My Favourite Nightmare
Case: RUOKANGAS – This is a story of the most ambitious and megalomaniac project I have ever been part of, during my 20-year career as a web designer.
Juha Ruokangas is at the same time my favourite client and worst nightmare. He is the most persistent, hard working and honest entrepreneur I’ve ever met. He is a romantic who dares to dream big. The word ‘impossible’ doesn’t seem to belong to his vocabulary.
Juha has a special gift. He makes you believe in him and get excited with him in such way that you want to work twice as hard, using skills you didn’t even know you had. But it isn’t all bliss. Far from it. Juha has driven me out of my mind countless times with his unreasonable demands, impossible missions and absurd fantasies!
If you may, I’d like to share my story with you.
The Bubble Explodes
I daydreamed of a new guitar, and read in the local newspaper about Juha Ruokangas, who claimed to make the best guitars in the country – if not even in the world! GAS (guitar acquisition syndrome) haunted me day and night, and soon enough I found myself sniffing the intoxicating aromas of exotic wood at the Ruokangas workshop.
He Carried Me Out the Door!
Juha knew I was a web designer, and our conversation soon drifted to his website, which he had made all by himself with Microsoft Frontpage – and he praised the site was better than any of his competitors had! I listened patiently and calmly pointed out that in fact, his site was not only the ugliest piece of shit I had ever seen on the internet, but also the usability sucked big time. To my great surprise, Juha was hurt by my expertise feedback, and he more or less carried me out the door..!
Since my guitar fever hadn’t let me off the hook, I reasoned that perhaps I could fix the damage by discussing with Juha about the various possibilities to improve his online presence even better than it already was. Maybe he would then forgive my earlier comments – and we could carry on planning my new guitar!
So there I was again, standing at his workshop door
Lifting his eyebrows, Juha let me back in… We talked about the essence of guitars and internet for hours and hours, and slowly but surely, the ice was starting to break. We were gaining mutual understanding – a sense of brotherhood. Since that day our communication has been absolutely transparent – sometimes to a brutal extent. I am confident that this alone has enabled the exceptionally strong and loyal customer relationship I have with Juha.
Juha told me his biggest problem was time management. The more popular his guitars became, the less time he had to build them, cause his days went by answering emails about the custom options Juha offered. The most challenging topic was aesthetics – different colors and materials – how did the different combinations look like?
The big idea
Car manufacturers – such as Peugeot I had worked for – had started to offer configurator tools on their websites. Juha had seen some done for guitars too and wanted such a tool for his next website. This was in 2001, and Flash was the hot and fresh new platform for designing an outstanding UI – and that’s what Juha wanted. My problem was that I had never coded one single line in Flash – but I agreed to look into it, as I wanted to stay on top of the game for my own professional reasons.
I worked day and night on the perfect website for Ruokangas. Finally, I showed the layout of my masterpiece to Juha and explained how the UI would work. No applause, no praising words. Instead, Juha felt that my sketch was not only ugly as hell, but the usability was crap too.
Juha told me to study heraldry and art nouveau. He recommended me to go to antique shops to see how it feels to sit in luxury armchairs. He urged me to compare the sound of the doors closing in a cheap car and an expensive one – and then come back with better ideas.
I was shocked
Who did this guy think he was – Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid!? I decided to swallow my pride and see where this would lead.
Our endless late night conversations continued on and on. Juha demanded a lot from me – but so he did also from himself. He wrote every word of the website content by himself and humbly listened to my suggestions to improve the copywriting.
I had earned his respect, and we were now pushing the envelope further together
Eventually, I found a visual style that Juha liked – and I have to admit that the layout was the best I had ever designed! As a cherry on top, I had agreed to make the guitar configurator as well. I was certain it wouldn’t be a big deal – a weekend or two at maximum. What a gross miscalculation from my side..!
The difference to my normal projects was that now I didn’t have a team. I did everything by myself from scratch – design, user interface, graphics, mastering new software, coding – all of it! About a year later, including hundreds and hundreds of working hours and too many sleepless nights – I was able to finalize the website and configurator – both coded completely in Flash.
The service was a success in every way imaginable
Guitar related discussion forums filled up with screenshots taken from the configurator. Our tool unleashed players’ creativity in unseen ways. Designing unique dream guitars was now intuitive and fun. Juha’s business grew. The website won the MindTrek Award in 2002. I had risen from the dead.
“No applause, no praising words. Instead, Juha felt that my sketch was not only ugly as hell, but the usability was crap too.”
Let’s fast-forward to 2009. I worked at the time for Valve – a company that had become known for bringing Rich Media to Finland. Valve recruited only the best experts in our country, and I was overjoyed to be able to work among such exceptional people.
