“The people are more important than the work.” Alright Studio’s recipe for happiness and success
From time to time we like to catch up with studios we’ve interviewed in the past, learning what’s new with them and how things have evolved. Recently we had the pleasure of chatting again with Alright Studio, a New York-based design and technology agency who are no strangers to embracing the new. The three partners – Garrett DeRossett, Spencer Joynt, and Tucker Schoos – tell us a bit more about the studio, the importance of friends, the value of mental health, and more!
PT Hey Alright Studio! It’s been a little while since your last interview with us. What’s new?
AS In short, pretty much everything! Since we last spoke, 2021 we believe, the studio has evolved in so many ways – we’ve expanded to a full-time team of eight, built out and moved into a shiny new studio space in Bushwick, and are focusing increasingly on full-service launches to market.
PT Can you tell us about the new site? What was the vision, timeline and process behind it?
AS For every Alright site that has made it to the public web, there have been numerous built-out sites, that never launched. Bottom line, we realised through all of the failure(s) to launch that we are not very good at maintaining our own website or documenting our work.
A more traditional agency portfolio site – focused on robust, and, frankly, thoughtful case studies – just wasn’t a feasible amount of upkeep for us. The idea of sitting down, creating a thorough case study with big, impactful imagery, punchy blocks of copy, and, ultimately, how we got to our solution (then doing this multiple times over) didn’t seem realistic.
That’s where the idea of leading with a list of work started to come into focus: we can always find at least one good image to pair with a project, and entering the rest of the data into the CMS takes roughly a minute. Problem solved.
Secondly, we dug into who we are and what makes us special, as an agency. We’ve consistently gotten one piece of feedback from our peers over the years: “***********You guys do so much work.” It really started to click that perhaps this was unique and worth capitalising on.
It took us a few months of noodling to come up with the specific solution on our site today, putting all the pieces together. Emphasising ALL the work we’ve done, over the past several years. Not requiring ourselves to have more than a single image we could associate with a project – but still calling out services rendered. And, when appropriate, having a way to showcase a range of work as part of a single project. Lastly, importantly, a place on-site for us to shout out all of our incredible collaborators.
PT You mentioned some major leadership changes that have happened over the years, which aren’t easy to navigate, what would you say were the biggest challenges with yours?
AS Without going into toooooo much detail, Alright has changed its leadership structure quite a bit since our original inception in 2017. It’s always been Garrett at the helm, but the two original partners are no longer a part of the business.
Since early 2020, however, Garrett’s partners in the business have been Spencer Joynt and Tucker Schoos. And their joining here is really what’s made Alright the agency it is today.
The challenge for us was figuring out the division of labour between the partners. When Spencer and Garrett first linked up – they were both designers. Then we kind of did a thing where he was Creative Director, Garrett was Design Director, and Tucker was Technology Director. We ultimately realised, though, that we are all just partners running the business together. So that is now our title, Partner. We have our focuses – Spen’s being strategy, Garrett’s being design, and Tucker’s technology – but we really all cross disciplines every single day. And that’s intentional.
Our focus through 2023 is perfecting our full-service approach, getting that down to a science.
PT What did you take away from the experience of changing and scaling, from a business and cultural perspective?
AS A lot happened in the past few years – socially, culturally, and at work. In business, things move so quickly now as a result of most work moving online. We’re trying to take this year to slow down, and let a little slowness be okay.
Through the bedlam of the pandemic, we were able to realise that Alright is pretty good at doing all the work. That is to say, as the lineup of the studio solidified, we had the capabilities to keep everything under one roof – from strategy and writing to design and direction to technology. Our focus through 2023 is perfecting our full-service approach. Getting that down to a science, and making sure we can execute consistently across types of project and client.
PT Who makes up the core team at the moment?
AS Like we mentioned above, Garrett, Spencer, and Tucker are the three partners and respectively manage the design, strategy, and technology teams. We’ve always said that Spencer is the idea guy, Garrett is the design practitioner able to bring life to those ideas, and Tucker is the pragmatic executer who ties everything together (and chills us out).
Then our core team is made up of Teah Brands, our strategist and copywriter, Cassidy Clingman, project manager, Jake Brussel Faria, designer, Meredith Lampe, senior developer, and Ben Puffer, senior designer. Some of the best people you’ll ever get the pleasure of working with.
PT How would you describe the culture and vibe of the team?
AS We’ve really done our best to hire for a balance of thoughtfulness and talent. It’s equally important to us that the people at Alright are detail-oriented executors as it is that they are kind and considerate. We’ve also been lucky to bring together a group of people who all have really dynamic, engaging lives outside of work. That’s important, too.
Honestly, we’re still figuring out exactly what it means to be an agency of our size. How much of the team is on each client call? What are the expectations of our clients when it comes to the partners running projects, versus our team? How do we speak to the fact that while we’re technically small, we have a huge network of people orbiting the studio?
Bottom line we want to make this a nice place to work, without trying to reinvent the agency model. We work from home (or wherever) on Mondays and Fridays, have ~8 weeks of studio closures throughout the year, an unlimited vacation policy, and trust everyone to operate fairly autonomously. It’s definitely still work, and sometimes very challenging. But our hope is that the team sticks around for a long time, and that we can all grow together by making work a part of our lives – not our entire identity.
