“It’s all about people!” Jacob Heftmann on XXIX’s democratic and dazzlingly talented studio
New York-based design and technology studio XXIX are, in pretty much every way, a people-focused practice. After some less-than-pleasant experiences in the industry, Founder Jacob Heftmann took the good and the bad and turned them into something brilliant, driven by fairness and empathy. From finances to company frameworks, Heftmann – joined by XXIX team leads Kate Doyle, Gene Hua, Devon Merlette and James Musgrave – offers us a fascinating inside view into the history and present running of the studio. Grab a hot drink and settle down, I promise this is an enjoyable and greatly inspiring read.
PT Hey XXIX! How’s everyone doing at the moment?
JH Fantastic, thank you! As devoted subscribers, we’re thrilled to be here. We’re coming off a banner year in 2022 so there’s a lot of collective energy in the studio.
PT What’s the story behind the name XXIX?
JH The name embodies the kind of vibe we’ve tried to create in the studio. The story behind it is personal but hopefully one that resonates with everyone here.
I worked in agencies both full-time and freelance for the first few years I lived in New York City. A lot of those experiences were great – and certainly very formative – but at some point, I burned out pretty hard. That lifestyle – the way we push ourselves at that age in a city like New York, and the way most design agencies are structured – it’s basically guaranteed to eat you alive. One specific project basically crushed me and when it wrapped I threw some stuff into a backpack and took off for three weeks riding buses from one end of Mexico to the other by myself. This was right before my 30th birthday.
Shortly after that, XXIX’s Co-founder (Jake Hobart, now the Creative Director of AIR COMPANY) and I started working together, and it was basically just us freelancing. When we finally got our first studio (on 9th Street in Manhattan) we had to form a business entity and pick a name. I kept thinking back to that experience – stress versus freedom – and the name was meant to be a reminder to ourselves to build a studio that felt less like a job and more like a place where you could feel 29 forever.
Of course, every domain with ‘29’ was taken or bad so went with XXIX (plus Roman numerals are very graphic). It’s perhaps a bit confusing (some say, very generously, ‘mysterious’) but I still think the spirit of the name is right for us.
We work very hard at closing the gap between our intentions and reality.
PT What does XXIX do differently from other studios that you’ve worked at?
JH If I had to identify just one thing that we do differently, I’d say it’s our profit-share model. I think that’s the seed from which everything else we do grows. We pay out all company profits to our employees at the end of the year. This way everyone benefits directly from their work, instead of just the people at the top.
Once we did that, it made sense to have people set their own salaries with clear and objective guidance on how to do it. That change forced us to make our salaries transparent to shine a light on areas of inequity or bias. And so forth! But I think it all stems from our profit-share model.
This desire to challenge the status quo and to deeply consider every decision we make is ingrained within our organisation. I’m truly not aware of another studio culture like ours! The way the studio was originally conceived was a direct reaction to my agency experiences and that mentality has informed all of our growth and decision-making since.
Everything from how projects are run (we don’t have project managers) to how company policies and functions are established (everything is self-organised by our team) is different from anything I’ve seen anywhere else. We have a very comprehensive list of benefits (especially for our size) but what we don’t have are all-nighters, adversarial client relationships, a middle-layer of management and administration, Slack notifications, gatekeepers to career growth, or siloed knowledge. I’m not saying it’s the best or only way, this model is just right for us (and we’re still learning). Some agencies are intentionally extractive in their labour practices, unfortunately. I think most, though, are just stuck in convention or that they have good intentions and reality gets in the way. A lot of studios will say, for example, that they take environmental responsibility or collaboration or work-life balance seriously – and they probably do – but what that actually means in practice is a bit vague. We work very hard at closing the gap between our intentions and reality.
I totally empathise with the small studio for whom this stuff sounds financially impossible. But here’s the thing: that was us for years. For a long time, I prioritised the quality of our work above all else, assuming that good work would make a successful studio and would make happy people. A few years ago (and a severe anxiety attack later), I realised I had it completely backwards, and we changed the business to prioritise making the absolute best place to work that we knew how, believing that if we did that success would follow. That sounds obvious but really doubling down on how to actually do that is hard. Notice that nothing I talked about above is really about design, per se – it’s all about people!
Since then, we’ve seen people be less stressed, more happy, the studio has grown by every metric, we’re able to attract and retain fantastic talent, and hopefully, that shows in the work.
PT Why do you think that works?
