A face-to-face interview with the co-founders of PIXIES design studio, Lena Anikeeva and Olga Sen.
As I entered a spacious high ceiling room with whitewashed columns covered in monograms, the atmosphere and luring charm of the place took my away my breath along with the last bits of memory. A flashing “Why am I here again?” awakened my mind. Blockchain always seemed to live in cellars with dark interior (I guess it’s a stereotype inspired by Russian secret miners stories), but not in this case. I looked in the eye of a long-haired blond in a stylish white dress. Her name is Lena Anikeeva, she is a co-founder of PIXIES digital design studio. After a small tet-a-tet we were joined by her partner in crime Olga Sen, a long-haired brunette in la petite robe noire.
Humming the famous “Where is my mind?” in my head, I asked about the origins of the name:
Olga: It’s kind of like fairies.
Lena: Well, I have a background in psychedelic parties and you can clearly see the elven theme around there, so I liked this name from the get go.
Olga: Actually, we had several different options. There were three of us in the beginning. We had a girl who worked as a designer/copywriter. it was her, who proposed this name. We knew it was the one, the second we heard it!
Lena: You know, we ironically call ourselves digital communication fairies.
I could see, PIXIES team isn’t a big one and everyone (I counted 6) shares the open space office. This is no coincidence, but a part of the co-founders’ philosophy:
Olga: We didn’t want to grow into a big company, the goal was to stay a boutique. Furthermore, a team of as little as 30 people already makes it an agency.
Lena: We don’t like the word “agency”, therefore we are a design studio. Our “thing” is to make everything in the house. We rarely invite outside 3D designers and animators, quite the contrary, we try to do everything ourselves to keep it unique and true to the brand.
As Olga recalls, PIXIES was born in the kitchen, but with great passion and plans.
Olga: There was no time spent thinking about competitors. It was the least of our worries. We had a base of people to possibly work with and a list of different agencies contact info we gathered from our previous workplaces.
Lena: We are like a craft workshop with its unique creative atmosphere.
Don’t underestimate the power of networking: everything is intertwined. For example Burning Man became a good opportunity for PIXIES to grow their contact list.
Lena: It is about the utopian philosophy, where people live without money and everybody exchanges things they made for food and other goods. It’s a big rave and for me, a true raver from head to toe, it feels like icing on the cake. Tickets to Nevada desert aren’t cheap and the road itself is quite difficult, so you have to be well-organized. All this really helps to eliminate randos, though. Only those who really believe in this philosophy and want to change their perspective of the world end up at Burning Man. You can meet many entrepreneurs there. While in New York on my way to Burning Man, I got to know Denis Druzhkov – Zeus company, a trading blockchain platform, our actual client. Then I somehow met Masha Polyanskaya and reached Nevada already together with her. She is Julian Zegelmans business partner. We contacted him, got some project recommendations… That’s how it works, business mixed with pleasure. And his year I‘m going back.
It is a standard question of how agencies get their clients, if they win tenders or people make direct orders. With PIXIES, blockchain came knocking at their door.
Olga: Blockchain community is rather small, everybody knows each other, someone can recommend you… As Lena said, we got to know Julian Zegelman, then created a good project for him, so he decided to recommend us to one company ineed of designer. We work in many spheres, not just blockchain, but there is a lot of it on the market at the moment, so we prefer to make haste while the sun shines.
Lena: Olga Kuzmina from Suicide Ventures also marked our studio. Back in the day she used to be an art director of “Rabochee nazvanie”, a famous advertising agency. She might know about us from those times…
Olga: We can easily say, that everything began with media and design fields, because a lot of people migrated to blockchain from there.
Lena: QIWI was a pure coincidence as well. Their designer had to submit a list of projects he liked, so he wrote about us and we created a QIWI blockchain. Later we were recommended to the GEMS branding agency which lead to a long lasting partnership. Simply put, we became good at what we did and the opportunities appeared.
There is a question about competitors you are yet to comment on. Namely, the ONY Agency.
Olga: Oh yes, we have several adjacent projects. They work with blockchain as well and people mostly choose between us. Even though we are very different, it is a difficult choice to make. It pretty much boils down to selecting an approach rather than anything else.
Lena: And aesthetics, I guess.
Olga: Yes, they are a branding agency. Big with enormous resources… But sometimes clients want to work with both of us at the same time.
We’ve smoothly moved onto creative issues, visual aesthetic preferences and what approaches “fairies of digital communications” choose to apply to their new blockchain projects.
Lena: What we like about blockchain is people’s perception. They want a wow-effect, a cool metaphor that will differ them from others. They love futurism and so do we. Fortunately, meeting people who just want dots connected by lines is a rarity.
Olga: To tell the truth, it is a real problem. Some people say blockchain looks like “dots connected by lines” and they need this design for everybody to understand. It is rather sad, because these people don’t understand that such an approach makes all projects look similar and the customer won’t even remember them.
Lena: True. That’s why every time working on a project we search for a new metaphor.
