Hey studio founder Verònica Fuerte on becoming the leader she never had
In the next instalment of our Movers & Makers series, we sit down with leading creative founders to learn how and why they set up their businesses. This week, we meet Verònica Fuerte, the founder of Barcelona-based studio, Hey.
Movers & Makers, in partnership with Mailchimp & Co, is a series on how to nurture an authentic business within the creative world. Led by the voices of industry leaders, this new series will focus on creative founders, offering insights into how founders of world-leading studios have set up, and sustained, their businesses. If you enjoy these articles and are looking to kickstart or grow your agency or freelancing business, learn more about Mailchimp & Co here.
What do you think of when you think of Barcelona? The extravagantly shaped modernist buildings of Gaudi, its luscious, cactus-lined botanical gardens, or the multicolour tiled, maze-like Park Güell? Whatever it may be, the beating heart of Catalonia is somewhere known for its energetic vibrancy – and it really seems that Hey studio could exist nowhere else.
Founded by the designer Verònica Fuerte, the studio is one that places equal importance on creating brilliant designs and forging a welcoming creative community. Full of work that centres on the use of bold colours and shapes – across brand campaigns, illustration-focussed projects and personally driven initiatives – Hey has crafted a playful, friendly style in a design world that can so often be intimidating and exclusive.
To discover how Verònica has created this community we begin our conversation where it seems natural, the beginning; 15 years ago to be exact. “I was young, I didn’t have experience and everything felt new,” Verònica reminisces of this time. But what the then younger designer did have – in abundance – was “energy”. Having worked for seven years with other designers and studios, in 2007 Verònica decided it was time to listen to her desire to create a business of her own. Influenced by her two entrepreneur parents, the designer grew up seeing the possibilities afforded by building something from the very bare bones of a personal vision. In Verònica’s case, this would be developing a visually-led business, following the personal, lively aesthetic style for which Hey is now so widely known.
Though, for Verònica, having her own studio was never solely about design. She also wanted to craft new ways of talking, managing and constructing a team. “I always say ‘I want to be the leader that I never had,’” Verònica details. “So that was my motive, to create a place I really wanted to work in.”
Like many independent studios, Hey had humble beginnings. For the first five years, it was run entirely from Verònica’s own home. This worked perfectly, its founder explains, as her needs at the beginning were very simple – a table and working Wifi sufficed. The studio’s first year was also an introspective one, with Verònica working hard at defining her “pillars”, and making sure the incentives, reasoning and drive behind her studio were solid. After the first year she employed an intern, two years later a further member joined, and then after three years, another. Important for Verònica was taking things slow and not getting ahead of her means. “It was very step by step. I set mini objectives year by year, always ending with a big one,” she details. “I never really had big expectations, but now I feel like a small expectation can often lead to a larger one.”
This was certainly the case and it was in 2011, after four years of Hey, that Verònica saw things really beginning to take shape. The team had grown, started an Instagram account and – after many years of only working with local Barcelona clients – it received its first international client in Chile. If that weren’t enough, in 2011 Verònica’s daughter was born. Soon, it became clear that Hey needed to move from its base in Verònica’s home to its own studio. “It needed the space, but I also needed to separate my life and work,” she says. Juggling massive developments in the workplace and in her personal life, 2011 proved not just a career-defining year, but also life-defining one.
As her team began to grow, Verònica dedicated herself to creating a welcoming and collaborative environment – and it paid off. Just scroll through the studio’s Instagram and you’ll spot the team having picnics and dancing on TikTok to Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone. But Verònica insists that the really important actions are those off screen; specifically her investing time and money into coaching and therapy. “I try to create an environment where if you have a problem, you can have the freedom to explain that. And as a leader, I need to guide this.”
One of the ways in which Verònica ensures this unified environment is keeping the four pillars of the company – playfulness, determination, communication and creativity – front of mind. “Everyone at the studio has one pillar,” she explains. “They belong to this pillar and they try to keep it alive.” For example, Verònica tells us that Marina, who is in charge of playfulness, organised a meal on the past Friday night, providing small plates for everyone to share. “I’m always thinking of these pillars,” Verònica continues. “If you don’t enter a project with playfulness, you’re not going to enjoy it. If you don’t go in with determination, you’re not going to get where you want.”
