Monday, September 7, 2009

New interview featuring our friends over at Graphic Havoc

Let's Talk, Graphic Havoc

Through collaboration on a diverse range of projects, GHAVA's five-member core have established an enviable creative legacy.

By Matthew Newton, Senior Editor

Founded in Atlanta, Georgia in 1994, Graphic Havoc (GHAVA) has come a long way during its 15-year tenure. During this time, the group's five-member core -- Derek Lerner, Sadek Bazaraa, Randall J. Lane, Peter Rentz, and David Merten -- have established themselves as a unique creative entity. With a client list that is equal parts big-name corporations (Adidas, Volkswagen, and Warner Music Group) and independents (Animal, Hefty Records, and Biz 3), GHAVA always manages to infuse its refined taste and signature aesthetic in the projects it takes on. Most striking, however, is that the group continually merges art and client content in fresh new ways.

Can you tell me about how and why GHAVA got started?

Derek and Randall met when a mutual friend, who knew they were both into graffiti, introduced them. Derek had just come to Atlanta to go to the Atlanta College of Art, where Randall had dropped out a year before. The mutual interest in graffiti lead to a fast friendship and other common interests were revealed. Art, graffiti, skateboarding, and club culture at the time all combined and motivated the two to start a streetwear clothing company named Theft.

Being a part of this diverse culture in Atlanta in the early 90s, Derek and Randall met many other talented and driven individuals. David Merten is someone who came into the fold early and joined in on the late night coffee drinking, art making, art, design, and film debating sessions that often went into the wee hours at the apartment Derek and Randall shared. The combination of seeing people do amazing work on Macs like designers Neville Brody, David Carson, Tomato, The Designers Republic, and P. Scott Makela as well as a friendship with Andy Howell and Jose Gomez, who were deeply involved in the skateboard and streetwear industry, led to a decision to start Graphic Havoc.

Graphic Havoc was initially the graf crew that Derek and Randall started with a few other writers. The name, Graphic Havoc Artists, was used in the street for years so when the decision was made to focus on graphic design instead of a clothing company, the birth of Graphic Havoc was complete. While the initial growth was slow, the company began making a name for itself in and around Atlanta and over the next few years the client list grew to include, a local clothing store Wish, Capricorn Records, Coca-Cola, and a few local film and video production companies. As the client list grew and more work came to the business, other talented friends were recruited, Peter Rentz and eventually Sadek Bazaraa. Things grew from that point and the group made a decision to move to Brooklyn, NY in 2000.

You have a collaborative work process. When did you discover this was the best way to work?

Due to the way that the company was formed, there has always been a collaborative process. Graphic Havoc has always been about the strengths and interests of the individual partners brought into the collaborative setting of the company. There are projects that one partner might take from beginning to end, but more often than not, projects are a collaborative process involving at least two, if not more of the partners.

You've been around for 15 years now as a studio. What lessons -- good and bad -- have you learned about design during your tenure?

Derek Lerner: I think choosing and/or pursuing the type of projects to work on is extremely important. Not solely deciding to take on a project based on money has been difficult in some situations. Passion, motivation, and inspiration can be fickle things, so making decisions about the kinds of projects to invest time and energy on has been a very important learning process for us. We also should have hired a full time computer scientist and a new business development person years ago but we decided to invest in other areas of our business.

David Merten: Yes, hiring a business person is key. Spending more time on being creative and less time answering emails and worrying about hustling new work would be a dream come true. Also hiring a cleaning service once you can afford it is a perk.

Sadek Bazaraa: Well, we've definitely learned that design as a business is not an easy thing. There have certainly been a lot of growing pains. Because we've remained small with only five members at the main core, we've had to learn how to do everything ourselves. We definitely contract and expand as need be for certain projects but we don't always have that luxury. On the upside, that has kept us quite versatile and well-rounded in our approach to design. Always seeking to push the limits of what can be achieved within the framework and limitations of our own company. The downside is that we end up fulfilling a lot of roles that are a lot better suited for someone else, i.e. business development, accounting, programming, etc.

Randall J. Lane: I've learned that the business of design can be extremely satisfying AND extremely disappointing, sometimes over the same project and other times in the same day. As a partner in a small design business I personally find myself chasing the freedom that I wanted, a main reason I went into business for myself, and the money needed to survive and enjoy said freedom. Our business is a fickle one. The most important lesson i can communicate to the readers is—work, do your thing. Whether for a client or self-initiated, keep at it. Make yourself better and yes surround yourself with people that can help you achieve your objectives.

