A Good Kind of Weird: HAWRAF

The team at HAWRAF talks about their beginnings, their process, and how they blur the line between brand and audience.

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HAWRAF is weird. Not bad weird. More like, interesting weird. First, there’s the name. What does it mean?

“When we were about to start this small entrepreneurial effort, we collectively made a sound. And that sound was ‘HAWRAF,’” explains Andrew Herzog, who co-founded the New York City design studio last December with Carly Ayres and Nicky Tesla. “And that became this word for a new studio that was about to exist.”

HAWRAF (it’s pronounced exactly how it’s spelled) grew out of a collaborative relationship that the trio forged while working together at Google Creative Lab. And even though it’s only half a year old, HAWRAF has already earned the attention of Vice and Fast Company for its strange activities.

Take, for example, the time the HAWRAF team stayed up for 26 hours straight to complete 26 creative projects in an hour each, live-streaming every second of it.

And then there was the time Herzog draped live moss over fire hydrants and subway stops throughout his Manhattan neighborhood.

Experimentation, interactivity, and creative accessibility are all central to the HAWRAF way — inasmuch as there is a “HAWRAF way.” Ayres, Herzog, and Tesla are largely figuring things out as they go, and letting anyone who’s interested watch as they do it.

The HAWRAF trio talked to Mailchimp in their lower Manhattan office about radical transparency, creative accessibility, and why dying a hero is better than surviving as a villain.

How was the idea for HAWRAF born?

Herzog: It started during conversations we were having at Google Creative Lab. We were talking about what a design studio should be in 2017.

Ayres: The conversations were based on our different experiences — even our experiences with the studios we collaborated with while at Google. We had a lot of ideas we wanted to try, like, “What if everybody collaborates from the beginning, regardless of their discipline? What if roles are somewhat amorphous?” We had this list of ideas, and starting this studio of our own was a sandbox to try out some of those concepts.

Was it a tough call to go out on your own?

Tesla: I wasn’t on board at first. I’m still not sure not about this! It had never been my intention, at least not as early as it was for my other 2 partners, to create a design studio. I hadn’t gone to design school; I studied engineering. But over the course of working with them at Creative Lab it became apparent that we really believe in each other. That sounds so cliché, but I honestly love working with them.

Herzog: I always wanted to start my own studio. I worked at a giant ad agency and spent time in a small studio, and I had a lot of ideas about what I thought was good about some of those places, and then there were the things we wanted to try — some ideas we’d never seen in practice before.

Ayres: One thing I think is pretty emblematic of a lot of our practices is that Andrew, who is a graphic and interactive designer, will sometimes go around the city gluing moss to things.


Ayres: Andrew does a lot of projects that go beyond what you would consider traditional design.

Herzog: It’s a project that I did last summer. Maybe you are familiar with the adage that moss grows on the north side of things? Well, if you live in my neighborhood you may find it on the north side of the fire hydrants and subway stops. It’s a project that pushes outside of traditional design practice — a sort of interdisciplinary experiment with a different medium.

What would you say was the purpose of the moss project?

Herzog: To express this idea of communication: Could you get someone to see that moss grows on the north? And if they do see it, could they use it as a directional cue?

Ayres: Kind of like a natural wayfinding system. We do a lot of weird stuff. Surprisingly, we make money, too.

This seems like a good time to ask: What principles or philosophy animate HAWRAF?

Ayres: For one, we are medium agnostic. We start with the concept first and think of what the end result should be. We never do anything just because that is how it has been done before. That is something we think about a lot just being in Manhattan. Are we doing something because it’s what we are “supposed” to be doing, or are we doing it because it’s what we know to be true and best for us and the client?

We also feel strongly that you should be able to explain why you did what you did, especially to clients. We try to be very intentional about what we’re doing, and really honest and straightforward. “We start with the concept first and think of what the end result should be. ”

"Are we doing something because it’s what we are 'supposed' to be doing, or are we doing it because it’s what we know to be true and best for us and the client?"

Have other designers or artists influenced your approach at all?

Ayres: My college furniture teacher, Yuri Kobayashi, used to say, “If you want to design a chair, don’t look at other chairs.” We try to look elsewhere for inspiration if we can, and that’s usually mostly beyond the design world.

