Sruthi Sadhujan is Director of Strategy & Accounts at Hyperakt, a social impact studio based in Brooklyn with clients like ACLU, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, Unicef, United Nations, NAACP, and TED. At Hyperakt, Sruthi has built the studio’s strategy department to become a core element of its design philosophy.
Throughout her career, Sruthi has explored the ever-expanding definition of “design” as a practice and its application to the greatest challenges we face as a society. Prior to Hyperakt, Sruthi was involved in launching India operations of Wello, a social impact startup focused on delivering innovative design solutions to water scarcity and water transport.
When I decided to make season four of the podcast about social impact, I immediately thought of Hyperakt. I reached out to Sruthi because I wanted to find out what it’s like to work at an agency with a social impact focus. How does it affect the approach to client work? The culture? The business? I was also eager to hear more about the studio’s work for Pete Buttigieg, and what it was like to have even a tangential role in the chaos of the 2020 election. Lastly, I got to learn some fun facts about Sruthi, including her favorite podcast, what she’s snacking on at work, and a very exciting “samosa” that’s about to change her life.
At Hyperakt, you describe yourselves as “a social impact studio.” What does that mean? What makes Hyperakt different from other branding and design agencies?
At a basic level, it means we only work with mission-focused organizations. 90% of our clients are nonprofits, foundations, or government entities. The remainder is a sprinkling of for-profit entities who are working on a specific mission-related cause or campaign.
Initially, “social impact” was a simple nod to our work with nonprofits. But over the last year, we’ve been thinking more deeply about it as a value set that can permeate not just who we do business with, but how we do business—how we hire, how we strategize, how we design, how we engage with each other on the team and with clients, etc.
Many of Hyperakt’s clients are nonprofits (e.g., ACLU, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NAACP). What are the differences between working on a nonprofit brand versus a for-profit brand?
My strategy career has been exclusively at Hyperakt, so it’s hard for me to compare. But communications work in the nonprofit world is unique:
- Comms, design, branding—many of these are usually the last line of investment. It’s not uncommon for us to work with clients who have no actual comms or brand management team.
- Branding and design are not readily acknowledged as strategic differentiators.
- Risk-aversion is real. There’s not much appetite to try something new or different.
- And many organizations don’t want to look flashy or look like they’ve spent money on a brand or a website (even though they might have). They have to maintain a more restrained outward expression.
What are the pros and cons of an agency like Hyperakt having a social mission or political “stance”?
For many years, our social impact identity was all about who we took on as clients. We never considered our decision to focus solely on nonprofits as a “political” stance.
Things really started shifting when we took on the Pete Buttigieg project. We were inevitably thrown into the political fray and wrestled with how our expertise was supporting Pete’s platform.
2020, the year of the upside down, as I like to call it, threw our work into sharp relief. It challenged us to make sure we weren’t just resting on our laurels and deepen our commitment to social impact and equity in all its forms.
Are there ever disagreements about whether a prospective client aligns with the agency’s values? If so, how are they resolved?
Many issues come with a fair bit of nuance. We don’t have hard and fast positions on issues. We have an internal process we’ve developed to bring our team together and work through “sticky client” scenarios. We turned down a prominent political candidate looking for a campaign brand and a high-net-worth individual who was looking for a brand for their new foundation. In both cases, the individuals were by and large progressive or at least Democrats, but they both held a few stances that didn’t feel right to a majority of our team.
Sometimes, there’s a huge red flag that makes it easier to say, “Ok, this client is not our jam.” But often, it’s more complex. The organization might be working on an important cause, but their funding comes from murky sources, or their leadership team and board are predominantly white even though they are serving populations of color. It’s harder to make a call in these cases. We can’t demand purity in our clients. The nonprofit world is rife with dark money and outdated, paternalistic, predominately white practices. Ultimately, we have to do our own calculations to understand if the pros outweigh the cons.
And all of this comes with the additional pressure of bringing in enough revenue to pay salaries. It’s never easy. We’re figuring it out as we go. It gets messy and complicated but I’ll take our earnest-but-imperfect efforts to be conscientious in our work over engaging with commercial brands whose primary goal is consumption any day.
Does it affect culture or morale?
The nonprofit world has its fair share of boring, standard, and even trying clients. We get bored, frustrated, jaded, just like every other worker bee at an agency.
But on the whole, the work is galvanizing and challenging, for all of us.
We have an extremely curious and deliberative culture. There’s always someone to probe, posit an uncomfortable-but-necessary question, shake up the status quo. Keeps things interesting. I had two other jobs before this one, and this team is by far the most thoughtful and intellectually challenging set of people I’ve ever worked.
How does it impact the way you approach strategy and design (if at all)? Any specific tools or tactics that are unique to this kind of client?
