It can be a little hard to explain just how charmingly weird Hello Monday can be. Top-flight digital shops tend to be quirky, but this small, 37-person firm based in New York and Denmark is in a class of its own.
Don’t believe me? How many digital agencies are you aware of that have office moms? Chances are, zero—until now. In case you’re curious, the official title for Hello Monday’s office moms is “cultural coordinator,” and they don’t have to be female. Their job is similar to that of office managers, except that it also includes cooking a warm, homemade meal for lunch—which everyone sits down to eat together. (Communal lunch is a Danish thing; home-cooked meals in the office are not.)
“[The moms] are very important carriers of our culture,” says founding partner Johanne Bruun Rasmussen.
Judging by her and the rest of the team’s success, more firms could use them. Over the last ten years, Hello Monday has been among the most awarded makers of high-end digital experiences in the world. It has won 97 Favourite Website Awards (FWAs) to date, and it achieved that organization’s coveted Hall of Fame status in a mere five years. It has twice been named Creative Circle Agency of the Year, and it probably has more Webbys, Lions and Pencils than the team can count.
Even rivals have nothing but nice things to say about them. For example, when FWA founder Rob Ford was looking for a redesign, he was surprised by the reaction. “I polled our judging team [of more than 200] and asked them, ‘If [you] could choose any agency in the world to design the new FWA, who would it be?’” he says. “The overwhelming response was Hello Monday.”
That said, if you had been looking over the founders’ shoulders ten years ago, you would never have expected this or really any level of success. Founding partners Rasmussen, Anders Jessen and Jeppe Aaen (the company later added Andreas Anderskou to lead the business) were then young 20-somethings in Aarhus, Denmark. They worked together at a big design agency that was trying to become one of the biggest in the world.
But the three had a vision different from their employer. They wanted to create a company that was so fun and pleasant that it made Monday a happy word. That goal—not creative excellence—has always been the driving force behind Hello Monday. Not surprisingly, the firm’s first year was far from glamorous. The three kept their doors open by working on graphics for fashion T-shirts and bicycle frames. The fame thing, however, came soon enough. In 2007, a year after opening its doors, Hello Monday got the chance to build a website for the now-defunct fashion brand Minus. Though the budget was tiny, Hello Monday negotiated the right to do whatever it wanted—and took full advantage of the freedom. The resulting site featured an intriguing user experience (UX) that enabled visitors to zoom into the clothes’ fabric. It quickly won an FWA and garnered Hello Monday attention from around the world.
“That’s when we found out what we needed to do,” says Rasmussen simply. “We’d do websites and do them so well that thousands of people would drop by and look.”
Hello Monday slowly began to grow, but it was determined to keep its initial vision intact. The partners developed a set of cultural practices that not only reflects their Danish background, but also is unique to the firm. Home-cooked meals aside, one of the most unusual practices is that the creative partners—and Aaen in particular—are almost never exposed to discussions of budgets and finances. Financial success is not the company’s top priority.
“You’ll never get rich working for Hello Monday,” admits Anderskou.
The company also adopted a structure and working style that is “flat management for real,” as one Glassdoor reviewer put it. And if you want to work there, you don’t merely need to be good at your job. You also have to pass the “twelve-hour test.” This isn’t a real test; rather, the team has to imagine what it would be like to sit next to you on a flight for twelve hours. If they can’t see themselves enjoying the experience, you won’t be hired.
As a result, Hello Monday has never had very many employees and can’t take on every project. That’s where the Fs come in: fun, fame, forward, fortune, fearless, future, freedom and footprint (“fearless” refers to innovation and “footprint” refers to global impact). The company uses them to evaluate potential projects. If a project doesn’t have enough Fs, Hello Monday won’t do it.
Even the firm’s expansion—first to Copenhagen and later to New York—was not driven by rational considerations. In both cases, Hello Monday opened offices simply because a favorite employee fell in love with someone who lived in those cities. As Rasmussen puts it, “There always seems to be a woman involved.”
