The story of design agency hcma is a quite unique one, which you can probably already guess by the fact they are a former traditional architecture firm made creative with the passing of decades.
Relentlessly curious and community-focused, the team at hcma is a pioneering one, aiming to change the industry and the construction sector with their own vision and creativity. The results are outstanding. Books shaped like buildings, rigorously beautiful graphic design, and work that was created to inspire, surprise and drive change.
For this Company Spotlight, we had a chat with Melissa Higgs, Partner at hcma, to learn more about this amazing firm on Creativepool.
How was your company born and where are you based?
hcma began life in Vancouver, BC, in the early 70’s, as Roger Hughes Architects; a traditional architecture firm with a handful of people focusing on residential and urban realm projects. Over time, our focus shifted toward larger public and institutional projects — recreation centres, pools, libraries, education buildings — and with that, designing for the public.
Come 2015, we’d long since opened a second office in Victoria, BC, but we’d also outgrown our home on Vancouver’s Granville Island. So, we started looking for a bigger space downtown. This was a pivotal moment. It forced us to reflect on where we’d been, but more importantly, what we wanted to become. For the first time, we defined our vision for the next ten years and the values that would get us there.
With our purpose “to maximize positive impact through design”, we knew we needed to evolve beyond our traditional architectural roots. By focusing on the types of societal challenges we wanted to help solve, rather than building typologies we wanted to tick off a bucket list, we started on a whole new path.
Introducing our communication design team catalysed our evolution. Their early days were spent helping architectural teams engage the community during the initial stages of building projects. The branded campaigns they were creating, and their ideas to engage people, just blew us away. It was way beyond what we’d seen before. By bringing different creative minds into the process, while engaging more deeply with the people we were designing for, our work became so much richer.
Since then, we’ve continued to add new creative minds to the team. We’re now a 100-strong collective of architects, graphic designers, social and environmental researchers, community engagement specialists, interior designers, and organizational strategists. Our people have backgrounds in fashion, engineering, UX design, industrial design, writing, music, food, tapestry, and illustration, and they’re all working together to help solve complex, real world problems.
Designed by our communication design team, our recent rebrand reflects who we are today: a curiosity-driven, collaborative design firm that invites you to shape it.
It also marks the next step in our journey.
What was the biggest challenge to the growth of your company?
Growth comes with many challenges. When you hit such a rapid growth trajectory — as we did between 2015 and 2020 — your processes and systems struggle to keep up. It takes a conscious effort to scale those, which can be hard when everyone is focused on client work. Sometimes you do need to step back, catch your breath, and get your house back in order. Luckily, we’ve been able to start doing that.
Introducing new design disciplines also comes with challenges. From our architectural background, traditional building projects usually span years, and so ideas you have at the start of a project might take a decade to come to fruition. You’re working with one foot in the past and one in the future.
Graphic design on the other hand is fast paced, with its own processes, philosophies, and approaches to problem solving. As we integrate more and more disciplines, we need to understand how they work. Successfully bringing the best out of each other takes a constant, conscious effort. You have to understand each other’s working practices and be willing to evolve. You can’t rely on tradition.
Regarding the marketplace, when we defined our purpose and started on the interdisciplinary path back in 2015, some of our industry peers resisted the change. A few were against our ideas, wanting to protect the traditional ways of doing things, and others perhaps thought it was all a PR stunt. I think we’re well beyond that now, but at the time, it felt polarizing.
Which was the first huge success that you can remember?
The early successes I alluded to earlier, where we saw the impact of introducing communication design into the engagement process, was a turning point for the firm. But, for our communication design team itself, a standout success was working with the Squamish Nation to develop their brand identity.
It was the most comprehensive brand project we’d worked on at the time, and there was so much learning — discovering the Nation’s history, its culture, its language, and its art forms — that we wanted to celebrate and share the process as much as the work itself. Working so closely with an Indigenous nation changed our perspective on what identity means at both an individual and collective level, and the importance of how it’s expressed.
We’ve been fortunate to apply those learnings to all aspects of our work, and it was influential in how we approached our own rebrand, from the focus on the collective, to the celebration of people, colour, and graphic art forms.
