Although I understand how you may have gotten the impression that 36Point never makes any mistakes – and is always a prim and polished embodiment of perfectionism – the sad truth is, even we bungle it sometimes. And that’s exactly what happened with the audio from my exclusive interview with Jason Kernovich and Dusty Summers of the amazing Philadelphia-based Illustration powerhouse The Heads of State. For some reason there was an obscene amount of static in the recording that made it simply unlistenable. But because these two gentleman are so friggin’ awesome and because their interview contained such immaculate gems of wit and wisdom, I made the painful decision to sit through the static and transcribe the entire interview. Please enjoy:
THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW:
Ben: Welcome to 36Point.com – I have with me, “The Heads of State”. These guys do amazing work – I’m sure you’ve seen some of it. If you haven’t, make sure you visit theheadsofstate.com and check it out. “The Heads of State” is comprised of Dustin Summers and Jason – how do you pronounce your last name?
Ben: Hey! That’s not so hard – why was I so intimidated?
Jason: Why were you so intimidated?
Ben: As a designer, it’s cool that “Kern” is a part of your last name. Do you get that a lot?
Jason: Actually, I’ve never heard that before.
Ben: Guys – today I really want to get at, how you became who you are today and where you guys came from. So my first question is this: was there any big design influence in your childhood that you look back on for inspiration?
Dusty: Yeah, I mean, one of the things I always kinda go back to is my parent’s record collection. I remember Sunday mornings was the time they’d bring out all the records. I remember being 4 or 5 and just sorting through those giant Willie Nelson or Bob Dylan albums. I didn’t know it at the time – but they definitely left an impression on me. Just sitting there in the sunlight looking at The Grateful Dead covers –I was influenced without even knowing.
Ben: Did you try to redraw the covers or anything like that?
Dusty: I think like any kid in 5th or 6th grade you start to draw the Nirvana or the Van Halen logo. That’s when that started for me – not so much when I was 5.
Ben: Jason what about you?
Jason: Similarly to Dusty – I think music played a very important part in my formation as a designer. I definitely remember sitting in my 5th grade class drawing the Mötley Crüe logo or the Van Halen logo.
Ben: This is so funny – I did not experience this as a child!
Jason: My mother still has a Meade college ruled notebook – and on it’s magenta cover, in a ballpoint pen it says: “KISS”. It’s totally the Kiss logo. I must have been 11 years old when I drew that. As I have some perspective on my childhood – my mother was a collector of antiques, so our house was always full of vintage coffee cans and vintage bottles – things with old labels and typography.
Dusty: You said KISS – and I remember doing that as well… but I never listened to KISS at all. It’s almost like I had to draw the logo – even if I didn’t listen to them.
Jason: As an 11 year old, you didn’t have to really listen to KISS, Poison or Megadeath – you just had to know that you were into hair-metal in the 80s.
Ben: You have no idea how much you are playing into the 36 Point sensibilities right now. At the office we have all the KISS records – and we only spin vinyl.
Jason: What’s your favorite?
Ben: I like Destroyer. It’s just great.
Dusty: It’s the best cover.
Ben: I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that music is such big influence to you guys – because you still do a lot of gig posters and album covers today. Which project are you most proud of?
Dusty: There was a project that we did pretty early on – that was very important for us to do. Like you said, we started doing gig posters – but we’ve tried to get away from them the last few years…”
Ben: Because they don’t pay?
Jason: Some of them pay.
Dusty: “It was a poster we did for Wilco – a DC monument with a vine around it. It was the first time we thought we could send a message that was bigger then the band’s name. There was a little bit of a social story going on with it – and it really changed the way we thought about design. It forced us into this other profession: of being an illustrator. That project really showed us that we could use our art form to tell a story – rather than just to promote a band.
Jason: I agree with what he said. Which reminds me – Destroyer is NOT the best KISS record. Rock and Roll Over is the best designed cover.
Ben: That one is pretty cool – did you guys do that?
Jason: We wish.
Ben: I meet a lot of young designers wanting to make in this world of graphic design. But they come out of school and they don’t really know the steps they need to take to “make it”. So I’m curious: how did you guys get from being the guys redrawing the KISS logo… to the guys making the Wilco covers.
Dusty: I think kids want instant gratification right now – and it’s just not the way it happens. We toiled for 5 or 6 years doing concert posters that, like you said, didn’t pay very well but they really honed in our aesthetic.
Jason: While working other jobs.
Dusty: While working other jobs – “corporatey”, 9-5 graphic design jobs. (Even landing jobs like those can be a feat in and of itself – kids are just trying to get work any way they can.) We were working our ass off and starting to think, “maybe there’s not gonna be any pay-off”. But we plugged away, because we didn’t mind sitting there, working a job – just so we could come home and working from 6 to midnight on our own projects. We were doing it because we were having fun – not just to get ahead. I think you have to have a passion for graphic design.
