Into the Unknown with Creative Design Agency NJ(L.A.)

This article appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of HOW Magazine. Find the full issue in MyDesignShop or Subscribe.


Contributed by Theresa Christine

Art provided by Bryan Dale

This can’t be right.

I triple-check to confirm the URL is correct. It is. I stare at a site brimming with dizzying rainbow graphics and rotating images. The words, “I fucking love my job!” float across the screen as the mouse dances around. It is part landing page and part trippy, out-of-this-world experience. Stars and bears and neon colors flood the screen. It is the right website; NJ(L.A.)™ is just clearly not your average creative design agency.

“We’re not doing pretty. I’m against that,” declares Nicole Jacek, founder and creative director. The petite German sits across from me, eyes sparkling with intensity. Her presence feels grounded and focused, but she’s just as quick to crack a joke and let out a delightful laugh. She exudes confidence, determination, but most importantly a deep and contagious passion for fresh ideas, which translates directly into her work as a designer. “We usually go and turn clients upside down. That’s really what we do.”

Of course, to call Jacek merely a designer doesn’t feel sufficient. There may not be one single title that can encompass the variety of work she tackles with her team. Originally from Stuttgart, she studied in Germany and spent time working at the Designers Republic in the United Kingdom and Karlssonwilker Inc. in New York. It was only two and a half years ago that she made the move to California to begin her own company. Since then, NJ(L.A.)™ has worked with clients like Nike, Beats by Dre, Adobe, and GOOD Magazine. She’s been hired to create an app, restructure companies, and even to simply brainstorm fresh ideas, all of which are atypical design jobs. And that’s exactly what Jacek wants.

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TEAM NJ(L.A.)™: Nicole Jacek (founder and creative director), Noreen Morioka (partner and managing director), Brian Mark, Randy Cano, Gabe Ferreira, and John Provencher (designers), Elena Flores (project manager).

Her journey to Los Angeles was not just the chance to start a design agency; it was an opportunity to start over, to create something new, and to feed her hunger for something different. “It’s a really dumb idea to think you can just come out here and start a company in a place where you actually have not lived before, alone,” she says frankly. “I had a hard time starting this company. No money, no clients. I didn’t want to get clients doing the work I had done before, but how on earth are you getting clients, then? Because you need to produce work.” The only way out of this catch-22 would be time and hard work.

During the past two and a half years alone, Jacek has witnessed a change in the design community. The creative culture in Los Angeles is in the midst of a reinvention. As more and more people in the artistic world get pushed out of expensive cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, they search for a new mecca of inspiration. With plenty of space and agreeable weather, the City of Angels is a prime pick. All around Los Angeles, hip new places are popping up.

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Nicole Jacek and her digital self in the NJ(L.A.)™ Venice studio

“It’s really awesome right now, but when I started, there was none of that here,” she recalls. Initially intimidated, Jacek saw the Los Angeles design scene as an open playing field. There was no rulebook or referee in sight. “It took a while for me to understand that actually this means opportunity. And now there’s all these awesome people out here in LA, and there’s so much more happening now! I consider myself very lucky.”

NJ(L.A.)™ was built on anything but luck, though. It began with hiring an intern, and then another until Jacek started recruiting paid employees. Eventually, she saw new candidates send in résumés on their own and she no longer had to seek people out. The current team of seven works in a bright and busy office in the rear of her Venice home. Eventually she would like to have a workplace separate from her living space, but for now she feels grateful to have the opportunities and employees she does. “I’m having fun. I really do have fun. That keeps me going. And I’m surrounded by really talented people. There is not a single bad day in this office. It makes it very easy.”

Nicole-Jacek-026-creative-design-agencyJacek credits Nike as her first big client. “We had this holding page that was just blinking. They called us and were like, ‘Hey, we saw your website and we thought you guys were on acid. Do you want to work with us?’” she laughs. “We’re like, ‘Uh, yeah.’ So that’s how it started.” Whatever the project, Jacek has a strict policy to never take something on simply because she wants to or because she thinks it will look good. It has to thrill them.

More than anything, though, the people she chooses to work with (both clients and employees) must be kind, good people. “It’s important to be respected and be respectful,” she explains. “I honestly think that’s the only thing that matters. No matter what they do or how awesome they are, I don’t care. You can be the most awesome designer but if you don’t have the social skills you need then no one’s going to want to work with you.” It is this selective attitude that may very well be the source of Jacek’s success. By picking and choosing the people she wants to work with, she has created a company and clientele with values and attitudes that align perfectly.

Take, for instance, GOOD Magazine. NJ(L.A.)™ approached them to do the 2015 redesign, but this was no simple task. GOOD Magazine wanted to make a drastic shift from being an activist publication to a lifestyle magazine. “These are two different things. You can’t just say, ‘Ah yes, let’s redesign your magazine and we’re done.’”

Jacek’s process with the GOOD team was, as with all of her clients, intensely collaborative, and she gave them permission to step outside of their usual process and to shake up their routine. It required total trust, and although they seemed a little hesitant and scared from time to time, the GOOD team embraced the new approach, and changed completely. In the end, written content remained the heart and soul, while the company was restructured in order to help them find success as well as earn and keep the loyalty of their readers.

Based on the beautiful result of GOOD Magazine, one might imagine that Jacek has a rich history of designing publications, but she confesses, “I didn’t know shit about this!” So why pursue working on this redesign in the first place, when so many other designers would have run away in the other direction? “That’s the type of thing we love,” Jacek gushes.

“WE LIKE DOING THINGS WE
HAVE NEVER DONE BEFORE.”

With the same mindset, Jacek bravely looks to the future of design with hope and enthusiasm. Where some may view the unknown as something to fear, she finds it inspiring. “I think it will be way more content-driven and thinking-driven and strategy-driven than it is eye candy. I’m actually assuming the whole digital world is evolving and that’s going to make it way more fun for us, too,” she says with a grin.

It is the unexplored that excites Nicole Jacek, whether it’s a current project, moving to a new city where she doesn’t know a single soul, or the design community of Los Angeles 10 years from now. And her energy attracts those searching for the exact same thing: the innovative, the new, the different. “The world is evolving and the design world is evolving. Who knows? It’s a lot of opportunities, and that’s the most exciting part of this whole thing. You always have the chance to work on awesome stuff.”

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HOW’s Fall 2015 issue, The Reinvention Issue, explores how today’s leading designers, brands, and marketers have succeeded in our dizzying, fragmented, globalized world by embracing the knowledge that the only constant is change. The only way to stay on top of a constantly changing world is to reinvent it.

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