What’s the biggest opportunity for you and your company in the next year?
There are so many exciting things happening right now. Our communication design team is growing and thriving under the creative direction of Bonnie Retief, our Creative Lead. Aside from launching our rebrand, the team also designed our latest book, “Process: How to Create Community Buildings with Impact”, which launched earlier in the year and won an Adobe award for its cover design. We’ve also recently welcomed three new designers and a client lead to the team, so we’re excited to see their influence on our work.
Our Impact team, a group of social and environmental impact experts, is developing a framework that will help measure the impact of our work. This is a huge step for us to better understand what goes into inclusive, accessible design. When it’s ready, we want to release it to the industry too as an open-source tool for other designers.
We’ve also just completed some landmark community facilities, one being Clayton Community Centre, which is on-track to be the first Passive House certified community centre in North America, and another being Minoru Centre for Active Living, a wellness-focused aquatic and recreation centre. As they open, we’re hoping they offer space for the much-needed human connection we’ve all been missing.
Can you explain your team’s creative process?
Our process focuses on the impact of the work on both people and planet. We build teams with people of different expertise, engage the people we’re designing for — the client, the community — and encourage them to help shape the outcome. The earliest stages of a project are so important for that reason, it’s the time you can get everybody in a room sharing ideas and bouncing off each other. It’s also when the big decisions get made that set the direction for the project.
We’re more intentional now about working on values-aligned projects, but we also value different-minded people. Not only has that led to our most meaningful work, it’s also introduced us to a whole new world of collaborators — artists, community groups, designers, academics, and industry colleagues. We have our own beliefs, but we want to be challenged and stretched, pushed in new directions. Ultimately, it makes the tapestry richer and helps us grow.
How does your team remain inspired and motivated?
By having a purpose. A common goal brings people together, especially during the tough times when we’re all looking for light at the end of the tunnel.
On a day-to-day level, it’s a collective effort, but one that seems to have developed naturally. We’re always sharing stuff on Slack that inspires or interests us — a piece of design, research, something happening in the neighbourhood, or a film, band, or artist. It exposes you to so much.
We also have TILT. We used to call it our “curiosity lab”, but we don’t really know how to define it anymore (we’re still working on that). But basically, it’s a space to explore ideas or forms of creativity that interest us. Within TILT is our artist- in-residence program, where an artist joins us for a few months and teaches us their process, and we teach them ours. We also host events, like life drawing, or movie viewings, gigs, or talks. Things that broaden our horizons and introduce us to new forms of creativity.
How has COVID-19 affected your company?
We’ve been incredibly fortunate in that our work hasn’t slowed down too much. But, like everyone else, we’re all affected by COVID in our own personal way. A huge challenge is understanding what everyone is feeling, how they’re being affected, and how that manifests itself.
The communities we design for are often the ones we live in ourselves, so we’re asking a lot of questions about the pandemic’s effect on that. Will public life thrive again, or will people be reluctant to re-enter society? Has online life polarized people? There are so many questions we’re trying to wrap our heads around.
Which agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?
Inspiration comes from so many areas and its often the studios or agencies who consistently look outside of themselves that motivate us the most - like Pentagram and its enduring, evolving partnership model, or Droog with its multi-disciplinary approach to design, events, spaces and community, or even the whimsical ‘Abstract Sundays’ illustrations of Christoph Niemann.
What is one tip that you would give to other agencies looking to grow?
Your firm is your people. Grow them and the rest will follow.
What’s your one big hope for the future of the industry?
We hope the industry continues to focus on the people it designs for, and the urgency of the climate crisis. Too often, design decisions are made for the wrong reason (money). We need to put people and planet first. To get there, we truly believe an interdisciplinary approach is the only way to achieve it.
Do you have any websites, books or resources that you would recommend?
“Process: How to Create Community Buildings with Impact”. Just kidding (kind of). Like the studios mentioned earlier, we like to look outside of our industry for inspiration, so I’d recommend anything from Monocle to art and craft magazines like Upper Case.