Tales from an American girl living in Denmark
Have no idea what I’m talking about below? Read this post for context.
Having explored Antwerp a bit the previous afternoon I found the address for Mr. Henry pretty easily. They’re located only two or three walking minutes from the beautiful town square and the famous medieval Vlaeykensgang alley that Jess and I hung out around the day before. I stared at their call button for a few seconds before giving it a poke. When it comes to those doorbells with the speakers I’m never sure what to do. I grew up mostly in the country so “buzzing up” is something I still haven’t completely mastered. My city friends laugh at me whenever I hesitantly say hello into a speaker and then stare at it suspiciously while I wait to see what will happen. It’s just scary, okay?
About a minute later Hans, who I’d been emailing with, answered the door and showed me into a room where a small group of people were working. He introduced me to his colleague, Inge, and the three of us headed upstairs to a really great loft type area where we could chat. I liked both of them straightaway – sometimes you can just tell when people are down to earth and open. I’ve had such luck when it comes to meeting good, solid people while I’m traveling. Even in cities I was warned would be full of American-hating, inhospitable people I didn’t encounter anyone remarkably unpleasant. Maybe I’m just oblivious… but that’s a different blog post entirely.
Here are the basics. Mr. Henry was born 7 years ago. Originally made up of two people, he has since tripled. Despite how it might sound I’m not describing the severe progression of multiple personality disorder or alarming weight gain, but rather the natural evolution of an interactive firm experiencing increasing demand for their work. Their initial success was a series of “I know a guy who knows a guy’s girlfriend who knows a friend’s roommate who does what you need done” type connections. AKA word of mouth. Things like winning an FWA for this site didn’t hurt business either.
As far as design-y things are concerned they pretty much do it all: print, branding, web and development (both front and also back end), and so on. They’ve worked with some pretty droppable names, too, with one of the recent bigger ones being a huge development project for Lincoln (the auto company) that had to (and did) withstand the clobbering traffic of Grammy and Superbowl web hits. That effort was in collaboration with New York’s Hugo and Marie who also happen to manage some of the work by Hvass and Hannibal (a Danish duo I heard about and became enchanted with last summer when I was studying in CPH). So. Cool.
Other big names include Heinz (a nontraditional project that they developed an interesting operational solution for), IBM Watson, Stella McCartney, Levi’s (who I also used to work for, but on decidedly less thrilling projects…), and Eastpak. For Eastpak they started out doing print catalogs, and have since done their online catalogs, some copywriting work, graphic identity, and specialty print projects as well – more on that later, because there’s one I really love. The list of happy clients is of course much longer, but those are a few that stood out in my notes. It’s definitely worth browsing their website’s work section. If nothing else, take a few minutes to read the copy on their site. I rarely smile so much on a page unless I’m treating myself to a FailBook binge or some other fun Internet junk food trap.
Clearly they’re doing something right at Mr. Henry so I asked them some questions about business operation logistics, managing client relationships, and advice for grads just beginning to spread their design wings. One of my questions was regarding what to do as a recent grad when you’re not at a point where you can be ultra choosey about who you work with yet. Should you do unpaid work? Should you put up with pushy and poor-mannered clients?
There’s not a perfect answer because starting out is tough any way you slice it, but they did advise, at minimum, to make sure a project is something you can use to better yourself and strengthen your portfolio. I guess it just comes down to making judgment calls. If you’re not getting paid well, or at all, you can still think of a cool project in terms of something that might eventually give you the visibility/connections to do a project that WILL help pay the rent. But sometimes for the sake of project quality and your own sanity you just have to put your foot down and say no when things get too unreasonable.
Hans emphasized that gut feeling is really important and said he will even turn down a project based upon this. He also brought up the point that a big part of which clients you attract will have to do with you and your brand’s personality – that is to say that the brand portrayed by an agency can act as a barrier against clients who are incompatible. Mr. Henry’s personal brand is a reflection of their evolution process, and generally the kinds of clients who are attracted to MH’s style and philosophy are the kind they’d like to work with. I get the impression that they’re fairly laid-back at Mr. Henry, and they seem to believe that if it’s meant to be, it’ll work. The more I think about it, the more logical that actually seems.
Still, sometimes you will have a great project, but a client who is dead set on what they want and more or less clueless about what they actually need. Hans told me about one development project where they had to fight for a site menu they knew would be perfect, but the client wasn’t confident about it mostly due to lack of understanding. In these situations it’s important to try to educate your client and leave any arrogant I KNOW BEST attitude out of it regardless of how frustrating it might be.
The arrogant designer and the clueless client have become comical stereotypes, but in real life it’s just no good. Plus, if nobody educates the client it will only perpetuate the original problem and all anybody will have to show for it is a half finished project, a red-faced client, and a trail of designers, faces pressed firmly to palms.
Do your best to help with things that might not be “your job,” too. When one of Mr. Henry’s clients called them up about an urgent website problem the team worked hard to resolve it even though it wasn’t actually their problem. In fact, it had nothing to do with the work Mr. Henry had done and was cleanly outside their realm of responsibility, but they went out of their way to fix it anyway. The lesson here is to go beyond if you can. It makes all the difference to the client and also to your reputation.
