Portrait 6 minutes of reading

Monastudio, shattering the conventional codes of the web

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Marie-Flore Pirmez

A voracious fan of podcasts and documentaries, Marie-Flore is a firm believer in the revival of print journalism thanks to the many opportunities offered by the web and long-form magazines. When she takes off her journalist's hat, you're likely to find her hiking or in a yoga studio.

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Aiding business companies in their digital transition and rethinking the website no longer as a simple shop window but as an experience. Such is the ambition of Aude Schaff and Nicolas Germeaux, the founders of the Monastudio web design agency. Behind this new Namur based company is hidden the inspiring tale of two journeys, no part of which hinted at any predestination for the web.

‘It involves looking to innovate in order to stand out from the crowd, continuing to learn by yourself and acquiring new skills every day,’ he says. ‘For me, it is offering our clients experiences which they have never come across on the web, which goes beyond what they are accustomed to,’ she outlines. And there we have what inspires the two founders of Monastudio, when we ask them to talk about their agency without using the term ‘web design.’

As was also true for numerous neo-entrepreneurs, it was the health crisis which put into perspective the personal and professional plans of Nicolas and Aude. For his part, after having tried his hand at medicine and the biomedical sciences, Nicolas began to lose confidence in himself, but what stood out above all was that he found very little meaning in his studies. ‘I ended up studying informatics, and more specifically cybersecurity. But once again, I sensed that I wasn’t totally where I should be. It’s by chance that I discovered web design and the UX and UI approaches.’

In terms readily understood by any Muggle, for these read ‘User experience’ and ‘User interface.’ Two expressions to designate the field of web design, which, on the one hand, endeavours to work on the user experience of a website, and, on the other hand, the interface, in other words, the windows, buttons and other textual or visual elements with which the internet user will interact. Nicolas did not emerge unscathed from this encounter with web design. Without knowing anything about it, he landed a work placement at a web agency, where he learned everything as he went along.

when COVID struck, we spent our nights learning coding and web design.

Nor did Aude know anything about web design, either. Her career pathway, which she typifies as ‘classic’, saw her begin studies in the political sciences. A lack of meaning, an absence of the concrete, a 180 degree about-turn. She turned to accounting, with the aim of working in cultural management in order to devote herself to one of her passions, music. ‘I knew that the creative sector spoke to me, but accounting, I quickly realised that it wouldn’t stimulate me either.’ On an impulse, and right in the middle of the year, she changed direction and opted for the audio-visual and graphic design, a period in her life when she met a certain Nicolas. ‘I was also drawn to the web. And when COVID struck, we spent our nights learning coding and web design.’ From there, it didn’t take too long before the two entrepreneurs set out on the path towards Monastudio.

The fledgling Namur company has scarcely celebrated its second birthday but has already been a prize winner at the Awwwards in 2021 (an organisation which acknowledges the talent of the best developers, designers and web agencies the world over). Recently Nicolas and Aude have for that matter gone to talk about their entrepreneurial adventure in various schools. With humility, they were proud to go over the road they have covered. ‘Beyond the substance of our presentation on web design, we above all wanted to get a message across to these young people: it doesn’t matter if your journey is a very winding one, that merely brings us a little closer to ourselves.’

Image on the left, text on the right

The two web designers rapidly became aware that the conventions in operation on the web are, how can we put this, very conventional. Image on the left, text on the right, the codes repeat themselves from site to site. ‘Even though in web design, you can work with the immersive, 3D, emerging technologies,’ point out the two astonished twenty-somethings. In such circumstances, how then to kickstart innovation on the web, to create sites which grab the attention? ‘By implementing genuine web experiences.’ – For that matter, note that during our discussion neither Nicolas nor Aube use the expression ‘website.’

©Augmented reality experience – KIKK Festival – Monastudio

Development, design, identity creation, 3D experiences, augmented reality, strategy or cybersecurity. As self-taught operators, the web duo has little by little developed its field of expertise. But it is also thanks to a special encounter that they have been able to widen their activity. They now work at TRAKK, the Namur creative hub established alongside the Sambre. For the most part self-employed, the creatives who occupy these premises comprise an important community in Namur’s cultural and creative sector. Without counting the hours they work, they are there above all to dare to get things going. ‘TRAKK, it’s a work space we were targeting since the beginning of Mona,’ recounts Nicolas. ‘We need a hybrid work mode, shared between where we live and a site dedicated to our work life, but we also need to be able to draw inspiration from other creators. TRAKK encourages synergies in an informal way. For one web project, we for example needed skills in 3D modelling, and it was at TRAKK that we came across the right interlocutor.’

Web design across the pond

On the subject of synergies, Nicolas and Aude are also aiming to create them in Canada. Last March they left on a mission to Quebec thanks to a Wallonia-Brussels International grant, in order to attend a cluster of conferences as well as a week dedicated to the future of digital. Nicolas owns up to having certain ties in that region of the world, having already spent time in the North American country for his Erasmus sojourn. But this new opportunity motivated the two Belgians to collaborate outside of Belgium. ‘From a technological perspective, Canada is a stunning universe. You only have to look at the number of creative agencies per square metre. For us, it’s a dream opportunity to immerse ourselves in this flow and meet people with different backgrounds in order to potentially develop partnerships or other collaborations on an international level.’

Web design is a kind of universal language. But the way of approaching projects with the clients in Canada is radically different.

Apart from the possibilities to exchange skills, the Canadian work culture is quite singular in comparison with Belgium, which inspires the Monastudio founders. ‘Web design is a kind of universal language, the practices are more or less comparable internationally. But the way of approaching projects with the clients in Canada is radically different. In Europe, there is a tendency to beat about the bush, without saying clearly what you think about the first working version. Certain clients give us carte blanche, but when we do something bold which goes off the well-worn paths of the web, we sometimes sense a certain reticence, and we have to backtrack towards something more standard. In Canada, everything is very direct, which means that the projects keep moving forwards. You suggest something that is maybe less complete, a work-in-progress, but there is no fear of innovation and risk.’

The proximity with the United States, the hectic pace of Silicon Valley, certainly generates a race in the land of the maple leaf which would sooner step on the accelerator to be in the lead in the tech sector. For their part, Nicolas and Aude continue to educate themselves on a daily basis, but they also acknowledge that they have fallen into the habit, like many entrepreneurs, of working a great deal, and at times losing the balance between private and work life. Nevertheless, the two young web designers consider that even with the emergence of artificial intelligences (AIs), their profession is not destined to disappear. ‘That won’t happen. It is being steered towards evolving, true enough, as is the case with the nature of websites. For us, the standardised web will struggle. You can see that much already with the wave of free sites which are losing their momentum. Free of charge is merely a ploy in terms of referencing, but not only. What will endure is the web experience and the creativity that we will always be able to breathe into it.’

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