I'm Halli. AMA.

over 4 years ago from , Founder at Ueno.

My name is Halli. I'm the founder of an agency called Ueno (www.ueno.co).

You can ask me anything. But keep in mind that the more detailed your question, the better the answer.


  • Charles PattersonCharles Patterson, over 4 years ago

    What's your favourite flavour ice cream?

    7 points
  • Denis RojcykDenis Rojcyk, over 4 years ago

    How did you kickstart Ueno? What did the first year of the agency look like?

    6 points
  • Matthew Hollingsworth, over 4 years ago

    Question from someone who can't yet comment:

    How does your team build case studies? Do y’all document as you go or have a team retrospective after the project launches?

    How do you sell motion to clients?

    4 points
  • Leroy Almeida, over 4 years ago

    What are books

    • that you found helpful in building a design agency like Ueno?
    • that inspired you?
    • that you wish you read earlier in life?
    3 points
  • Matthew Hollingsworth, over 4 years ago

    Hey Halli! Thanks for being here : -)

    What does success look like for you and your team? Has that changed since you started? If so -- how?

    1 point
    • Haraldur Thorleifsson, over 4 years ago

      This is from an internal presentation that I did recently. It (mostly) answers your question:

      We evaluate success through what we call the 3 P's.

      When you are branding something it’s always good to have a super dumbed down version of your idea. That way even dumb people can remember it.

      So we’re calling this the 3 P’s. What are the 3 P’s you are probably wondering? Well, you are in luck because I’m just about to tell you.

      The 3 P’s are Projects, People, Profits.

      And it’s very important to note the order here. First there are Projects. Second there are People. And third there are Profits.

      Each one of these are important to our success but when we need to prioritize we want to put the projects number one. People second. And profits last.


      Now, let’s dissect this further.

      First there are Projects.

      As I said before, we tried to dumb this down and to make this work all the words had to start with P. We could have called this Work. But then this presentation would have to be called the 2 P’s and one W. And that’s just not catchy enough.

      So we called it Projects even though that’s not 100% the right word.

      What we mean by Projects here is our output. The things we create.

      And as you know we create all sorts of things.

      We’ve hired a lot of amazingly great people. And what you have in common is that you are proud of your work. You want to make things, but not just that, you want to create great things.

      But that also needs some sort of qualifier. What is great work?

      We create a lot of nice things. Most of them are beautiful. Many of them move nicely. We often win awards. Does that, by itself, mean that the work is great? Surprise twist. No. It doesn’t.

      A great project is a project that solves the problem. It achieves the business goal, whatever that might be.

      It can still, and in most cases should, look nice, but much more importantly it needs to solve the problem it was meant to solve. If it doesn’t then it’s a failure. No matter how many awards it wins.

      Improving the quality and success of our work is a never ending process. We are continuously improving all our processes with the aim of creating better output.

      One key thing I can mention is that we are adding strategy as a core discipline to most if not all of our projects. We are planning 4 strategy hires just this year.

      We are also continuously improving our new business process, better scoping our work, better planning, etc etc etc etc.

      So to wrap up the first P. The most important thing we do is Projects. The success of our work is numero Ueno.

      We believe that if we create successful work for our clients we will be successful. It’s as simple as that.

      The second P is People.

      That means all of us here. And to clarify. When we say people we are just talking about our people. Other people, including our clients and their customers, fall into the first P.

      Don’t worry, this will all make sense (I hope).

      So, again, the second P is our People. Our second priority is that our People are successful.

      But that also needs a qualifier. What does it mean to be successful as a people at Ueno?

      There are many things we could focus on. Happiness for example. Are our people happy? That sounds like a good metric, no?

      Actually no. Surprise twist again! It doesn’t. While we want you to be happy, happiness by itself is not the metric we want to use.

      We want to focus on your growth. How fast are you growing, are you growing in the right directions. Are you learning new skills? Are you deepening the skills you already have. And that’s why a metric like happiness is not good. Growth is always a little bit uncomfortable.

      It’s hard. It’s pushing yourself. It’s living outside your comfort zone. Obviously not too far, but as far as possible without becoming too painful.

      That’s what we want for you. That’s what we want to offer our people. The environment, opportunities and challenges that facilitates your growth.

