Architecture is defined by stories. It’s through visualization and communication of ideas that we construct new environments. Trained as an architect, Keely Colcleugh is a designer with a range of experience across the fields of architecture, graphic design, film, and visualization. In 2009, she founded Kilograph with a desire to combine leading edge visualization techniques with animation, interactive design, graphics, and branding. Now Keely is the CEO of a growing creative agency with offices in Los Angeles and Spain.
In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Keely talks about her transition to communication design, her love for Los Angeles, and how the art of visualization continues to evolve.
EB: Can you tell us how Kilograph came about?
KC: We started in 2009 just doing architectural renderings. Around that time there really wasn't anyone else here doing that. So we had a bit of a captive market. And as technology progressed and the market expanded, we've begun to focus on what we do best and what we enjoy. We work on the entire communication cycle of a project, whether it's a public infrastructure project or an architectural competition, to tell stories about what buildings are going to look like, in the most engaging way possible.
We recently went through a process of rebranding the company and our mission statement. It became really clear that we have a very optimistic view of the future of the built environment. In Los Angeles, this is kind of unique. In the visual effects community, all views of L.A.'s future tend to be very dystopic. And even amongst architectural visualization artists, when given the choice of how to represent the future, they go dystopian. We are always blue skies.
EB: And do you have a specific approach to your work?
KC: We really feel negatively about things like templates and using a cookie cutter approach, even for efficiency’s sake. We believe there's something in research and development that can yield new ideas. And so we are constantly trying new things. It might mean that we're not the masters in one particular area, but we are definitely the first people to try things. That really makes us a possibilities company, and that's what we're calling ourselves now.
Our services increasingly focus on real-time rendering. Everything is evolving towards VR/AR, as they can communicate the potential of space and scale at a higher level than anything else right now. Since every client is different, we try to suggest options tailored for specific goals, which could mean film, animation, stills, immersive, or really whatever makes the most sense for a particular audience. We believe that the integration of all of these elements does more for the brand/marketing of a property than a quick project ever could.
EB: And you’re working with a range of clients, not just architects?
KC: Yes! We are excited to showcase competencies in areas like the visualization of new energy technologies, mobility, and real estate development. But we're also continuing to stay focused on architecture. I think that it’s an interesting space to stay in. One of the reasons we are seeing more growth is because 3D is expanding into more industries. The desire for VR, AR, and other types of visualizations isn’t limited to one sector, so when companies go looking for a creative firm that can kind of do it all, they find us. Especially when they are looking for a firm in a major city like LA.
EB: Is there a unique project you’re working on now?
KC: Currently we're working with Michael Graves’s office on bringing to life some of the watercolor illustrations and drawings that the office did for projects that were never built. We're trying to use sensory input like a gesture-based motion to create the worlds and also flow through different shaders to achieve a fluid watercolor effect. That’s a fun zone for us to play in, these fully immersive, experiential designs.
The challenge is getting people in the headset. So we're looking at ways that we can share those experiences with clients without necessarily having to have them put on the display. And that's going to be the next kind of hurdle for us.
EB: With virtual reality, do you take a different approach when presenting to clients or the community?
KC: For architects, it's more about getting all the stakeholders on the same page and solving problems. Communicating design vision, solving problems, making decisions quickly. When you're presenting an experience to the public, you need to employ other techniques like sound cues, or you need to be led through an experience. We do things like creating a host to take you through and point out things. Because if you're talking about something and people are not looking at it, suddenly it can be very confusing.
One of the things that we're really trying to push is communication in that virtual space. A lot of the times the user experience is the last thing that architectural visualization companies will think about. Whereas it's the first thing that we think about. And so we have a couple of people here doing UX design. We find it's always better when we start with the brand vision.
EB: Could you talk a bit more about any barriers you have utilizing technology in your field?
KC: I think with virtual reality and the device itself there's a high intimidation factor with technology for most people. So it's about making the lowest barrier for entry. And that might be a good Cardboard experience that brings in their phone, or something else that slowly builds up the conversation. I think it’s also clarity of strategy or clarity of communication that needs to happen and that's where the branding team comes in. We take those goals and then create an accessible experience around them.
EB: You do a range of projects, but you still do photorealistic work, yes?
KC: Definitely. Right now we’re doing a project called the Whiskey Hotel. Every room will have whiskey in it, and it’s going to be built. You literally get a shot on arrival.
EB: Sounds like my kind of hotel! Stepping back a bit, I’m wondering why you were interested in majoring in architecture in the first place?
KC: That's a good question. I think it was an interesting mix of art and physics. I loved physics as a kid, and in high school it was my top subject. My junior year I did a lot of work in that department, and then I realized that I was probably not going to end up going into physics. There wasn't really much of a path that I could see. So architecture seemed to make sense. I loved sketching too, so that was part of it.
EB: So you went to study at McGill. Was there something specific to that experience that really stuck with you?