I got to know Juha Javanainen – to his friends Java – who was not only a skilled programmer but also had a good reputation as a guitarist. We even shared a very similar taste in music! I thought Java would be the perfect companion for me to work on a little facelift for the Ruokangas website. Java told me he was in the middle of founding his own company, and that he’d be more than happy to take this case on.
Flash is dead?
There were already some rumors circulating that Apple might attempt to block Flash off their operating systems – but I fell into wishful thinking instead of a complete, objective reevaluation of the situation. We decided to use WordPress as the new platform for the website but continued to develop the configurator in Flash. HTML5 was taking its baby steps, but admittedly Flash did still offer us the best tools and resources at that given moment.
Apple Drops the Bomb!
The assumed “little website facelift” grew into a full-blooded new concept, that took another year to complete. I should’ve known better! I got again my share of Juha’s perfectionism and unrealistic expectations – and so did Java. But we pushed it through – and yet again our efforts were awarded not only by a happy client but also in the form of Grand One Honorary Mention award.
And for a while, things did look very promising
The new website was up to date and modern. Most of Juha’s guitar orders came through the configurator – so it was indeed a serious tool, not a toy. He was by now working with a team of guitar makers, and his wife Emma had taken charge in social media and YouTube, which gave more boost to Juha’s business, that kept growing slowly but surely.
Then Apple dropped the bomb. Against to the hopes of countless IT developers around the world – myself and Java included, Flash would not be supported ever in Apple mobile devices, and it would be pushed out of their desktop computers in the coming years as well. The platform we had chosen for the 2nd generation of Ruokangas configurator was well on its way to become the favorite curse word of the IT world…
In 2011, the slowly deepening recession spiraled into depression within the Finnish IT business. After a couple of close calls, I was finally laid off from Valve. This didn’t come as a total surprise to me, as I had already gained a bit of a reputation due to my stubborn nature.
Luckily I got hired by my old pals who had started a new company Fellowland. I got sacked a year later. The next in line to sign me up was Scoopshot. The fun lasted for two years until I was shown the door.
The Circle Closes
2014 – unemployed again… I knew Ruokangas was limping ahead with the Flash-based configurator, which had by then become a serious problem for their business. I discussed with Java if there would be an easy way out. He pointed out that 3D modeling is the future – that’s where we should go. This was an absurd idea, considering the monstrous amount of work this would involve, in relation to the small size of Juha’s business. And yet, I couldn’t avoid talking to Juha, cause I really needed work!
I knew Juha had faith in me
Regardless of my mistake choosing Flash on the previous round, but I was still nervous – I didn’t really have any sensible solution to offer for him! I spat out the 3D modeling option as a joke – and hurried to add that it involved tons of more work than any of our previous projects, and there were no guarantees of the outcome, cause we were dealing with new technology that changed faster than we were able to write the code.
Juha’s reaction was unambiguous: “A mountain of work – way too expensive – high risk to fail – probable near-death experience before the project is over… What are we waiting for!?”. My jaw dropped. I had to start studying 3D.
Oops, One More Detail..
In the summer of 2015 Juha, Java and I had our first meeting together with Jarno Vesa, who had agreed to draw the 3D models of Juha’s guitars. Jarno was an architect with a background in guitars like the rest of us. He was an author of a beautiful coffee table book ‘Suomalainen Kitara 2000-
A quick sidestep here – figured arctic birch is a special tree growing in Finnish forests – the grain of it grows twisted and twirled in such way that the surface looks like a holographic sea of flames – and every single piece is unique! The looks are great, but only after
So there we were, in Helsinki at Jarno’s studio
Everything looked promising. We had somewhat agreed upon the framework on how to proceed, and we were about to wrap up the meeting – when Juha opened his mouth to mention a little detail he had forgotten to inform us about: “By the way, the customers must be able to choose the actual top wood from my inventory in the new configurator.”…
The rest of us stared at each other, not knowing what to say
An easy-to-update library of high-resolution images, see-thru colored in a realistic way, rendered real time within the 3D app on various platforms… Hell, we had no idea if it could be done! But as we’ve learned, Juha has his magical way of making people want the same thing he wants… And sure enough, after Juha’s little pep talk – abracadabra! We all nodded in agreement – yes, of course, it can be done, no problem!
If We Could Somehow... Harness the Lightning
On the last round, I hadn’t dared to step outside my comfort zone, and that had backfired on me. I couldn’t afford to make the same mistake twice. So there I was, standing at the crossroads – and this time all the platforms were outside my comfort zone. I felt helpless – all I could do was to step aside and let people smarter than I take the heat!
We put all our hope to Java
He had been the mastermind behind the whole 3D modeling idea – but when we started, we really had no clue which way to turn. Java started experimenting, and all solutions had a myriad of problems. Unity was not at the top of our list, because I insisted the new configurator had to run in the browser as it did before – and Unity web player couldn’t deliver the quality we wanted. Java was working 24/7, leaving no stone unturned.
