“We had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at.” Introducing San Francisco’s PACT

Poppy Thaxter
0 min read

“We had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at.” Introducing San Francisco’s PACT

Located in the bustling city of San Francisco, PACT is an identity design studio that combines creativity with honest partnerships to work for a more equitable and exciting future. We meet PACT’s showrunners and life partners Natalia Kowaleczko and Tony Mingo, who reveal how their vision of an ideal creative environment came to life. Alongside the intangible – their philosophies, their relationships, and their development – they delve into the practical side of launching their own studio. From finding the perfect studio space in The Mission District to the impact of working in San Francisco, it’s been a fascinating journey so far. 

PT Hi Natalia and Tony! How are you? 

NK Doing really well! We recently came off the high of launching an updated website and being San Francisco Design Week’s partner for 2023, which was such an honour and a tonne of fun. Now we’re back to a more regular groove and working on client projects – but also coming up with some new studio initiatives, which we’re super stoked about.

TM Yeah, the creative partnership with SF Design Week and the new website have been exciting and have helped us to think more about our place in the creative community and how we show up in the world. We also have a really fun mix of projects in the studio right now, which we’re thankful for.

“We had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at.” Introducing San Francisco’s PACT
“We had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at.” Introducing San Francisco’s PACT

Tony and I are partners in life and have known each other for over 15 years.

PT That’s brilliant! How did PACT first start out? 

NK In 2019, I was running a personal design practice and working with others, including some of our current collaborators, on bigger and bigger projects. Tony was working independently around that time as well. Tony and I are partners in life and have known each other for over 15 years, but we had not historically worked together.

TM It was a pretty organic process. I had just wrapped up an eight or nine-month UX and strategy contract when I got a message from a colleague in Chicago asking if I could recommend a small, local identity studio to take on a rebrand for a sustainability-focused company here in SF. We ended up recommending ourselves – Natalia leading the creative team and me leading strategy, UX and the business side of things – and that became the first of many projects we’d work on together. PACT officially formed about a year later when we moved into our studio space.

PT What did your career path look like prior to launching your own studio? And going back even further, what led you both to begin working in design? 

TM I remember drawing arcade-inspired letterforms as early as seven years old. My parents always had graph paper and mechanical pencils lying around and I put it all to frequent use. Then in high school, I was lucky to be able to take screen printing, jewellery-making, and two full years of graphic arts classes. I was a punk rock kid and the DIY part of designing, making and printing was really appealing to me.

Ultimately, that all led me to design school, and since then I’ve worked a mix of full-time and freelance at mid-sized agencies, large global agencies, and ran my own small studio for a couple of years. I eventually landed at VSA Partners, where I learned the value of strategy, storytelling and experience design while leading teams on large-scale projects for a few global heritage brands. It was a tough decision to leave that, but we had an itch to move west so that’s what we did.

NK I was born and raised in Poland, and was into all creative things as a kid – music, visual arts, storytelling, you name it. I moved to the US quite spontaneously and unexpectedly after receiving a college scholarship, and what quickly became my favourite part of that move was being surrounded by such a broad diversity of cultures and people, many of whom would become my second family. 

I ended up getting degrees in interior design and graphic design/photography, and gained working experience in branding and advertising, mostly. I held a few art director positions, then was a long-time VP Design Director at Dept of Design Leo Burnett in Chicago. We moved to SF in 2017, for both adventure and to work in more innovation and brands at inception. That led me to be a partner/creative director at another design studio in SF, from which I pretty quickly moved on to start an independent practice.  

PT What were the primary drivers behind your decision to start a studio? 

NK Creating an environment where you get to make interesting work, where you foster creativity and growth, where all voices are heard and different perspectives can thrive. A place where you want to come to work every day, and where every day you laugh and enjoy a good time instead of dealing with egos. Where trust, respect and camaraderie are key, and things are done ethically, with integrity, and you can have agency and the feeling of purpose and togetherness.

TM Exactly. It wasn’t like we woke up one day and said “let’s start a studio,” but we absolutely shared this vision of fairness, integrity, and purpose. We’ve both had good and not-so-good experiences in the industry over the years and it became clearer and clearer that we had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at. We get to partner with talented creative folks, work directly with founders and investors, and decide which projects feel like a good fit for us.

“We had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at.” Introducing San Francisco’s PACT

It’s really all about that partnership and respect.

PT How would you describe the central philosophy of PACT?

TM For us, it’s really all about that partnership and respect, both on the client side and internally. That may not sound like a wholly original idea, but we take it seriously. From the first phone call to the launch, our entire process is built around it.

