Carly Ayres on how to set up a creative agency

Posted by

David Holmes

Published on

July 5th 2017

HAWRAF co-founder Carly Ayres talks to us about the path that led her to co-founding a creative studio, how practice makes perfect, and the rewards of learning in public.

Carly is a partner at HAWRAF, a New York-based design studio focused on creating meaningful brands, communications and interactions. Less than a year old, the fledgling agency already has an all-star client roster and is ranked among Fast Company’s Most Creative in Business. We wanted to talk to her about what she enjoys about running a shared practice and what you should know before starting your own.

Hey Carly, can you tell us a bit about your experience leading up to starting HAWRAF?

My background is a bit all over the map. I used to describe myself as a specialized generalist or generalized specialist. Generally, I specialize in writing and strategy – helping companies and brands figure out what they want to say and how they should say it.

HAWRAF

Team HAWRAF: Andrew, Nicky and Carly. Photo by Julia Robbs.

I studied Industrial Design at the Rhode Island School of Design, was one of the first employees at CreativeMornings, and then spent a few years freelancing at and with folks like Google Creative Lab, Collaborative Fund, ustwo, and i am OTHER.

During my stint at Google’s Creative Lab, I met Andrew Herzog and Nicky Tesla, and we did a few projects together including the application for the Creative Lab 5. We really hit it off, so when it came time to decide what we wanted to do next, a studio felt like a good next step.

So how would you define HAWRAF?

HAWRAF is a brand new design studio. We’re concept focused and medium agnostic – meaning that we always start with the idea then figure out how to make it from there. We make print stuff, digital stuff, useful stuff, not-so-usefull stuff, and everything in between.

The end result might be an interactive web-based application, a city-wide campaign of smiling billboards, or a poster generator for the Women’s March, but usually involves engaging an audience in a new or interesting way.

“The results we arrive at are something we never could have done independently and are so much better for it. They’re uniquely HAWRAF.”

What made you want to start your own agency as opposed to continuing working for an agency?

For us, we knew that we wanted to continue doing a lot of the work we had been doing, but with more control over the types of projects and the way we approach them. Something I always loved in freelancing was the freedom and ability to say “no”, but felt limited by the scale and diversity of projects I could take on as an individual.

As a studio, we can do both, while simultaneously building out a practice that is intentional about culture, methodologies, and whatever else we want it to be.

In particular, we’re interested in exploring what a design studio in 2017 can be. We have a lot of ideas and HAWRAF is a vehicle for trying them out to see what works.

Has anything gone badly? Any hurdles to overcome?

Oof. The first time doing anything comes with a steep learning curve and – as this is the first time running a business for all of us – there’s been quite a few.

Pricing continues to be a conversation with every proposal as we negotiate balancing our interests, bandwidth, and bank account. After several internal conversations about this, we put together a flowchart that makes those decisions a bit easier.

The HAWRAF Should We Do This Project flowchart

The HAWRAF “Should We Do This Project” flowchart.

On top of that, we find that we’re at our best when we’re exploring new technologies and mediums we haven’t used before, which comes with its own challenges – the biggest of which is just giving ourselves the time and space to experiment before arriving at a final concept.

And what’s been your highlight so far?

For me, it’s been incredibly exciting to see our projects take shape and, in turn, inform the voice and perspective of the studio. The results we arrive at are something we never could have done independently and are so much better for it. They’re uniquely HAWRAF.

Knowing that we’re trying out these ideas and they’re actually working feels pretty great, too. We try to not do anything a certain way just because that’s how it’s been done before.

It’s a risky place to operate in because if it doesn’t work, you’ve gone out of your way to do things the long, hard, stupid way and ended up back where you started. We’ve definitely had a share of self-inflicted detours, but we’ve managed to end up somewhere better than where we started.

Your Creative Accessibility initiative is super interesting. Why did you come up with it?

Creative Accessibility is an initiative of our own to make the creative industry a little more accessible. It came out of early conversations we had when we were thinking about starting a studio, looking around, and wanting to do things a bit differently.

The design industry – similar to most – tends to reward those who are already in positions of privilege and power. If you aren’t in those positions, certain “opportunities” just don’t exist for you. So, as we began talking about what we wanted to do next, we wanted to challenge those existing structures.

For us, that’s involved trying to be as honest and transparent as we can in the realities of what it’s like to start a studio, and then share those learnings in public. We do a lot of projects that let people see the nuts and bolts – and hot glue, spit, rubber bands, band aids, etc – that are holding this thing together and making it work.

Photo by Julia Robbs.

What advice would you give to anyone setting up their own agency in 2017?

One of the first things we did when we were just starting out was a project called A-Z. It was under that umbrella of Creative Accessibility and was an exercise in demystifying the creative process — figuring out our own along the way.

We responded to 26 briefs over 26 hours, one for every letter of the alphabet.

I think it was a surprisingly good way for us to apply a lot of pressure, try a bunch of things, and see what worked. Along the way, we discovered a lot about how we worked and communicated best together.

I don’t know if I’d recommend spending 26 hours locked in a room with your future partners, but it worked pretty well for us. We’re now in the process of making a toolkit so that you can try it out yourself. Stay tuned.

Thanks Carly for those insights. We’ll definitely stay tuned! As a bonus, we’ve added a video talking about how to get the side-scrolling effect as seen on the HAWRAF website.