The first time I talked to HAWRAF was in an interview in the days right after the election when things were a blur. Like all conversations during that time, ours started with some variation of “Everything feels doomed,” but we didn’t dwell on it much beyond that. Carly Ayres, Andrew Herzog and Nicky Tesla, who run the studio, had already spent a good deal of time thinking about the failures of existing structural systems and a lack of empathy and perception that had in many ways led up to that cultural moment. It was a time when a lot of my friends felt compelled to consider a career change, but the ‘calls to action’ reverberating online were pretty in line with HAWRAF’s intentions already.
HAWRAF is run out of NEW INC, the incubator program at the New Museum in New York. It’s still only months old. The three—four, including Pedro Sanches, who has been traveling—founded the studio with the intention of integrating what they term “Creative Accessibility” into their practice, making their operations as transparent as possible so others can learn from them. The first project under that initiative demonstrated the idea at its most condensed and intensive: A-Z was 26 straight hours of live-streamed creating, with one project completed every hour.
It’s been almost six months since then, and I asked the team to interview each other about their ideas on transparency and inclusion, keeping a few questions of mine in mind but generally letting the conversation go wherever.
Carly Ayres: Hello from NEW INC, it is Tuesday, April 4th, 2017 at 2:26pm. This is Carly.
Andrew Herzog: Andrew.
Nicky Tesla: Nicky.
CA: And today we’re talking about Creative Accessibility. What does that mean, Andrew?
AH: That’s a great question, Carly. Creative Accessibility is one of the pillars of our studio, you might say. It’s an initiative of our own to make the creative industry a little more accessible.
CA: Right. And it was something that we started talking about two years ago, back when we—Nicky included—met at Google’s Creative Lab. While we were there, we started talking about what we wanted to do after, because what does one do for the rest of their life?
AH: We all came from pretty different backgrounds, so a lot of our conversations were about those experiences. I worked in a big advertising agency, then a small design studio and Carly had her start at a startup, then a mish-mash of other places before we all ended up at Google.
CA: It’s always interesting to compare notes on what places are really like. There’s a peeling back of the curtain. Across all, we started to recognize an overarching pattern.
AH: Right. Most of the folks we worked with—and ourselves included, for the most part—grew up, were encouraged to take art classes as a kid, attend an art school, and then had the means to take an unpaid internship or even one that requires moving to a different city. Each of these things are contingent upon privilege and affluence.
CA: And if you aren’t given those advantages, you’re not able to take those risks and those opportunities simply don’t exist. So, as we began talking about what we wanted to do next, we knew we wanted to continue doing a lot of the work we were doing, but wanted to see how we could do it a bit differently—perhaps in a way that challenged some of these paradigms.
AH: Yeah, we were interested in investigating what a design studio in 2017—or 2016 when we first started—could be. It’s easy to see how to be successful. We were already set up for that. But what we were more interested in was this idea of creating something that could benefit other people, too. Although, full disclosure, we’re still benefitting ourselves quite a lot. But is there something that we could do that doesn’t only pertain to us?
CA: And something that doesn’t reinforce those existing structures. We’re trying to be very intentional about how we develop our practice.
AH: On top of that, there was also this idea of learning in public. What if we talk more openly about client relations? What if we don’t try to make it look like everything is beautiful and perfect all the time? Does that create a larger entry point for people discouraged by the ivory tower that is the creative industry? Could others benefit from that?
CA: A-Z was our first project in that world and it was about breaking down the concept of the Creative Process—capital C, capital P—as this protected, overly glorified entity that a lot of studios keep close to the chest. It tends to be treated in a way that feels inaccessible to someone just starting out in that you might feel like you don’t have the tools you need until you’ve worked at one of these agencies, which is contrary to what we found working at those places ourselves.
AH: It’s just people’s ideas, and they’re just people. So that was something we wanted to communicate with this project.
CA: A-Z was an exercise in opening that door a little bit. We made 26 things over 26 hours, one hour for every letter of the alphabet. Some were more successful than others, but it gave others a glimpse of what our process looks like and, along the way, forced us to be a bit less precious, too.
AH: We have a lot of hypotheses we want to test around running a creative studio. Part of this exercise was also putting some of those under a microscope—or a livestream of thousands of viewers—and try them. Are these hierarchies that are typically in place—art director, designer, copywriter, et cetera—really how it has to work? The one thing that I feel most proud of was that we showed that we worked better together.
CA: I think we continue to work that way even now, six months later. Everyone is involved in concepting and feedback, and we spend nearly as much time developing an idea as we do executing.
AH: Just because Carly is a writer doesn’t mean her design feedback isn’t valid. And even though I’m a designer, I still try and tell Nicky how to code—admittedly terribly. It’s about bringing in that perspective to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
CA: Ultimately, we want to start laying the groundwork to create a culture where everyone’s voice is heard and opinion is valued.
AH: One of the worst experiences you can have is being at a large company and the president or whatever comes in and tells you what ‘kids your age’ are into. How can we avoid that? Why does that happen?
CA: As we keep experimenting with how this thing works, we want to do it in public, so that others can take from that whatever they want. There’s no one right way to do something. So maybe it’s less cracking open that door, but more kicking it wide open and saying, ‘Alright we saw that these were the ways people were doing things before, and this is what we’re trying right now. What are you trying?’
As we speak, Nicky is coding an A-Z toolkit, so that others can recreate that project. Maybe not for 26 hours, maybe as a 5 to 30 minute exercise, but get other people to try these things, too, and see what works.
CA: Speaking to transparency, we’ve also been documenting the day-to-day of running a studio. We record video journals daily. Well, almost every day.
AH: Most days.
CA: We talk about our highs and lows, client conversations, meetings gone awry, but really try to give an honest glimpse into what this is. Spoiler alert: some days are really boring.
AH: Most days. But we’re always looking to open our practice more so people can peek in. Not that what we’re doing will always be interesting or valuable, but there are times where there’s something there.
CA: We found that a lot of our most valuable experiences came from overheard conversations or just being able to observe how others did things. While at CreativeMornings, I learned so much working out of Studiomates and listening to people in the space talk about clients and pricing. Sponging up that knowledge was huge for me, and made a difference on those first few months at HAWRAF. So if we can figure out more ways to let others listen in on those conversations, maybe they can soak up some of that knowledge for free.
AH: We’re also doing workshops and putting together curricula to promote the arts and creative careers. We’re working on two focused on high schoolers right now, both around demystifying what a creative career can be. What is an art director? Product designer? How does a car commercial get made? How do these projects even come into existence?
CA: That’s based on feedback and conversations we’ve had with others. We kept hearing that a lot of people who otherwise would have pursued creative careers were deterred by the concept of the starving artist. We want to offer a competing narrative by showing possible, lucrative career paths and break down some of those misconceptions.
AH: There’s a quote, “It’s not a pipeline problem, it’s a perception problem,” from Antionette Carroll who runs the firm Creative Reactions Lab. We should note that a lot of this stuff comes on the backs of the people who are out there doing amazing stuff every day and are not really getting a ton of coverage.
CA: We’re trying to be self-aware and amplify the people who have been doing the work long before we came along. But as long as we’re in the space and making money and running a studio, we hope we can be doing it in the best way we can.