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Creative Disturbance by Design: An Interview with Richard Hart

Ask Richard Hart and he will tell you that good design is surprising, inventive and intelligent. His design and illustration site, aptly named ‘Happy Blood‘, is indicative of the great lengths he is willing to go to in pursuit of this.  

Richard was born in Scotland and later moved to Durban where he and his sister Susie founded their design firm, disturbance in 1997. The initial learning curve was a steep but rewarding one; the studio (now known as THB Disturbance after merging with The Hardy Boys) has produced award-winning work both locally and internationally. Though he has been establishing himself as a freelancing creative in New York City since relocating in 2013, Richard continues to do work for THB Disturbance back home. More recent years have seen him delving into the “terrifying and exhilarating” world of art, exploring the hybrids of religion and superstition and tradition and magic in Africa.  

In the interview to follow Richard shares some thoughts and insights on becomming aware of design, jumping into the deep end with disturbance, the art-making process, the impact of his new surroundings in NYC and what he has up his sleeve next.

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Them–and–Us co-curated with Noel Pretorius

Were you always aware that you wanted to pursue a career in the creative sphere, or was there quite a journey to discovering this?  

I was always sure but it was a battle of wills between my mom and I – she gave me two choices; Law or Architecture. Neither interested me; I wanted to be an artist. Well, actually I wanted to create artwork for record covers… I think I had had a moment at the age of about 9, seeing Meatloaf’s “Bat out of hell” cover. I thought that was the coolest thing ever and was pretty sure I could do that as a job if I was given a chance.  

Before we come to understand that virtually all things around us are ‘designed’, we take it for granted. Do you remember when this realisation occurred for you?  

I recall becoming aware of design – actually graphic design – when I was about 13. Strangely the Amanzimtoti library had a huge collection of Graphis magazines. I would go down there and just pore over them for hours and hours (you couldn’t take them out), not really understanding what it was I was looking at, but completely mesmerized. A lot of it was Japanese it seemed and quite abstract. A few years later when I went to study graphic design, it took me at least a year to figure out that I was entering into the realm of what had so deeply affected me. I think that was about the time it dawned on me how omnipresent design was. I was a slow learner, always have been.  

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Here and There poster  

Can you talk about some examples of design – be it graphic, product or otherwise – that have had a lasting and significant impact on the way you think about and work within the field?  

I guess those early examples count here. What struck me was always how visually compelling and just beautiful that work was. I came to appreciate concept a bit later on, but somehow there’s always been this need to make things beautiful and seductive and compelling to look at, over and above the idea, which of course is absolutely critical.  

Until you moved to New York in 2013, you were actively involved with disturbance – the design studio you founded with your sister Susie in 1997. What were some of the most significant projects you worked on or things you learned during this time?  

Haha, I feel like I pretty much learned everything I know on the job at disturbance. My sister and I started the company when we were in our mid-twenties. Six months prior to that I’d returned home from 4 years traveling abroad and bought myself a Mac. I had never used a computer before and had to call the sales guy back to my house to show me how to turn it on! So the learning curve was extreme and there were many times that Susie and I wished we’d done things differently, gained some agency and industry experience before plunging in.  

ID - Disturbance

The cover for I.D. Magazine‘s feature on disturbance  

What mediums do you work in/with?  

I’m media-agnostic.  

To what extent do your surroundings impact your style or approach? Have you noticed any discernible shifts in these since you’ve been living in New York?  

Surroundings play a much larger role in my work than I would have thought. Living in New York has taken getting used to from a working point of view – I have a great studio with ample space and good light in midtown Manhattan, yet I have battled to be as productive here as I was back in Durban. A lot of it has been getting used to living here, juggling responsibilities that seemed to take care of themselves back home and juggling roles; still working for THB Disturbance, establishing myself as a freelance creative here and working as an artist. But over-and-above all that there is something – a friction that is possibly symptom of the tremendous energy here – that feels difficult to me.

Keith by Richard Hart Grace by Richard Hart Jay_Z

New York Icons ongoing illustration series  

What else are you informed, influenced or inspired by?  

My design work tends to be inspired by what is relevant to the task. Or at least I’d like to think so… I’m sure to some degree I’m not impervious to outside influence. And New York is not in short supply of outside influence! 

What is your take on trends in graphic design?  

I hate trends! The very word sends shivers down my spine. That might be a bit harsh, but I do feel that the internet has created this massive glut of very competent design work that all looks the same. This has been going on for years and it feels very destructive to me. I feel that young designers just entering the game go online to Behance or Flickr or whatever and there is this overwhelming sense of what people are doing and it all looks the same and it’s very seductive and easy to emulate and so they do. And sure they do it well – often brilliantly – but it just has no soul whatsoever.  

