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Interview with Multidisciplinary Designer Andy Hau

Andy Hau is from London based design company A.H.A. Design, they specialise in architecture, graphic design and product design. Andy was gracious enough to sit and talk with us about his work, his design icons, how to unwind & working for companies like American Express & Virgin Trains.

“We believe that creativity has no boundaries and a creative vision transcends the media it is created in.” -A.H.A. Design

Andy, Describe to us the area in which you work in London, is it a vibrant creative environment?

The A.H.A. Design studio is based in the heart of Clerkenwell in a converted Victorian workshop. Clerkenwell has had a long history of being a creative heart for craft and design and also accommodates the highest concentration of architects in the world (according to Wikipedia anyway – so it must be true).

I love the fact that there is a real feeling of old London here – not the “Cor blimey guvnor” theme park version that is sold to tourists, but a working and breathing creative hub that has retained all of its historical and industrial charm, housing an equal mix of white collar factory workers and plaid/ beard combo hipsters.

Our studio window faces directly onto Zaha Hadid’s office so on days when the weather’s a little dreary and we’re feeling creatively drained, we like look our window to try and catch a glimpse of her.

Do you find the time to enjoy many of the local creative events, galleries and spaces? Do you have any favourites?

On the days we’re not busy trying to catch a glimpse of Zaha, we do try to attend as many of the local events as possible. Because Clerkenwell is home to such a diverse range of designers and galleries, there are always plenty of exhibition openings and design events, especially at Craft Central, a wonderful not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping designers, crafters and makers. We are also huge fans of the Creative Clerkenwell blog, which always has the latest news on exciting design shows and events in the area.

My favourite event has to be Clerkenwell Design Week, which has become almost like the design version of London Fashion Week. For a few days, many of the area’s top design firms and manufacturers open up their showrooms and offices to give a glimpse into their world. I love that almost euphoric buzz that fills the area during that week and it’s a great opportunity to see new products and to meet new people. Plus free champagne. Lots of free champagne.

Last year you worked on a large project with American Express, was it a different kind of pressure working for such a company?

I don’t feel any more pressure working for larger companies than for any other client that commissions us. Perhaps it comes from having trained at one of the largest multidisciplinary practices in the world but I have a very pragmatic view when it comes to clients. All companies who commission you, whether large or small have first and foremost hired you to solve a problem and it is your duty to solve it to the best of your ability. They haven’t hired you to make friends with you, they haven’t hired you to pat you on the back – if any of that happens, then that is a privilege, but certainly not a prerequisite. With this kind of mentality, you treat every project as importantly and as seriously as the next and it also gives you the ability to not have any qualms in telling the client what you think is the best solution to their problem – which is after all why they hired you in the first place.

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What was the feedback like to your designs? Have you got a favourite design you created the most from this projects?

We’ve had some brilliant feedback from the project and we were so flattered to hear from Adweek that our campaign had helped to triple American Express’ social media engagement. I think designers and artists can often be seen as a frivolous commodity – an afterthought to make something a bit more interesting. What’s compelling about this for me is that it demonstrates that designers don’t just make things pretty – there’s real, tangible proof that we help to drive traffic and engagement, even for companies which you wouldn’t immediately consider as “visual content” types of companies.

In terms of a favourite design – each design has a story behind it and they are all special to me. One of my favourite quotes from Britney Spears is when she was asked mockingly if there were any songs that she wished she hadn’t recorded, her response was defiant: “No, all my songs are amazing” – and as designers, I feel like we need to adopt this type of mentality. It’s not about being arrogant; it’s about maintaining a sense of pride in absolutely everything you do, have done and will do.

“Multidisciplinary design is about a creative vision, sensitivity, collaboration and storytelling; it is not about the medium or the discipline that it is created in. It’s about how you see the world and your viewpoint on how people should live, how you want them to feel and how they should see the world around them.”

You work in a variety of disciplines, is there a favourite type of project you enjoy working on the most?

Multidisciplinary design is about a creative vision, sensitivity, collaboration and storytelling; it is not about the medium or the discipline that it is created in. It’s about how you see the world and your viewpoint on how people should live, how you want them to feel and how they should see the world around them. Creativity should have no boundaries and I have the same feeling of exhilaration whether I’m designing a building, a graphic or creating a piece of furniture. I am lucky that my background in architecture has provided me with the technical skills and sensitivity to facilitate my work in other disciplines. The process of getting anything built, whether it’s a 50-storey skyscraper or a table, is intrinsically rooted in graphic design; you are communicating information through visual representation.

