Interview by Noah Davis (@noahedavis). A freelance writer living in Brooklyn, Davis has written for The Wall Street Journal, New York, and Sports Illustrated.
Julia Vakser Zeltser and Deroy Peraza met on the first day of class at Parsons New School of Design. The duo's "friendly rivalry" eventually spawned Hyperakt, the Brooklyn design firm that specializes in working with clients who are changing the world for the better (the Ford Foundation, Good Magazine, and TED to name a few). The studio, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in late 2011, creates groundbreaking data visualizations as well as beautiful, skillfully rendered layouts that promote the common good.
The principals talked to Complex about the advantages of limiting their focus, the value of infographics, and how two people trained as illustrators have come so far in the design world.
So what the heck do you do here?
Deroy Peraza: We see ourselves as storytellers for change-makers. That's how we've tried to position ourselves. We've been around for 10 years going on 11, and this has been a slowly evolving direction for us. The reason we started a studio was to have some control over the work that we do, and, on a day-to-day basis, do work that we find meaningful, that we believe in, that we can relate to, and that we feel excited about.
Julia Vakser Zeltser: We met during the first day of class in freshman year. We had a friendly rivalry going. After college, we kept in touch. I was working in a corporate environment, freelancing at a small boutique, and hated the work. There was no mentorship. There was no inspiration. There was no love for what was being created by me or from the person who was heading the company. I decided I had to change my life and do something different. At that point, we spoke about how great it would be to work together. Deroy was freelancing, and we decided to join forces.
Peraza: The domain name, Hyperakt.com, was reserved on September 7, 2001. Four days before 9/11.
Julia and I are both immigrants. I come from Cuba, and she's Ukrainian; both Communist countries. We landed here in the land of opportunity.
Peraza: Part of our story is that we've always been very scrappy. Julia and I are both immigrants. I come from Cuba, and she's Ukrainian; both Communist countries. We landed here in the land of opportunity. One of the things that we share is this strong work ethic...
Vakser Zeltser:... But also the American Dream. If you work hard, you will get it and get the benefits.
You mentioned it's been a slowly evolving process. What does that mean?
Peraza: We both studied illustration, not design. 2001 was a bit of a turning point because broadband became readily accessible. There was a lot more design work than illustration work, and the web was really taking off. The overhead to start a business was really small. Neither one of us had any capital to work with. We would do one project and use the earnings to buy a computer. We would do the next project and use the earnings to buy a scanner. We had to have a scanner in those days. One thing lead to another. Our entire history has been that way. We have taken things very slowly. We've gone one step at a time, both in terms of assets and knowledge.
Vakser Zeltser: We've made mistakes along the way and recovered. We've taken leaps and traced back. There is a very organic, comfortable growth to the firm. We also started when we were very young, 22 or 23, and we had no experience running a business. We didn't know what contracts to use. We didn't know what kind of cash to ask for.
Peraza: And we knew very little about the formal training of design. We were going on instinct and trying to teach ourselves.
How did you start getting projects?
Peraza: We would take on pretty much any project that came our way, for any amount of money. It just so happened that a lot of those projects ended up being for friends that were working at a non profit or some other community-based project. Circa 2004 and 2005, most of our clientbase had the word "Brooklyn" in it. Brooklyn Arts Council. Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy. Brooklyn Public Library. Fortunately, Brooklyn was already undergoing this renaissance, and it was a good place to polish our chops.
Vakser Zeltser: While we were hitting our head on the wall over and over and over again, we found ourselves five years in, splitting our clients between advertising—Sprint commercials, etc.—and non profit. The work from advertising was exciting because you worked with a global client, but you never saw that pitch go live, while non profits trusted our design judgement, and we saw works getting printed. They were improving their organization with the work we were creating. That meant a whole lot to us because we saw on the community level how they could increase their donations or bring in more members. That pushed us ask how we should we be spending our time.
And you decided to focus on community-oriented or non-profit work?
Vakser Zeltser: At the five-year mark, we changed our messaging. Then, it took us about two to three years to grow into that direction. Eight years in, we had very strong messaging on what kind of clients we wanted to take on and what kind of mission we had.
Peraza: Part of it is taking the leap of faith and saying, "This is what I want to do." It was scary to tell the world that we wanted to work for non profits and other organizations and initiatives focused on community good. But once we actually started publishing that kind of messaging on our site, the kinds of clients that came to us were a little bit bigger. We started working for the ACLU and the NAACP, which are more national. That helped us grow into a new tier outside of the local community.