In your opinion, what are the characteristics of ‘good’ design?  

Good design is surprising, inventive, intelligent (rather than clever), betrays the joy of its making and somehow looks effortless. In addition, it might be elegant, timeless and simple, but if it’s only those things it’s also likely to be boring.  

Disturbance quarterly (1) Disturbance quarterly (2)

The disturbance Quarterly  

If you could change anything about the way design is taught, what would it be?  

Less emphasis on software literacy and more focus on ideas.  

You’ve named your design/illustration website ‘Happy Blood’, referring to the fact that you’re willing to bleed for your work as long as it means doing it the right way. What are the greatest lengths you’ve gone to in pursuit of this?  

We spent a whole day once literally taping our junior designer to the wall in strange positions, then removing him and doing it again. He was red and raw and rather sore by the afternoon but we had the makings of a poster. We also gathered our entire staff on a Durban beach one morning at 2:30am and spent 6 hours digging trenches in the sand to create a piece of typography that was photographed from up in a nearby hotel. Stuff like that I guess. Usually stuff that could be done quite easily and quite convincingly digitally, but that just wouldn’t be the same.  

Over the past few years you’ve become increasingly involved in the art world. What do you seek to explore through your work?  

I suppose I feel in a way that I’ve explored design quite thoroughly and that to some degree I’ve taken from it what I can. It’s become easy, and easy is always worrying for me. Art feels like this wide open plain with no path or road or suggestion of a direction to move in, but the promise that any direction could be the right one. And that is truly terrifying and exhilarating.   Right now my work seems to be very focussed on African rituals and spiritual practice. I’m interested in how people connect with God or with other worlds, and how in Africa there are these hybrids of religion and superstition and tradition and magic. I feel that’s an interesting point from which to jump into art-making.  

Shine artist's book - Richard Hart (1) Shine artist's book - Richard Hart (4) Shine artist's book - Richard Hart (5) Shine artist's book - Richard Hart (2) shine_mock_up_02 Shine artist's book - Richard Hart (3)

Shine, a self-initiated artist’s book still in progress  

Richard Hart (1)

Invisible text silk wall hangings  

How do you approach the art-making process?  

I suppose I’m quite planned and methodical about it. Which I’m struggling with. I’m aware that there needs to be room for accident, spontaneity, discovery in art-making, but that sort of freedom goes against my very rational, calculated approach to making. It’s a battle and a journey and I guess that’s why it’s exciting to me.  

Though you’re living abroad, you’re still very involved in the local creative scene here in SA – a recent example is the poster you created for Future Sound of Mzansi. Why is it important to you to keep these ties intact?  

Home is home!  

Future Sound of Mzansi poster by Richard Hart

Film poster for Spoek Mathambo’s Future Sound of Mzansi  

Collaborations form a significant part of your practise. What value do these hold for you?  

A good collaboration always produces something beyond the sum of the talents involved. And there is that amazing opportunity to see the problem from a completely different perspective and come up with something that you could never do yourself.  

And finally, could you tell us what you’re currently working on or working towards?  

Well today specifically I’m preparing work to go down to a show In Austen for the South by South West festival, getting my studio in shape for our building’s participation in Armory week open studios tomorrow evening and writing some copy for a disturbance client.   Beyond that, I’m in the process of finishing up an artist book with Sean O’Toole, working on a series of short videos that will work as an installation in a show I’m having later this year here in New York and developing a series of “invisible typefaces” for use in a large body of text works. On the design front I’m developing an idea for a book collaboration with Geoff Patton, the ECD at The Hardy Boys. For the next month or two I’ll also be working with an ad agency here on the overhaul of a large tech company’s visual identity.  

Find more design and illustration work at www.happyblood.com and for Richard’s art, visit www.richard-hart-studio.com

Richard Hart (3) Richard Hart (2)

Speculative design symposium posters for Droog, Amsterdam  

Dutchmann by Richard Hart

Kalahari Speed Week poster comissioned by Dutchmann  

Design Indaba zine by Richard Hart (1) Design Indaba zine by Richard Hart (2) Design Indaba zine by Richard Hart (3) Design Indaba zine by Richard Hart (5) DI_2 DI_mag_hello_poster_7829 Design Indaba zine by Richard Hart (4) DI_9

Design Indaba Where It’s At magazine  

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