Herzog: We take a lot from the art world, and also from the fashion world and film world, but very little, if any, from the actual design world.

Ayres: We are actively not looking at other design.

Herzog: Personally, I really don’t care about the design world.

Ayres: For us, it’s more about finding the right vision for the specific projects that we’re doing rather than looking around at the latest cool thing. But we have learned a lot from other designers we have worked with about business practices, processes, how to work with clients — but aesthetically, we’re trying to look beyond that world.

Speaking of processes: You guys have been open about how you’re building your design process. Why pull back the curtain like that?

Ayres: We want to be very transparent about what it’s like starting a studio right now. We want to show the nuts and bolts of our own practice. We are trying to make the creative industry more accessible. That means a lot of live-streaming, documentation, and showing what it is like as we are learning so other people can learn, too.

Herzog: Creative accessibility is a core pillar for us. It comes from recognizing that pursuing a design career, or to even know what a design career is, is quite a privilege. We try to be very transparent so that maybe people out there who aren’t as versed in this stuff can see what we are doing, how we are doing it, see our processes and some of these mistakes that we make, and learn from them.

You guys have called HAWRAF “concept-focused.” What exactly do you mean by that?

Ayres: We always start with the idea and figure out how to make it work from there. We work with all sorts of different mediums — we do print, we do digital, we do useful things, and some not-so-useful things, and sort of everything in between. Given our varied backgrounds — mine is more industrial design and furniture, so a lot of wood and metal fabrication; Andrew has worked with stained glass; Nicky is constantly discovering different technology to play around with — we are always trying to challenge ourselves and not limit ourselves to what the end result should be. The answer isn’t always going to be a website. It might be an installation; it might be postcards.

Herzog: It’s also a response to so many businesses identifying as something like “digital advertising agency.” We think the best way to work with people trying to communicate messages is to start off by focusing on that initial conversation and workshop. What we might find out is, instead of a website, we can do an illustration, or a book, or something totally different. For us, it’s about being open in trying to accomplish whatever is needed.

You seem interested in blurring the line between brand and audience. Your mobile website is an interactive game, for example. And users can draw all over on the desktop version.

Herzog: It comes back to that idea of interaction. Marketing and communications has been very much a one-way street for as long as marketing has been a profession. We want to create these experiences that are like interactive loops, if you will. But we try to create them in a way that isn’t necessarily fully closed. And when people participate in that conversation, it closes that loop.

One place where you can forge a strong bond with an audience is email. What’s your attitude toward that medium?

Ayres: Email is great. You can literally create this designable, customizable message that will be delivered directly to someone’s inbox. And I think in the future we’ll be able to further tailor that message to the person receiving it — which is something you can already do to some extent, especially with Mailchimp.

We’ve explored a few ideas in the past with newsletters for Collaborative Fund x i am OTHER and CreativeMornings, but there’s still so much that can be done.

What are your long-term business goals?

Tesla: I like to remind the team every day after work that you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.

Ayres: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

3 more HAWRAF quotes worth reading

We edited our conversation with HAWRAF for length and readability. But if you’re craving more HAWRAF, these outtakes should satisfy your appetite.

On facing the truth:

Ayres: “Just being a person who lives on the internet these days — and lives off the internet — there is obviously a difference in that narrative between what people share online and what their actual day-to-day is. You can see that on Instagram and in what people share on Facebook. And it leads to this larger illusion that everyone is doing great, and we aren’t.”

On interactive t-shirts:

Herzog: “We believe anything can be interactive. Whether it’s a t-shirt, a mirrored poster, or a job application, we think that the communications you put out in the world should say something and invite someone to say something back. Accessibility is about making sure that whatever that interaction is — that it’s accessible to everyone.”

On not saying “bae”:

Ayres: “People block out banner ads and fast-forward through commercials, so marketing now is more about building that brand recognition in a way where people are able to participate in whatever you’re saying. No one wants to be talked at, and we all know how it feels when brands say ‘bae.’ We’re interested in figuring out how to do work that’s authentic and meaningful, while still accomplishing those same goals.”

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