Do you think that was a direct result of the change in messaging?
Peraza: That's a huge factor, just saying what you want to do. People will listen, and they will ask you to do what you say you are going to do. In our early years, we had this generic message that we were a design studio that would do print, web, identity, whatever.
Were you surprised that such specific types of groups started coming to you after you altered your message?
Vakser Zeltser: I found my old business card listing services we did. It was crazy. We did email blasts. We did campaigns. I wouldn't do this now. Yes, narrowing down the message was key.
Peraza: People told us we needed to narrow down and focus, but we didn't know how to focus. We thought focus meant limiting our services. We didn't want to do that because we liked being able to use all the tools at our disposal to tell stories. It took us awhile to figure out that what we really needed to focus on was who we were going to work for and what type of work we were going to do. Packaging it all into one easy-to-communicate message has taken a long time. How do you communicate to civil rights organizations, cultural organizations, and all of these vastly different groups that you do the same thing for all of them? We still constantly work on that, and we're about to do another iteration on our site to try to explain that even better, but over the last year and a half or two years, it's really helped that we've gotten some more recognizable clients like the UN, UNICEF, Good Magazine, Ford Foundation, and TED. Having those names on our roster allows us to say that these are the types of organizations that we work for. It took us a long time to get to that kind of base.
It seems like a good time to be in the "doing good" space, for lack of a better term.
Vakser Zeltser: It's funny because we are starting to hear how corporations are more aware of social responsibility and sustainability. They are hiring consultants to tell them how to move in that direction. It shows that everyone is trying to change to get a little bit better. We can do that with our design.
Peraza: I think we've benefitted from being at the right place at the right time with a few different movements. First, it was the Brooklyn movement. Then, it was the social responsibility movement and the creation of media that really talks to people from a social responsibility angle, like Good. The readers of Good are the kinds of people we want to work with. They don't just do their job because of the salary they are going to take home. They think about how they are impacting the world and what meaning it has to other people and their lives. Since that's the core of why we started the studio and how we see things, it's been the perfect vehicle for us to show what we do and to reach new clients.
What are some design trends you see happening now?
Peraza: I see a collaborative consumption movement that is focused on reusing stuff that is already available rather than purchasing things or sharing. That's something that we've done some work in, and we're hearing from a lot of people who want to work with us who are in that space.
Over the last three years, there has been a 50-fold increase in interest on the web in infographics.
The other major movement that started over the last two or three years and is still picking up steam is the data visualization movement. This is the age of data. There are all these open, available sources of data that can be used to explain complex ideas. We've been using that data to create infographics for clients like Good, for organizations like the Ford Foundation.
Vakser Zeltser: It's a tool where you can tell a story. In the past, maybe you would write a report.
Peraza: Over the last three years, there has been a 50-fold increase in interest on the web in infographics. Every time we create an infographic, we see huge engagement. They get shared a shitload. That's really exciting because content creators and people who are trying to tell a story can reach more people. They can get people to dive into issues that people weren't as interested in through a conventional article or photographs.
What are some recent projects you really enjoyed working on?
Vakser Zeltser: We just finished the Ted Prize. We are currently working on the Ford Foundation annual report again this year. We do the infographics for Good.
Peraza: I think the most exciting piece we've worked on over the past couple months is actually a pro bono project. We were hired by Studio 360, and they wanted us to redesign the branding of teachers. It's this big, broad hypothetical project. We had about a week to think about how the language of teachers could be redefined and do justice to the intellectual effort that goes into teaching. We wanted to highlight the flexibility of teachers and their role as a guide rather than a condescending dictator in the classroom. The existing visual images are very childish: apples and abcs. They are for five year olds, if that. Teaching encompasses students of every age level, and we wanted to create a language that is respectful and exciting. We presented the work on the air to Kurt Andersen and got a lot of comments. It was very well-received. Some teachers wrote us and asked that we make the work openly available so they could use it. We created a site called InspireTeachers.org that has all the assets that we created available for download. We wanted to create something we could give to the public and let them do whatever they wanted to do with it.
Vakser Zeltser: In many ways, we got lucky that this is such a hot topic. We got to redesign a subject that is so close to everyone's heart.