JH As soon as you change the dynamic from a hierarchical, pyramid-shaped organisation, where a few people at the top benefit disproportionately off the work of others, to one of mutual support in which everyone shares in our collective successes and failures, anything is possible.
I’ll give an example: we use a collective decision-making process to determine all the policies in the studio (we’re almost 40 people in total). Anyone can propose a new policy or change to an existing one, and everyone can participate. In 2021, we’d gotten the wonderful news that we’d have a new parent on the team but we had no official parental leave policy so someone proposed one. Through input from the entire organisation, we developed a policy that everyone agreed was safe for us as a business and aligned with our values: 16 weeks of paid leave (regardless of whether or not you’re the primary caretaker), which we believe to be the most generous in the US. That policy could’ve been implemented top-down, of course (assuming the top of the organisation prioritises a progressive leave policy over their own financial interests). It’s a lot different, though, to say: we all think this is important, and we’re all willing to put in the effort required to make it possible.
We encourage people to do their work and then go live their lives.
PT How is the team structured at the moment?
JH XXIX’s core team is six people. We believe in designers and that the methods of design can be used for solving a wide range of challenges, which is to say that there’s no further specialisation on our team. Looking at our list of projects, people are pretty surprised to learn the size of our team. That’s not possible if you go too far towards specialisation.
Of course, people have their interests and strengths – motion, type design, 3D, strategy, etc. – which they’re encouraged to lean into. However, there are no project managers, for instance. Project management is an important responsibility on every project we do, but it’s not a job here. Instead, we devote a lot of energy to coaching and up-skilling people with communication and planning skills that allow them to truly own the success of their projects.
As with project management, the creative direction of a project is taken on by someone on the project team, rather than top-down by the founder or a director. If you want to lead the creative on a project, you can: the steps required to do that are written down, freely available to anyone in the studio, and the coaching to help you succeed in that role are available to you.
The high-level goals of the studio are guided by someone elected from the team (again, not a founder, though I did have that role for a long time). Currently, that person is James, who is doing an amazing job. We also have one person (hi, Nicole!) dedicated to what we call Design Operations, that supports the team with logistics – she basically makes this whole thing work.
We’re part of a larger organisation called garden3d, which is close to 40 people and includes all of our various studios, ventures, and experiments.
PT How does XXIX interact with its sister companies, Manhattan Hydraulics and Sanctuary Computer?
JH XXIX joined the garden3d collective at the beginning of 2020. We’re one big company with three studios focused on different disciplines: graphic design (XXIX, where we do stuff like brand strategy, visual identities and interactive experiences), digital product design (Manhattan Hydraulics), and software development (Sanctuary Computer). We’re effectively a single team – our bi-weekly team retro includes everyone, for example – but each studio has its own origin story and – though I’m an anti-disciplinarian – we’ve found some benefit in keeping each one distinct. If you want to work with us, you can work with one studio or some combination.
PT Alongside your online community centre Index, can you tell us about some of the self-initiated projects XXIX gets up to?
JH Index is the big one! It grew out of our old studio on 9th Street where we had all kinds of events, shared workspace, a bookstore, etc. between 2015-2020. Lots of studios have experimented with similar ideas, of course. It really seemed to find a devoted audience in New York, but when the lease was up in 2020 we didn’t get a new studio for obvious reasons. We relaunched it online as Index in 2021 and we’ve just signed the lease on a new studio in New York City to carry on with our mission of building a ‘mixed-use community centre for non-conforming ideas and methods of creative exchange.’ It started as a passion project but it clearly serves a need that wasn’t being filled – the response to everything the Index team does always blows me away.
We’re also working on Seaborne, our sustainability consultancy. It’s just getting started but I’m incredibly excited about the possibilities. In 2020, we decided to see if we could calculate and offset our company’s carbon footprint. Since then, we offset 150% of our emissions annually, back-dated to the first year we were in business. In doing so, we learned a ton so we decided to start helping our clients do this for their own businesses.
Beyond that, we have a few other ideas and project cooking. Mostly, though, we encourage people to do their work and then go live their lives. We’re trying to make a place where people can work calmly and contentedly for 10+ years. That sounds outrageous today, but why?
PT What does a typical Monday look like for the team?
JH Both design teams have a shared weekly kickoff to start the week. It’s a mix of vibe check, moment for mutual de-stressing, and some light planning. From there, individual project teams will break into planning meetings. Our projects run on really regular weekly schedules. I don’t really like surprises on projects so our process is designed to minimise them. Generally, from there, people will jump into their project work. Most people have heads-down time until Wednesday when we have a whole studio critique session.
