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Listen: Design Work’s Kate Darby interviews Hyperakt’s Deroy Peraza

With a decade and a half of experience designing brand identities, data visualizations, online experiences and products, Deroy is equal parts designer, entrepreneur and cheerleader. He provides creative and visionary leadership for the Hyperaktivists and is the driving force behind Hyperakt Labs, which creates opportunities for their ideas to flourish.

See the transcript for this podcast below.

Kate Darby: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Design Work. A podcast where we learn from creatives who are designing their work, lives and everything in between. I’m your host, Kate Darby. You’ll also find me designing brands at my own studio and being co founder of Dovetail X, a platform to discover and curate epic creative talent. Go check it out at dovetailx.com This week I speak today, Deroy Peraza co founder of Hyperakt , a social impact studio, based in Brooklyn. Hyeprakt has worked with everyone from Spotify, Amnesty International, all through the lens of creating meaningful design for the common good. Deroy and I caught up in a cafe around the corner from their studio in Brooklyn. You might catch a few goings on in the background. Just pretend like you’re there. Deroy fills us in on what it means to be a social impact agency, the influence of baseball cards on his design career, and what makes a good side project. Okay, let’s get on with it.

So I’m here today in Brooklyn with Deroy from Hyperakt. Thanks for joining me. So yeah, I thought we could start with where you first realised design was the direction you wanted to go in your career?

Deroy Peraza: I think my first realisation I don’t know if it was at the time I thought it was a realisation but I think it happened when I discovered baseball cards, baseball cards had logos on them. They had statistics on the back, had a combination of photography and graphics composition and stuff. And although you know, a lot of them were kind of ugly, it was the first time I had really like, had an object in my hand that I was conscious had been designed. Created. Yeah. And it was the first time I really remember feeling any kind of affinity to a brand. 

Who was your team?

The Montreal Expos. At the time I grew up in Miami. I was born in Cuba. I grew up in Miami and Miami didn’t have a baseball team. The Marlins didn’t come around until the early 1990s yeah and thhis was in the 80s and I just loved the Expo’s logo. It was like the coolest thing like different than every other baseball logo. They don’t exist anymore. But they had, you know, M blue, white and red. And within the M You know, there’s an E for expos and a B for baseball. Yeah, they had cleverly like integrated it, and m, an e and a b into one mark. And I just thought those most clever thing ever. Yeah, we’re all the other logos were sort of like, you know, more like, straightforward letter forms, or crests or whatever. Yeah. So yeah, that was sort of my first realization that I liked what was happening. And then. I mean, since I was a little kid, I had always drawn a lot. I had like, it’s kind of a little bit obsessive. I had notebooks for every sort of category of drawing, I had a notebook for, like, superheroes, a notebook for cars and motorcycles, and a notebook for sports players. And that was always sort of part of my background.

Cool. And so you went and studied design here in New York.

Yeah, so I grew up. So the other the other factor was that my parents had their own business and started at home. And then I started working with them from the age of like, eight or nine, just like helping them out. And it was a sort of a graphic design business. They started type setting, because again, the this was the 80s. It was very sort of blue collar type setting forms, and, like, very, like, blue collar brochures and stuff, business cards, and my dad made rubber stamps. And so I was always sort of in the world of print shops and office supplies. I was like, early on, I would go out with my dad and help open accounts. So like the sales part of running a design business and being sort of on press. I was on press since I was a kid. And so like, that sort of all rubbed off. I didn’t really have to be a graphic designer either. It was all in there.

I think a lot of people, graphic design is something that they don’t really learn there’s like the term for it until much later. But there’s all these little factors that they sort of see coming into their lives, like baseball cards, or these are things that affect them, or maybe ads that just like resonate, and you don’t know why. And eventually, somebody’s like, Oh, that’s graphic design. You’re like, cool. Will somebody pay me? And they’re like, yeah, like, amazing. Yeah. So but yeah, that’s it. Oh, yeah. And it’s kind of similar to me, like I grew up and my parents’ design studio as well. And like this, I think, growing up in that thing, where  you arevseeing all the sides of the business is like a really interesting kind of place to be as a kid, and you don’t really realize it at the time necessarily, but looking back, you can see how it affects the way you design is maybe not necessarily to make something look good. But it’s also to like, have an impact on that person’s like business or that client?

Absolutely, yeah, I always sort of have my parents in the back of my mind when I design things, because I’m very conscious of not using design as an elitist tool that excludes people, but rather as an inclusive one that helps people understand regardless of what their background is, or what their level of sophistication is, or whatever.