      We can’t force it on you. You are going to be the one that steps up and takes on these challenges. But we want to give them to you and help you as much as we can.

      This year we are doing a number of things to help both chart and facilitate this growth. I want to mention two things.

      Number one we are finally getting very close to finalizing a leveling chart for our major disciplines.

      What does leveling mean you ask like an idiot (I actually had no idea until fairly recently). But leveling is clearly defining what each role entails. So for example. What’s the difference between a senior developer and tech director? How are their skills and responsibilities different?

      Very soon we’ll be able to answer that seemingly simple but ultimately extremely complicated question.

      It won’t be a perfect answer, but it will give you guidance on what you need to master to qualify for the next level.

      The second thing we are doing is creating a management and leadership program.

      Many of our managers, including me, have not had formal training on how to become managers.

      And while they are smart and great people that have learned this themselves we want to help them a bit more.

      So we are engaging with external advisors that will help us create and roll out a Ueno specific management and leadership program that all our managers will go through.

      This will be an ongoing effort but the first plan is to do this over the next year and then assuming it goes well we will do this forever and ever.

      This will affect all of us even though not everyone will directly participate. As you know a great manager can make your life a whole lot better.

      And a poor manager, well, they can do the opposite.

      So I’m very excited to start that process and while it isn’t a magical solution I believe it will have a great impact on the whole company.

      So again, to wrap up the 2nd P is People, more specifically our People. All of you here.

      We want you to succeed, we want to invest in you and most specifically we want to invest in your growth. Both in your craft and skills but also in you as people.

      We want to help you grow as fast and as well as possible. It won’t be easy and it’s a never ending process but we want you to look back at who you were a year ago and be amazed at how much you’ve grown. Now, the third P.

      The third P is Profits. It’s in third place because we believe that the profits will only come if we nurture the first two P’s, the Projects and the People.

      Making money is not the ultimate goal of this company. It is however a necessary element. If we don’t continue to be profitable we can’t increase salaries, we can’t sustain our benefits, we can’t invest in new opportunities and so on.

      Money unfortunately does make the world go around so we need to make sure we run a healthy and profitable business.

      So the third P is Profits.

      And to improve the bottom line we’ve added two wonderful EPs, we’ve created budgets, we’re paying much better attention to how our projects are run and so on.

      And the results of that work is already showing with the business being in better health than ever before with more improvements coming this year and next.

      We have to make a lot of decisions every day and by thinking about our 3 P’s through this lens we can be more consistent. We can make better choices.

      Just to keep banging this in, the three P’s in order are 1. Projects 2. People 3. Profits

      This means that we will prioritize the quality of our work over everything else. We will put our people second and profits last.

      Before I wrap up I do want to say that despite this prioritization we can’t simply ignore the 2nd or 3rd P.

      We can’t create sustained periods of time where our people are working over time, or go wildly over budget on every project just to achieve great work. That’s not sustainable.

      We want to create great work but that can’t happen if our people leave because they are overworked and we can’t pay their salaries.

      Ok, so those were the three P’s.

      It’s a tool we are using to make decisions. Like any tool it can be used in good and bad ways. It’s not the only tool we have but it is an important tool. It will take time for us to figure out the best way to use this tool but I’m already seeing it being used to great effect by some of our people.

      Our aim is that through this lens we will make the work we do become even better than it is.

      18 points
  • Boris Crowther, over 4 years ago

    not sure if its too late to ask but I need to know, what happened to the lamp project you guys are working on? Im really excited to see it!

    0 points
  • Denis P.Denis P., over 4 years ago

    How do you handle Request for Proposals (RFPs)? And how do you do it if the scope of the RPF is too big to give an estimate?

    0 points
  • Dean Birkett, over 4 years ago

    Hey Halli,

    As someone with a motor disability themselves, how has this changed how you and your team approach design? Do you find yourself pushing for considerations for other disabilities and impairments when designing, such as considering low vision and colour blindness, touch targets etc.?

    Not a critique but I see many issues with the Ueno.co website, so I wonder if you too have these internal battles.

    0 points
  • Yannic NachnameYannic Nachname, over 4 years ago

    Hello Halli, I really enjoyed your last awwwards talk, thank you :)

    I assume as an agency you have to keep track of a lot of best practices across different processes and even develop them further from day to day.

