Founded: 2008 Based: New York Staff: 13
Notable clients: Stella McCartney, Cushnie Et Ochs, L’Oreal, The Lincoln Motor Company
While some studios we’re profiling in this series work solely in the digital realm, others like Hugo & Marie have fingers in different creative pies. Founded by Mario Hugo and Jennifer Gonzalez (then Jennifer Marie) in 2008, it’s one half illustration agency (representing some of the discipline’s leading lights like Jules Julien, Tom Darracott and Hvass & Hannibal) and one half creative/interactive studio.
This means that their highly-respected digital design work fits into a much broader creative context, which Mario believes informs the way they work. “We are focused on a lot more than just websites - a lot of branding, album art, campaign work, film, stage design,” he says. “We like the variety in the work, and we believe that understanding things like brand and content has really informed the approach of our interactive studio.”
This interactive work tends to centre on fashion, beauty, and lifestyle sites (“We’d be lying if we said we didn’t love a huge, gorgeous fashion asset,” Mario admits) but there’s a restless ambition that has long characterised the way they work. “We definitely do a lot of e-commerce work throughout the year, and we’re pushing into more experiential web territory lately – projects where we can marry content with the architecture of our sites more seamlessly,” he adds. And it doesn’t stop there, Jennifer reveals that they’ve recently partnered in a game company called Play Pretend. “Mario has owned this url for a decade, and we’re finally using it. We’ve been working on a particular game for some time, and this is really exciting territory for us - warm and nostalgic, great control, and some cheeky, meta-storytelling. It’s nice, because it is really the collaborative work of a lot of different people along all kinds of creative professions. We’re excited!”
For now though it’s web work that remains their main focus on the studio side of the business, and the pair have a well-deveined sense of what they like when it comes to digital design.
“We like websites that are simple and focused, with a touch of personality, and a lot of breathing room for content,” Jennifer says. “Ultimately we believe the best websites gently disappear from view, and allow a user to focus on that content. We begin with careful sitemaps, distilling sites down to their foundation, and only then creating aesthetic design. Mario loves a beautifully balanced product page – that is really the cornerstone for our e-com sites.
“The malleability of web design sometimes gives us amazing liberties and possibilities, but it can pose challenges too. Once the site leaves our hands it can prove difficult to maintain a site’s balance; outside partners are brought in, platform limitations put constraints on the design, or content plans change, etc. That said, we’ve developed great rapport with clients, and we try to work with brands closely post-launch to maintain the integrity of those original designs.”
It’s interesting to hear Jennifer and Mario talk about their digital work – phrases like “doesn’t compromise” and “unapologetic” pop up repeatedly alongside the obvious delight they take in adding in fun and quirky touches. But they’ll only be playful when it makes sense, their site for fashion retailer Cushnie et Ochs is “architectural and severe… a pure reflection of the designers and their clothing.”
Interestingly they cite their own site as a good example of their work. “It reflects a lot of our tastes – simple lay-outs, big weird imagery, and little charms to break up the monotony of grids,” Mario says.
But the pride they take in their work does not mean resting on their laurels, particularly at a time when the quality of digital design work is so high, and the interest on the discipline so intense. “The amount of focus on great digital design has clearly exploded these last few years as online media has grown so dramatically,” Mario says. “We see gorgeous work on a daily basis but it wasn’t really like this a decade or so ago.
“Web design (particularly for commerce), is generally motivated by metrics, but we believe brand is more important than ever. Sites are the new-age bricks and mortar, so it is important to innovate and play a bit. We love designers that are doing just that. I think we’ll see digital continue to invade those existing brick and mortar experiences as well, turning stores into experiential theme parks.” It seems very likely that Mario is right, and that Hugo & Marie will be at the very forefront of this evolution.