To design a project, Lena and Olga look through all the materials provided by the client and ask them to fill out a creative brief: write about their direct competitors, target audience, unique points, expectations and doubts. Olga notes, that it’s vital to take expectations into account, consider the audience and create a design that’s relevant.
Lena: Designer is an engineer of impressions. Getting into client’s business is our advantage. We try to understand what we could buy tokens for if we were to buy them and then, of course, ask ourselves if we trust the product.
Olga: We keep the “chain with links” metaphor, but then always offer it in a different way. Blockchain is just a technology and there is another part of business that we try to show everywhere.
Lena and Olga agree that the blockchain boom started a year ago. Mostly all the blockchain projects PIXIES had a chance to work on are financial ones, but every rule has exceptions. Here are some of them:
Lena: I like this project. This design isn’t anything extraordinary or supernew, but anyway. Zeus merges all the best from traditional stock and cryptocurrencies. It unites and uses the best instruments from both financial areas on the trading platform. The first and the last letter from the logo: Z and S, reflect each other. There is a metaphor in the promo video where two triangles meet each other and form the infinity symbol. Money swims up to this symbol representing how Zeus platform helps those who use it receive infinite amount of money.
Lena: It is my favourite project. Still unedited, but Olga Kuzmina is a good art director and none of her projects have ever died on the brandbook stage. The team understands everything and supports the style. They have good template designers.
Olga: We haven’t done anything for them, just a landing page with information about their team and services.
Lena: Yes, we did: their identity and a web promo. We proposed an illustration style, where it’s easy to draw whatever you want. We didn’t know how the brand went on to live without us until we got feedback that their designer is very happy.
Olga: Let’s go back to the metaphors for a second: we didn’t do dots and lines for this project, we made bricks using all possible images. At first, there was a dynamic car and a running man. You can work with it, twist and turn the plot. It was important that we made them in volume.
Lena: QIWI blockchain ia s B2B product that helps introduce blockchain to other businesses. So, it has to adapt to every client and work with every business. That’s where the real metaphor is: being helpful to different people.
lga: It isn’t fully our design, but we altered it to be ours.
Lena: Humaniq will transform the blue ocean market and that’s the reason behind the color blue. Dots become waves – that’s the way people connect to the world around them. To tell the truth, if we were to make it from scratch, it would have looked completely different, more trendy.
Olga: Well, many people like it, but I am a bit embarrassed by the head-shaped figure. All the others things are fine by me, but I would change this head.
Lena: I don’t like this wave effect.
Lena: A really beautiful project, I drew it myself. It was so tender and nice, but then the founders found cheap designers and as a result the original style is nothing like it’s supposed to be.
Olga: This is fashion. I wanted to make it even crazier, but overall it is calmer.
Lena: It is a project about phygital-fashion: shirts with screens that can change patterns, etc. Now there are only trinkets, but technology is developing fast. They don’t sell product, they sell wearable art. This style is absolutely crazy, I drew it myself. Brutalism trend has been booming in graphic design, 90s aesthetic is coming back full force. Everybody loves this project, it is on the Trendsetter web main page perfectly aligning with the goals of their target audience – Japanese and Chinese youth who ….
Olga: Who likes crazy fashion.
Lena: Well, it was the Swiss investor who called crazy. He is a conservative man and therefore wanted the design to be more classic, more like Humaniq. He wrote that the next day he was to introduce Posh Space to the president of Monaco and was worried about the reaction. So, there are some bold projects, where people cannot even agree on the design. This investor made Pish Space webpage incredibly boring.
Now there are more blockchain projects in the works for PIXIES: D1 Coin about diamonds and finance, XWall trading platform and Julian Zegelman consulting firm. The main difference between ordinary projects and blockchain ones is time or lack thereof, plus blockchain projects always have more resources. Prices are standard for all, depending on the amount of work.
The main problem of any project is its life after the designers office. Sometimes the the company stops maintaining the style we created: colours can be the same, but the guidelines aren’t followed or the interior designer isn’t a professional one. That’s why some projects become worse after transformation.
We continued to talk about blockchain in general. Olga recognized it’s complicated for her to answer because she isn’t really in on the topic. Lena said she got inspired by the blockchain romanticism and an idea of fiat as money replacement the way Milton Friedman proposed some time ago.
In the end I asked PIXIES co-founders about women position in blockchain as a sphere.
Olga: It is important to mention that we don’t see,how gender can influence anything here.
Lena: We are a feminist studio. There are women in math and programming, we are artists.
Olga: Not really artists, we are still designers. Artists don’t solve any tasks, they express themselves. We still need to investigate the product.
Our interview came to an end. I turned off the tape recorder, looked round and couldn’t resist taking photos of the employees and their Instagram inspired office. Everything looked so French, fresh and inspiring. Now I can truly believe that blockchain is not about any cellars and frightening secrecy. It can also be about art, philosophy, fashion, vision and creation. Magic, it has to be.