Human NYC on turning ten, making very ‘human’ work, and acing design and development with equal ease
Human NYC, a brand-led digital studio, has carved a unique path in the industry by seamlessly blending design and development, forming a synergy that allows them to deliver exceptional results under one roof. Having celebrated a decade as a team, we caught up with founders Michael Ray, Pam Batstone and Rachael Yaeger, who reflect on the last ten years, delving deep into their innovative approach to design and development, their achievements over the years, and their unwavering commitment to creating meaningful and ‘human’ work. Beyond their portfolio, we discuss Human NYC’s studio culture, ethos and aspirations, and what we can expect from them in years to come.
PT Hey Human NYC, congratulations on your ten-year anniversary! How are you all feeling?
H We were just saying that after a weekend spent at our ‘outpost’ the Roscoe Motel, we had post holidays glow today. For quick context, serendipitously right before the pandemic, we acquired a late 1950s, 16-room roadside motel that caters to nature enthusiasts and fly fishers in the Catskills, now we have a small studio at 80 Bowery in Chinatown as well as an upstate spot for our team and clients to spend time at. This past weekend we (founders Michael, Pam and Rachael) did a ‘hackathon’ to get a stable version of our own site live. We have been shoemakers without shoes, so to speak, for the last ten years. All new business and clients have been coming in via word of mouth. We’re feeling proud of the body of work that we have been able to accomplish over the last 10 years, and also extremely grateful for our network of collaborators and employees that we have been working with and learning from. It also feels like a big inflexion point; to have arrived at our ten-year mark with a proven track record begs a lot of questions around what we want to do next, how can we really excel, how do we get the right clients that will allow for us to do our best work, and how can we stay small but continue to grow. We had some champagne and had a light feeling of looking forward to the next ten years!
PT Will you be celebrating? We hear there may be a party involved?
H Yes, we are working with Anna Caradeuc on a celebration to honour our clients, we’re thinking of a cocktail hour; more details and a well-designed invite to come!
PT Going back to the very beginning, how did you first meet? And who makes up the core team today?
H Rachael and Michael were at Gin Lane together in 2009, Rachael as a project manager and Michael as a lead developer. Gin Lane’s founder Emmett would always say that Rachael was ‘a Michael whisperer,’ and the two worked closely on the Adidas by Stella McCartney account, Saturdays NYC, Terence Koh and Jason Nocito’s sites and more, for over four years together. In 2013 Michael went to Code & Theory while Rachael started freelancing as a social media account manager. Human started as an art gallery in Greenpoint, with monthly shows rotating through the space, and then Rachael and Michael started working on Flour Shop and New York Sunshine’s sites together. The work snowballed enough to afford the two to keep working together. Human’s first employee was Sasha Kluchnik, a designer, developer and DJ. The studio came to be known as a ‘thoughtful development shop for good design,’ which still defines our DNA today. Human would lego brick with fellow designers and design studios as the trusted implementers with good code and client-friendly faces.
RY We really put one foot in front of the other and didn’t try to over complicate things, and that’s still true today. We always wanted a studio where design and development could work closely together; we’re obsessed with branding and creating brands, but also in the actionable execution of what does this thing need to function as when it launches? How are clients getting a product out the door? What’s different about our style of thinking is that we start with the end result in mind which is most often the website. We’re development-focused from the beginning and are always asking the question – what does our client really need? Our hands-on nature also allows for us to be responsible and maximise our time with clients, often over-delivering.
H In 2016, Human was sharing a studio with RoAndCo as a digital extension of their team; after spending time in Greenpoint the studio wanted to collaborate with brand-forward projects and be in Manhattan. Also in that year, we were working on the web build for Chandelier Creative with Pam directing their new site design as senior art director, and the trio hit it off. As mainly a dev shop with a collaborative nature for design, the idea of building out a design arm of the business was intimidating, but as with most things, it felt really right to evolve into a full-service agency and oversee all moving parts for clients. Pam came on full-time in 2019 and Human scaled up, becoming a branding and design studio with art direction and production capabilities, as well as a front-end focused full stack development shop. Today, the studio is led by three partners, Pam as Creative Director, Michael Ray as Tech Director and Rachael Yaeger as Account Director.