NK When we found the name, it all connected. We believe in the power of true partnerships and teamwork, coming together to make each other stronger and make great ideas happen. That applies on multiple levels – within the studio and with our clients. PACT is a promise to ourselves and the world to create smart, intentional, differentiated work.

PT Who makes up the core team?

TM Natalia, me, Sofia and Michelle work from our studio in the Mission District and our messaging lead, also named Michelle, is based in Chicago. We team up with other folks when possible for expertise like animation, web development, creative code, etc.  

NK That’s it! Every day, I feel so lucky and grateful to be working with such amazing people with diverse perspectives, who are also often such close friends. 

“We had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at.” Introducing San Francisco’s PACT

PT Having worked with several large studios, what do you most enjoy about now having a smaller team? 

TM I love that we all have a voice in every project. Our size doesn’t leave room for a traditional hierarchy where a few people make the decisions for everyone else and then hand off down some chain of command. Each of us has unique strengths and perspectives that add to the richness and uniqueness of every identity we create.

NK Agreed! I also love that we can be nimble. There are no politics or egos to get in the way. We all get along really well, have fun, and aren’t afraid to be honest with each other. Also having direct access to founders and decision-makers and hearing their stories, passions, and visions for their company, category, or world in general. Having the same core team throughout the entire process – discovery, strategy, naming, identity, website, etc. – creates a depth of understanding that’s hard to do in a large studio or agency. 

PT PACT’s portfolio spans a variety of industries! Are there any fields that you’re particularly drawn to?

NK Our ideal client is anyone who wants to challenge convention within their industry, or beyond, craves an intentional, differentiated approach, and a truly defined, distinct identity. We love being industry agnostic. One day you’re working on an outer space project, the next you’re working on a cannabis one. We learn so much with every project and our brains are really happy that way. We have huge passion for working in innovation, learning about new approaches and technologies, but also very much treasure cultural projects, sustainability, equity, and working with local businesses.

TM The challenging convention part is incredibly important to us. Along with that would be anyone doing work for the greater good, or at least doing no harm. As Natalia mentioned, we love to learn and it’s really fascinating to see how our clients are tackling things like sustainability, access to mental healthcare, and what it means to be human.

PT What did you have in mind when it came to the physical studio space? Why did you opt for San Francisco’s Mission District as your location? 

TM We decided to move into a studio space in the middle of the pandemic. March 1, 2021 to be exact. There were a few of us, locally, who were regularly working on projects together and we desperately wanted to create together in person. The Mission District is a lively, historic neighbourhood with tonnes of small businesses and family-owned restaurants, so the variety and flavour of the place itself felt inspiring. A few of us also live close enough to walk to the studio and the public transportation options in the area make it super accessible.

NK It’s also amazing to have an open, bright, lovely space that can house a lot of plants! Seriously though, we all enjoy working together in person where we can share and build on ideas on the spot. And it’s fun to have a studio space that can help to build community and double as a clubhouse and gathering space.

TM Totally, we even celebrated the new year with friends, drinks, and games at the studio. It feels more like a home than an office.

“We had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at.” Introducing San Francisco’s PACT

PT How does San Francisco as a city impact your practice?

NK It certainly puts us in the modern historic centre of technology and innovation. And though it’s no longer as important to be here to work in those spaces, and a lot of our clients are elsewhere, it’s been insightful and enriching to find ourselves in the hub with direct, and often in-person, access to a lot of founders and folks working in start-ups, etc.

TM Yeah, and it’s been really refreshing to see more and more start-ups that are focused on solving real problems for real humans versus just trying to become the next unicorn and exit plan. Profit is important, of course, but it’s nice to see a rebalancing of priorities in some areas. 

NK Totally. There’s also this rich tapestry of amazing design, art communities and organizations like Letterform Archive & Type West, Minnesota Street Project, Gray Area, McEvoy Foundation, ICA SF, Illuminate, Design Bay Area, and many more that have been such wonderful contributors and sources of inspiration.

San Francisco has become a constant reminder to always put humans first.

On the other hand, like much of the world, San Francisco has been deeply affected by the pandemic and some neighborhoods are struggling to adapt to the consequences of remote work. And yet, San Francisco feels resilient. People want to be here and work together, make a difference, restore communities and build new ones, cherish human connection – and we love the idea of being a part of that revival.

And while many cities have their problems, this one happens to be absolutely beautiful, with deep culture, history, amazing architecture and people – and the climate and nature all around it are pretty hard to beat. Although a lot of our clients are elsewhere, we get to live in a beautiful part of the world, where you can hike or play tennis pretty much year-round – and on the same day if you have the energy.

