Redesigning the AGIMA website. Retrospective
Hi, my name is Grisha, and at the end of 2009 I became a web designer at AGIMA. I participated, watched, participated again, and watched yet again as the company tried to launch a new website. A lot of people have experienced the same thing.
A tragicomic tale about people who struggle to make time for themselves, yet are so overqualified that they can never settle for ‘good enough’. The story of a cobbler with no shoes.
But that’s not the worst case scenario. Seriously. When Gaudí was hit by a tram number 30 at 5:30 on Monday, June 7, 1926, the driver thought he had hit a vagrant. The architect had no documents on him — only a Gospel Book and a handful of nuts. His pants were held together with safety pins, and he was wearing courgettes for footwear. That’s right. Courgettes instead of shoes.
We’re no Gaudis, but for all those 6 years I did feel like a drunk vagabond, unable to figure out how to make something so straightforward as a website for myself. When you spend every day making them for other companies, it’s no big deal. But when it’s time to make one for yourself — **** it’s hard.
Let’s start from the beginning. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was Flash. Even then, in the hot summer of 2010, it was obvious that the technology was outdated. But they’d already worked so hard on the website, which was nearing completion, when I joined AGIMA. They couldn’t just drop it. So much beauty! Such incredible animation! It was all based around an image of Petrovka Street. A huge interactive illustration where every house, every building had been drawn with love. The office is still here, so that retro artifact is still somewhat relevant. Install Windows XP, download good old Firefox, install Flash Player, pour yourself a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, and step into the archive. Enjoy!
For those who don’t want to install Windows XP :)
It already seemed very odd back in 2012. But the deadlines were tight. I changed the logo and proudly added a “Tagline TOP 40” bar to the header. As Sasha Bogdanov says: ‘Success is a series of small wins’. And so we were making progress little by little. We drew elaborate icons in our portfolios simply out of habit, and everything was great. Well, almost. Web design was changing. And more importantly, we wanted to be able to show our website without the uncomfortable smirking of a fake local history expert. I lived through a lot of very strange conversations with clients back then. They went along the lines of:
— You’re such fans of our dear Moscow! It really shows. This beautiful panorama is so captivating! I’m actually a 42nd-generation Muscovite myself. My great-great-great-grandpa lived on Tverskaya Street. I’m stuck in this traffic jam and now I’m crying. His house burned down in 1812 during the Fire of Moscow.
— I’m sorry to hear that. But I’m glad you waited for it to load! Did you know that Chekhov lived in the building right next to ours? That’s where he wrote The Seagull.
— Oh yes, Moscow’s famous drawing rooms! There’s a chase underway on your site. There’s a car with flashing lights.
— Ah, yeah, those are police officers. They’re after a habitual flyposter. There was a police station in our building after the revolution and up until the fall of the USSR. The walls remember…
— All right, moving on to the website…
There was always way too much work, but the idea of change was rotting away inside our heads. Tanya Nazarova and I started with the style. By that time, we’d already worked out the brand positioning and motto: ‘only honesty’. Full transparency. The idea being that the client sees literally everything. The system worked smoothly and seamlessly. Time was tracked down to the quantum level with such accuracy that the gravitational instability caused by a prisoner van passing by would change our cost estimates. On the other hand, we’re all humans, and there’s no such thing as perfect. And what about the complexities of human nature? We’re not robots. And what about doubts and reservations? The final version was a transparent logo and transparent shapes. We made business cards with the letter A cut out of them (they’re still the same in 2020, though who needs busines cards these days?). We used them as portals to observe the real world. With all the complexity, internal chaos, and bubbling randomness that comes with it. We created collages, glued bits together, and animated the multi-colored rubbish we found on a given topic (or no topic at all). Tanya called it ‘surrealist dances on a theme, or quite often without one’.
I still like the idea of randomness a lot, but I guess back then we weren’t quite prepared for it. Whenever someone was doing something, all the undocumented laws of harmony came together to make the perfect picture. Because the computer couldn’t manage that. I took up two weeks of the programmers’ time just trying to describe the task as best I could. They were writing the scripts as best they could. The result was hideous. This was before artificial neural networks and other cool, modern things. We might revisit the idea in 10 years or so, and maybe then each presentation and web page will feature an automatically generated collage on a given topic and with a certain mood. Not yet. But that led us to images that ended up staying on the AGIMA website for a good 6 years. The rubbish didn’t pick itself up, no miracle occurred.
