In your recent internet wanderings you might have spotted a few residents of BusinessTown, the industrious anthropomorphic animals who look strikingly similar to the ones from your favourite childhood picture book — except these creatures are digital strategy "intrapreneurs" who give TED Talks on how nanobots will end poverty.
The characters are by illustrator Tony Ruth, who created the Virtual Worlds Developer panda on the left for Gizmodo, and stopped by to answer a few of our questions about why, exactly, one would feel the need to draw a pair of developer bison posting salacious photos on their anonymous app.
Ruth actually came up with the series as he was entering the venture capital world himself — he was helping a client craft their pitch for funding. "I was googling job titles in finance meetings because I didn't understand what people were talking about," he says. "I kept my own cheat sheet so I could follow the MBA's conversations." He started reading tech blogs and business magazines for more ideas and ended up jotting down a huge list of potential characters. "I'm only about halfway through that initial list and still I come across something new every day or so. There's a wealth of workplace complexity out there."
For graphic inspiration, Ruth turned to Richard Scarry, whose books had served as a kind of primer on the job force during his childhood. "As a kid, What Do People Do All Day was an awesome functional explanation of the world, though it always felt dated — focusing on historically traditional jobs like "blacksmith" and "housewife" — and the very tangible tools that went along with each." Although, as he looked back on Scarry's work (the author died in 1994) he started to see some odd incongruities, like the butcher who was a pig — and had hambones hanging in the window of his shop. "It's kind of messed up," says Ruth.
The BusinessTown characters themselves are eye-rolling stereotypes laden with gut-wrenching jargon — the parody versions of Elon Musk and Sean Parker are more than a little obvious — but Ruth's attention to detail manages to make them earnest and endearing. The Chief Diversity Officer is a seahorse, a symbol of biodiversity. The book being held by the Corporate Social Responsibility Specialist is the real book Worldchanging. Ruth has even tackled some big issues, like the egg-freezing debate at companies like Facebook and Google.
While I immediately envisioned an animated series, Ruth tells me that he's currently working on a book which, in addition to entertaining the tech world, might actually come in useful as a kind of picture book explainer for grownups who don't yet understand the quirks of the industry. "I'm hoping it might help illuminate our weird, amazing, highly ambitious, borderline-absurd tech world to the uninitiated, or even the initiated who don't understand what's happening outside their own specialty."
You can see lots more of Ruth's BusinessTown world on Instagram, where this Virtual Worlds Developer that Ruth created for us will appear later today. I asked how this HoloLens-wearing panda epitomized Gizmodo. "He's both a talented dreamer and an overgrown kid, which maybe is the same thing," Ruth says. "He wants to build the world that movies promised him. He's probably trying to crowdfund a commercially viable lightbike at this very moment."
Sounds about right. A few more favourites below, but go check out the rest.