So it’s kind of a nice segue into telling us a bit more about Hyperakt, and the model that you guys have, and the kinds of work you do?

So Hyperakt, I feel like Hyperakt has sort of two incarnations. The first half of our existence from about 2001 to 2009 was my partner Julia and I just kind of figuring out how to be designers and how to run a studio. We didn’t have a very focused point of view, we were just trying to, like, figure out how to make it. We had both been illustration majors. We didn’t have a business background, really, other than our like, you know, our experiences with our parents and whatever. And yeah, it was just do anything for anybody, and just try to make it, and around 2009, after having some experience under our belt, and having a better sense of what we really turned us on, we decided that we wanted to focus our efforts on social design, and a couple things led to that. A it was like the depths of the recession. So we needed to change something and just take a risk and do something different. It was a good time to do it. Barack Obama had just gotten elected and the general public was really motivated and excited, and hopeful Social issues were sort of sexy for the first time since probably the ’60s. And the other sort of important thing that the Obama campaign did was they really educated the social impact space and nonprofits and philanthropies and foundations and think-tanks of the world about the power of digital tools. Everybody wanted to copy what the Obama campaign did to sort of rally the general public and reach a much broader audience.

And that opened up a lot of opportunity for us because the space, the social design space was really kind of a barren desert of design. Yeah, there was a lot of really mediocre poorly produced design. A lot of organizations really didn’t think it was important yet. It was a bit of a turning point.

And so we decided, let’s go for it. Let’s, let’s actually focus on the stuff we love doing. Working for agencies had kind of been a drag, on and been a little soul sucking. Yeah, we really wanted to work directly with clients and directly with clients who were good people, working on good challenges and, you know, work that we really felt was meaningful.

So we pared down a portfolio and only showed the stuff that would be relevant to this kind of client, we changed the tone of our messaging. And we declared that we wanted to create meaningful design for the common good. and all of a sudden different people started reaching out and new opportunities started appearing and one step at a time that 2010 was a year of a lot of growth for us.

We went from four designers to like eight designers, we started working with a design business consultant to help us really get our shit together from a business perspective, to make this a sustainable business to put together more professional proposals to charge what we needed to be charging for things to hire the right staff and the right positions to fill these needs. And, and there was sort of a new beginning and over the next several years after that, this is 2010 really when we, when we kind of hit the ground running over the over the next four or five years, we saw this space completely shift from more print based like sort of annual report communication space, to primarily now digital space where the audience isn’t just the, you know, hundred or 200 funders or grantees. It’s now on much a broader audience in creating social awareness around some of those campaigns and permissions and things like that. At the end of the day, it’s all about breaking down complex social issues, so more people can understand them and get engaged with them. You get involved and participate in civic life.

So what has it been like, sort of transferring these organisations, their mindset from, you know, the annual reports printed, they’re just going out to the funders to Okay, we should do something digital that’s gonna reach all these other people, rather than just our stakeholders. Was that challenging in some areas? Or were they sort of like, sure?

Um, I mean, I would say that as generally like the sector as a whole kind of moves in block. It’s not that we went and convinced them that they needed to be digital. I mean, sure, we preached that, but really, they just saw that all of their peers were doing it. And, you know, during that span of time, a new sort of generation of people started entering the communications departments, and they were younger and had more kind of digital, more digital native. And weren’t as afraid of using digital tools and channels, and that, that helps a great deal.  I think it’s, you know, these are sort of broad trends, and everybody needs to kind of stay on the train, or get left behind.

Yeah, that’s cool and so do you think you’re seeing more creative studios and agencies start to shift towards this model as well? Where they doing like, more social good projects, or they’re becoming purely social good projects, like you guys, or do you think that the industry as a whole could maybe make more of an effort to incorporate those kind of projects into their portfolio.

I mean, I think there’s way more awareness now, and way more interest in it now than there was when we started doing it. And when we focused on it. And when we focused on it, everybody just kind of looked at us like, these people are crazy, they’re never going to survive and be sustainable, working for nonprofits or government entities or whatever.

And we were just like, you know, we weren’t making a ton of money to begin with, so we had nothing to lose. And we just wanted to try to be idealistic and do the work that we wanted to do. Over the last several years, especially as, as the space has become more digital, there have been more players, more studios that sort of compete for work with us that were sort of born as digital native studios that also do branding and also do other stuff. We kind of went the other way. Yeah, we came more from from branding from print, and storytelling and came into the digital space, because that’s what is the thing now so yeah, I mean, there’s definitely more competitors now, more people in the space. And there are also commercial, more commercially driven studios that have more awareness and do you know, sort of pro bono projects from time to time, but I think by and large, it’s still the domain of idealists who aren’t in it because they want to grow to be like hundreds of people. And, who aren’t preoccupied with selling off their studio for many millions of dollars. after they have had enough. Yeah, totally. definitely you have to love it.