    Maintaining guidelines on working with different tools, determine which tools are best for which jobs (e.g. for gathering client feedback, for gathering internal feedback…), naming conventions for developer handoff, version control of your design files…

    How are these things organized? How do you conserve knowledge at ueno?

    0 points
  • Luca MilanLuca Milan, over 4 years ago

    Hello Halli. Based on your experience what advice would you give to someone that wants to open his own studio/agency?

    0 points
  • M. de Winter, over 4 years ago

    Hi Halli,

    Thank you for doing an AMA.

    For the past 7 years I've been trying to understand what design means. From educating myself with the knowledge of people like Donald Norman to finishing a bachelor in interaction design and working at a digital design agency just like Ueno.

    One of my conclusions is that design, for me personally, is something absolutely frustrating. When I started out in the field, I thought I knew a lot. Now that I've become more experienced, I tend to feel that I know nothing.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning–Kruger_effect)

    The field of design is moving so fast. Perceptions on what design is change by the minute. Buzzwords devaluate interesting abstract concepts.

    Do you recognize this tendency or am I alone?

    0 points
    • Nicolas PythonNicolas Python, over 4 years ago

      Design comes from the latin word designare. Which means giving form/shape to something. The form/shape thing can be applied to everything: typography and stuff or dramaturgy in drama to design the thrill of an act. The harmonies in a musical arrangement can be designed to give you a certain emotion or to build up tension. So actually literally everything that is artificially or by nature serving a cause on purpose is design.

      Or simple: Design is serving a cause on purpose.

      Sorry for not being the guy who opened the topic - and / or if you already knew.

      0 points
    • Ryan Hicks, over 4 years ago

      Now that I've become more experienced, I tend to feel that I know nothing.

      You'd like this article. You're not alone. https://medium.com/envoy-design/designers-discuss-imposter-syndrome-93bb138b2a35

      0 points
  • Alex WalshAlex Walsh, over 4 years ago

    How would you approach a ground up rebranding and redesigning of a companies product that is attempting to expand it's customer base>

    0 points
  • Conner Sinclair, over 4 years ago

    I'd love to see a typical proposal you send out to potential clients. Would you be willing to either share a previous proposal or explain what you would normally focus on.

    0 points
  • Ryan MackRyan Mack, over 4 years ago

    How do you approach responsibility of your works impact to ensure positive change and outcomes?

    0 points
  • Matthew Hollingsworth, over 4 years ago

    Also, so people know -- Halli has been kind enough to be available until 2pm PST. Any questions after that may not be answered!

    Thanks again Halli!

    0 points
  • Nate vNate v, over 4 years ago

    What's the worst experience you've had with a project, and what did you take away from it?

    0 points
    • Haraldur Thorleifsson, over 4 years ago

      I don't remember a worst experience.

      But when I have a bad experience in general I try to focus on what I could have done differently since that's the thing I have most control over.

      (obviously this advice does not apply in truly horrible situations)

      1 point
  • Marco Cornacchia, over 4 years ago

    Is there going to be a Uenoland in NY again next year? I thought I remember seeing that there was going to be one in San Fran and NY... The first one was so great!

    0 points
  • Rick Steele, over 4 years ago

    What's your relationship with hands-on/IC work as your role has evolved?

    How do you think about Design vs "problem solving that just happens to have a design component"? How do you position yourself, or find yourself naturally being positioned, on that spectrum?

    If you had to totally leave your industry and pivot somewhere else, where would you go and why?

    0 points
    • Haraldur Thorleifsson, over 4 years ago

      That's a lot of questions!

      What's your relationship with hands-on/IC work as your role has evolved?

      I don't do much hands-on work any more. If I do it's usually Ueno brand work since i know that world very well and I'm the approver :)

      How do you think about Design vs "problem solving that just happens to have a design component"? How do you position yourself, or find yourself naturally being positioned, on that spectrum?

      To me everything is a problem where part of the solution is design.

      If you had to totally leave your industry and pivot somewhere else, where would you go and why?

      I've always wanted to pretend I was an architect.

      0 points
  • Max BoschMax Bosch, over 4 years ago

    1.) What does a typical day look like for you? 2.) How involved are you with micro vs. macro operations? (Follow-up: How are you tracking/planning these?)

