PUNK ROCK MBA INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA HARDISTY
Finn McKenty’s Punk Rock MBA is about the links between subcultures like hardcore, grafitti and skateboarding and the entrepreneurial spirit that they imbue. Joshua was interviewed on the site in 2015.
Alumni Profile: Joshua Namdev Hardisty of The MVA Studio and MCAD (2015)
by Finn McKenty
For whatever reason, it seems like “graphic designer” is the #1 career choice of ex-hardcore kids and skateboarders (I was no exception, having spent quite a few years doing graphic design myself). I think a big part of that is because visual art plays such a huge role in both cultures: from album covers to show flyers to magazine ads to deck graphics to t-shirts, graphic design is in many ways just as much of a part of these cultures as music and skateboarding are. I mean, how many of us picked up our first record because it had a cool cover, or got into skating because some deck had a sick graphic on it?
Which brings us to our latest PRMBA Alumni, Joshua Hardisty. I wanted to talk to Josha because he came up in a very specific subset of hardcore that I also spent a lot of time in, the Ebullition/Gravity scene. Not only did that scene produce a lot of amazing, groundbreaking records, but it had a really distinct and cool aesthetic that influenced many of us as designers. Today, Joshua uses those influences in his grown-up job as a designer for The MVA Studio, teacher at MCAD, and various other facets of the graphic design world.
Finn McKenty (FM): Give us your life story in a few sentences: who are you, what is/was your involvement in punk/hc/diy culture and what is your “real job”?
Joshua Hardisty (JNH): I’m Joshua Namdev Hardisty (formerly “Sparky” from ages 1–30). I’m a designer at Latitude, a branding agency built on a social enterprise model and I teach graphic design classes at Minneapolis College of Art & Design. Since 2003 I’ve co-ran The MVA Studio (all the images you see in this interview are MVA projects), a graphic design company that does work for DVS, éS Skateboarding, MCAD, The Soap Factory and produces books on design and visual culture.
I kind of got into hardcore through skateboarding. When I started in 1985 skating and punk were so completely intertwined that skating felt like a subculture of punk. What’s funny is punk didn’t connect with me then (I remember listening to so many seminal bands and feeling like “Huh?” Then I’d go home and wait for Run-DMC videos on MTV) but because one of the main spots to buy boards in Newport RI was a record store I spent a lot of time flipping through the bins and the aesthetics of Touch & Go, Dischord, SST and other labels of the period left an indelible mark on my psyche. In the early 90s I went to high school with sxe kids who skated and they inadvertently introduced me to hardcore like Struggle and Downcast that did connect (inadvertently because these were the records they’d borrow from someone and then find out it wasn’t New Age-style SXE hardcore). I spent the rest of the 90s involved in the oddly-named emo scene revolving around labels like Ebullition, Gravity and Bloodlink and I produced zines, ran a distro and started a record label. I still listen to new hardcore but I almost never go to shows (as an anti-social workaholic I have to be guilted into doing anything). Everything I do professionally though feels like a continuation of DIY activities—I design stuff for institutions whose work I value, I write books that celebrate design and subculture, I share what I know through my teaching at Minneapolis College of Art + Design, and I publish a lot through podcasting, my YouTube channel, and writing on Quora, Medium or my own site.
Joshua’s book, “DIY Album Covers” (client: Mark Batty Publisher)
FM: What did you learn from your time in DIY culture that has helped you in a professional capacity? I’m interested not just in philosophy or work ethic, but also in what specific aesthetic ideas you developed that informed your work today.
JNH: I was most involved in hardcore at a point when it was intensely DIY, to the degree that people thought there was a moral duty to produce your own records down to hand-gluing the covers. I point this out to say that obviously the DIY-just-fucking-try-and-see-what-happens mentality was drilled into me so I’ll skip talking about it.