All of this might appear quite random, but it serves a purpose: maximizing creativity. The twelve-hour test eliminates stress, friction and office politics—of which there is none. The lunch makes everyone take a break so they can recharge their creative batteries and chat about life. And designers don’t look at budgets because, well, numbers are creative cancer.
So what does the Hello Monday team get out of such a culture? Most of the time in their work, they drive toward established conventions—and then veer hard right. They ask, “Why not?” and use that as inspiration for a new direction.
A good example might be their recent site for the smartwatch Wove. Hello Monday noted that nearly everyone in the device business has followed Apple’s lead and adopted a clean, scrolling page structure. You don’t not do Apple in the tech industry. But Hello Monday asked, “Why not use everything in our toolkit?” HTML5 doesn’t limit itself to scrolling by any means.
Instead, Wove’s site features a watch-shaped cursor and page transitions that involve whooshing through the device itself. “Everyone said it looked like an old Flash site,” says senior art director and illustrator Steffen Christiansen. “And I said, ‘Why not? Old Flash sites were much cooler and more interesting than a scrolling site.”
Digital design is largely driven by rules that make everything look the same. You can find data-based studies that tell you exactly how many characters a social media post should be. Eye-tracking studies show you where you should put a headline or image. There are even dynamic content tools that can generate and test 10,000 versions of an ad. But in Hello Monday’s vision, none of that can ever accomplish what’s really interesting: doing something “wrong” that somehow works.
“We sometimes deliberately create experiences that may be hard to use because that’s what we want,” says senior UX designer Esben Hindhede. “It’s something no machine could ever do.”
The YouTube Kids app provides a less obvious example of the firm’s approach. The chance for why-not creativity in the app was more limited, of course—Hello Monday needed to make a mass-market interface that would work for kids. It had to look a lot like YouTube and function like it, too. No room for going crazy, right?
Wrong. In the first place, the team created an interactive assistant named The Dude. The Dude helps kids who can’t read yet by using voice to find content. Hello Monday excelled in the smaller details as well. For example, the logos and buttons animate when you use them (why not?). There are fun scrolls and sound effects, too. In fact, anywhere the studio could make things more interesting, it did.
A final example of the agency’s approach might be the wonderful Bear’s-Eye View of Yellowstone. The sole all-digital component of a special National Geographic issue devoted to the park, it originally began as a research project that looked into bear diet and behavior. Researchers had fitted four bears with GPS trackers and cameras that took 20 seconds of video every 20 minutes, from just under the bears’ mouths. In truth, that offers more of a bear’s-chin view, but no matter.
National Geographic eventually brought in Hello Monday for its expertise in interactive storytelling, but soon realized that the firm’s personality was just as valuable. “For our first design review, they showed up on a Google Hangout wearing bear hats,” says Bethany Powell, digital creative director at National Geographic. “It’s wonderful when studios are just as excited about the content as we are, and they were genuinely engaged in the research and the story.”
Although the site at heart is a simple scroll, its mix of video and illustrations gives the bears a surprising amount of personality. The strictly nonfictional presentation builds tension by asking questions and zeroing in on dangerous incidents. For example, it lays out the suspicion that one of the bears is a cannibal, explaining that a certain percentage of black bears kill and eat other black bears. This eventually turns out to be true. Another of the bears is young and on his own for the first time. In an anxious moment, he encounters a larger bear, but escapes. The site also features oddly haunting views of people’s homes through the bears’ eyes. Simply put, the site is far more human in its appeal than you’d expect.
With work like this, Hello Monday has proved adept at staying in the digital spotlight. However, that remains a secondary concern. Fame (at least of the sort available in this industry) doesn’t matter as much as a good home-cooked meal, great conversation and a glass of wine after work.
“In truth, we’re all a little wacky and weird,” confesses Christiansen. “But whenever we hire new people, most of them want to stay. They know they’ve joined a kind of weird company; it says that on the door.”
And perhaps it should say that on a few more doors as well. ca