'An interview with Lawrence Azerrad of LAD Design.'
Lawrence Azerrad is a Los Angeles based Graphic Designer and Creative Director. Azerrad founded LADdesign, a graphic design studio dedicated to elevating our cultural experience through design excellence. Since 2001 LADdesign has created graphic design and comprehensive visual identity systems for clients such as Sting, The Silversun Pickups, Esperanza Spalding, The Beach Boys, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Red Bull Sound Select, and over a Eighteen-year client relationship, spanning seven album packages for award-winning American alternative rock band, Wilco.
Prior to opening LADdesign, Lawrence was an art director at Warner Bros Records, creating packaging and artwork for artists such as Miles Davis, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. He has taught Graphic Design at Art Center College of Design, He currently serves as an Advisory Board Member for the Los Angeles chapter of the AIGA.
Richard Wade Morgan had a chance to catch up with Lawrence before his April 19th Design Conversation at MODA.
Richard Wade Morgan: Design and music, moreover the making of one for the other, can be delicate because of clashing ideologies, expressions, and passion. How do you maintain a consistency of success in designing for the music industry? Any patterns you’ve noticed in the process?
Lawrence Azerrad: Well, every case is different. For some designers it might be strange not having a formula for every single project, but in my years doing this, I’ve learned that the most important thing to understand when designing for music is that it’s a visual articulation of another person’s art. You’re speaking about their life’s work through visual language. There has to be a real sensitivity about it. It won’t necessarily be about you, but it’s helping them define their vision... visually. You’re not taken completely out of the design equation, because my perspective, experience, and technique are a big part of how we resolve design problems here(LAD Design). More precisely, you have to listen to what the sensibilities of the artist are, challenge that, and have it come through in the artwork. A musician needs to feel like we are together in defining their visuals.
In a nutshell, every album project is different.
RWM: That is a very caring, and serious approach taken. It’s very selfless. I assume there are more than a few listening parties while working or taking a new client?
LA: We generally try to listen to the music while we’re designing. Or if we can’t listen for security/release reasons, we listen to similar artists.
RWM: Like a sound mood board!
RWM: When did you first begin to really craft around music/entertainment? Was there musical education/indulgence in your childhood?
LA: Right out of college I was an art director at Warner Records. That threw me into the deep end of musical education. Growing up, I’d always loved music and realized it was an important part of my life. I’m from the 80’s and it was a different scene than it is today(U2’s Joshua Tree era). I was instantly working with bands, managers, and every touchpoint of the album design process. Art, directing photo shoots, working with great photographers, print advertising, and merchandise were all critical parts I was tasked with handling. The only thing I didn’t really touch was what we called “new media”, or the digital side. We had one guy for that.
Everyone in the department was called “Art Director” because you weren’t just doing graphic design. We were directing shoots, dealing with hair and makeup, costumes, fashion fittings, and many other things. This was nice because you were getting into many uncommon forms of visual communication. Speaking to people through the language of these facets is what composes an album’s art.
RWM: You spent 5 years as an art director at Warner designing albums from Elvis Costello to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What events came about to spur the opening of LAD Design? What gave you the confidence to say “I can do this independently and not go broke!”?
LA: That’s a really funny question! It was no secret that the music industry at the end of the 90’s to early 00’s was going through huge changes. No one really knew what to make of Napster and the start of streaming. People began listening to music without paying for it, so there was massive downscaling at every label. Warner was the third of it’s biggest size when I arrived there, and eventually I was a casualty of the company restructuring(My wife still works for the label though!). At the time, I was mid-stream with several album projects, one of them being a Wilco album, and a lot of those bands stuck with me through the end of the cycle. I was let go one week, and the next week I was picking up the project like normal. That’s how it all started and it’s still going today.
RWM: That’s incredible to keep those relationships for such a long time through your studio. A great example I see is your work for John Frusciante.
LA: That was a real honor to work with him. Frusciante was hard to get to know but once you did, you had a special bond. It’s a privilege to work in music, and being able to connect with artists about what makes the fans value them is really fulfilling. These people are, in no uncertain terms, geniuses at what they do. This challenged me as a designer to be on my game and let go of expectations of what art should be like. It’s not the star factor, it’s just that they’re all so smart and talented which makes you step up.
