THEE BLOG Q&A Sessions: Christian Helms

TheeBlog-ChristianHelms There are a few contemporary Designers who I can easily name as sources for inspiration, admiration and that have helped me directly or indirectly to become a better professional. Christian Helms is definitely one of them. I had the great pleasure of meeting Christian two years ago at a the 2010 Brand New Conference. Now, I must be honest and say that I was not too familiar with him and his work until that day, but after enjoying (and drooling over) his presentation and chatting for a while realizing how awesomely cool and down to earth he is, I became an instant fan whose been following his work closely ever since. I had mentioned to Christian that I would bother him someday for an interview to chat about his background, career and work… and well, that day finally came and I am extremely happy to share this amazingly inspiring interview with you today!

Welcome Christian and thank you for accepting my invitation. I had the pleasure of meeting you two years ago and following your work has been a tremendous source of inspiration. I can honestly say you have influenced me as a Designer and your work has given me a new perspective on what I want and like to accomplish for my clients. As you could probably tell by my emails, I am excited and honored to have you as a guest…

Let’s begin with the obvious and obligatory question. Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your background?
My name is Christian. I own a branding and design studio in Austin called Helms Workshop. I wear a lot of hats, and depending on the day I’m a designer, writer, entrepreneur or some combination of both. I’m also a husband and a new dad. I grew up in a small mill town in NC, and went on to study journalism at UNC and design at Portfolio Center. I worked in Manhattan before moving to Austin in 2003.


You originally went to School and graduated as a Journalism major before ‘converting’ to Design. How and when did you decide to switch things up?
I honestly didn’t realize that design was something you could do for a living! The only design I’d been exposed to as a kid was stuff like Doritos packaging, and most of that stuff doesn’t feel like it was made by a person. It never occurred to me that someone had to design practically everything around me. I studied journalism because I was a strong writer, and it seemed to be the smartest move at the time.

I took a pile of studio art and photography classes, and kept trying to combine art with journalism in some way. UNC had no real design program. Finally I was introduced to design late in school through a broad overview class in J-school, and I was blown away. This was what I wanted to do with my life! The second realization was that I was about to graduate, and had no skill set. Hence, PC.





I love your witty craftsmanship when it comes to words and stories behind your work. Do you think your writing background has influenced and helped you as a Designer?
Absolutely. Voice and tone are things I consider a lot in early phases of design. And past that, I was taught that a good journalist has breadth of knowledge— they know a “little bit” about a LOT of things. Turns out that makes for a good designer as well.

Soon after graduating you ‘did time’ at Pentagram as an intern and had the opportunity to work and learn from icons such as Michael Bierut and Paula Scher. Tell us more about this experience, what you learned and how it helped you as a professional. (Your latest Communication Arts magazine interview covers briefly your experience at Pentagram and I have to admit I highlighted and bookmarked your statement)
I told a lot of stories about my time at Pentagram, and one of the more sensationalistic ones made the CA article. That Matt Porter is a sly one. For the record, I freakin’ love Paula.

I definitely didn’t consider Pentagram “doing time.” I learned so much there, and I was fortunate to get a lot of unique opportunities for an intern. My first time ever on press was being flown from NY to Kentucky to press check a $38/per piece promotional booklet that leveraged every production trick you can imagine. I got to work on a few of Michael’s passion projects. I soaked up everything I could.

People talk a lot about how smart Michael is, and it’s true— he’s brilliant. But he’s also a very brave designer. I learned a ton watching him work, especially with clients.

— By the way, for the record, didn’t mean ‘doing time’ as a bad thing. Many designers I admire and follow have worked at Pentagram, making it some sort of rite of passage for brilliance. So, I have nothing but the outmost admiration and respect for it. (And would love to work there someday…)



I read somewhere that after a year in New York you decided to move back to the South. With so many Designers and Artists moving to New York City and so many agencies or studios established there, why did you leave? And, why Austin?
The city just wasn’t the best fit for me, or technically I guess it was the opposite. The city was fine, I just couldn’t find my fit there. I grew up in the South, and although I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time its quirks, nuances and spirit are very dear to me. I think I felt like I had something to prove by moving to NY, and in the end all I proved is that I wasn’t listening to my gut.

About the time I realized NY wasn’t quite right I took a trip down to Austin. There were beautiful trees and trails, great music, food and people. I figured it was big enough to be interesting but small enough to feel like home. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.








Tell us about The Decoder Ring. Was this your first solo project? What motivated you to open shop?
It was. I started Decoder with two friends who, at the time, were primarily silk screen poster artists. What started as an alternative from my day job for me— essentially a venue for projects I was passionate about— eventually gained enough attention that I could focus on it full time.

What were some of the most significant and important lessons you learned as a Creative Director, Business Owner, and every other role you covered at The Decoder Ring?
I leaned far more than I can write here, but rest assured a good chunk of it was learned by doing things the wrong way once, and making changes based on what I learned.








And now you’ve launched Helms Workshop. What is different and what can we expect from this new venture?
Over the years my focus shifted back toward where I started my career, to brand identity and broader, more involved strategy and design. I really enjoy helping businesses or groups figure out how to best introduce themselves to their audience— in a way that highlights their differences, rather than playing it safe. The past couple of years have been extremely fulfilling, and clients have started to become lifelong friends and collaborators. It’s a fun time in my career.