Where were we? It was 2014. The brand positioning had changed once again. We were now creating responsive websites, as dealing with the old Flash had become absolutely unbearable. I still remember the first concept review like it was yesterday. We gathered together in a big meeting room and mocked every pixel, every letter. Literally everything. By that time, the company already had an established team of top professionals who never settled for anything but perfection, so we didn’t invite them to any more review meetings after that. Bogdanov took over management. That was the best decision ever. In just a couple of months, we managed to build a responsive website with lots of cool features and animations. It was pretty good for the time.
Back then, it was popular to check the web layout at different screen sizes. People enjoyed resizing their browser windows. Shrinking and maximizing, over and over again. We created something for these curious minds: a background video where we were rolling from one side of the screen to the other. You would only see it for a fraction of a second while the window was resizing. The video was really funny. We were rolling on the ground on Red Square. To our surprise, no one cared. And the authorities left us alone :)
The next era was one of searches, attempts, failures, ups, and downs. The website was getting old quickly. And, as always, we didn’t have enough time. Animated collages weren’t popular anymore. I hadn’t accounted for the fact that it was hard to update all that beauty — which meant it would take a lot of time and money. I learned my lesson, and we replaced it all with large background videos. New sections and services were also emerging quickly, and the website required more and more changes. It was like good old 2010 all over again. It could see myself from the outside as I attached yet another very important birdhouse to the tree. Then there’s SMM. Let’s focus on that. Now we’re making apps. That’s our main focus, that’s the top priority! Change the home page! Change it all! But make it quick and affordable. There’s no time to gather stones! And don’t forget our beloved finance and insurance sector. Frankenstein’s transformation into something grotesque was quick and irreversible.
We had meetings. Discussed things. More meetings. More discussion. Repeat.
While I was assembling a monster from the existing site, Denis Shepelev came up with a range of different concepts. Numerous different approaches. A million hours of discussions among different people. Now I understand that our biggest mistake was collective decision making. We managed to save ourselves from that after the review of the first concept in 2014. When working for clients, we were able to prioritize our tasks, create a vision and a backlog, and get rid of everything we didn’t need. We’d figure out the main tasks, set the secondary ones aside, and launch projects successfully. But at the time, that approach didn’t work for our own company. We were all heads on a decision-making hydra. And that’s actually the main thing about AGIMA: we were a bit of a conglomerate of project offices, different mini-companies rolled into one. Each manager with their own style and specialization. All very different. But most importantly, there was no one to unilaterally say, ‘that’s the direction we’re going in, that’s our path, I can see it.’ Democracy wasn’t suited to this environment. But on the other hand, the company was growing anyway. The only people who were seriously bothered by the old website were the designers. Pyotr Fedyushkin even suggested a harsh experiment: ‘Why don’t we take the website down and put up a placeholder with our contact information? Let’s see if anything changes. My guess is “nothing” :)’.
One of Denis’s concepts
It was a strange time. I put forward a concept, and everyone seemed to agree. It all seemed OK, but we weren’t getting anywhere. We had a meeting to discuss things. Then another meeting and another discussion. ‘Who’s writing the meeting report?’ Another discussion. A mess.
We survived responsive design, but it wasn’t clear yet what the next era would be. The process of realization happened in fits and starts.
We didn’t want to be ‘conventionally trendy’ like everyone else. But we couldn’t quite understand ourselves or picture the right image. Now, looking back, I realize that everything was fine. It just wasn’t the right time yet. I couldn’t wrap my head around the mixture of constructivism and Memphis, and the visuals weren’t striking enough to get me to approve of those concepts without thinking. After many long months full of discussions, they ceased. We rested a while and resumed our journey. On to yet another reincarnation, to another Rinpoche in exile.
One of Evgeniy’s concepts
The website was outdated. But no one could pinpoint what it was we needed to focus on. There’s usually one key idea — but we all had different thoughts. Grisha’s idea was that AGIMA’s main asset was its people. That’s what we built our presentations around back then. So I based my concept on that idea as well. The photo was taken by the brilliant Dmitry Bubonets. The mechanics, the animation, the structure… Everything was ready. I still like that concept.
