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Shawn Hazen

Designer and Owner of Hazen Creative, Inc.

Primary design concentration:

Graphic Designer and Art Director

Most preferred tool for designing:

Absolute #1: Quiet time, to sit and think. Harder to come by than it should be. Followed by: Mechanical pencil and sketchbook. I always try to start here, to get basic formal relationships worked-out, whether it’s a logo, a complicated page, or a web site. You stumble upon possibilities this way that you never would on the computer (of course, the reverse is also true!)

1. How and why did you choose to become a designer?

I grew up in a family that encouraged creativity (writer Mom) and tinkering (engineer Dad). Though always making art, I was usually more interested in its “real” or “applied” manifestations—for a painting assignment in junior high, I did a poster; for a self-directed project in high school art class, I learned how to screen print so I could make t-shirts. Then, when I started playing in bands, I found myself almost as excited about creating the logos and flyers as making the music. Being in Seattle in the late 80s/early ’90s meant being surrounded by music and the rich visual landscape associated with it. Art Chantry had a big effect on me early on.

When I got to college, it didn’t occur to me that art could be a career choice. Like your last respondent to this questionnaire, Josh Owen, I started out being interested in Archaeology. While on the verge of choosing that as a major, I decided to take a drawing class. I had to declare Art as my major just to get into the class, but figured I could change it later. I never did.

2. Challenges you encounter as a designer and how do you deal with them?

Many of your interviewees have said that clients present the biggest challenge. I concur, but I try to be forgiving of that fact, understanding that I owe my entire livelihood to clients. Nonetheless, sometimes you find that you’re doing something for a client that just isn’t exciting to you. But even though a straightforward solution may not seem all that “breakthrough,” it may be revolutionary to the client or their industry. And in doing a good job of addressing their need, you’re doing good design. But it’s really hard to remember that not every single project is going to be an amazing, cutting edge, tour-de-force of design genius!

3. Your definition of an “elegant solution,” that is, good design?

It depends on what it is, but generally speaking, an elegant design is one in which the design itself adds something to the solution. In other words, the end-product benefits specifically from having “been designed.” My motto is “Design makes things better.” That speaks to a philosophical belief about the role of design in the world, but also to something simpler: design is first and foremost a way to improve how successful something is at doing its job. Whether it’s a poster or a newspaper, good design offers a demonstrable benefit. An elegant poster solution has an extra level of meaning; expresses the idea in a clever or potent way. It makes you think a little, which engages the viewer and makes a connection, which means they’ve internalized your message. An elegant newspaper design has a grid and typography that enhance clarity and make it easier and more enjoyable to get information from it. This creates a connection, too. The user will come to trust that newspaper, because it offers more to him or her.

4. From skills to values, what makes a designer successful?

Every design assignment, at its core, is an exercise in critical thinking. What needs to be done here to be successful? And how can design improve the end product? So, having a keen eye for conceptual relationships and being a student of people and culture will allow you to come up with smart solutions.

But along with this ability to decode the essence of the problem, restraint is crucial. The most confident designers are the ones who can let their egos or design agendas take a back seat to effective decision-making. Sometimes clarity of communication is the main goal, like the program for a healthcare conference I just did. Not a lot of room for flashiness there. And then you have something like a theater poster, where the elegance comes in expressing a play’s central theme with a clever visual paradox or one-liner.

Related to that second part is one of my favorite design-related quotes of all time. It’s from Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a French writer and aviator: “A designer has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Right on, mon frére.

5. How do you stay motivated and grow personally and professionally as a designer?

I often say that if I didn’t need to work, I’d still be designing. That contradicts the very definition of design: it can’t exist without clients. But I am always coming up with little schemes and projects where I’m my own client. Books, blogs, or promotions for my studio. I have trouble sitting still and am always looking for a project.

Sometimes that project isn’t design. I make collages with scraps I collect: parking stubs, old postcards, rub-down type, packaging. It’s a creative release with none of the stress of producing work for a client. It involves some of the same parts of the brain, but is completely free-form. Of course, I had to turn it into a design project and created a logo, business cards, and a Web site for the whole endeavor.

6. For those aspiring to become a designer, whatever the discipline, what is your advice?

I began my design education “rebelling” against the Swiss approach of my professors, which ironically, I now evangelize myself. But don’t ignore the fundamentals. It’s like learning other people’s songs in order to master an instrument. You’ll have plenty of time to write your own music later on, but learn as much about the craft first. Speaking of, one of the best lessons I ever got was from a guitar teacher: You have to know the rules before you can break them. The most innovative design is that which starts from a place of “what’s right” and pushes beyond that.

The other thing I’d point out is that design without clients is fine art. Our job is to solve other people’s problems. And a huge part of being a designer is compromising your “vision” to fit the client’s goals. It’s an devastating realization for many “Design Auteurs.” But I doubt even Paul Rand or David Carson made it through their careers without having to accommodate a client request they didn’t agree with. When I teach, I always try to throw a wrench into the works part way into a project. Like completely changing the parameters at the last minute, or saying the entity they’re designing a logo for has to change its name. It’s the real world. Budgets disappear. Minds change. Sh*t hits the fan.

7. What is your quest in design?

My dream is to run a design practice like Saul Bass had. I’m not talking about the solo Saul Bass that designed title sequences for Hitchcock, I’m talking about his later years when he ran Saul Bass & Associates, a thriving corporate identity shop. He was doing branding before that was a word. And it was a small operation. I imagine Walter Landor’s practice was an exciting place to be in the early years, too, but I don’t want to be a part of anything as big as Landor is now. I don’t think. I hope that in 5 or so years, my studio is around a half dozen people that create excellent design for clients that value what we do. I want to be working with clients who know that design is an investment in their brand and they come to my agency because we make that investment pay off for them. I want to be seen as having a thoughtful approach, but not a rigid style. A good designer can do something loose, gestural, and warm for one client and something tight, slick, and minimal for another. More than a style, I want to be known for smart solutions that make people smile or think, that work on a level above the average stuff out there. Design that makes things better.

In addition to designing and managing Hazen Creative, Inc., Shawn Hazen is a “serious book-fetishist.” He highly recommends David E. Carter’s series called The Book of Trade Marks from the 1970s. Among other timeless design work, he admires Chermayeff and Geismar and the General Dynamics posters by Erik Nitsche.

Image courtesy of Shawn Hazen.


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