From MTV’s glitz to Harvard’s heft to the soul of shoe giant Zappos, Greg Hoy ’92 is at the forefront of web design



Greg Hoy ’92 is CEO of Happy Cog, which was .net Magazine’s 2010 Design Firm of the Year and the winner of a prestigious 2012 Webby award for MTV’s Online Music Awards website. The firm also earned Webby honors for its redesign of Harvard University’s main site and for the structure and navigation of Zappos.com.

Web design careers didn’t really exist yet when Hoy was a student, but his management degree helped prepare him for a world that doesn’t stop changing.

Hoy thinks deeply about design every day. We asked him to share a few of those thoughts.

What is good design?

When I was a kid, I considered design “decoration.” The more elaborate or detailed something was, the more designed it was. As I got older and found myself designing for a paycheck, I quickly realized that truly great design is something that doesn’t get in the way. It’s more about what’s purposefully left out. The same can be said for music. Part of what makes it dynamic are the spots in a song where there’s no song. “Big holes, dude, that’s what it’s all about” a bandmate of mine at Gettysburg would always say. It’s all about creating constraints and working within them. Something should fight to break those constraints. They have to beg to be there. So I guess I’m saying good design is simplicity.

When our company designs a website or digital interface, the final product might look pretty simple. People not familiar with the craft may even feel our creations are sparse or “underdesigned.” The truth is, we toil over making things clean and intuitive. Any bit of decoration better have a reason for being there.

Why is good design important?

For Happy Cog, it’s important because it makes and saves money for our clients. Good design benefits both sides of the balance sheet. It saves money for those who maintain the solutions we build, and it generates revenue because it caters to the needs of the target audiences.

When we created a design system for Zappos.com, we realized that their key differentiators were their fun-loving attitude and fanatical obsession with customer service. Those two things are at the center of their culture. Yet, little of that was making it to the surface of the online experience. The design was inconsistent and the content strategy was disjointed. Zappos was saying one thing and showing something else.

We were able to define consistent typography, color, and other elements to ensure their brand was faithfully represented. We even suggested some tongue-in-cheek copy —“Shoes: now conveniently sold in pairs” — because good web design starts with sound content strategy. In the end, we created a detailed style guide, a roadmap so they weren’t constantly reinventing the wheel. It saved them tremendous time and money.

How did Gettysburg help prepare you for your career?

I was a typical confused high school kid who didn’t know what he wanted to do. I was always interested in design, but I don’t think I was confident enough to apply to a topnotch design school. My father insisted that I “couldn’t go wrong with a business degree.” When I visited Gettysburg, I quickly got the sense that the breadth of a liberal arts education would enable me to follow any number of paths — including business.

Almost immediately, I got involved with WZBT. I fell in love with it. In high school, I all too frequently subjected friends to my “unique” taste in music; WZBT gave me an entire new audience of victims — I mean listeners. I became very interested in the operations side of the station, the “business” stuff. When the station manager position opened up, everyone encouraged me to go for it. I was hesitant, but I was voted in. It honestly changed my life. For the first time, I was charting the course for something I loved. My decisions helped determine success or failure. And when I succeeded, I gained confidence. It was the first time I realized there might be a future for me in management, and it was all without setting foot in a classroom. To me, it’s these “off the grid” experiences that make Gettysburg a fantastic place.

Were any particular profs especially influential?

Charlie Emmons, professor of sociology and the faculty sponsor of WZBT, was great. He loved the Cocteau Twins and punk rock. He got Jello Biafra to come to Gettysburg. The guy was ahead of his time. He’d take a bunch of us up to New York for the College Music Journal convention. We’d sit in on panel discussions and go see shows at the Marquee and CBGB. Again, one of those things you don’t necessarily see in the course catalog. My paper for his class was about how MTV changed the cultural landscape of music forever. I got an A.

I was a management major with a concentration in entrepreneurship. A couple of my favorite profs were the husband and wife duo of Charles and Spring Walton. They were just like my parents. They were smart and approachable. I also had a small business management class with Prof. Robert Pitts where I learned a lot through case studies and sat next to Carson Kressley ’91, who perhaps learned a thing or two about managing success. [Kressley is now a prominent TV personality, activist, and fashion maven.]

What are some of your favorite projects?

We have worked with hundreds of clients. They’re all over the map, both geographically and by industry, and that’s purposeful. We like new challenges, and we particularly enjoy applying thinking from one industry to another.

In 2007, we designed a social banking website called Smartypig, a mashup of banking and Facebook when Facebook was still embryonic. People established savings goals and shared them so friends and family could contribute, the modern equivalent of a birthday check from your grandmother. It stands out for me because we were sought to build a product that never existed before.

We designed and built the online experience for the last two MTV Online Music Awards events and are gearing up for the next one. It’s extremely fast-paced. The website is a huge online voting machine, powered by social media. People get their friends to vote for contestants in offbeat categories. When the show airs, it’s entirely online. The website serves up multiple real-time camera angles and content channels. Our people are in the production room with the event directors.

Another favorite was our very first project in 2006, for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, an organization charged with ensuring traditional Irish culture doesn’t vanish. We built a website as a centralized resource for Irish music. The site was our first multilingual one, in both English and Gaelic, and we took our whole company to Dublin. The most rewarding projects are the ones that provide experiences for our employees — things that they’ll remember forever.

Posted: Fri, 25 Jan 2013

Posted: Fri, 1 Feb 2013

Read more news