Where Digital Meets Physical. An Interview with Matt Mulder @ Digital Kitchen

Matt is the quintessential Seattle guy, right down to the stubble, flannel and fleeced hoodie. But he wasn't always so well assimilated. Matt has been working in Seattle at Digital Kitchen since moving up to Seattle from California in 2003. He followed his wife, Annabelle Gould, who was starting her job as a design professor at the University of Washington. Matt Mulder's most well known work is the title sequence for the popular HBO Series True Blood.

Matt Mulder

Matt Mulder

Matt has seen a lot of change in the last ten years and he welcomes it with enthusiasm. As he led the tour around the Digital Kitchen offices he jumped right into talking about how much their work has evolved from when the office was designed in the late '90s. The "trophy" editing suite no longer holds clients all day – the coffee table no longer bedecked with catered sandwiches. They work so differently now, that they are currently on a hunt for a space that suits them better. Matt described how the new space must accommodate a workshop of makers. It may have tools – not just the ones with an apple logo, but items more often seen in the hands of a craftsman.

"We are trying to be a workshop where digital meets physical. Expressing a brand in whatever medium is appropriate for what the business case happens to be. That requires a different skill set than it did 5 years ago."

That is not to say Digital Kitchen has stopped doing the work they became famous for. When asked, Mulder confirmed that they are working on a title now. "We always try to identify the opportunities to do the best work " Digital Kitchen was part of what broke the mold on the way titles were done – show the cast, and their names and play a theme song and done. Instead they have always approached it as a branding assignment. Music, imagery and timing, simultaneously and organically emerge as they carve deep into the theme of the show and the reasons why someone would want to watch it. However, titles are a small and competitive business, not sustainable or scalable, and so they have widened their scope over the years as they have grown.

"The last three or four years have been the most challenging and rewarding." said Matt, "Assignments are incredibly varied and are full of opportunities to do a lot of stuff that we don't know how to do… yet. At one point it will give you an ulcer and the same time it will give you a shot in the arm of adrenaline."

Matt's career wasn't always full of adrenaline and it keeps him humble. "Right out of undergrad, I worked the night shift at a coupon magazine in Grapevine, Texas. Not the job that I dreamed of when I said I wanted to be a graphic designer. It was just a job where you churned out ads on an old software platform called multi-ad creator. We didn't even have the honor of using Quark.”

The fundamental changes at Digital Kitchen have filtered into every aspect of life there. Staff vie to suggest the most unusual and ironic group activities, curling being their latest pursuit. "Part of maintaining a workshop atmosphere is making sure we have fun. That is as critical to the business as being smart."

Having a wide set of hobbies has been coming in handy at Digital Kitchen, literally. For Stanley, the player piano that takes musical requests via tweets, built on a DK weekend hackathon, employees were dismantling then rebuilding, wiring up Arduino drives, and designing the stage. Even finding the player piano in the first place was a challenge. They had to figure it out because "there is no 'Converting a Player Piano for Dummies' book." That pirate mentality paid off. Stanley garnered national press and now they are looking to what they can do next in that same spirit.

Matt is no stranger to the maker spirit. "I come from a background of making stuff. My Uncle was a tool and dye maker, and my father was an engineer. We used to build radio controlled airplanes together." As an adult he has retained that passion for aviation. He has a pilot's license and is still building airplanes. Yet, the one he has been working on for the last six years in his garage is not a toy. It's a full-size airplane. "It has always been nice to have something I can do with my hands that can offset what I love doing for my profession that is physically based - not pushing pixels around. "

That is not to say that he has no respect for pixels. Matt was one of two judges of AIGA Seattle's Pixels of Fury 2012. Normally a pretty reserved and quiet guy, he did his best to channel Dave Niehaus. He said he was impressed by the style of the event and by the competitors who bravely faced over 100 shoulder surfers.

"It gets to one of the things I am intrigued by, and that is seeing what we do and how we work in real time. My generation was brought up to believe that the harder and longer you think about something the better it's going to get. Its fun to see the antithesis of that be just as good."

Matt acknowledged the fact that professional organizations as a whole are undergoing as much of a major shift as the design industry is. He recalled how it used to be that you needed membership organizations to access to your peers and industry trends – a valuable knowledge base. Now all of that is just a Google search, or LinkedIn introduction away. "I think that the value the AIGA has is to bring experts together to ask provocative questions. It gives you an avenue to try out new ideas, and have a sympathetic audience."

When asked what new ideas Matt is going to try out in 2013, his bucket list included a walking tour of Ireland, back to back camping trips with his wife and son, and up to four triathlons. And, "there is always that airplane staring at me in the garage."

To see the full breadth of Matt’s work at Digital Kitchen visit thisisdk.com

By Harmony Hasbrook
Published February 2, 2013