We think a lot about what it means to deliver social impact in our work, that is, in our actual processes—both internal and with the client. How do we open up the design process to disrupt traditional power dynamics? Who else can we invite into this conversation? A few tools and methods we use are:
- Participatory, creative workshops: Our clients have such a deep well of knowledge and passion. We love to create collaborative spaces where people on all sides of the project can contribute their unique knowledge, latent creativity, and ideas to the pot. It gives really robust, raw material to then take back to our studio to craft with. Stakeholder alignment is so, so key in the nonprofit world. Creative workshops are also just an insurance policy; leaders are much less likely to backpedal or pull the plug on an idea later in the project if they had a hand in creating it to begin with.
- Asset-based framing, a cognitive shift pioneered in the nonprofit sector by Trabian Shorters: The nonprofit world has long peddled in poverty porn and depressing narratives of sad-looking people who “need help.” Asset-based framing is about moving away from communications (verbal or visual) that identify people or communities by what they lack (“poor,” “under-privileged,” “ex-convict”) to language that identifies them first and foremost by their aspirations, accomplishments, and universal human qualities (“mother of three,” “community leader,” “student working towards degree”).
- Ethical sourcing and selection of images: Visual representation matters. We actively think about disrupting visual stereotypes as we select imagery for our projects. How can we broaden and expand the kinds of individuals associated with one cause? How can we avoid reinforcing existing stereotypes through our use of imagery? Are we bringing an asset-frame to our visual storytelling, depicting people who are dignified, have agency, and represent a positive future outcome?
From a client perspective, why should a nonprofit or mission-driven organization choose an agency like Hyperakt (who specializes in such clients) versus other respected branding/design agencies? I.e., what’s in it for them?
Every 5–10 years, nonprofits undergo strategic planning. This is a moment of deep reflection, visioning for the next stretch of the future, and rethinking their position in the landscape. Imagining and taking the first step into the future you want to create is tough—whether you’re an individual or an organization.
We’ve been doing work in this sector for over 10 years, so we understand the mindsets, organizational challenges, and leadership styles that come with the territory. We always go deep with our clients, build meaningful relationships with leaders and staff, and make sure that we can walk with them every step of the way across that treacherous-looking bridge, evolving from an organization of yesterday to an organization of both today and the future, so that they can truly be seen as a nonprofit that is ready to meet the demands of the moment and era we live in.
WORK FOR THE PETE BUTTIGIEG CAMPAIGN
I saw that Hyperakt did design work for Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 campaign for president. What was it like being involved (even tangentially) in a campaign for the presidency?
I wasn’t staffed on the project myself, but I got to soak in all the excitement and drama being around the office.
Being involved in a presidential campaign was unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. It happens so fast! Big decisions that will be seen and judged by millions of people are made faster than it typically takes us to get through a round or two of presentations with our typical clients. We were fortunate to work with a candidate who was relatively unknown when we began but who had an incredibly compelling story to tell. Telling that story at every turn through our branding work was our guiding light.
We were also fortunate to have a month between having an approved brand and a public release of the brand. This allowed us to spend a month really building out tools for supporters to own the brand.
Overall, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. We never would have guessed that the young mayor of a Midwestern town who started with a small core team of a handful of people would go all the way to being a competitive challenger the whole way through and winning the first two primaries. It was a thrilling ride.
Did you get to meet Pete?? ☺
Deroy, the creative director on the project, interacted with him the most. Primarily on the phone, for discovery calls and creative presentations. He was thoughtful and considered. Sharp. Nuanced feedback. As you would expect.
In person, the project team got a quick photo op with him in South Bend. Super hectic because it was the day before the official campaign announcement.
Your bio on the Hyperakt site says you “enjoy picking the perfect gif, sharing [your] latest recipes, and initiating team building activities.” So: What’s one of your favorite gifs lately?
I mean, this one, duh…
Can you share a favorite recipe?
My current go-to meal is rajma (Indian kidney beans) with rice or chapati. Honestly, I was never a kidney bean girl (who is?), but this dish is a spiritual experience. I learned how to make it from my mom. This recipe is pretty close.
What’s your favorite team-building activity?
We regularly play Codenames. Team “building” maybe not so much. It gets competitive. The fangs come out, especially mine. Our dark sides get some quality bonding time.
Q&A BONUS ROUND WITH Sruthi Sadhujan
What are you reading right now?
Keeping up with my weekly New Yorkers and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
What’s playing in the office (or home office) while you work?
Switching between Indian classical music which I really enjoy when doing deep work and some combination of SZA and Snoh Aalegra for post-work unwinding and meal-making.
What’s your favorite podcast?
What’s something you just can’t stop thinking about lately?
The little samosa, AKA baby, growing in my belly. 🙂
What are you snacking on while you work?
- Cut grapefruit, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and sugar
- Almond milk smoothie with banana, date, tahini, and lime
- Indian-flavored instant noodles, specifically Maggi, the masala one
What’s an object in your home that you love?
My late grandmother’s wedding ring, which has my late grandfather’s name engraved on it. I wear it everyday and it’s a poignant reminder of my beloved Indian family, and all the people who came before me and made my life possible in direct and indirect ways.
What’s a word or phrase you probably say too often?
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, professional namer, and host of the How Brands Are Built podcast. He is also principal and founder of Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.