Being critical of each other allows the work to be better.
PT What does ‘thinking digital first’ mean to you?
H When clients say that they ‘need a website,’ they often also need a brand style guide and content to go with it, and when clients say that they ‘need a brand,’ we have to ask them where that brand is going to live. Digital and branding go hand in hand, and the web is often the first manifestation of the brand with a physical product or a store to go with it afterwards. We like to consider all of the touchpoints that a brand needs in order to be consistent. Human is also known for a ‘MVP style of thinking,’ trying to identify and reach a Minimum Viable Product launch with clients; not over complicating designs and builds with too many bells and whistles. We’re pretty applied thinkers, so we’ll try and gauge what non-negotiables or stakes in the ground are for a launch and then drive the project starting at the desired finish line. Responsible design makes for feasible development and realistic launches. When designing ‘thinking digital first,’ we’re thinking about ADA compliance and scalability first instead of an afterthought. Not only are we providing Pantones for a client but we’re delivering hex codes and user interface components.
PT What areas would you say you’ve made the biggest improvements in over the past decade as a team?
H Radical candour. To be completely honest, when you ask yourself – ‘Why do you work so hard building such a humble agency when you could perhaps go in-house and make bank,?’ The answer is the people, the true friendship, the admiration for each other’s work, expertise and energy, and the desire to make each other proud. Human is a group of people who both enjoy their craft and working together. After ten years, the communication at the studio has arrived. You have to be able to talk about payroll, especially in such an incredibly slow financial year like this one, you have to be able to critique each other, give feedback, ask questions, point things out and move forward. Being critical of each other allows the work to be better and for us as human beings to be better.
We really try to value each other’s time.
PT Being a small team, how do you typically delegate your work or organise a project between you?
H Ideally, we microteam, so that on each client project we have a dedicated project lead, generally Rachael, who is in charge of the timeline, billing and client expectations, and then a dedicated team resourced to the project – so a developer or designer that makes the most sense for the project from a tech stack or creative perspective. Human never aspired to grow into a large agency with multiple management layers, and so each team member is senior in their craft and capability, as well as expected to be self-managing, accountable and communicative in their work; clients interface directly with the Human team on projects versus a management layer. It’s also what makes the projects so human; to understand the client and build a relationship, designers and developers are all in the mix together, working collaboratively. When Rachael and Michael were first starting out, they discovered how difficult it was to play telephone with client’s feedback and prioritised transparency with team members on a project. It’s even written in the Human Scope of Work.
RY It means a lot more to a client when they get to hear directly from Michael on why or why not something may (or may not) be possible or make sense than coming from a person who doesn’t know how to craft code. My role is a balance of involving our team as much as possible in the project but also trying to protect them, save them time and allow for the work to actually get done. Jason Fried’s book ReWork touches on this point as well – if it can be an email does it need to be a meeting? We really try to value each other’s time. I try to think in terms of a restaurant and a chef, my job is essentially to try and make sure the chef has the recipe and all of the ingredients needed when they’re in the kitchen. Are the Github tickets in order of priority? Did the client send over the content needed for designs? Did typefaces get purchased? Etc.?
PT And as a team, how do you create meaningful and ‘human’ work?
H Understanding. When you are able to know the client, know the opportunity, know why they want to work with you, then you are able to approach the project with all the experience and expertise necessary to make magic. There needs to be trust on both sides of the project. The Human approach is asking the right questions and figuring out what success looks like for both parties. Meaningful work has roots, it has humans behind it validating the idea, the product and the thinking, and then bringing it to life. Human tells clients: we will never show you a round of design that we wouldn’t want to see in the real world. With the range of work and the breadth behind the portfolio, the thread that ties it all together is the essence of each project shining through. Even though every project is so different, there’s heart in every project that unifies the work.