Peter Rentz: Keep overhead low which has enabled us to survive 911 and this latest recession.

The work you do runs the gamut -- from creative direction and graphic design to brand development and video production. Is there any one type of project you prefer? Or is the diversity of the work what appeals to you?

DL: For me it is definitely more about creative problem solving, just as I approach making fine art I think about commercial art in a similar manner. However on the commercial side of things there are typically more constraints and objectives to take into consideration. My preference is to be involved in high level creative development and art direction but I still love to get my hands dirty, so I have no problem shifting gears when it feels right. I like to learn new things and allow process to inspire concept at times. The medium or discipline is less important to me than the creative process. It's more about the ideas and expressions than whether or not its print, branding, interactive, motion, etc.

DM: Anything that gets me out of the office and away from staring at a computer screen is always welcome. I really enjoy working with video, from conception through editing. One reason I love it is because it gives me and excuse to watch allot of movies and daydream allot.

SB: I think the diversity of our projects has kept us evolving and given us a solid foundation to work from allowing us to solve many types of creative problems. Although we certainly have unique interests amongst the team, there is a lot of overlap in what we enjoy working on. I personally have the strongest affinity for print and abstract video. At the same time, I'm glad that we always have a wide range of projects in house and that we decided never to specialize in one particular area from the onset of the company.

RJL: Though I think that sometimes the fact that we aren't specialized has hurt the bottom line, I wouldn't want to have it any other way. I would find it limiting and eventually challenging personally to only do one type of design. Like Derek mentioned above, I love creative problem solving regardless of medium. Sometimes I prefer to work alone on a project, maybe a small print job, and other times I enjoy working with a team on a larger project like the Nokia Video pieces.

PR: The diversity is really important because it keeps us interested and on our toes but we have always had to watch ourselves so as not to become jacks of all trades. I prefer print projects, especially books and editorial work since it feels so less disposable than digital media now.

In tough economic times, marketing budgets are the first thing to get cut. How challenging is it right now to be involved in creative work when budgets are diminishing and media -- in general -- is in such flux?

Times are tough for everyone out there, but it is a cycle, things will get better. Work to stay afloat and be ready for the rebound. Take the time to not only chase new work, but work on your own projects and your own content. Tell good stories, the story is independent of the media.

Individually, what attracted each of you to design as a career?

DL: Skateboarding, graffiti, and creative problem solving.

DM: I just accidentally fell into design. Making extra money on the side while in art school doing flyers was great, but by the time I was out of school Graphic Havoc could support us, so I never had to go out and find another job.

SB: I had a left brain/right brain melt down in college and decided to leave engineering to go into industrial design which is where I met Peter and how I became part of GHAVA. I knew that I wanted to exercise more creativity in my career than what a likely engineering job would allow me to do, so... I played in bands at the time and was always attracted to album covers, concert posters, flyers, etc. which is where I started out. It didn't take long to get myself fully immersed in all aspects of visual culture from there. In the end, design turned out to be a likely place for me to settle, perfectly placed between right and left brain sensibilities. Although I do wonder what it might be like to give it all up for something new entirely. Permaculture perhaps?

RJL: After dropping out of art school for both financial and anti-fine art academia sentiments, I found myself drawn to the immediacy and [temporary nature] of graffiti. Writing graffiti inevitably led to a love of typography. Concurrent to this development in my life there were many graphic designers taking advantage of a new found freedom offered by the computer and a rebellion against "modern" design. People like Lorraine Wild, David Carson, Neville Brody, Rudy Vanderlans and his magazine emigré, and many others. These designers showed me that graphic design can be just as expressive and powerful as a lot of fine art, so I thought I'd give it a try.

PR: The interaction of type and image attracted me to graphic design. As I learned more about art and image I became more interested in art directing and communicating through image.

GHAVA seems to stay busy with a variety of different projects. What new ventures are on the horizon that you are truly excited about?

GHAVA is currently looking for a new business development collaborator to free up our time to focus on the creative and less on self promotion, business hustling and management. Client wise: alongside an ongoing relationship with Tricycle magazine, a Buddhist review, GHAVA is working closely with Harry Benson on designing a book celebrating his 60 years in photography, to be released by powerHouse books in the Fall. Another exciting project is a new collaborative, international consortium in development with a few other companies. Look out for it.

Related links
Derek Lerner
Sadek Bazaraa
Randall J. Lane
Peter Rentz
David Merten

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