin was founded in 2017 by Keith, Yordy, Toby Mok and Leon Snelleman. Four blokes with a passion for digital design (including one with a healthy dose of business acumen too) and a background in advertising and graphic design - looking to create a place that didn’t exist just yet. A place where digital would come first and commercial objectives weren’t the only thing that mattered. They were keen to create ideas and concepts that included digital design right from the start. Not having digital design as an after-thought, but as an essential building block in order to create genuinely immersive brand experiences. Driven and dedicated. Idea makers. Concept creators. Strategists. And digital designers. The whole package - from start to finish. Combining technology, craftmanship and a touch of digital geekiness. Meet Rōnin.
Yordy started working in the advertising world age 21: ‘I was playing around with software like Flash, but soon got frustrated with the fact that digital design and interactivity would never get the attention it deserved. Most clients and agencies did not yet see the need to invest in interactive (digital) experiences. At DDB & Tribal I met my fellow-digital-comrades Keith, Toby and Leon. Driven by our passion for everything designed digitally, we started Rōnin. A place where we could create rich experiences that were distinctive and different. Digital product experiences that worked - for both clients and users. But that never lost track of creating an emotional connection. A connection that would make users come back time and time again. Designed beautifully, and with the perfect amount of functionality and relevance.’
Keith adds: ‘Meeting Yordy, Toby and Leon felt like meeting ‘my’ people. People that I connected with - on a personal level, but also on a business level. With a passion for digital design done well. Entrepreneurial. Always thinking ahead of the game and with a true sense of responsibility to deliver in a way that’s relevant, meaningful and pleasing to the eye. Our ambitions were, and still are sky high.
We met in Loetje*, got Leon to put a business plan together, and that was the start of Rōnin (the simple version). Initially we were invited to work alongside other agencies, to create the digital part of an overall experience. However, this wasn’t enough for us. As said before, we were keen to be the idea makers, concept creators, strategists and digital designers of the whole (digital) experience, not just part of it. We started pitching directly, and soon word got around that Rōnin was the place to go for incredibly cool digitally designed experiences. No longer were we just there to execute only. We were now asked to think along with clients. To create (digital) ideas that worked - making them tangible and real, and living up to what we promised.’
*Loetje: the place to eat steak in Amsterdam - originally set out as a billiard café but soon famous all over town to eat steak ‘the Dutch way’ - now also in many more Dutch cities and towns.
Yordy and Keith continue: ‘Fast forward to 2022. Five years later. We have learned a great deal: how to run an agency, how to manage people, how to maintain a healthy work-life balance. You name it. We have gone from three designers and one operations guy to a team of 30+. We had to start clearly defining our roles as founders. I now focus more on the operational and client management side. Yordy is more involved with concept development. Toby is our lead design director and Leon is our operations and finance chief. We have professionalised. We can no longer have a say and be involved in everything we do. It’s like a child growing up: we care immensely, we love Rōnin but we also have to set it free in order for it to grow and move to the next level.
We are now the guardians of the Rōnin-culture. A culture where people are passionate about digital design, and driven. Driven to do a great job and create beautiful, meaningful things. Ensuring that Rōnin is a fun, but also safe and comfortable place to work. A place where people like to be, and stay for a long time.
We do not micro-manage, although it is very tempting at times. Our tasks are now to focus on our business overall, to coach our Rōnins* and make sure they are ok. To get us to the next level by visualising and materialising our plans for the future: to expand internationally and spread the Rōnin philosophy worldwide: ‘Designed different at the speed of culture’.’
*Rōnin: a former Japanese samurai warrior - now without a master or lord. Gaining independence but maintaining and building on the skills and expertise of a samurai.
Designed different at the speed of culture
‘We are different. We design different. We are the odd ones out in a distinctively positive way. We are a bunch of peers that think differently but the same. We look at the world from a different perspective. We want to differentiate and design in a different way. We look at clients and products from different angles.
For example, an e-commerce platform will never be a straight forward e-commerce platform coming from us: it is ‘designed different’. We create interactive, immersive online shopping experiences - bringing a product, a brand to life and creating a true brand culture.
How do we do this? At the speed of culture.
We make sure that we are aware of what is happening in the world - not only from a work perspective but also from a news/life/cultural perspective. As a Rōnin you know what is going on in the world. What users like or dislike. What is relevant in the world of your user. We talk about this and we encourage people to read. To read about trends - design and user trends. We visit museums. We all recently went to Barcelona - after a long period of not being able to physically go anywhere - and asked what inspired everyone.
We also organise interactive sessions and workshops. For example, as a retrospect: to look how - together - we can improve certain projects, ways of working, etc. We have now turned this into a monthly ritual, and called it ‘Rōnin Unplugged’. We always try and involve everyone - if and when possible - so everyone feels responsible for making decisions that involve working at Rōnin.’
Dutch digital design: genuinely distinctive
‘Through our open and pragmatic culture we are able to create and design - taking different views into perspective. We listen and are able to take criticism in order to improve - as long as it is constructive criticism. This often results in genuinely distinctive and well-designed stuff.’
Rōnin: official Dutch Digital Design partner agency
‘For us, Dutch Digital Design is a community of peers and like-minded creative people - even though we might be playing in the same league. We share knowledge with each other, and the world. It gives us an opportunity to talk with other digital design professionals, and offers us a platform to share our vision and work on an international level.’