Being small has an intensity to it because you can’t really hide behind anyone else’s work.
PT You’ve got a unique format which you describe as ‘the agility and expertise of a seasoned freelancer with the cohesion and security of a large agency.’ Was this always the intention, and has the way you work changed over time?
H We always wanted to be small; it sounds corny but the universe gives you what you need when you need it; in that way, we have never actively hired, the right people have continuously reached out to us slowly over the past ten years, allowing us to really get to know each other, build trust and rely on each other. Being small has an intensity to it because you can’t really hide behind anyone else’s work, it’s very clear and transparent what each Human is working on. We have an extensive network, or as we tell clients, ‘many crayons in our crayon box,’ and that’s what also sets us apart is our ability to curate and bring on ‘the right people on the right projects on the right platforms.’ We like to think of our industry as the same as the film industry, there are certain crews that you’ll see over and over in different movies and that mimics our thinking as well! We generally just know who will be the perfect person for a client’s project. We try to ask all of our clients for a ‘post mortem’ feedback on ways that we can improve and Maurice, the founder of Still Here, validated, ‘re-building our online appearance with Human helped Still Here to grow in the direction we've hoped.” When we were very small, a team of three, we would tell clients that we have ‘an Ocean’s Eleven’ business model, which is still true, but we emphasise our in-house team today.
PT Can you tell us about your approach to typography in your work?
PB Building brands with the web in mind means we’re never not thinking about the finished product, who the audience is, and how they’re receiving it. When crafting a brand’s type system, this informs how much we might get to dial up the fun of a landing page welcome animation, lean into the nostalgia of a handcrafted logo mark, or honour the brutal simplicity of an e-commerce ‘Shop All’ page. Whatever the end goal, we really strive to create systems that feel simultaneously modern and timeless, that not only convey a feeling, but are also accessible and a joy to navigate.
We’re also constantly geeking out over random types out in the world or sharing the most obscure references from our own backgrounds. This always-on appetite for juicy specimens is also supported by research that informs our work beyond swiping the same are.na boards over and over. Not that we don’t do that too :)
Maybe it’s a handwritten sign on the front window of a grocery store in Chinatown, or the graphic of a thrifted T-shirt in Mexico City. Or in the case of our own recent rebrand, maybe we become obsessed with the letterforms of a logo we’ve seen on the side of a truck driving back from the motel hundreds of times. To celebrate ten years of work and pay tribute to the relationships we’ve fostered along the way, we handcrafted Human’s new logo inspired by and paying homage to Marjam, the New York Supply Co. and paired it with ABC Diatype (shoutout to Dinamo), giving it an unapologetically simple home on our new site, ready for the next 10 years of building brands and supplying Good Internet :)
The most successful projects for us are ones in which we are the core demographic.
PT Which projects would you say are your major achievements? Can you talk us through them?
H Working on Hilma was such a major achievement. The brand and business were recently acquired, which was the founding team’s goal. We were able to do our best work in our signature ‘soup to nuts’ way, from strategy, positioning, naming, branding, packaging, art direction, content creation, digital design and MVP development on Shopify. The team also continued to work with us long-term, post-launch on creative campaigns and updating content. The Hilma team was excited by our team, genuinely enjoyed our work, were trusting and specific about what they were looking for. We were able to bring our best work to the table and it was extremely well received and appreciated. Prior to that, working on the DVF.com build with designer and colleague at the time Rebecca Zhou was a huge feat. Diane von Furstenburg is an iconic, heritage client, and being brought in as the digital team behind the relaunch was an honour. Another example would be our work with Care/of, their team brought us in prior to what we would call the dawning of DTC, and we were able to blow them away with our Human touch in terms of art direction, content creation, development and overall collaboration. We seamlessly augmented their internal team and truly became an extension of their team, an ideal working relationship yielding the best work. The site launched on time and Care/of has since been acquired. And recently, the launch of junedays.com; we kicked off the project by visiting the junedays team at their home in New Hampshire, and as a result of our time together, we crafted a brand and digital flagship that felt warm, hospitable, adventurous and entertaining. Junedays is meant for those who enjoy being on the water, spending time in nature and with family.