Where I feel the longest-lasting influence is how I practice graphic design. The first would be early Ebullition records designed and produced by Kent McClard. The design of those records (Struggle 7”, Downcast 7”, 3/12/93 comp, Manumission 7”) put the content front and center and they were so serious looking. Aside from the grittiness of Kent’s photos or the illustrations, there’s no visual references to punk, instead it looked like newspaper design. His design was focused on communication and while he seemed to tailor each release toward the band, he wasn’t trying to create a “brand” for them. A big part of my work is to try and avoid trends or genre identifiers (i.e., I don’t want things to look “punk” or “corporate” or “art world”) and I think Ebullition played a role in that. The other thing about those records was how there’d be so much stuff in them—you’d open up the bag the record was in and there’d be a booklet written by the band, an insert by McClard, and who knows what else. I loved the idea of a record as more than playback format but a communications platform. There’s a grip of Ebullition releases that I keep only for the content component.
The other thing I carry with me is the desire to try and make things feel special through their materiality. One of my favorite record covers is the Channel 7″ released on Clay Garden in 1994. My friend Brad “designed” it by buying boxes of 8 x 10 Manila envelopes, cutting of the top 3″s and getting a reflective foil sticker made at Kinko’s that simply said “Channel.” to be applied to the envelope. And then he rubber-stamped the backside with his label’s name. It was 1995 and he was obviously indebted to Gravity and the aesthetic they inspired (though considerably stripped down) and part of the design was driven by having no idea how to produce a sleeve but what ultimately comes through is a very physical object—different papers, textures and material interacting and coming together in an effortless fashion. At my studio we talk about what something is going to feel like in your hands quite a bit when designing. We joke about making postcards thick enough to slash someone’s throat with.
One last thing: part of what makes hardcore or punk work is that you create from your skill level. The worst bands are always those ones that tried to write music that copied more mature bands rather than play organically from where they were at. It took me a long time to understand this idea in terms of work. I have a particular way of working, it’s fairly minimal and not on-trend but it’s how I like to work and what I want to see in the world. When I was at agencies and tried to make work that was more slick and popular almost nothing I made ever got produced. At some point I stopped “trying ” and just treated every project like it was my own and all of the sudden, things are getting produced. I have designs that have been in use at Target for 6 years now and they were the result of working where I was at and embracing my own impulses. When you work from where you’re at you tend to make something that has more of you in it and when that happens you’re probably making better work.
I have a general philosophy that everything is terrible and everyone has bad taste. This might seem cynical on the surface but I use it as a reminder that there’s no correlation between quality, trends and success so I might as well do what feels right rather than what other people seem “good.” This might be punk in a nutshell.
Resonating Bodies poster. Client: The Soap Factory. Design assistant: Timothy Cronin
FM: On the flip side of that coin, are there any bad habits or bad ideas that you picked up that have held you back professionally?
JNH: I picked up a lot of weird anti-business stuff up even though I was running businesses in the scene. I think that was a recipe for failure. Instead of reimagining what a business could be and how it could be awesome I was instead excusing failures because “this isn’t business, man”. This goes hand in hand with not wanting to make a profit, believing you should do everything yourself until it almost kills you or that creative labor should go unpaid (think of the “why is this CD $12? It only costs 2.46 to print 1000 CDs.” argument) theses are ideas that I couldn’t shake until well into my thirties even though they didn’t serve me at all. It took 2 years of listening to Dipset 24/7 to deprogram my HeartattaCk approach to finance and admit that not only did I need money but I really wanted it too.
Haunted Basement poster. Client: The Soap Factory. Design assistant/photographer: Jordan Anderson
FM: There are a lot of aspiring designers in the scene. What advice would you give to a younger kid who wants to end up in your line of work?
JNH: Make shit now—flyers, zines, fake record covers (if you don’t know any bands) and make it a reflection of you. This doesn’t mean everything you do has to have a style but that the approach and method is all you. That you would do it the same way whether it’s for yourself, your friend’s band or Nike. Do everything you can to figure out what you like to do and how you work best. That’s what a real career is built off. Otherwise you’re just chasing after the shadows of other people’s ideas. Never turn anything down where you get to actually print something (in the beginning). And never turn down a project because you don’t think you’re good enough because the person that gets it is almost never better than you are (to reiterate: everything is terrible and everyone has bad taste).
It’s pretty simple: you should be your favorite graphic designer. If you’re not you’re either making the wrong work or you need to quit and do something else.