There was the ‘las mejores personas’ period, when the beginnings of our presentations featured large photos of our key employees in all their regalia. It was extremely snobbish and unnecessary. I would always try to delete the slide about myself before the presentation started. But it wasn’t always possible, so I’d have to sit there and listen to Sasha vividly describe my incredible journey and exceptional talent. It was so cringy. Another interesting move was to play a video presentation about our company. During a face-to-face meeting. A video. Of us. That truly was an age of epic presales. But the website was something else. And there would be questions like: ‘what would we do if Bushev was to quit?’ How short-sighted. We should have tried, just to find out what it would be like. But his style was on point. Everything was in order. It was all done with great precision and care. But we still didn’t know how to talk about ourselves properly.
One of Katya’s concepts
I remember I was super tired of AlfaStrakhovanie’s projects, and Denis was looking for some kind of a visual image for the AGIMA website, so he let me draw his vision. And I did have something to say. I saw what Zhenya was doing, those kind of severe-looking faces. But that’s not how it is! Our beloved AGIMA is all about life! We have so many cool folk here, and they’re all so different! People really are our key asset, and I wanted to wrap them up in something bright and vivid. Big photos and moving doodles, all interactive and all different. I wanted them to react to movements and get drawn onscreen — I wanted the site to live its own life. To change and rebuild itself without outside influence. I still really like this concept. But it didn’t end well at all. They showed the project to the managers without me, and nobody understood a thing! It was impossible to change their first impressions afterwards. Basically, the lesson here is that presentation is vital!
That was a fun concept. It focused more on personal experience. It’s an image that really resonates, but it’s not right for external communications. I missed the presentation too. It’s a shame I missed it all, but I would have been against this approach. When Katya came up with this concept, we’d already had some very early green presentations. We were starting to develop a visual language. As minimalist as possible. No graphics at all. Finally, the influence of analysts and project developers made it through to the company. The focus shifted to a completely different direction.
We were much better at preparing for the next approach. Together with Vitaly Doschenko, we collected content and held a lot of meetings to try to get the visions of all the team members in sync. We gathered and organized all our services — which was a lot. There was no need to emphasize any one particular thing, especially the people. The company was getting more mature. Now the task was clearer: work through content. That was enough. After a series of simple prototypes, it was time for Dmitry Kozhevnikov to shine.
Screenshot of the new agima.ru website
It was my turn to create a mock-up. We’d been through so many different attempts and ideas that it was quite overwhelming. Remember what Michelangelo said when asked how he created his sculptures? ‘I take a marble block and chisel away the superfluous material’. Same here. I gathered all the mock-ups in one file. I picked the best elements that everyone was sure about and ready to agree on. Then I started removing the rest mercilessly. It became clear that we didn’t need expressiveness or experimentation. All we needed was a serious and clear image. I cleaned up the mock-ups and kept only the core. I ended up with a muted design based on content, a grid, and simple green fills. Just as I suspected, everyone approved.
It was the very first time everyone liked the same concept. When the accents were truly in the right places. Nothing over-the-top — just a clean, professional design. It was the first time it really felt right for the company. A lot of things at AGIMA are hard to depict visually. One of them is design, which is increasingly less about graphics and UI (we once created a dedicated showreel about development–that’s the majority of our work). Another is the powerful team of managers with their own management culture and who operate seamlessly. The same even goes for our security team and admins. And it’s also important that the structure changes rapidly, doubles every year, and adapts to the market. The new design is ready to adjust to new niches and areas.
I really like how Ludwig Bystronovsky put it: ‘the net can take the hit’. That’s when you have a website made ages ago, filled with odd, unsuitable content, banners, and informal text, but the way it’s built prevents you from ruining it! It’s perfect for planning for the long run. Things change incredibly fast online, but I do hope that this website will still be with us for another 4–5 years. I believe that Dmitry’s design is one that can take the hit.
What have we learned from this? What’s the moral?
Burn after Reading
Well, no, there is a conclusion. Doing something for yourself is harder than anything else.
You can be formal and professional with clients, but not with yourself. Not everyone can step outside their body and look at themselves from a different perspective. Or find common ground among the opinions of 15–20 people who need to accept a project. Or make sure that that the idealized pictures of the company in their heads match up with the image onscreen, while making a product that achieves their business goals. It’s no small feat.
It can take 6–7 years of your life.