    0 points
    • Haraldur Thorleifsson, over 4 years ago

      1) Usually get in around 8am. Most days there's a meeting block from 8-12. Those can be all sorts of meetings, internal or external, 1:1s etc.

      After lunch I usually don't take meetings and try and focus on a few different tasks.

      2) depends on the the discipline. Some of our teams are very mature and experienced and I those cases I don't do much. Some are younger and still developing so I might need to be more hands on. And then there are things that I just love doing so for those I will do a lots of hands on.

      I'm not great at tracking these tasks.

      2 points
  • Wesley HainesWesley Haines, over 4 years ago

    Thanks for doing an AMA. Love the work Ueno puts out.

    What were the best lessons you learned from starting Ueno before you even had office space?

    0 points
    • Haraldur Thorleifsson, over 4 years ago

      some of the early lessons:

      1) there's no substitute for hard work 2) everything you do makes you better at everything else 3) you need to trust people but be careful about who you decide to trust

      4 points
  • Account deleted over 4 years ago

    Would you work with a nonprofit knowing they probably have a budget much lower than a private company?

    0 points
    • Haraldur Thorleifsson, over 4 years ago

      Yes but the budget is not the main issue.

      When we work with a client the biggest part of success is the people that we are working with on the client side.

      Are they educated and experienced, have they worked in creative before, are there internal structures that support design, do they have internal agreement etc etc.

      4 points
  • Marco Cornacchia, over 4 years ago

    What advice would you give to someone just starting to discover design and what practical things can they do to become great at designing?

    0 points
    • Haraldur Thorleifsson, over 4 years ago

      I personally learn by taking things apart and putting them together again.

      So when I was starting I would find things I liked and then I would dissect them and recreate them.

      1 point
      • Nate vNate v, over 4 years ago

        I used to give a talk to some of the new-to-the-industry hires called "Break it til you make it". It was a talk about remaining curious and taking things apart but not necessarily getting it all back together.

        0 points
  • Randall MorrisRandall Morris, over 4 years ago

    How long did it take you to go from 1 to 4 locations - and do you have any advice for growing a company in a responsible way?

    0 points
    • Haraldur Thorleifsson, over 4 years ago

      It took about 3 years for us to get to 4 locations.

      The second part of your question is too broad. Do you want to try and narrow it down?

      0 points
      • Randall MorrisRandall Morris, over 4 years ago

        Sure thing.

        We have a small product agency in Austin, TX. Our goal over the next 3-5 years is to grow the company to be in more locations, handling work that is both geographically and industry intentional, as well as providing options for our team to work out of.

        I was curious how Ueno goes about finding partners (clients) to work with and how you all scale your workforce up/down to meet those needs. Do you actively pitch work? If no, do you rely on people finding you/referrals? If yes, are there any specifics (other than making great work) that have aided people's ability to find you? (SEO, Dribbble, head-hunters, etc.)

        We're very conservative about hiring - in that we don't want to staff up for a big client win only to let them go a year later when that client's major milestones are done and there isn't the work to support them. At some point, risk will need to be taken and I was hoping you might be able to shed more light into how you and Ueno have been able to grow to your business goals.

        3 points
        • Haraldur Thorleifsson, over 4 years ago

          Thanks Randall! I'll try and answer each of these.

          I was curious how Ueno goes about finding partners (clients) to work with? We are very lucky in that people just keep reaching out to us. We spent a lot of time on our brand and marketing efforts. That and continuing to deliver quality work has resulted in a good inbound flow.

          How do you scale your workforce up/down to meet those needs? We strongly believe in hiring people full time. It takes time for people to get to know each other and how best to work together. We've tried to do this ahead of the curve. But then sometimes there's too much work so we bring in contractors. Often with the intent of hiring them full time if everything works out.

          Do you actively pitch work? No. We don't pitch.

          If no, do you rely on people finding you/referrals? Yes. See answer above for a bit more detail.

          To answer what sounds like your main question: We've been very careful not to have any one client too big. At the moment no one client is more than 5-6% of our total income. So while loosing one is obviously a bummer it is not catastrophic and doesn't result in us needing to let people go.

          I hope this helps!

          3 points
          • Randall MorrisRandall Morris, over 4 years ago

            Apologies for the late reply and thank you for the in-depth response. I appreciate you taking the time to do this!

            0 points