PT When working with brands – and their founders and teams – are you looking for a certain level of like-mindedness?
H That’s a funny question, because we curate and produce an annual creative conference-meets-festival in upstate New York annually titled, Likeminds, with Zachary Pollakoff (if you’re reading this you should attend for 2024!). Ideally yes, we are looking for a client we could see ourselves grabbing a glass of wine with. The same radical candour that we have achieved internally is ideal with clients as well, if you can ‘real talk’ say something along the lines of – “I totally hear, you but I think that suggestion is going to feel dated’, or, ‘that’s absolutely doable from a build perspective, but I don’t think it makes the most sense for your brand, and it’s not critical to your launch.’ If we have understanding and trust in a client relationship, the nuance of creating a digital product together becomes easy and fun, and you end up taking a cooking class together versus fencing. We say that the most successful projects for us are ones in which we are the core demographic, because we’re making decisions based on authentic insights. It’s really nice to be able to work with a client and have similar points of reference and speak the same language in many ways, but it’s not as critical as respecting each other.
Caring about your craft takes time.
PT What’s your studio like?
H Pretty darn laid back. We’re small and so we’re busy. Everyone is very autonomous. We’re partly engineer-founded and so we always have the best monitors and we’re all into music and art and culture, so the vibe of the studio feels like home to most of us.
PT Does the culture and energy of New York City filter into your work, at all? Also, do you have any favourite hotspots nearby?
H We frequent Dimes for breakfast, Sanmiwago and Vanessa’s for quick dumplings and a park sit, Kitchen Cô Út, a Vietnamese spot is where we do our team lunches. We love that SKY TING Yoga is our client and two blocks away from the studio, so this morning is typical for us – a few of us will go to the morning class at SKY TING then grab coffee and work from the studio for the day together. Now post-COVID, we have found the balance of being upstate and being in the city together, both feeding our souls, energy levels and the work we do. Being both upstate and in the city has allowed us to do our best work for brands like Baton Marketplace, Simply Homes, Stuga and Arbor – all of which have audiences that exist outside of the city – in combination with downtown culturally significant local NYC clients like Jason Nocito, Coming Soon New York, SKY TING, Sofie Pavitt and Kathy Lo.
PT Looking at Human NYC as a whole, how have you tackled the idea of longevity?
H It feels like a law firm in a way, the slow building of Human together, it was never going to be a start-up that grows fast and is sold or a corporate conglomerate with hundreds of employees; it’s very personal. The only thing on our minds has been the idea of building a business that could financially sustain us and the people we get to work with. Our own business mindset carries over to how we feel about crafting brands and websites as well – let’s make something that will last and is future-forward. We don’t do quick and dirty work. Caring about your craft takes time, building a team and letting the company find its way takes longer – we've found that this is the most rewarding and meaningful way.
PT Do you have plans to change anything?
H We’re always striving to get better at what we do. Getting more granular with our scoping, tighter with timelines, more clear with clients on expectations. We’re looking to work with founders who are obsessed with what they’re building, have domain expertise, and trust us with their brand and digital presence. The work that we got to do with Sofie Pavitt and Adi Goodrich recently were ideal projects that we want more of. Both clients came to us, wanting to work with us, both with their own businesses and personal brands. Together, we were able to launch brands and sites that we are both proud of. We’re also continuing to look for meaningful work that’s helping the world. We recently got to work on a politically active brand campaign for Kt by Knix, creating both out-of-home advertising and a children’s book as a stance against Florida’s legislature around not being able to say ‘period’ in schools. Stuga, our client for example is reimagining home ownership and for the brand Guaranteed, we were able to transform the conversation around death and hospice care. Ultimately we want to position ourselves to be able to work with exciting and innovative products or services that work for the way we live today.