Tales from an American girl living in Denmark
I first learned of the New York City based creative agency Hugo & Marie during my time in Belgium last summer when I visited Mr. Henry. Their work has been on my radar since then, and so when I spontaneously decided I would go to NYC to stay with a friend of mine over New Years I thought I’d see if I could arrange a visit. Lucky for me, I was able to coordinate a window of time with Masha, a Senior Producer and Artist Agent there.
I spent a couple of hours in their fantastically located studio (Gumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, cool industrial building right by the water) asking Masha and the team questions about their working style, sources of inspiration, and for any advice they might have to offer.
Hugo & Marie plays a unique role in this industry in that it is both a creative studio, and also an artist management group. It’s a terrific coupling of services – whatever the project, chances are they know an artist who can approach it from a perspective you won’t find in any traditional agency. The proof is clearly exhibited in their work for a diverse (and very impressive) list of clients.
This unique business model was developed by husband and wife team Jennifer (Marie) and Mario (Hugo) Gonzales in 2008. I didn’t meet them during my visit – both were out with their newborn (whose very adorable photo is on Twitter) – but Masha filled me in on how the couple formed the agency.
J&M were interested in developing a different style of artist management that enabled creative freedom to the fullest while simultaneously serving as a reliable connection between artist and client. Out of this desire Hugo & Marie came to be. Mario’s background is in illustration and art direction, and Jennifer’s is in fashion. Their combination of skills and industry knowledge combine to make a perfect soil from which the agency continues to grow.
The creative solutions they provide to their clients are the result of a team as unique as the agency’s business model. The artists under their management are based all over the world, and they work using all kinds of different mediums and styles. This diversity allows for dynamic artist partnerships that go above and beyond traditional digital undertakings and create phenomenal experiences. Skip to the end of this post for links to some of my favorite projects they’ve done.
They work with high-end fashion designers (Stella McCartney, Gucci, Times Arrow, NY based Cushnie et Ochs), popular music artists (Lorde, J. Cole, Rihanna, Coldplay), and household name corporations like AT&T and Lincoln (who you might recall they worked on the rebranding of alongside Belgian studio, Mr. Henry). And that’s just a few names skimmed from the top of their past successes.
My contact there, Masha, doesn’t originally come from an advertising or digital background. She was a political history major who started out organizing large nonprofit events. Later on she did go to work for an ad company in Chicago, but it’s clear that her organizational experience in the nonprofit sector honed her current knack for overseeing multiple artists and projects at Hugo & Marie. She covered a lot of the basic questions I had about their day-to-day roles and workflow at the studio.
She explained that once a project has been selected and the team has thoroughly reviewed the initial brief they generally employ one of two approaches: either the project is first concepted and then handed over to one of their artists to interpret further, or, the process unfolds in reverse; the artist will get a feel for the project beforehand, and then it is concepted based upon that artist’s direct interpretation.
They then establish a rigorous (not agile, but definitely not rigid, as Masha clarified) schedule and the magic is set in motion. It varies a lot per project of course, but for example, a website might take them 2 weeks to wireframe and then 3-8 weeks of creative work before it’s sent to development.
Masha emphasized that a clear concept and mutually agreed upon boundaries from the get go are essential. The more I talk with successful professionals, the more I understand why our professors made such a fuss over ensuring that our pre-production was en pointe. It really does matter, my friends.
This mix of structure and creativity enables the team to maintain the delicate balance between art and functional design, and they do it well. In fact, they do it spectacularly. The partnership between art and usability is often not an easy one to pull off, but they consistently do. This is in part because, in Masha’s words, they “take an artful approach to design communication.” They constantly monitor the shape a project is taking so that the result doesn’t stray from its target or dilute the intended communication.
I asked Masha if she could offer any advice to students and recent grads that want to put their skills to work on a certain type of project, but don’t have much past experience to help them land an opportunity. Her answer was straightforward; if you don’t have work, make some. If you want to design a sneaker, prototype your own. If you have a great idea for how a brand could redefine itself, design it. Show the kind of work you want to do, and you just might end up doing it.
After Masha and I were finished talking I got to chat with a few members of the creative team. I first talked with Ania (a designer), and Lucie (an intern from France) who were gathering inspiration for a project they’d been briefed on earlier that evening. Ania told me her web designs are often inspired by high fashion print editorials. The girls said that inspiration usually comes easily because they get to work on projects for brands that they personally admire. They both agreed that Mario’s approach to art direction also plays a significant role in keeping a consistent flow of ideas.
Still on the topic of inspiration, Ania talked about how an interest in (or disinterest) and desire to work on a particular project can have a huge impact on your creative ability. She pointed out that the work in your portfolio could act as a job filter in two ways. First, if your work is quite different from the style of a particular studio, it might serve to show the diversity and broadened skill range you could bring onboard. Second, it can save you the trouble of joining a team where the work isn’t in line with your interests and goals.
This is another good reason why, like Masha suggested, you should show the kind of work you want to do – even if that work isn’t “real” (yet), or stylistically similar to the work of the place you’re applying to.
Another tip I took away from chatting with Ania and Lucie is to try and think, and then think again, of all the unexpected ways an audience might interpret something. Ania, laughing, told me about how the J. Cole Born Sinner album cover they recently designed has nothing to do with the 7 Deadly Sins, but a bunch of people immediately jumped to that conclusion.
Next, I talked with Fanny (who worked with the Mr. Henry team in Belgium for a while) and Sam (also a designer) about some trends they’d like to see disappear. “Ugly on purpose” design (looking at you trendlist.org) and intentionally broken, anti-design websites were at the top of the list. Included in the broken on purpose websites group are the increasingly common discontinuous portfolio sites with a logo here, a picture there, then HUGE TYPE HERE!!! Sam also expressed a particular distaste (“PARAllax, parallax, PARAllax!”) for poorly done parallax based sites that force users to endure one long exercise in scrolling.
And what are they happy to see? Designs continuing to move toward a flat, app-y feel, finessed cross-platform design, and tablet inspired pages that give a tactile impression. During my visit they showed me some beautiful examples that I’ve compiled from my notes into a mini inspiration roll below.
– Mentioned by Masha as an occasional source of personal inspiration
A few of my favorites from Hugo & Marie.
Check out these projects
Visual direction – stage and screen – for J. Cole’s What Dreams May Come Tour
Collaboration between Mario Hugo and Jesse Auersalo.
Born Sinner Packaging and Album Artwork
By Mario Hugo, Sam Hodges, and Ania Nowak
Cushnie et Ochs brand and soon-to-be ecommerce site
Creative direction for a one night benefit ballet, The Innovation Initiative, by American Ballet Theatre.
and these artists.
I’m really glad I was able to squeeze in a visit. There is a lot of passion ingrained in the work that comes out of the Hugo & Marie studio.