Inge talked about some of the more business-y parts like how before beginning a project it’s very important to cover how it will be organized and its overall scope. Discussing this with the client and project team keeps expectations consistent and eliminates a lot of misery for whoever is in charge of schedule and budget. Flexibility is a must due to the nature of complex creative projects so always try to build room for it into the initial plan. For example, at Mr. Henry their workflow is generally the same, but the result is always very unique. If flexibility is sacrificed for rigid process then projects risk losing individuality; they start to look less like true originals and more like factory-churned themes that have been customized.
They told me how good designers think beyond the present needs of their clients or users and anticipate what might be needed in the future. Always consider the “what if’s,” and strive to create designs with the flexibility to adapt to changing needs. Design in a way that ensures the intended use of a design is actually used, otherwise it’s only pretty. Hans mentioned, too, that they really try to avoid hipster design and instead work to create solutions with merit that last beyond a fleeting trend.
While I’m still on the topic of trends, when I asked about what makes a portfolio or particular designer stand out Hans said he’d far rather see one excellent, unique thing than a series of quality, but generic work that has been done over and over. There’s a lot of debate in classrooms and on the internet about what makes a good portfolio with one side arguing for a very formulaic, commercial style to show you’re ready to hit the factory floor running, and the other insisting that work like that is the fastest way to get lost in a pile. I suspect that the answer to the portfolio question is very subjective overall, and designers need to consider with whom and on what type of projects they most want to work.
The internal culture at Mr. Henry is awesome. During our conversation Hans and Inge talked about how if you enjoy the process of something it will show in the result. You can tell there’s a lot of enjoyment going on at Mr. Henry. They seem really close-knit and it’s obvious that they have a good time together. In fact, they have an entire section on their website called play. Check this one out… I’m not sure specifically why, but I love watching that video.
They also find fun ways to share their daily inner workings with people like contributing photos to a group Dropbox during the week, and then choosing a few snaps to go into a weekly photo collage on their Facebook. It’s a simple way to be transparent and approachable by offering people a peek into the team’s most recent work and the personalities behind the scenes. It’s nice for collecting the group’s memories over the years, too! Here are a few more snaps I took of the office for my own memories…
Speaking of approachability – you know how occasionally you find yourself at party and you don’t know who’s who or how to go about making introductions? It can quickly become an uncomfortable situation, but at Mr. Henry’s 7th birthday party they eliminated the awkward when they included life-size cutouts of themselves among the guests. Hans and Inge told me how guests could “introduce” themselves to all the team members name-tagged cut out selves even if the real live versions where in conversation with someone else. It eliminated any nerve-wracking “which one is which,” and I’m told it resulted in some great pictures. They still have the cutouts so I got to take a picture with the crew as well – woohoo!
Hans and Inge spent somewhere in the ballpark of 2 hours with me and exhibited saint-like patience while I asked questions, scribbled notes, and… tried to keep my nose from leaking onto the table. I know. So gross. Unfortunately for me, and everyone within a mile’s radius of me, my head cold was on day 3 of its mission to suffocate. Still, I really enjoyed meeting the crew and spending time at Mr. Henry’s; I even walked out with a couple of ideas that easily double as life tips. From my notes…
Don’t get too focused on one thing. It’s good to have goals, of course, but Hans pointed out in more or less words that you can’t anticipate and control everything so having extreme tunnel vision won’t do you many favors. I needed to hear this because being the… uh, minimalist that I am, sometimes it’s hard for me to see for what reason I would ever need more than one basket in which to put my eggs.
Be willing to evolve. Avoid becoming iron-set on something that will only disappoint you if it doesn’t work. In the meantime you might miss opportunities that could have been great if only your focus hadn’t been so narrow. These words of wisdom seem perfectly applicable to everything from a design concept that just isn’t going to fly, to the execution of a career path. Hans and Inge didn’t actually start out doing what they do these days – If I remember right, Hans spent some time in the architecture field and sketching, and Inge worked as a translator. It just goes to show that you can plan as immaculately as you like, but as the old quote says, “if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans.”
If any of you are still reading by this point (bless your souls) here’s a couple of the projects I thought were really cool. And if nobody’s still reading by this point then this will solely be for my own memory/inspiration/sake.
Eastpak. One of the recent projects Mr. Henry did for them was an internal brand guidebook. The guides are intended for employees to educate themselves about upcoming product, and sometimes the content can be… a little dry. Having worked in retail and merchandising during high school/early college I personally know this to be the case. MH made it loads more fun when they applied a secret agent theme to spice up the guides:
Eastpak 2013 Print Catalogs. Here is another, bigger Eastpak project they completed this summer. I don’t think I even need to say anything. Just looking at the pictures gives me the tingles:
Hetpaleis. A seriously awesome responsive website Mr. Henry created to breath new life into an existing brand. The client didn’t want to rebrand, but they recognized that their site needed to be more fun. Hans pointed out that branding and design are separate exercises so they had freedom in the creative process even though the brand was already firmly in place. This site’s visitors are between 4 and 80 years old so the team had a very broad audience to consider, too. The 4 year old in me was ecstatic when they showed me features like a button that makes the page’s type “blow up,” and pictures of people with eyes that follow your mouse cursor. Actually, if I’m honest, the 22 year old me was also pretty excited.
I should probably explain that Hetpaleis is a theatre house that does a lot of work with youth and the community. It sounded like a really cool place so I went to see it myself:
– fin –