Jason: We were drawing those KISS logos in grade school, I know that both of our college portfolios had music themes still in it – and when we graduated, even though we got those somewhat typical design jobs, the work we did on the side still featured a lot of music as the focus and passion. You have to pay the bills – but you have to design what you love.
Ben: That brings up an important question: Are you guys musicians?
Dusty: Jason’s a musician.
Ben: Do you not play anything Dusty?
Dusty: I have a guitar.
Ben: That’s a great first step.
Jason: And I’m not really a musician at all. I just occasionally strum a guitar. To be very honest – in high school I was in a band because it was a great way to meet girls if you couldn’t play football. I really shouldn’t say I’m a musician just because I was in a shit punk-rock band.
Ben: While you guys worked your 9 to 5 corporate design jobs, and pursued your dreams on the side – I imagine that was very hard to balance your time with all the things you needed to do. What about today? You’re now in Philadelphia, rocking things out, doing what I would call a “dream job”. How do you guys balance your work, family, and friends? Do you feel like you’re balanced? And if so – what steps have you taken to get to that place?
Dusty: We’ve been doing this about 10 years – and there’s a really big contrast now in what we can physically and mentally do on a daily basis. When you’re 22, 23, 24, 25 – you can sit in there and work 18 hour days and not really get that burned out. Now we have a mortgage and family and obligations – it’s a tough balance. But as we’ve gotten a little older – we’ve realized you can take inspiration from all those things. There doesn’t have to be this giant separation in our lives. To be honest, as you get older the jobs get bigger – and it’s not as important to bust your ass quite as much. Also, as you get older you begin do tasks quicker – you get better with the tools, get better with concepting. Now we know that we’ll be able to set up the type in 15 minutes rather than playing with it for 15 hours. As you grow older – there’s things that begin to balance out. We’ve learned a lot in these last 10 years.
Jason: One thing we’re getting really good at now is compartmentalizing our tasks – if our day involves a lot of sketching and connecting, we’ll leave the office and go to a coffee shop, or a library – and that’s one way to find balance in our lives.
Dusty: Just to add to that a little more – you asked about balancing your family? Your family has to understand you’re going to work long hours every once in awhile. But one of the great things about working in the environment we work in is, Jason and I, and our other designer Woody Harrington…”
Ben: Woody Harrelson?
Jason: Yes – Woody Harrelson now works for us.
Dusty: Anyways – we may have to work a few evenings in a row – but it’s not a corporate environment. If you can’t come in on a thursday – or if you need to be gone 5 days in a row, we’ll figure out how to deal with it. We realize that people can get burned out easily. Both of us have worked in environments where the boss or manager didn’t care about us. We learned the hard way – and that’s not the environment we want.
Ben: We’ve touched on a little bit of your design process – I’d really like to know more about how you guys go from start to finish on one of your illustrations. Last night, over dinner, I heard Jason say that he doesn’t really draw – and that you guys aren’t really “draw-ers”. How can you guys produce the work that you do – if you can say that about yourselves? Or were you just being modest?
Jason: No – we’re not being modest… but I will say that we are both scribblers and doodlers. Actually – Dusty’s a fabulous draftsman – his drawings are quite childlike and spectacular and everything you’d want in a drawing. So, although drawing is a huge part for us – we just don’t consider ourselves to be “draw-ers”. We never think of it as an end – but simply a means to an end. The work we produce is a hybrid of the drawing and the computer. But I think the goal is to make it feel like it’s an object – that it’s been touched by somebody, it’s been lived in, it’s got a little patina of existence to it – a story.
Dusty: A big part of our process is the sketching and connecting. I’d say 80% of our work is finding that very simple germ of an idea that can be executed simply. And I think for us, we put so much time into that thinking that the aesthetic of the final piece is really an afterthought. If you’ve got a great idea – you should be able to solve it’s problem whether you can draw, or take a photo – or whatever. It’s really all about the concept.
Ben: I see a lot of people that get into graphic design – view it as a job or a profession rather than a lifestyle – and they get stuck doing something that maybe they’re good at – but it’s really not their dream. Do you feel like you guys are living your dream – or do you feel like that’s still something you’re trying to figure out, something that you’re trying to move towards?
Dusty: I think we’re going in that direction. I know people who kinda live, eat and breathe graphic design…
Jason: That’s kind of a weird way to say that…
Ben: I don’t know anyone who actually eats graphic design…
Dusty: Well, Sagmeister might have designed a sandwich that he made an intern eat.
Ben: Sagmeister may have eaten a little bit of graphic design. Yes.
Dusty: I think one of the things that’s important to us, that keeps us healthy and keeps us working together – is being able to let it all go. I’ll be honest, I don’t read graphic design books – that’s just not the kind of designer I am. I think there are people who read and write books – and I’m very jealous of them. It’s good to have a balance – and design really isn’t the only thing.
Ben: That sounds like a good note to end on. Dusty and Jason – thanks so much for your time.