KC: We just had a 20 year anniversary this year. I met all my classmates and we are all unbelievably similar. When we graduated we seemed very different, but most of us have stayed in architecture. I was one of the few who left. But there was definitely something about that moment, because there were no digital tools. But there was an aggressive representation approach with everything you did. I think that got us all thinking about representation and the ideas behind a project.
EB: You’ve worked at offices like OMA, AMO, Bruce Mau, and SOM. You’ve taken on many different roles, and I’m wondering what those experiences gave to you and how you made the leap from one thing to another?
KC: From the beginning on the first day of school, my interest was the presentation. I would even work with other people on their presentations. I don't know if I was a good architect, but my presentations were always like the thing. So when I went to OMA, I was in this world where everything was presentation. Everything had to be presented in such a clear and concise way to Rem, as he only had so much time. If you had a question you had to come with a hundred pages of what he asked for, your idea, and a second idea. You had to sit with him and flip through it. You did everything you could to express your idea quickly.
After a while I had the chance to work with Bruce Mau. Eventually, it became really clear that I needed to try legitimately being in communication design, because it seemed like this is where everything was going. It is very hard to leave something that you thought you were going to do your whole life. But I tried it, and I absolutely loved it.
EB: So how did you make the switch to visualization?
KC: I think it came as technology evolved and as I experimented with new programs that opened up new realms of possibility. I remember reading an article in Toronto about a company of architects who were using architectural modeling software and techniques on leading edge film productions. It was called pre-visualization, and Minority Report had just come out. I watched the movie and it was awesome. I reached out my network, and they put me in touch with a couple of guys that were doing it. I flew to L.A. and I really fell in love with it. So I just dove right in and I really enjoyed working in visual effects and learning the software.
EB: How does being in Los Angeles shape your work?
KC: Los Angeles is the final frontier. It really is, for Western architecture, for culture. It's where things have historically happened and where I think they will continue to. We’re starting to see a real focus on new technologies and a real optimism. I can’t think of a better city to have a firm in when you’re interested in progress. We’re fortunate in that we are basically working on most major projects in LA right now, so in a lot of ways we are helping shape the way people view changes in the city. So we are constantly thinking about what LA is and will be in our work.
EB: Even today, there is still a debate about hand drawing and digital representation. Do you feel like there is a line between the two or that the line is going away?
KC: I think it's completely done. I think as we reached a point where we are able to use computers as artistic mediums it doesn't matter. It's not a discussion of fidelity, it’s not a discussion of technology, it's discussion of ideas. A discussion of position. I don't think it's an issue anymore; it's simply expression.
EB: Could you expand on the scope of things that you work on here. Is there a particular piece of work that you really enjoy or that you want to explore more?
KC: I get really interested in the virtual reality work. And again it's probably a product of that time in history when I went through school. From the very beginning it was about the creation of space. And so it feels like we’re getting back to this fundamental idea of why architecture is important. I find that really invigorating and exciting. The potential there is just massive.
EB: Could you talk about your office structure? I know you mentioned you have a team in Spain. How are teams set up?
KC: Our team in Spain is really an extension of our team here. As we grow over there, the idea is that they will get their own projects. We don't really work in silos. Everyone is a bit of a generalist, and we upstream and downstream abilities depending on the project we’re working on. So it's a very organic office structure. Maybe it’s because we're Canadians and we're trying to be very democratic.
EB: At one point you went back to school at SCI-Arc. How did that come about?
KC: Well I dropped out of school to go and join OMA. I had gotten into grad school at Rice right after my first job experience. A friend of mine called me in the middle of my first semester and said they needed some people in Rotterdam. She said Rem’s going to be in San Francisco next week if you want to meet with him in person. And I literally did! I remember walking into this cafe and I had breakfast with him. I showed him my portfolio and he said, “so you want to come work in Rotterdam?” I told him I was still in school, and he responded, “the fact that you’re still in school is very unattractive to me.”
So I dropped out! I fully pulled out, and after working for a while, I felt like I wanted to go back to school and that there were things I’d left on the table. SCI-Arc had a great program, so I applied, and that’s where I went.
EB: So you’ve come to call Los Angeles home. Do you have a favorite neighborhood?
KC: I've always enjoyed Culver City. From the first time I visited it made me think about the in-between areas. It’s this interesting mix with the legacy of Sony, the area’s history, and the oil derricks right there. There's something about the weirdness of L.A. that I love, and you can find it in Culver City.
EB: With everything that you take on, what makes Kilograph unique?
KC: Ideas. People come to us for creativity, because we’ll suggest something they haven’t seen before or take their property and help them shape it for a particular audience across mediums. We hire different types of people to achieve this, so our staff isn’t just architects and 3D artists – we’re also former game developers, visual effects artists, illustrators, VR devs, and more. It’s a true melting pot and it’s why we say that with us, anything is possible.