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Interview

Christian Helms

August 07, 2011

Tell us about your background. Where are you from and how did you get started? Have you always worked independently?

I grew up in a small mill town in North Carolina called Bessemer City. I went to college at UNC Chapel Hill, where I earned a degree in journalism before “finding design” and studying at Portfolio Center in Atlanta. From there I went to intern for Michael Bierut at Pentagram in New York. I was up there for about a year but it just wasn’t the right it for me. My southern roots were a little stronger than I liked to admit at the time.

Around then John Bielenberg was starting Project M, which sounded to me like it could be an amazing and defining experience for a young designer. It was. And it let me leave NY without feeling like I was turning my back on all of the great opportunity up there. After M wrapped up I wanted to go somewhere that felt like a better match with my interests, and Austin seemed like a perfect fit. Again, it was.

I moved here in 2003 and worked a year at McGarrah-Jessee before starting my first studio, The Decoder Ring. That eventually ran its course and I transitioned to running a shop focused on larger design work and brand building, Helms Workshop.

Oh, and somewhere in there my Decoder partner Geoff and I started a hot dog joint called Frank.

Seems like it didn’t take too long for you to make the decision to strike out on your own. Was that something you had your sights on from the beginning or did that evolve over time?

I moved to town with a lofty and probably slightly naïve five and ten-year plan. It’s something I’d always hoped to do eventually, but the opportunity arose a lot earlier than I’d imagined it would be a possibility. I talked about it a lot with James Victore, who’s a good friend and mentor. He gave me a lot of encouragement.

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Early in my first year in Austin I met Geoff Peveto, who was silkscreening posters for a ton of great bands. We began working together on small music projects here and there. That work quickly got a lot of attention, and more opportunities popped up. It wasn’t long before I realized I could transition to working 100% on my own projects, and made the leap. Geoff’s support is a big part of any success I’ve had. Don’t tell him that, though— he’ll never let me live it down.

Your secret is safe with us and the internet. Let’s chat about Frank. Aside from the excellent food and drinks, a lot of attention has been paid to the restaurant’s brand. Tell us about the aesthetic direction you chose. Also, how did the idea for Frank come about?

I had a number of goals for the brand personality. First was to craft an honest expression of the joy we felt in building Frank and in what we were offering the public. At its heart the restaurant is a product of our shared interests, passions and quirks. Speaking personally, I’m really moved that people connect with it in such a big way. I think Daniel and Geoff would agree.

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Second, in building the brand I was obsessed with the idea of creating moments where people could feel like a kid again. The playful nature of the tone and viewpoint were driven by that goal. The “come and take it” sausage flag, and the sausage phone, the pig-nose pint glasses are all part of trying to give our customers a few seconds of child-like wonder and amusement. I think it’s the best gift you can give someone.

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Aesthetically. I always joke that the design strategy was “circus comes to town, broadsides hot dog cart.” The bright mustard and ketchup tones, the big midway typography, all of that comes from there. Add in a nod to my home state of North Carolina and our shared love of the south and you end up with a ridiculous celebration of artisan food, southern culture and the versatility of the hot dog. I could talk about that place all day.

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The idea of Frank really started with our partner Geoff Peveto, who developed an obsession with a number of hot dog joints around the country— most notably Hot Doug’s in Chicago. He actually approached Doug about franchising, and Doug declined but offered to share his thoughts and support if we wanted to start our own sausage-venture. If I had a dollar for every hot dog, sausage or bacon image that Geoff texted or emailed me during that period I could probably retire.

During that same time we were going to Woodland a lot, because it was near our homes and it was just run so well— the kind of place where you feel like a regular after one visit. We got to know the manager, Daniel Northcutt really well and not to long afterward we had a shared epiphany. We had everyone we needed to start a restaurant sitting there at the bar. So there was no excuse not to try it.

Talk about your approach in developing a brand such as Frank. Do you have a set process or does your work flow adapt based on the project?