However Verònica’s approach to team culture wasn’t always so clearly constructed. Over the course of our conversation she recalls an instance in the studio’s early days when a team member announcing their resignation left her in tears – “I just couldn’t understand why they would want to leave?” Verònica says. While something Verònica is now able to laugh about, this moment proved a key learning point for Hey’s founder. “At the end of the day, Hey is a small studio. It’s not like an agency, which grows and grows into multiple teams,” Verònica outlines. “I soon realised that this person was on the journey of their life, and I can’t control that. So now I feel happy when someone’s onto their next venture.” Today, Verònica specifically bases the coaching of her employees on the understanding that they will later move on. And most, she explains – much like herself – go on to try and start their own project. So, in practice, she places high emphasis on the learning of “soft skills” – like leading with empathy when interacting with clients and fellow colleagues. Verònica adds: “If they’re going on to work in another studio, or pursue their own project, these are all skills that are going to be essential.”
Our conversation unsurprisingly ventures into the subject of projects; specifically, what constitutes Hey’s “dream” project or client. Verònica takes no time to dwell, saying almost instantly that working with a company or product “that has the potential to change some part of our everyday life”, is always one the studio will prioritise. Anything that is catered to women, or specifically interacts with the cause of feminism, is also a big plus. Being the female leader of a successful studio in a long male-domainted industry, Verònica suggests that this comes somewhat naturally. “It’s much easier to enjoy something when it’s part of your life,” she details, “the consequences of you being invested are going to be seen in the final project.” Hey’s branding for the health start up TBD is indicative of this approach. An affordable at-home STI testing kit, TBD, Verònica says, is “made by women, for women,” and fills the space of an essential medical option previously absent in the United States.
It’s this very ethos that also informed Verònica’s biggest side-project, the podcast Women at Work. A bi-weekly production that has seen two series produced so far, the podcast interviews women in the design industry delving into subjects like feminist economics and creative leadership. Having featured Paula Scher, Malika Favre and Na Kim, the series harbours a wealth of knowledge from female pioneers with years of experience in the design world.
The podcast saw its earliest iterations before the pandemic, with Verònica taking part in discussions and meetings about women in design and the creative industry in general. But, with the pandemic putting a limit on in-person interactions – and with Verònica unwilling to let the conversation die – the meetings soon morphed into the idea for an audio project. She then got in contact with the journalist, scriptwriter and university professor Ane Guerra to host the show, and by early 2021 the podcast started to take shape.
On why she was so keen to create the project, Verònica explains that: “I’m part of the design world and its broader community, so it’s on me to try and change it. And as a woman in design, I’ve often felt very alone in the profession.” She continues: “The podcast isn’t about money, or prestige. It’s because as women we felt like something was missing. So we created a small space to talk about that.” The second series of Women at Work reached new heights, expanding into in-person episodes and a day-long live podcast has been lined up at The Hoxton hotel in Barcelona. “We’ve started to feel like we’re part of some change,” Verònica says, “A tiny part, yes, but we do feel it.”
By providing this change – both through her podcast, personal growth opportunities at the studio and even the client projects Hey takes on – Verònica is a creative founder who embodies the idea of starting a business in order to facilitate progress within a wider industry. In fact, Verònica is paving the way for a generation of leaders that she once wished she had herself.
If you’re currently pondering how to set up your own creatively-focused business, Hey’s founder offers two key takeaways from her experience.
When founding your own business I would first recommend building a very solid base. Ask yourself, “what do I want to do?”. Of course that can change in the process, but creating the ground work, or pillars like we have at Hey, can offer a comforting source of future inspiration and direction.
I think it’s really important to remember that you don’t know everything, because we can often feel like we have to do things by ourselves. I think it’s really important to ask for help when it’s needed and to ask people who’ve been there before. Sometimes as designers we can think we know everything, but someone older, and more experienced than you can often give great advice.
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.