The Polish word huncwot (pronounced hOON-svot) translates to something like scoundrel or scamp. It’s an old-timey term, mostly archaic until it was used as the Polish translation of marauder in the Harry Potter books.
In the Polish capital of Warsaw, the creative agency Huncwot blends a love of culture and love of modern technology with appreciation of local history. Founded in 2007 by Łukasz Knasiecki and Arek Romański, Huncwot has grown from a two-man operation into a twelve-person award-winning agency serving clients around the globe.
Warsaw, like many post-Soviet cities, still feels like a work in progress. Three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain ushered in capitalism, the city was ranked the third most business-friendly major city in Europe by the Financial Times’ research division in 2018. This leaves a lot of room for making your own luck.
Much of Huncwot’s early work was for the fashion industry, and the agency still counts some of Poland’s largest fashion brands among its clients. The bulk of the agency’s earnings today comes from commercial projects from the United States—Knasiecki estimates Huncwot’s billings as 80 percent American clients, 10 percent Polish clients and 10 percent other European clients. The majority of their US work is back-end development rather than design—Huncwot made cheetos.com and ruffles.com, for example.
Although clients like Frito-Lay pay the bills, the founders’ passion lies with cultural projects, ones where the team goes the extra mile to make the final deliverables delightful. “We become fans of our clients,” Knasiecki says.
For example, when Huncwot was designing a website (polona.pl) that would enable the National Library of Poland to share its vast archive of historical Polish objects with the public, the team had the idea to create an art generator using typography from the historical publications. Clients sometimes forget that they have to promote their websites after they’re built, Knasiecki says. This particular client was one they’d worked with before, building up trust, so when Huncwot pitched the idea of the generator, the library liaison was immediately on board. The typographic playground would be fun and easy to share on social media, organically drawing more eyeballs to the archive.
At typo.polona.pl, you can type any message up to 35 characters, and the service returns a typographical smorgasbord. Don’t like the taste? Hit refresh to get a new serving of letters. You can even filter the typography by year—1350 to 1940—and by source, then download your creation as a GIF or a static image to share. Identifying and categorizing the individual letters took a long time, but now that they’ve built the system, Huncwot may well use the type generator concept for other clients.
Another project that captured Huncwot’s heart was the website it designed for the iconic news and culture magazine Przekrój (pronounced p-SHEH-crooy), meaning cross-section. Founded in 1945, it was a must-read for the Polish intelligentsia, like The New Yorker, offering a global perspective in an era of communism. Przekrój reached weekly circulation of more than 700,000 in the 1970s, but by 2010, that had dropped to under 30,000. It went out of print briefly and then was reinvented as a quarterly magazine in 2016, with the design drawing heavily from its glory days.
Huncwot created a website (przekroj.pl) for the new magazine that also offers content in English and showcases 70-plus years of archives. A library in Krakow had thankfully already digitized the more than 2,800 back issues, so the scans were ready to use. (Paper shortages during communist rule meant some years’ issues were printed on shoddy newsprint that now crumbles at the touch.) As we flip through a bound volume of issues from the 1960s, Knasiecki and Romański’s passion for the project is palpable. They loved the little doodles that littered early issues of the magazine, and reanimated choice illustrations as Easter eggs throughout the website.
Huncwot was just a two-man show back in 2007, when it started in Poznan, Poland’s fifth-largest city. Knasiecki was the tech guy with a cultural arts education, and Romański the classically trained designer.
Knasiecki had been enamored with technology ever since his father snuck a personal computer over the border from East Germany in 1986. After he graduated from university, he ran a dive bar for a while and then returned to the world of art and computers around 2002.
Romański, a graduate of the graphic design department at Poznań’s Academy of Fine Arts, was bored after seven years at a traditional design studio. The two men were working out of the same building, and after getting to know each other, decided to go off on their own. They know Flash is out of fashion now, but thinking about the creative possibilities the technology opened up gives them Macromedia nostalgia. “Flash was our god,” Romański says.