Definitely. And so the other thing that I can tell that you guys obviously are really passionate and driven about because you do a lot of side projects as well, sort of things that nobody sort of  told you, you need to go do this, or you’ll earn a lot of money from this necessarily, but you’ve kind of gone out and done things like the story-hack thing and stuff like that. So what’s the motivation behind a lot of those projects?

The motivation behind a lot of those projects is just that if you don’t pursue your passions and your curiosities you become stale very quickly. And you can’t rely on clients to make you innovative, nothing against them. But clients are generally going to be pretty risk-averse. And I’m going to ask you for things that they already see in your portfolio.

So, you know, it’s rare that you find the client that asks you to do something that you haven’t done before. And in order to buck that you have to do that yourself, take it upon yourself to show that you can always stretch and, you know, sort of push your capabilities and your range. But mostly, it’s just because when I feel like doing something, I want to have the freedom to be able to do it again, I’m going to run my own studio if I can’t do that. And why the fuck am I running my own studio? Yeah, like, if I’m gonna just completely always just depend on doing what the client wants me to do. Then I might as well be working anywhere else.

Absolutely. And so the thing that can be challenging with side projects, though, is, you know, getting it off the ground, like, you know, you can have the idea, but getting it off the ground, seeing it through to the end. And then it also being, you know, a successful project, maybe getting some recognition or fulfilling its goals, either way, it can be challenging. So, what do you think makes a good side project?

Side projects are all about momentum, and about having somebody really be the cheerleader for the project, you have to have somebody who owns it and who drives it, and who prioritizes it. And who won’t give up until they see it exists, even sometimes, prioritizing it over more important in-theory things. So that you sort of capture the momentum of that moment when you have the idea. the way I like to approach these projects is by starting out with a sort of simplest, smallest, like kernel of what the idea could be. Yeah, like the idea of the MVP? How can we make something quick that sort of demonstrates and shows the potential for the idea, and, you know, how do we make that happen, without overthinking it, kind of get something up, see whether people are excited about it, litmus test it and then gauge whether you want to sort of keep investing in it?

I use it a lot when I’m travelling as well, I’ve really enjoyed that.

Great to hear. So that started out as us wanting to is when we moved to the neighbourhood where the studio is four years ago, we wanted to just map for ourselves, our favorite places in the neighborhood and sort of show off some pride. Yeah, whatever. It’s a neighborhood that’s kind of industrial. It’s not easy to find the places but there are great places. Yeah, so we published that and designed it and, and sort of branded it as On the Grid to begin with, the whole idea was to put these places on the grid. Places that were sort of hard to find. And when we built it, we kind of built it with the idea in the back of our heads that maybe this could be like, a replicable thing that other design studios might want to do for their own neighborhoods. Yeah, we should kind of build this so that it can scale. And we released it, and it got some attention and got some design press and stuff. And then we invited friends at other design studios in the city to see if they’d be interested in covering their own neighborhoods. We got two bites to other studios, original terms of design and curated neighborhoods in Manhattan. And then all of a sudden it was a platform. And other design studios were like, I want in. I want to do that. And it started spreading. And by the end of the year, we had something like 100 neighborhoods curated in a bunch of cities. We’re up to five over 500 neighborhoods now in over 100 cities. And it’s this sort of collaborative exchange of information. It’s just friends, sharing their favorite local places with other friends. So that when we all travel, we all know where to go. But it started out as a very simple concept. And we still to this day, it’s not something that we monetize. We kind of do it and manage it and maintain it, because we love it as a side project, but we probably get more attention for projects like that than we do client work.

So yeah, that’s, it’s fun, that you’re able to, like, flex your creative muscles on those kinds of things, who off some new skills.

Sometimes you just have to believe in the idea, even though there’s not like, dollar signs at the end of it. Yeah, you know, just do crazy things. And sometimes that’s like, the best ones usually because they are really sincere and genuine ideas. They’re not like, we, you know, we can make money off of it. This is a market opportunity. Yeah, it’s like, you can over complicate things. Yeah. Totally. And at least you just get on with a design problem. Because, you know, I having to think about how do we monetize it? Yeah, and those things can come later. If it genuinely is a good idea. That’s cool. Yeah, I think I feel like thinking about that stuff might make you richer. But I think it fucks the product up right out of the gate, you think you’re prioritizing things that aren’t what your users really care about. And for us, our users, our initial users are just us, we wanted to make something that was useful for us for like, you know, our friends.