PT When hiring, what traits, skills, or vibes do you look for?
JH We’re committed to building a diverse team, which starts even before hiring. It’s an area of active progress for us, and you can see how we’re doing in our first DEI report.
We’re lucky to attract really great people. Besides all the universal stuff – strong fundamental skills, pleasant attitude, etc. – I personally look for candidates who bring a clear point of view to their work.
As a studio, we’re also looking for people who have a broad set of skills (or interest in developing them), and who are willing to work in this kind of organisation. Some people want a more traditional studio environment, which is totally fine; it’s just not us.
PT Which projects would you say capture the DNA of XXIX?
JH Our work is pretty much split between: startups such as Modern Life or Figma (at least they were at the time we did the project), collaborating with design teams in large organisations (such as the work we’ve done with Stripe or Pinterest), and what I call for-good organisations (like the ACLU or educational institutions like Pratt’s School of Architecture). That mix feels really healthy to us right now.
Specifically, I’d say maybe something like the IBM Plex website. We like designing with and for other designers. Or maybe a crowd-favourite like byHumankind. We used to say ‘graphic design on the internet’ – that’s kind of where we like to operate.
PT Who or what inspires you? Either from a creative perspective or wider standpoint.
KD For me, inspiration often comes when I give myself a moment to look outside of the digital design space that we work in. Sometimes I get really sucked into looking at images online and enter a sort of spiral in an attempt to find the spark of creativity to bring into design tools, but lately, I’ve been finding it elsewhere. Instead, I’ve found success in turning to drawing in Procreate and feeling out an idea with my hands. Or I take time away from a screen and knit which gives my head space to rest and come to ideas in a more natural way while still having a physical outlet to create with shapes and colours.
GH I’m constantly inspired by artists. Lately, I’ve been really into works that challenge our assumptions about communication and meaning. Thinking about members of the Fluxus movement proposing alternate forms of music scoring and notation, or projects by Xu Bing examining the relationship between language and identity. They remind me that our tools of communication are malleable, and our design work has the opportunity to reshape the way people interpret the world around them.
DM Lately I’ve been drawn to meandering bike rides, going into movies without reading a synopsis, embracing a cycle of withdrawing from and reconnecting with different mediums, inviting serendipity at each turn.
JM It’s an obvious answer but when I’m travelling is usually when I feel most inspired. The stimulation from being in a new environment combined with the time and space for reflection is really important to me.
At the moment I’m interested in the influence of sustainable materials and new tooling on physical product design. I’m interested to see what impact 3D printing will have on our built environment. The pace of evolution in collaborative tooling is also amazing to see.
I operated from a place of fear for the first part of my career and it doesn’t serve anyone!
PT What industry practices do you think are outdated?
JH I think I probably called a lot of them out indirectly in my long answers above but basically, in a word: fear. Fear of deadlines, fear of going out of business, fear that other studios are better than you, fear of clients, fear of your boss, fear that you won’t be able to leave on time to meet your friends after work, fear that you might be passed over for a raise because the expectations are ambiguous or arbitrary. I operated from a place of fear for the first part of my career and it doesn’t serve anyone!
PT Can you tell us about any projects that are coming out this year?
JH I can’t share too many details, unfortunately, but we’ll finally be able to share the work we’ve done with Stripe, Pinterest, and Google. Some are already out – like Colophon’s new website and the Magic Leap work – but we haven’t really talked about them yet. And of course, the new studio in New York City, which will be open to the public – please visit!
PT What are you most looking forward to?
KD Last year was my first year at the studio and it’s been a really fulfilling time for me creatively. Our organisation is set up to give team members autonomy in how their role is defined, and I’ve been working on using that to shape my personal growth and how I can apply my new skills to the work. That said, I’m excited to continue working with the team to shape how XXIX can flex for the different people and their individual interests.
GH Being the newest team member, I’m looking forward to contributing to a culture of knowledge sharing: I’ve already learned so much from my new teammates and want that to be a cyclical relationship.
DM I’m looking forward to growing and experimenting alongside a team of passionate collaborators.
JM I look forward to opportunities that challenge me to be a better designer and collaborator. One of the things I love about working in a studio is having the opportunity to learn about other industries by becoming immersed in our clients' business.