Talking Innovation, Design, and Creativity with HAWRAF’s Carly Ayres

If you visit HAWRAF’s website, you’ll experience a site that transparently guides its viewers through the design studio’s identity and services. Its purposeful work in progress appearance is humbling, and speaks directly to the team’s personality, dedicated to collaboration, transparency, creativity, and innovation. These pillars of HAWRAF’s personal brand, according to co-founder Carly Ayres, are part of what makes the team unique from other studios in the design and tech world.

Check out the interview with Carly below to learn more about what it takes to bring a creative vision to life as a business, what sets HAWRAF apart from others, and how she and her team work together to artfully bring projects to life.

Can you tell us a little about your past, present, and what you imagine will be your future self?

My past is a bit all over the map. I studied industrial design, but spent more time outside my department than within it—talking, facilitating, interviewing various designers, organizing meetups, as well as writing for a slew of art and design publications. All that organizing and writing landed me on the team of CreativeMornings shortly after graduation, where I helped create a voice and tone for the international lecture series.

After CreativeMornings, I spent a few years freelancing at and with companies like Google’s Creative Lab, Care/of, Collaborative Fund, and ustwo, creating voice guidelines for brands, and even a few chatbot personalities. [In some alternate timeline, I’m a professional chatbot personality creator, instead…] I met some immensely talented humans while at Google, and four of us started a design and technology studio called HAWRAF.

My past self spent a lot of time following people I thought were doing interesting work and trying to get as close as possible to that. That led me to meet and collaborate with some amazing, passionate humans on some very interesting projects. Ultimately, though, I was always translating someone else’s vision into something tangible. My present self is now trying to do that for myself (and alongside my partners), translating our vision for a studio into a business.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a studio and how have you all worked together to overcome those challenges?

There are plenty of challenges when it comes to starting a new business, especially for the first time. For us, the most important thing has been keeping lines of communication open and checking in often to make sure we’re all aligned and working towards the same goals.

At the end of the day, each of us sees starting the studio as a learning experience. It helps set expectations and keeps us in a constant growth mindset. Don’t get me wrong—we need to make money—that’s definitely up there, but we’re all approaching this with an open mind and a lot of naiveté. Lots of naiveté. If we’re not learning, what are we doing?

What are you most proud of in your work today? Why?

I recently updated our deck and was (pleasantly) surprised to see how many projects we took on in the past year where we tackled something for the first time, learning how to do it along the way. The results included generative logo systems, a website you can call from your phone, reflective selfie posters, and even high-production videos for an advertising campaign.

Each conversation before that work started something along the lines of, “Uh, can we do this?” before diving in and figuring it out. Each came with their own set of learning curves, but it’s incredible to be able to operate in that space of not knowing—and (perhaps even better) the feeling of now being on the other side of it. The answer was yes.

Beyond that, I love seeing the unified voice that comes through in our work. Each becomes something that none of us could have done independently, and the results are so much better because of it. They’re uniquely HAWRAF and emblematic of a process where we make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

What’s the difference in your opinion between HAWRAF and other design studios? What sets you apart?

At HAWRAF, we believe that the most successful communications are those that allow for a conversation. So, we design our projects to allow for inputs as well as outputs. The results can be brand identities, installations, activations, websites, books, films, apps, or objects—but are always engaging, considered, and invite audiences to interact in a meaningful way.

Aside from our interactive approach, HAWRAF is a bit rare in the sense that we’re a pretty lean team, yet are capable of taking a wide range of projects from initial concept to final execution. Our skills range from strategy and design to full-stack development. It keeps us flexible and lets us work closely with our clients, while a network of freelancers lets us expand our team as necessary to take on larger projects.

How do you see your work evolving with current technology trends?

Evolve or die. I don’t know how our work will evolve, as much as I know that it inevitably will.

Technology is a big part of our work, and we frequently introduce new technologies or modes of interaction into our work for clients. Our technical background (… and insatiable curiosity) helps with that; We’re always experimenting in the studio, expanding our own knowledge base, and then trying to bring those experiments into our client work.

Do you ever feel limited by certain aspects of technology, or like your ideas may be bigger than what can be realistically achieved? How do you work within this kind of constraint?

There’s a recurring scenario in the studio which involves someone coming up with an idea, then immediately turning to Nicky (head of development) and asking, “Is that possible?” To which Nicky responds, “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.” He usually does.

And if not, we think of something else. We’ve had ideas for features where the technology wasn’t quite there or reliable enough, and then a few years later—it is. Whether it’s a shift in medium or mindset, everything is always changing. You have to stay curious and flexible.

How has your experience as a woman in the tech and design world been? What do you think needs to change in order to see women truly thrive and be recognized in these fields?

Oof. It’s tough to give a straight answer to this—I’ve encountered plenty of direct harassment and microaggressions over the course of my career, as well as plenty of situations where I projected more onto them than was evident or true because of past trauma. Or perhaps I’m just gaslighting myself now. Either way, the situation is not ideal.

Step one is to hire more women. Hire women of color. Get more of them into the interview process. Check your job posting for biased language. There are plenty of people and organizations much more in the trenches of this than me, so I would recommend checking them out and supporting them, however possible:

What are some of the moments you’re most proud of in your personal and professional life, from the last year?

This year has been a good one. As a studio, we’ve made some incredible work, spoken at conferences around world, and learned a ton. My personal highlight was taking a business class, which gave me more confidence in my ability to run a business, let alone just set quantitative goals and chart a plan for the next few years. I went to Barcelona with my boyfriend, found a therapist I love, stopped straightening my hair, and have been drinking a ton of water.

What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on recently?

Ahh! So many. We recently wrapped up a sound-reactive logo system for the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra that we worked on in collaboration with another agency here in New York. It was a nice continuation of our work building tools and designing systems that allow audiences to interact in a new or interesting way—frequently employing some kind of new technology.

We’re currently wrapping up an ecommerce site and out of home campaign, both which I’m thrilled to get out into the world. We’re also prototyping some collaborative idea generation tools, which I think will be a ton of fun for ourselves, our clients, and whoever else wants to give them a spin.

Advice for women trying to start their own design studios? What should we keep in mind, what challenges should we not be afraid of?

Do whatever you want! There are no right ways, definitely a few wrong ways, but it’s about deciding what kind of business and life you want to build. There are so many ways to get there.

When we were starting out, I remember talking to so many other studio and agency founders about how they got started. The more conversations we had, the more we realized that there were so many approaches—not to mention everyone was starting from a different place. Some started with corporate retainer clients, some had a trust fund, some were not profitable at all.

I wasted so much time comparing ourselves to the perceived successes of others when I didn’t have all the information. I still don’t. All I have is how we’re doing, based on our own wants and needs and goals. All this to say, focus on yourself, understand what you need, what you want, set goals, then go after them. Ask for help when you need it. Put all your best ideas into your first book. Drink lots of water. That’s all I’ve got.

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