I still work on select music projects, but tend to focus on bands I really love or have a good relationship with. Outside of that my focus is on existing brands or start-ups that have a viewpoint, a brave stance in the market and a lot of heart.

Your work is characterized by an impressive and enviable use of vintage colors, elements and themes. Have you always been influenced by 50s and 60s elements or is this something you adopted at some point?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’m definitely drawn to antiques, junk and vintage ephemera— my wife and I have a house full of it. Part that draw is that it’s what I grew up around. My parents were the same way. Every trip we took to the NC mountains or SC coast was punctuated with stops at antique stores or junk shops. And there’s such a level of permanence inherent in products made earlier in our history. Those things have a weight, and feel like they were built to last, rather than to be thrown away. I have a hard time imagining folks revering artifacts from today that way.










Whenever I work on presentations and branding proposals for clients or simply want to share beautiful samples of packaging and inspiring branding with colleagues I always bring up one of my favorite projects (and bookmarks). Tell us about Frank.
Frank is a labor of love. It’s the hot dog and artisan sausage restaurant downtown that I did the branding and design for a few years ago, and that I also co-own with my partners Daniel and Geoff. Geoff and I were partners in Decoder, and Daniel is a good friend who ran restaurants around town forever. It’s been a big success, and a ton of fun.

What inspired you to open your own Hot Dog + Beer Restaurant? Was this something you always wanted to do or was it born out of inspiration and the need for a creative outlet/haven?
I always joke that if someone had told 18-year-old me that I’d end up in Texas, owning a hot dog restaurant, I would have responded with something like “what the hell went wrong with me?” I definitely didn’t set out with a burning desire to become a restaurateur, though I love good food. We just saw an unfulfilled need, and a chance to build something unique while filling that hole in the Austin landscape.

It’s definitely been a creative playground though. I think the joy we take in the branding and operation really comes through for folks who experience Frank. And it attracts a diverse range of people, which I’m proud of. And plenty of design geeks.

We just had the folks from Jack Daniel’s in town for a project and when they posted a picture of Frank online someone responded that they only thought it existed in design annuals. That made the design student in me giggle.






Do you believe Frank’s beautiful aesthetics have played an important role in the success of your business? How would you explain to potential restaurant/bar owners the importance of great design and branding?
Absolutely. Daniel and I tend to play a game in the press pointing at each other— me crediting operations and him crediting design for the success. But in all honestly it’s the combination of both. Without either I don’t believe it would be so successful.

Folks seek Frank out when they visit Austin, and they’re constantly tweeting and posting pictures everywhere. The design work definitely announces that the restaurant is something different, with a lot of personality and heart. And inside the building, the delivery on that promise is solid and consistent.
We’ve been in food and wine, the times, southern living and all over national television. Google even came and shot a 60-second spot about Frank on their dime that aired nationally for eight months. That’s all the result of the combination of a unique brand identity, product and experience.





During your Brand New presentation two years ago, you talked about fun and inspiring projects like your work for The Hold Steady. At that time, I had just finished working with a local Miami band called Locos Por Juana and loved how you covered and featured small (yet intricate) projects like these. Do you prefer working for smaller and more involved clients or do you enjoy working and collaborating with big brands?
Both. It’s less about the nature or scope of the project, and much more about the people involved. If you’re driven, knowledgeable and passionate about what you do, I’m interested. I love working with folks who care as much about their business as I do about design.
I love folks who maintain a high level of craft, regardless of what’s expected in the industry. Folks with a viewpoint, and a willingness to celebrate what makes them different. If that’s present I’m excited.






Is there a signature work process or do you work on projects as they develop?
Each project is always a little different, but I do have a fairly standardized process at this point.

What inspires you?
Design created out of necessity by non-designers. I grew up in the south, and something about the crude (but beautiful) signage I saw back there really stuck with me. And my friends and collaborators, wife and son are a huge inspiration. And of course music and film. That’s a given, right?




What are 5 things you could not live without?
My family, exercise, country ham, uniball vision fine point waterproof pens, beer.

What are 5 things you could not work without?
My family, exercise, country ham, uniball vision fine point waterproof pens, beer. _(There isn’t much of a line between the two.)

Are there any clients or artists that you would like to work or collaborate with?
I always say Tom Waits. It’s a solid answer, I think. And a long-shot, so it keeps me motivated.



I know you just launched Helms Workshop but what else can we expect in the near future? Any fun plans?
I have a couple of interesting projects in development, but nothing to talk about just yet. Austin is a ridiculously entrepreneurial city, and I have a short list of folks I hope to team up with in one way or another in the coming years.





Thank you again Christian for accepting my invitation, taking the time to answer some questions and inspiring us with your work and story. It has been a pleasure and honor and I look forward to having you back soon!

For more visual delights and inspiration, visit em>

  1. Really awesome post Diego!!

    The interview was very inspiring and definitely makes me want to get back to what i love!

  2. Thanks Greg! I knew you would enjoy this one :)

Leave a comment