RWM: The work LAD Design creates is very diverse. When designing for different fields/genres, do you ever lean towards making more reflective, interpretive, or evolutionary work across the spectrum of design?
LA: It’s about listening to a fundamental message the project asks you to address in all cases. This is a core fundamental we work by. If we’re designing for UC San Diego, a museum in L.A., or even a kids exhibit, we just try to design in the same manner that the music influences our album work. We look at the feeling, the message, the goals, and the objectives of what we’re trying to communicate. Then we decide what the best elements are to design around these parameters. If you have this understanding, then there is a pretty clear thought of where you need to land.
RWM: Your “I <3 L A” project echoes the love Milton Glaser had for NY, but transcends it as a stamp of advocacy for Los Angeles’s history. How important is knowing the history of your environment for the working designer?
LA: It’s fairly important to me because there are a lot of people who view Pinterest, Tumblr, or Designspiration to see a lot of great design, but don’t know the history behind it. When you can’t attribute the thinking, reasoning, process, or context behind it, then the design loses it’s potency. It just looks like cool stuff. There’s so much more to it when you understand the encompassing frame. We actually just discussed the “I <3 L.A.” project about 45 minutes ago in the office as an example on the importance of passion projects. It’s hard to keep them alive when you’re really busy like we are, but they matter for perspective and education. That project stemmed out of a lecture I was giving here in Los Angeles.
I’m an Angelino born and bred (west side!). Everyone loves to beat up on L.A. because there are a lot of stereotypes originating from here. In the design industry, there’s been a long history of discounting the value of California. It’s not as rooted in establishment like New York or Chicago may be. That whole project came from a desire to spotlight and showcase the great history of design Los Angeles has. For example, Rocketdyne that built the engines which sent us to the moon!
RWM: You’ve translated your passions into many good things for our community and industry. Teaching, lectures, side projects, design for social good, and most recently the AIGA Design+Music initiative. What is the importance of designers being involved socially, politically, and being able to share their experiences?
LA: Design is a lot more than waiting for the phone to ring and fulfilling the needs of whatever client happens to call. I think it’s important for designers to be in-tune with their overall goals, vision, and purpose. For me, it’s making things that make an impact in other people’s lives to make their time on earth a little more meaningful. That’s influenced my work with other sectors I work in. You put into the world what you want to get out of it. The AIGA Design+Music Initiative is a great example.
There’s been a lot of negative changes in the music industry as far as people streaming music now. So much engagement and value has been lost. People don’t pay as much for music anymore and have less of a connection to it because most is free and readily available. Instead of letting this be, you should facilitate passion projects as a way to see what can be done as a design community to draw awareness to issues in an attempt to bring about a change for good.
To be involved in design projects that have meaning and value, albeit not every project is socially conscious, is great because it helps you grow more than just doing work-for-hire.
RWM: What advice do you offer to emerging creative people who want to pursue their passions in challenging industries? Anything that comes to mind that has mattered to you the most?
LA: The most important thing young designers can do is to be clear in identifying what’s important to you culturally, musically, professionally, etc. and staying true to that. You’re going to get pulled from your path a lot and that’s ok. A career line goes up and down, back and forth, constantly. But if you know deep down, the kind of designer you want to be, you’re gonna keep coming back to that. Say yes to the challenges around you. Not every project is going to be what you want, but you have to grow and evolve with these circumstances. Continue pushing yourself while keeping your finger on the temper piece of who you want to be. If you do everything in an authentic way, people will recognize that and the work will follow.
RWM: Any great tales from the music or design industry you care to share?
LA: Haha you’ll have to come to the talk to hear them.
RWM: Thanks so much and we’re looking forward to seeing you on April 19th!
LA: Thank you!
Richard Wade Morgan is a farm boy in the big city who loves designing things to help people feel good about who they are and what they do. He graduated from UGA with a BFA in Graphic Design in 2012. His career has spanned a diverse range of industries within the design profession, including editorial teams at CNN and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Currently, he strives to make a difference in his community by designing for nonprofits and community organizations with his independent design practice, Studio Wade.