TM I mean, that pretty much covers it. There’s a little bit of everything here. There are simultaneously neighbourhoods that feel like sleepy, small towns and clear reminders of how fragile and unfair the social and economic systems we’ve created can be. And despite its reputation for being all about tech, San Francisco has become a constant reminder to always put humans first.

“We had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at.” Introducing San Francisco’s PACT

PT Which project do you think best captures PACT and its strengths? 

TM For me, that would be the identity work we did with Kintsugi. They were at an inflection point when we met, where they needed to pivot from a consumer audience to an enterprise audience and explain something that’s really technical in a way that less technical people could connect to. We pretty quickly aligned on an approach that achieved that through a patient-centric narrative. Along with the new visual and verbal identity, we renamed their product, designed a new website experience, provided them with various launch materials and templates to hit the ground running, and a pretty robust set of guidelines to help keep things on track. That project is a testament to what’s possible when that partnership and respect really click.

NK Agree! I also love projects like Existential Co, San Francisco Design Week, and Humbird where we do work for cultural or physical applications and get to stretch the identity into creative code or tactile applications, interior design, or community events.

PT And which project provided the biggest learning curve? 

TM Honestly, every project has a learning curve because every business and every industry is so different. We might meet with rocket scientists on Monday, a producer of documentaries on Tuesday and the CEO of a sustainable financing company on Thursday. Each of them has a different story and their own set of challenges to solve for and that’s really part of the fun. That said, we’ve had a couple of projects that didn’t go as well as we had hoped. In those cases, the learning curve is about coming up with ways to avoid those situations in the future.

NK Totally agree. A project not quite working out can happen because of so many different reasons. Maybe it’s not getting all of the information needed to make the project a success, leadership changes during the process, not having access to the clients who are truly in charge of making decisions, or having full alignment on everyone’s roles. Whatever the reason, we always try to figure out ways to avoid it next time. Running a studio is a design problem, too!

PT Natalia, can you tell us about your work as a Women in Innovation Ambassador?

NK Of course! I’ve been a part of it for a couple of years and have been mostly involved in co-creating and co-running the inaugural WIN Relay program, a cohort-based leadership development experience aiming to help close the gender gap in innovation leadership. 

It’s been wonderful and insightful to be a part of an org that’s not only design-focused, but where design can apply all the time. I’ve been exposed to and involved in a lot of conversations that have opened my eyes to the industry, its different facets, wonders and constraints, as well as to people’s drives, needs, behaviours and desires – ultimately giving me more grounds to really understand and navigate the nature of the world of innovation, as well as our projects and clients.

It’s also been great to have conversations with a diverse group of women navigating the uncertainty and volatile nature inherent to working in innovation and entrepreneurship, while considering some societal challenges, consequences, or expectations of being a female. The notions of facing the unknown, being confident and comfortable, confronting judgment or imperfections, accommodating people, can all be closely knit with how we get brought up based on our gender and culture, and untangling and understanding certain thoughts and behaviors can only make us better as leaders. I would personally love to find and tap into every way to empower women and diverse perspectives and backgrounds, and WIN has been a great gateway to gaining more insight and understanding.

We can’t wait to learn more about other industries, clients, missions...

PT How do you hope (or plan!) for PACT to evolve in the next few years?

NK We can’t wait to learn more about other industries, clients, missions, and help bring them to life, while also maintaining a great studio environment and keeping everything flowing well. We want to make sure we take our time to figure out what processes work best and where our sweet spot is. We want to continue to do differentiated work for brave clients, meet new creative people who are doing interesting new work, and incorporate new creative solutions into our projects.

TM Yeah, absolutely. For now, we’ll likely keep things organic and continue to refine our processes and how we talk about what we do. Finding that sweet spot, as Natalia said. We’re also becoming more active in the design community and feel like that’s becoming an increasingly important part of our own mission. That could mean hosting small events at our current space, or maybe even looking into new spaces where we can experiment with some other types of experiences.

“We had an opportunity to build the studio we’d want to work at.” Introducing San Francisco’s PACT

PT What news or projects should we keep an eye out for? 

NK One in every direction! Outer space, fertility, small business management, and a large physical space.

And, for Bay Area folks – Agents of Change is a new community platform we are co-creating with Design Bay Area, aiming to examine and harness sources of disruption for creativity, innovation and growth. We kicked it off with a talk by Ben Davis from Illuminate during SFDW, and much more is to come. We’ll also be hosting community events at our studio, so keep your eyes on our Instagram @pact.studio – we are finally starting to use it :) 

TM [puts business hat on] I would need all of your readers to sign NDAs to answer any more than that ;)

Graphic Design