Design thinking

How a Houston entrepreneur is bringing design to startups — and making the world a better place

Jez Babarczy, along with his company, NUU Group, is changing the world — one pixel at a time. Courtesy of NUU Group

Six years ago, Jez Babarczy and Gabriel Gurrola launched a startup in Babarczy's living room in Katy. The goal was to launch a company that was based in Houston, but known around the world for doing top-notch creative work.

"I saw a gap in the market," Babarczy says. "Houston [was] not known for world-renowned creatives. Companies tend to gravitate toward other cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta. I think we have amazing talent in Houston, and I saw an opportunity and a need for an agency doing [work] in a creative field."

Fast-forward six years, and NUU Group has worked on tech and branding projects with Fortune 500 companies, such as Bechtel and Cemex, as well as the Houston Texans, FIFA, Civic Nation, and a slew of startups. Its mission is simple: to provide design and creative services to companies seeking to do good in their industries or communities. NUU Group works with companies in all industries, and is planning to grow its footprint by opening more offices in the U.S. and around the globe.

The company, which employs 40 people, has its main headquarters office in Houston and opened an office in Querataro, Mexico last year. NUU Group's Querataro office, which has 20 employees, works to capitalize on Mexico City's thriving business sector.

NUU Group is led by Babarczy, Gurrola, and Kevin Daughtry. Babarczy spoke with InnovationMap about what led him to start NUU Group, as well as what's on-tap for his company — and Houston's broader startup community as a whole.

InnovationMap: What differentiates NUU Group from the competition?

Jez Babarczy: I think NUU Group offers something unique and different. We have a global mission and mantra that we remind ourselves of daily, and it fuels the work we do. Our mission is to explore new things that inspire us, and the clients we work with, and how we approach the work.

If we're truly going to have an impact within culture, within our industry, and within the lives of our clients, I think we need to look at our potential for doing good. That's something we've really embraced. It's part of NUU's existence to give back to empower others. It's easy to say you're a good-person organization, but it's different to advocate for others in a consistent manner.

IM: What core services does NUU Group provide?

JB: More than anything, we're designers first. The agency started as being very design-centric, but it's expanded beyond that. We're not just design-first, but focus on human-centric design and creating experiences that really resonate with the end user.

IM: What brought NUU Group to Mexico?

JB: So, Mexico was an attempt to explore new things, along with some business opportunities that were there for us. The stars aligned when we were looking at a second office location, and there were several options on the table. Querataro is a city around two-and-a-half hours from Mexico City, which is definitely a hub for things going on around the world. It's a great place and, given the business opportunities there, it made a lot of sense.

IM: What's you client portfolio look like? What industries have the most need for NUU Group's services?

JB: We're pretty industry agnostic in terms of clientele. There's definitely an ability to gravitate toward Houston's primary industries — energy and health care — but, we purposefully to work with clients across industries. A lot of the time, we bring in someone who's a little on the outside or on the fringe to look at a problem from a unique perspective. That that's where we shine. We also work with global nonprofits, startups and companies that we believe are doing some awesome stuff.

IM: What are the pros and cons of being based in Houston?

JB: The pros are that Houston is a great city, and it's a great city for business. We have a lot of big companies here, and attitude of, 'Let's get stuff done, let's collaborate and let's work together.' I think that permeates Houston's culture, which is great for doing business. Some of the cons, I think, are battling the stereotype that Houston isn't creative, that Houston is just an oil and gas city, or that Houston is flat and hot and humid. There's a little bit of an uphill battle in terms of recruiting. We've seen that people see Houston as a place to go if you have to go, but not a place you'd necessarily want to go to. There's an opportunity to tell a better story for Houston.

IM: Over the past five years, how have you seen Houston's innovation community grow or change?

JB: Innovation has definitely become more of a popular buzzword to the point where it's slightly nauseating. Along with the boom in technology and the rate at which it advances, our position in the national and global marketplace has led to accelerating these different innovation hubs within companies and coworking spaces. I think there's still an opportunity for Houston to define what innovation really looks like, and to ask ourselves, 'How are we accelerating it? How are we empowering it? How are we really doing it, when the rubber meets the road?' It's definitely something that's evolving, and it's evolving in the right direction. …

There's this anxiety over being left behind, and this frantic sense of [needing] to do what others are doing. Just because one thing is working in California, doesn't mean that's exactly what needs to happen here. I hope Houston can be willing to be open to really move innovation forward for Houston and Houston companies.

