Designers Curate City Guides
On the Grid started as a simple idea. Brooklyn-based design studio Hyperakt was moving to Gowanus and they wanted to “get to know the hidden gems in our new neighborhood.” Eric Fensterheim, a designer at Hyperakt at the time, suggested they design and create their own neighborhood guide as a self-initiated project. He designed the interface and others in the studio created the brand and a larger ecosystem for many neighborhood guides. “The dream,” says Deroy Peraza, a Hyperakt principal, “was to have a super-simple, tastefully designed and curated resource we can all use to reliably discover the kinds of places we love, regardless of what city we’re in.” For content they solicited the personal recommendations of local designers. I asked Peraza to explain more about the site and how partnerships with Invasion, MOO and Etsy developed.
All images are simulated.
You told me it took only eight months to make this happen. This is pretty quick. How’d you manage? It all started with just Gowanus in mid-April. We invited friends in New York to see if they’d be interested in joining the fun. Luckily a few studios saw our vision and took us up on it. This helped crystalize the concept and soon we were receiving requests from designers who wanted to curate other neighborhoods in New York. By mid-July, we had launched eight NYC neighborhoods and had dozens more in the works. We had been getting requests to open On the Grid up to more cities so we welcomed Los Angeles as our second city with the release of Santa Monica. Inspired by the Creative Mornings model of city Organizers, we introduced the concept of city Ambassadors—designers who not only curate a neighborhood, but also help us select and support the rest of the Curators for their city. From that point forward, the growth was explosive. In August, we went from releasing one or two neighborhoods a week to releasing 10 neighborhoods a week from cities around the world. We have now launched 200 neighborhoods in 50 cities, a number we will more than double by the end of next year. We’ve received over 600 requests to be city Ambassadors, of which we’ve selected Ambassadors for 130 cities and we have an amazing community of over 600 neighborhood Curators, including creative companies like Etsy, Shopify, Spotify, MoMA, Airbnb, Starbucks Global Design and Huge, as well as smaller design studios and independent designers. It’s been quite a ride!
What is unique about On the Grid? Curation, community and design. Designers take a lot of pride in the creativity that we surround ourselves with. We value exceptional places that are beautifully crafted and full of unique character. On the Grid guides, unlike something like Yelp, are curated to cater to our specific taste and aesthetic as designers because they are all curated by designers. All content is written and photographed by our global community of local creatives.
Our guides are meant for locals as much as they are for travelers. As locals, neighborhoods play a prominent role in the way we experience our cities. While most city guides focus more attention on the traditional center of a city with token mentions of outer neighborhoods, On the Grid treats neighborhoods equally, as if they were their own little worlds. Our community of Curators share the places they frequent and love in their neighborhood as if they were sharing them with a friend. They know the shop owners, the people who visit, the insider information. They aren’t just visiting for the first time to write a review. These places are part of their lives and that comes across in their guides.
And what about design? I am struck by the orange and white outline illustrations. What is your strategy? From a design and user experience perspective, Yelp is the modern-day equivalent of the Yellow Pages. A vast collection of useful information held together in an experience that feels spartan and nondescript. More designer-friendly travel guides like Wallpaper look great but are very limited in scope. We wanted to create a simple, beautiful experience that works equally well on all devices, is scalable to include as many cities as we want. Our guides are also designed to include several beautiful, candid photographs of each location to give you a real sense of place.
How did Etsy come on board? Etsy jumped on board a few months ago to curate a neighborhood in Berlin for us, where part of their design team is based. Julia Hoffman, Etsy’s Global Creative Director, is a big fan of On the Grid and she introduced us to the Etsy Wholesale team. They were looking for an effective way of bringing city guides they had previously done in print to the digital space and On the Grid was the perfect solution. We launched their guides just a month after we first spoke to them.
Etsy is a champion for design, artistry and entrepreneurship, and like On the Grid, their global community is their heart and soul. The Etsy City Guides is our pilot for On the Grid Plus, which allows brands to create custom contained instances of the On the Grid experience, featuring brand colors, fonts and, most importantly, content that is completely brand-relevant.
Is this producer role the future of graphic design (at least for you)? It’s an interesting position we kind of stumbled into. It’s really exciting to shepherd all of these actors who all contribute to a much bigger final outcome than we could ever have produced ourselves. The collective effort so far is breathtaking: over 20,000 hours of work, 5,000 places documented, over 30,000 images published, all in the span of eight months. It’s hard to tell where this will all take us, but we have certainly learned a lot of lessons from the process that we will be applying to future projects.
The 2015 Regional Design Annual—a collection of nearly 350 of the best pieces of American design from the year—is available now. Meanwhile, the 2016 RDA, featuring judges Gail Anderson, Marc English, Timothy Goodman, Bill Grant, Jennifer Morla and Jessica Walsh, is officially accepting entries. Enter today for early bird rates and a chance to see your work featured in PRINT magazine.