Totally. And so how do you guys how do you manage all of these? You’ve got the studio projects with your clients, you’ve got side projects do you have any life balance going on in there?

Yeah, totally. Yeah. I mean, we have great project managers. And we juggle a lot. And there’s a lot of sort of frustrating stopping and starting of projects that inevitably happens, yeah, but you know, what happens throughout the years that you have spent the time where you’re super busy, and spend the time where you’re, like, kind of in between projects, or like, waiting for people to give you feedback, and whatever, and there’s dead time. So if you always have a project or two queued up, that you can spend some time on, when those lows happen. Yeah, then, you know, you kind of try to inch it along as much as you can, and then put it down until you can get back to it. And, you know, if it becomes an important enough a project it gets its own sort of safe space to be a project. Yeah, but it’s a lot of juggling, you know, it’s not perfect, it’s not clean, it’s not easy. It’s frustrating at times, because things can move slow. But, you know, I think one of the things I always try to preach to, especially younger designers, is that this is all a marathon, not a sprint. If everything is based on instant gratification of having something successful tomorrow, we’re going to be disappointed most of the time. In order to really like, see things develop, whether it’s your business, your, in our case, our studio, or whether it’s a project or a product or an idea, it takes time, you have to get comfortable with the fact that there’s gonna be a trajectory with ups and downs.  And you have to kind of see it through and stick with it, because the rewards kind of come later.

Totally. And I feel like it can be harder and harder to think that way when you see, I mean, so much stuff flying at you on social media  – awards, and things like that, especially in the creative industry. You know, we love celebrating ourselves, and we’re very good at making everybody hear about us as well. So it can be frustrating when you’re sitting at home trying to create a logo, everything looks easier on an Instagram post or on a tweet. Exactly. Like this looks like 140 characters of success.

Yeah, yeah, I tried to look at social media as little as possible.

I’m just trying to cut it down. Yeah, definitely good for younger designers to remember that, because it just looks like everybody had success overnight when you’re coming out of design school.

I think that combined with also just the fervor of the startup space where overnight millionaires that are, you know like 20. I think it sets people up for a lot of disappointment. It’s just unreal expectations. You know, that happens, like one in a million. Yeah, totally. It’s not the norm, you know, I’d rather work for the money.

So Hyperakt has obviously had some really great successes so far. But what’s the trajectory for Hyperakt? So you’re not really aiming to be necessarily be like, hundreds of people or anything, but where are you guys looking to grow more? Is it more social impact, more side projects?

So, done a lot of talking about this recently, I can answer that in a couple different levels. In terms of our focus, we stay sort of agnostic of mediums because today it’s digital, tomorrow it’s social, whatever, it’s like, you know, it changes all the time. Yeah, for us, it’s about helping people understand the worlds so they can make it better. And that whatever that medium is, we don’t care. We do it through storytelling, we do it through branding, we do it through digital that doesn’t matter to us. What’s interesting to us right now that we feel is lacking in the space of social design is the entire social space has been sort of inching closer to popular culture through the digital world.

But it’s still sort of not speaking the language of popular culture. It’s still like a bunch of like, wonky academic people over here trying to be cool, and trying to make people interested in the things that are really important in the world. But doing it in a way that’s like, really kind of hard to not have a headache about. Yeah, so we’re really interested in exploring the space between sort of arts and culture and social impacts and, trying to see how we can sort of cross pollinate them a little bit more through our work, use the arts to help communicate important social issues. So that’s sort of one broad thematic area that we want to explore over the next several years. And then from a studio sort of operational perspective, we’re a studio constantly involved in just learning and evolving our processes, our culture, the way that we all relate to each other, work together. That’s sort of an ongoing thing.

And ultimately, we’d like to get to the point where we can sort of replicate what we’re doing here and other we’re not interested in growing to be like a studio of hundreds, but the idea of being able to bring influences from just working in different cultures and in different places. Yeah, and sort of cross pollinate studios that way is really interesting to us.

Nice. Well, on that note, we’ll leave it here. And thank you so much for talking to us. It’s been awesome to hear about Hyperakt’s process, where you’ve bene and where you’re going, we’re really excited to see growth.

A total pleasure. Thanks for being interested.

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