PT What can you tell us where you work? What does the day-to-day running of the studio look like?
AS We spent the latter bit of 2022 conceptualising the buildout of our space with our friends Civilian and Lichen, and are now working at bringing it all together. It’s still in a place of transition, but after being cramped in former spaces with zero call privacy and leaking ceilings, this spot feels like a dream.
We took the classic ‘huge central table’ route with everyone sitting in the middle of the space, while a good chunk of the remaining area is devoted to a conference room, kitchen area, and an amazing Verner Panton Clover sofa.
We’re not fully remote, but Garrett lives in Nashville these days while the rest of the team is in Brooklyn. So we try to keep things pretty flexible. The team’s encouraged to come into the studio Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday while Mondays and Fridays are generally at home.
Each day starts by identifying the goals – essentially a standup – and from there we launch into individual tasks. The partners are typically on calls for most of the day, which include new business, reviews and check-ins, and both team and individual chats with our staff. We use Slack a lot, but are trying to do more stuff in person. Including client meetings!
People who feel heard and seen make better work.
PT It’s great to hear that you’re so proactive about the mental health of your team. What have you learned works well?
AS As a start, simply acknowledging that mental health is a legitimate factor in productivity and quality of work is a huge first step. From burnout to imposter syndrome to resenting difficult clients – and sometimes, even then, the work – this industry can be challenging.
We try to strike a balance of caring about our team without being invasive. Each employee has a one-on-one with their direct manager monthly, and we like talking about non-work things, as much as work things. We also try to shove off on Fridays by 2pm (if not earlier on slow days), close the entire studio for a couple of weeks in the summer and at the end of the year, and encourage people to take a day off or a long weekend whenever they need it.
PT If you could give one piece of advice to other studio leaders regarding employee well-being, what would it be?
AS Probably that the people are more important than the work. And that people who feel heard and seen make better work.
Our studio – and this is something we’ve learned from our friend Archie over at PlayLab, Inc. – is just as much of a project as the stuff we do for our clients. We’ve worked hard, and sometimes failed, to create boundaries ***and open lines of communication amongst our team. Also learned the hard way that people need to be held accountable ***just as much as they need positive reinforcement.
Balance is the tough thing. But having three partners running the business together helps us check ourselves on whether we’re indexing too heavily in one direction or another.
PT Who inspires you? Both creatively and as leaders?
AS For one: our friends! We’ve been supremely fortunate to build relationships with super smart people, leaders in their fields, basically our heroes — people like Jacob Heftmann, Cameron Koczan, Michelle Mattar, Archie Coates, Brent Couchman, Richie Stewart, Caleb and Ryan at LAND — and get access to their brains and stores of knowledge around how they built their practices. The thing that we respect about all these folks is their ability to be creative and business-savvy. That’s not easy.
PT You mentioned that you “champion an idea rather than a look.” With this in mind, do you think there’s a secret to conjuring great ideas?
AS If there is a secret, it’s simply being observant and thoughtful. Maybe an obnoxiously ‘creative director’ answer here: we’ve found our most compelling ideas in places you may not always think to look – in writing, in physical objects, in going for a long walk around New York City. Being a citizen of the world, having lots of conversations with people that have different perspectives from you, and just ***living is the most critical thing somebody can do for their creative practice!
PT Which projects best showcase Alright’s conceptual strengths?
PT Which ones are you particularly proud of? Why?
AS The projects above certainly count –
Trippin – we worked with their team to identify reference points amongst physical media and objects, and the one that kept coming up again and again was travel postcards. It may not seem overtly obvious, but the rounded corners, use of multiple article typefaces, and index-style destination list are all intended to subtly call back to the golden age of travel while still remaining firmly modern.
Korr – this project highlighted the very best of collaboration. Korr came to us with a lofty business goal that was difficult to put into words, and they knew it. We took intentional steps to make the insurance technology industry feel friendly without being unprofessional, and every step of the way their team was fully invested in making these decisions with us.
Dame – here, we put into practice our skill at marrying design and technology. The Dame crew had long lived with a disconnect between their shop and their editorial platform, and we worked closely with their team to understand limitations and opportunities to unite the two. Along the way, we updated their brand look and feel culminating in a series of vibey photoshoots.
AriZona Thirsty Thirty – another example of using collaboration to get to the heart of a project. The original intention behind this program was to be something of an NFT platform – while that concept didn’t necessarily feel right over time, we took inspiration from the world of Web3 and generative NFT drop dynamics as to create an experience that put the power of customisation right in their users’ hands.
Luaka Bop Records – as simple as it may seem, the entire structure of the website is inspired by the album spine of Luaka Bop’s vinyl records, each of which contain a series of stripes in different colourways that match the album. We extrapolated that into a frame surrounding the site that changed the colour scheme based on user input.
PT What are you looking forward to this year?
AS The emphasis on process that we mentioned earlier in the article. A year to really focus on the ‘why’ and the ‘how.’ Then getting that process down to an exact science, that isn’t formulaic – but replicable. Making the way we work sustainable, with our hope being that Alright is still ripping 20 years from now.