IM: What's next for NUU Group?

JB: We started off very branding-focused, and focused on visual identity design. Last year, we made some pretty significant shifts and positioned the agency stronger on the strategy and technology side. So, we have a team of not only graphic designers and visual storytellers, but of strategists, software engineers, frontier technology thought leaders and experts. We're really bringing together design strategy and technology to solve for business challenges.

IM: Where do you see NUU Group expanding to next? Any target cities in mind?

JB: There's no target city right now that I can share. We'll probably open another office in the U.S., and we have sights set on a couple of places internationally. Those offices will probably open in the next three or five years.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

Allison Williams, who has been working with the Transformational Prison Project for two years, attended Good Measure to consult on the brand development. Alan Nguyen/Good Measure

What if you could harness the power of a city's top creative professionals to create a brand identity for a nonprofit that otherwise couldn't afford it? Alex Anderson posed that question to some of his colleagues, and Good Measure was born.

"Good Measure exists to broaden the conversation about good in the world and what that means and how people can contribute to good no matter their skill set," says Anderson, who is a senior brand strategist and account manager at Houston-based NUU Group.

Good Measure is a Houston-based nonprofit that hosts three-day creative collaborations with local designers, writers, brand strategists, and more. The goal is simple: Equip a nonprofit with new storytelling tools — like a website, social media, and video communicating the organization's message.

This weekend was the second event Anderson organized with his co-founder, Tres Garner. The nonprofit partner was the Transformational Prison Project, which uses restorative justice in Massachusetts prisons to help incarcerated individuals mindfully use their time in prison to create healing. It's about bringing everyone involved in the criminal justice system to the table to thoughtfully effect change and reinstate humanity in these prisons.

"The Transformational Prison Project understands that no matter what your position is within the criminal justice system that everybody is vulnerable to trauma. So, it's in everyone's vested interest to create more of a system that's reparative and healing than punitive." says Karen Lischinsky, director of TPP, in the teaser video created at Good Measure.

Lischinsky was a vital part of the weekend, as was actress Allison Williams (Girls and Get Out), who has been an advocate for TPP and has led restorative justice sessions in Massachusetts prisons for two years.

"I wish to transform the way that prisons, as we imagine them today, operate and the effects that they have on people," Williams says in the video.

Using their powers for good
Good Measure brought together 40 creatives — designers, developers, strategists, videographers, photographers, writers, stylists, and more — into NUU Group's East Downtown office to develop new branding, web design, and videography for TPP. Filming took place down the street at Primer Grey. Anderson says the point is to break down barriers and bring together individuals who would otherwise not get to work together.

"It's some feedback that we've heard over and over again how refreshing and inspiring it is to work with people across the city," Anderson says. "So, you get to come together and learn each other's processes and have a case study or portfolio piece with someone who's work you admire."

Good Measure volunteers work alongside the nonprofit partners, so Lischinsky and Williams were there every step of the way. It was a learning process for both sides of the equation — the volunteers making sure they understand and express the TPP's mission as well as TPP learning the importance of the brand development process. Anderson says Lischinsky's presence was key to the success of the weekend — as was Williams' who wasn't just a celebrity endorsement. Anderson says he could see her full heart was committed to the program.

"You pull in a celebrity figure, and there's a tactical play. It's advertising," he says. "But what was different about this event is that Allison is not a face. She showed up from the first day of Good Measure to participate and contribute as someone who is on the board of TPP and an advocate for the program."

Creating a movement
Good Measure is planning to double down on its efforts for a New York weekend early next year to serve two nonprofits with 100 creatives volunteering. The organization also expects to return to do another Houston weekend in 2019 as well as a collaboration in Los Angeles.

Anderson says they also plan on hosting a one-day conference in Houston to discuss social good. Williams and Lischinsky are both onboard to attend.

Doing the homework

Alan Nguyen/Good Measure

Actress Allison Williams and TPP Director Karen Lischinsky kicked off the three-day rebranding collaboration with a discussion focused on the organization's goals, challenges, and messaging.