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Q and A with Rob Hawse

by Ty Shaffer

December 9,2010

Rob Hawse is the president of Hawse Design, a design firm located in Charlotte’s South End. Originally from Wilmington, Mr. Hawse attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he studied both fine arts and commercial art. After working in New York for a year, he and his wife relocated to Charlotte, where they have decided to raise their three children. Mr. Hawse and his wife founded Hawse Design in 1996. The firm currently has six employees and has been involved in design and branding projects across Charlotte and beyond.

Do you consider Hawse Design to be a design firm, or an advertising and marketing firm? Do you think those distinctions really mean anything?

Yes, Hawse Design is a design firm. We position ourselves as a brand agency. I started [Hawse Design] because I felt I had a unique skill set to bring to the table. I felt like I could help promote brands, and that I could help companies speak more clearly to their customers about their products or services. Most companies do a poor job communicating what differentiates them in the market place. We feed off of this, turning it into successful and in some cases measurable campaigns.

Some accounts get us close to being an ad agency but we don’t do TV, radio or PR, so that distinction is pretty clear. We’re a design firm – we build brands, we maintain brands, we use a cross-disciplinary approach to arrive at solutions. And I think that’s what sets us apart – we have an opportunity to approach a problem with a unique skill set, and it often leads to unique solutions that touch our customers in a variety of ways

Where can we see some of Hawse Design's work around Charlotte?

We did a neat pylon at the North Carolina Music Factory. Once you make it into the facility, it’s pretty close to the building – a tall pylon structure about 20 feet in height. It’s a playful icon, which is what they were looking for – something a little more destination-based. They’re kind of on the outskirts of Uptown, and they were looking for that beacon or icon.

We do a good bit of work for Okuma America, which is out in South Charlotte off of Westhall. We build new brands for them, and maintain existing ones. Our work with them includes identity, direct mail, collateral, web, display, exhibit and signage. Our most recent accomplishment was the design of their two story tradeshow booth that occupies 17,000 square feet of show space.

We’ve also been involved in the South End rebranding. CCCP contracted us to do the work and we worked with them to conduct a series of interviews with local businesses and residents. And what came out of it was that there was a great deal of brand equity already in the logo, [but] one of the struggles was that the complexity of the mark made it difficult for companies to use it to promote their business. And so we tidied it up, simplified it, and then created a family of marks that went along with it so that the businesses could use those marks in partnership with the overall logo. That’s just in the final stages of being rolled out. Some are on the rail line, and we’re doing a gateway sign for South End that will include some of those new marks.

Do you view the work that you do as a type of public art?

Yes, I think you can get pretty close, and it happens when you have a customer who has a decent budget, unique vision, and tremendous respect for design and what it can communicate. When you get all that mixed together, it gives us an opportunity to step in and create something that doesn’t necessarily have to be so literal. One of the struggles is that our customers tend to worry whether their customers will “get it” and have trouble believing in what designers can bring to the table, and trusting them. So for us, good customers are the ones that are properly funded, have patience, and trust in our ability to solve problems in a unique way.

I think in that regard you can get pretty close to the line in terms of what is a sign and what is a piece of public art, like with the Music Factory piece. Yes, they needed to solve a problem – “You’ve arrived at the Music Factory, and you can tell that because here’s the sign.” But it was done in a way that makes [the viewer] give it an extra couple of looks so it becomes more than just a sign. If you can figure out how to get beyond its utilitarian intent, you have the opportunity to create a piece of art that supports the brand. That’s when I think you start to gray the line a bit.

It’s interesting that you say “gray the line.” Do you think that the commercial component conflicts with the aesthetic, so that these projects get close to but never quite rise to the level of “art”?

Answering, “what is art?” is a difficult and opinionated task. Yes, I think the commercial component can get in the way of the aesthetic but it is directly related to the relationship you have established with your customer. It compares to the struggle I had with myself in school, where I had instructors who wanted me to go into fine arts, and I had instructors who wanted me to go into commercial art. The difference between the two is that for one you’re paid by someone to help execute their vision, and the other is “hey, we’re hiring you because we want you to do your thing.” [In commercial art] you can be limited by your customer’s vision, and I think that’s one of the struggles that I’ve had at times. I don’t find myself struggling with it quite as much anymore because I have good relationships with my customers and I appreciate them for believing in us and paying us to help them execute their vision. But I can’t say that I don’t think about how much fun it would be to go do [my] own thing and not have to worry about what anyone else thinks of it.

Why did you decide to place Hawse Design in South End?

I feel like South End does a really good job supporting design related businesses – supporting a lot of things that we really believe in as a group. So, what better place to do [this work] than in South End? I live in South Charlotte, so it doesn’t really make any sense for me to be here and to drive in that mess every day, but I do it because I really believe in building something that attracts the right kind of talent. Going forward I would be very encouraged to see small to mid-size businesses continue to focus on [South End], whether it’s fine art or commercial art, graphics or architecture, even engineering – anything that has to do with the creation of something that doesn’t exist. I think South End is a special place in Charlotte for that.

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