I think some people prefer to pigeonhole designers and retain a sense of “purity” in design, rather than muddying the waters and I can see the logic in that argument –but for me, the most exciting things happen at the interface of design disciplines and A.H.A. Design’s vision is far too expansive to be contained by one type of media.

blade runner lebbeus andy hau

Charles and Ray Eames are such design icons, what inspired you the most from their work growing up?

Along with Ove Arup, the Eames were pioneers of modern multidisciplinary design. Although Charles started in Architecture, alongside his formidable wife Ray, they blazed a trail in the world of design, covering graphic design, film and of course, furniture. I was lucky enough to visit Case Study House No. 8 in Los Angeles, which they designed in 1949 and served as their home and studio. The Eames House helped to change my view of what design and designers could be. The thing that inspires me most is the fact that there is a unity is everything that they do, a vision that flows though all their projects, no matter the scale.

“..as designers, we need a wide spectrum of references – it not only helps to inspire you but it can often drive you to improve your own work.”

Do we as a collective community ignore our design peers? Should we remember and teach student more about them do you think?

It’s an interesting question. I think as designers, we need a wide spectrum of references – it not only helps to inspire you but it can often drive you to improve your own work. After Kanye West’s infamous interruption to Taylor Swift’s 2009 acceptance speech, he allegedly explained that he was standing up for people who strive to push the envelope. He explained (again allegedly) that after being impressed by a verse written by Eminem, he felt he needed to go back to his studio to improve his own work. Now, I don’t endorse what Kanye did to poor old Taylor but it’s hard to criticise him for his work ethic.

It’s important for students to be taught about the figureheads and leaders in the design industry but at the same time, it’s important for designers to find their own frames of references. With the Internet and social media, this is not a difficult task. The only thing to realise is that the life of a designer documented by social media is an illusion. It’s like a greatest hits album – a romanticised showcase of the highlights in one’s career and life. Be smart about what you are taking in from social media and the Internet – let your design peers inspire you but it’s important to realise that they have their own hardships and that their successes certainly don’t diminish your own.

What role does social media take in the promotion of your own work?

A.H.A. Design was built virtually all on social media – all of the early big projects, American Express and the Yoobic animation were all down to the right people finding me on Tumblr and Behance. I was very lucky that people who liked my work were willing to share it back in those good old days when you had to manually retweet and Favouriting was not even a word – I am indebted to these people.

But social media has changed significantly since then. Because there is just so much “content” out there these days, I think people are either overwhelmed by it all or they just end up missing certain posts. I use social media nowadays more as a method to entertain and demonstrate the personality behind A.H.A. Design – I want people to see that there’s a real person behind all of it.

What are your plans for 2016, do you have set targets already in place to move forward?

We’ve just finished the animations for Virgin Trains’ new website and have got some more big projects in the works, which I’m very excited about – including a project where I draw things that I never thought I would be able to draw.

In between all of that, we will be launching our second homeware collection next year – the “Eye To The Periscope” collection. We were so surprised and flattered by the reaction we got from our first collection (“Tales From The War & Other Short Stories”), which was covered by national press as well as interior design sites like Elle Décor, that we’ve decided to do it all again. Whereas the first collection focused on storytelling and the sharing of stories, the “Eye To the Periscope” collection will explore the ideas of introspection and mindfulness. We are going to be sharing a lot of the design process on Periscope to let people see what goes into creating a collection, so if you’re interested in the journey, be sure to check that out (@andykwhau on Periscope).

Away from working, how do you unwind? (More free champagne?)

Haha! Well, one can never have enough champagne! I have to admit, most of my time is taken up on work and thinking about where we’ll be taking Quinn the Fox, but when I get a moment free, I’m either eating (a lot), reading about philosophy or watching the Kardashians. Seriously – for me, to be able to be yourself and not be categorised or confined by the things that you enjoy – that is ultimate act of rebellion.

Do you enjoy working with or without music & are you inspired by certain albums or bands?

I always try and work with music. Music has such a huge influence on the way that images turn out and the colour decisions that you make – I believe in this so much that I actually have playlists created for specific types of project, which includes everything from church hymns to Britney Spears, and everything in between.

I’ve been lucky to work with musicians including Imogen Heap and Gabby Young & Other Animals on their album packaging. Whilst I am designing for musicians, I always listen to their music. For me, it’s a holistic process – what goes into my ears, comes out of me as a visual piece of work. It’s important and necessary.

Do you have any industry peers who’s work you think is undervalued? Who do you think deserves the limelight in 2015?

There are far too many people to mention and it would be unfair of me to name some and not others – because I know exactly how that feels and it’s not nice.

My advice to anyone reading this is to share the things you like – not just from “the big names” that you hope will notice you but things that you genuinely enjoy. If you’re only consuming and not sharing, you are missing out on most of the fun of social media. Most importantly, you never know who you might be helping out in doing so.

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