The approach and process really does vary depending on the client. Regardless, a solid understanding of who they are, what they do and why that matters and has value to the public is at the center of developing the brand identity. Once you have that, our job is to tell the truth in a compelling way. Often clients have a clear vision of who they are, so we’re able to move more swiftly. Sometimes they have a disjointed viewpoint and that takes time to resolve.

Your work spans a variety of disciplines. Do you think designer’s should extend their abilities into a variety platforms (interactive, signage, print, typography, etc)? If so, what advice do you have for them?

Absolutely. As a discipline, a spirit of wonder and exploration is at the heart of what we do. That’s why we first fell in love with design, right? Why would you not try your hand at any and every new opportunity to do something outside of your range of experience? I think a lot of folks steer away from the unfamiliar because of fear— fear of failure, fear of being uncomfortable, etc. The thing is, those moments are the chances we get to really grow as designers. I remind myself of that constantly, and try to put myself in situations where I’m unsure and have to work my way to an unfamiliar solution.

Another thing that I’ve realized in the past year or so is the importance of taking time every day to work on something with your hands. Not on the mac or the phone, but in an immediately connected, hands-on manner. The joy in that experience is also at the heart of where we all started as designers, but I’ve become distanced from it as the studio has grown. I’m working hard to reclaim that in my everyday routine.

I’ve actually just started a new project with my sister-in-law Sue, to keep me responsible in that regard. It’s a small hand-made textile business called Standard Grit. We work collaboratively from Austin and Black Mountain, NC, to build hand-made, limited edition textile products that celebrate the weird and wonderful quirks of southern vernacular. I work on lettering here in Austin, and then work with Sue up in the Appalachian Mountains to translate them into flags, quilts and other items. It’s a lot of fun, and folks seem to really get a kick out of them.

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I’m not huge on giving advice, but the one thing I tell young designers the most is never wait for permission to do something you want to do. If there’s an idea that excites you or an experience you want to try, don’t wait— do it. You can spend an entire career waiting for opportunity to fall in your lap.

What is your favorite & least favorite part of the design process? What area(s) are you working to improve your skill-set?

I really love the beginning, when you’re learning about the client and their industry, brainstorming and exploring. Anything is possible at that point, which is so exciting. My least favorite parts are the mundane production and maintenance elements of a project. I’d imagine that’s true for most of us.

I’ve started a system that I use every few projects, where I make a list of 5 things I can not do to solve the problem in front of me. They’re usually angles, ideas or techniques I’m guilty of overusing. The idea is it will keep me responsible, and pushing in new directions. Clients don’t always love that, though.

Tell us about your work environment and what a typical day looks like for you. Do you have a dedicated office? What kind of music do you listen to while working?

Our studio is in East Austin, in a quiet neighborhood near 7th. It’s an open space with studio rooms looking into a central common area. There’s a wall of 97 hammers, a cross-cut section of a few-hundred year old live oak, and a six foot portrait of Buddy Holly beside big ol’ channel letters that read WHISKY. Our desks are made from reclaimed gym flooring, and there’s a kegerator waiting for a delivery from Austin Beerworks. It’s comfortable.

The music is all over the place, from Stax Soul to old bluegrass to whatever indie rock everyone’s into (or working on packaging) at the moment. We just finished Centro-matic’s stellar new album and we’re starting on Craig Finn’s solo debut.

What’s really cool is that Will and Craig have both become good friends over the years, and I think we had a small part in them getting to know each other. Fast forward, and Will’s singing backing vocals on Craig’s album. It’s beautiful— and awesome in so many ways. I’m proud to be associated with them.

Lately I’ve been listening to more podcasts while I work. I’m a little late to Marc Maron’s WTF, but it’s great. It’s a podcast about the craft of comedy, but there are so many parallels to any creative field.

Show us an image of the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this week.

Man, this is where the interview goes off the rails into total cliché. My wife and I had our first child a few months ago, and he takes the cake. Someone told me that having a kid would completely de-motivate me as a designer. I think it’s the exact opposite— he makes me want to build something magnificent, that means something.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Christian, it’s been great!

It really has! This has been a ton of fun for me. I really appreciate it, Phil. What you’re doing is great.

Christian Helms's Work
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