At some point, I lost hope…
I felt like Marty in the movie Back To The Future – he was stuck in the year 1955 and then, in the eleventh hour, Doc comes up with an idea: “If we could somehow… harness this lightning”…
While testing technologies, the stars finally started to align slowly but surely in our favor. Java had already ditched Unity once, but in the meanwhile, the platform had evolved. Without my knowledge, Java had gone back to Unity, and when our team saw the first Unity-based demo he made, our jaws dropped.
When Java added, that this platform would allow us to launch the Guitar Creator (as we had boldly named the new configurator) flexible on various platforms including iOS, Android and even the newly emerging VR, my wildest nerdy fantasies were rocketing sky high.
But the reality was still bittersweet
It was technically somewhat possible to run the Guitar Creator in a browser, but the efficiency was substandard – we would need at least a year or two until our app would run smoothly in a browser environment. For me, this was a big disappointment. On mobile devices, apps are a norm, but on a computer, I felt we were losing the focus. Java disagreed. He insisted it would not be a problem, because we could launch the service as a unique desktop app for Mac and Windows, and easily move on to browsers when the world would be ready for us.
Sometimes I have a really hard time listening to what developers suggest me because it often leads to compromising my goals – and in this regard, Juha and I are exactly the same. We’re stubborn as hell! But this long and demanding project has taught us both one thing, for sure. We’ve grown to respect Java’s profound expertise, and understood that another perspective doesn’t always mean a compromise.
So I decided to look boldly ahead, and screw the rules
My initiative was to bring Juha and his guitars where the guitar lovers were. And the matter of the fact is that these days people are kind of everywhere – and to achieve this we had to grasp on as many platforms as possible. And for this purpose, Java’s choice, Unity, was the perfect match.
Celebration of Music
As excited and impatient as we all were to sink our teeth into the new state-of-the-art configurator gadget, technology alone serves no purpose. Our real challenge was to succeed in answering the question ‘why’? What is it that drives Juha and his team to work so hard, to give all they have to give, year after year, to the world of hand made guitars?
I’ve come a long way with Juha – I know the way he thinks
Therefore it is clear to me that Juha’s company is unlike others. But this unique quality in all its depth and dexterity didn’t come across clearly on the previous Ruokangas website. I wanted to change that, and help Juha tell his story like it deserved to be told!
Music is the one language everybody understands
Music is often with us in great moments of life – and in sorrow, music brings us comfort. When our world falls under fear and instability, music brings us hope. In the everyday routines music can magically lift our spirits – and in despair, music can make life worth living.
I have learned that a great guitar inspires me to play better – it makes me compose better music! Sometimes my guitar even lures me to take risks and step outside my comfort zone to explore my realms and even find new potential in me.
Every cell and fiber of the new Ruokangas website was designed to reflect this spirit: I wanted Juha to tell us in his own words of his passion to make guitars for players. I wanted to raise a glass to great musicians by allowing them to tell their own stories, and in this way inspire others. Above all, I wanted the Ruokangas online identity to celebrate music because that is the ‘why’. That – love of music – is what fuels Juha and his team.
“Our real challenge was to succeed in answering the question ‘why’?”
- All text content new, written from a personal perspective.
- All new in-depth column style articles of interesting topics (playability, tone, materials, sustainability etc) for guitar lovers.
- The official story of the company written by an internationally established guitar journalist.
- All still photos new.
- All graphics in vector format (SVG).
- The whole site retina compatible and scalable.
- 4 animated photograph sequences to each of the 7 instrument model pages.
- 7 videos of Juha telling about the making of various instrument models.
- 7 theme songs composed by various musicians for each instrument model page.
- 7 documentaries filmed
ofprofessional musicians. The crew sent to the United States (New York, Los Angeles), Germany (Hamburg) and various locations in Finland.
- Front page trailer filmed.
- Ruokangas theme music composed for front page trailer film.
- The concept for the 3D Guitar Creator (configurator) created.
- An on-site photo studio built to serve the needs to photograph arctic birch tops for the Guitar Creator – hundreds of tops photographed before the service launch.
- 7 instrument models 3D modeled 1:1 with custom options enabling tens of thousands of combinations of features.
- Guitar Creator launched as a standalone application for OSX and Windows.
- Guitar Creator app launched for iOS and Android.
- Guitar Creator VR app launched for Oculus Rift.
- Option to launch Guitar Creator to web browser once the browser rendering quality becomes adequate.
- Options to launch Guitar Creator to various new platforms (PlayStation, Xbox, etc) in the future.
Honorary Mention – Information Design 2010
Win – Productive Innovations 2004