Romański is a creative chameleon, adapting his style to each client’s needs. “I can never predict what his design will look like,” Knasiecki says. “But maybe five times over thirteen years, he came to me with something I didn’t like.”
Romański doesn’t think Polish design today has an easily definable style. “We’re all looking at Behance and the same websites,” he says. But if you go retro, design from the 1960s and 1970s from behind the Iron Curtain is a completely different world. Being limited to printing in only one or two colors sometimes led to totally original design solutions.
The company moved to Warsaw around 2010, and now employs twelve full-time staff members, plus occasional tech specialists on a contract basis. Huncwot specifically hires developers who understand art and design; some have studied philosophy, culture or art history.
Huncwot’s office is on the first floor of a prewar apartment building in Mokotow, a neighborhood south of central Warsaw. The hardwood floors and big white radiators give the office a homey feel, and it is just blocks from Knasiecki’s and Romański’s homes.
The scars of war are everywhere in Warsaw, where more than 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed by German forces during World War II. Mokotow was a stronghold of the Polish resistance, and many original buildings survived. You can’t walk a block without seeing prayer candles and wreaths set up in front of plaques commemorating residents who died.
Love of culture
One of Huncwot’s first clients was the Nowy Teatr (New Theater) in Warsaw, an interdisciplinary space led by director Krzysztof Warlikowski. Huncwot recently completed its third overhaul of the Nowy Teatr website since the theater’s founding in 2008.
The website (nowyteatr.org) now integrates interactive animations in the logo, menu and images to add visual interest. “Arek and Łukasz think very logically, and the style of their project is pure,” says Ewa Vedral of Nowy Teatr. “At the same time classic and new, very close to our way of thinking. Aesthetically, we have the same nerve, the same feeling.”
The Nowy Teatr is close enough to walk to from the Huncwot headquarters; Knasiecki, Romański and I had a vegetarian lunch in the café, which was nearly full on an average weekday. “We like [Huncwot’s] tension between being local and so worldwide,” Vedral says. “We can meet them during the lunchtime in the theater bar. But we are also impressed by their international fame.”
Knasiecki loves working with American clients but finds that breaking into design in the United States is difficult. (The nine-hour time difference between Warsaw and Los Angeles is also a pain.) But word gets around about Huncwot.
“I happened to run across the Film-Makers’ Cooperative website (filmmakerscoop.com), and it was a rare moment when I was really wowed by a website,” says Brittany Gravely of the Harvard Film Archive. “It was immediately apparent that there was an appreciation of the moving image. This was the type of beauty and care I wanted to be put into our site.”
And so she got in touch with Huncwot, and they sealed the deal. The Harvard Film Archive’s new website (harvardfilmarchive.org) is inspired by the Le Corbusier building the Archive inhabits. The undertaking was enormous—the previous website had been made of individually coded pages. Now that the content has been converted into a proper content management system (CMS), updating the website takes a fraction of the time it did before.
“It was just a relief working with designers whose aesthetic you can completely trust,” Gravely says. “There was very little we felt we had to compromise, and they were so open and communicative.”
Before the design was finalized, Romański realized it needed movement, and his team took another month to perfect animations. Static images got a grainy animation effect to evoke the feel of 35mm film, for example. But Huncwot still found the right balance between aesthetics and usability for all browsers and operating systems. “People are now spending three times more time on the website, and 70 percent of users are on mobile,” Knasiecki says.
Huncwot usually builds websites using Knasiecki’s own CMS, called Serdelia, after a nickname for his daughter. The idea is to make the websites easy to maintain within the boundaries of the style guide so clients don’t have to ping Huncwot for every little update.
When they’re doing a complete redesign of a website, Knasiecki generally only presents the client with one option, even if they asked for three. “Our presentations show our process logically, so the client thinks that it’s the only way,” he says. And 99 percent of the time, it works out. They will listen to a client’s concerns but don’t tolerate backseat art directing. Romański sums it up: “The more freedom they give us, the more they get.” ca