Behind the Design: The Heads of State

Hailing from Philly, the innovative design firm The Heads of State blends a fun atmosphere and challenging projects with a no-nonsense motto: It’s all about the work. “We make all the stuff we make, if that makes any sense,” says principal and creative director Jason Kernevich. “We’re focused on the intersection of design, illustration, branding and entrepreneurship.”

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The Heads of State principals Jason Kernevich and Dustin Summers.

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The July 2014 issue of HOW was designed by The Heads of State. Art directed by Adam Ladd.

The firm, founded in 2002, created the playful, collage-style cover of HOW’s July 2014 issue, collaborating with Adam Ladd, HOW’s art director, along the way. “The ideas of layers being ripped away to reveal something more emulates the whole ‘Behind the Design’ theme of the issue,” Ladd says. He also remarks that The Heads of State team was very organized and detailed, which contributed to a smooth working relationship.

Despite a small staff comprised of two principals, a graphic designer, an assistant and a few interns, The Heads of State maintains an open structure that encourages everyone to get involved. “We discuss all aspects of the process, from top to bottom,”  Kernevich says. “It sounds cliche, but we treat it like a conversation. And that includes pricing, hiring, revising, brainstorming, etc. We’re also constantly making adjustments and trying to streamline our process.”

Part of developing this collaborative, highly motivated environment comes down to the firm’s emphasis on having a personal stake in the design success. “We want our employees to feel like they can include their voice or their sensibility in the work,” Kernevich says. “We try to keep the projects challenging and the process evolving. It’s really that simple. Of course, that itself is a challenge.” Having a fun place to work doesn’t hurt either. “The atmosphere is that of a workshop,” he says. “It’s a nice blend of stylish and a little messy, as we’re always juggling various projects. There’s good music playing, and friends and collaborators dropping by. It’s a really loose and fun place to work.”

The laid-back-but-diligent approach of The Heads of State’s offices seems to reflect The City of Brotherly Love’s work/life mentality. “Philadelphia is a tight-knit community. Everyone knows one another, and that can be both amazing and also frustrating,” Kernevich explains. “But I think Philly’s salt-of-the-earth attitude maintains a focus on doing good work and living a quality life.”

This assessment comes with a bit of perspective. Both Kernevich and fellow principal Dusty Summers have worked in other parts of the U.S. and are able to compare their Eastern art scene evaluation with the creative approaches in New York City, and Seattle and San Diego, respectively. “The scale of New York is obviously inimitable,” Kernevich says. “And there’s a high level of design carried down through all aspects of the community in the Northwest. It just seems more a part of the language there.

“I think the design community in Philadelphia is still finding its voice,” he adds. “Because of the relatively low cost of living, it is, and always has been, a great city for freelancers. The vibrant arts and music culture of the city has been beefing up the design community in great ways that will hopefully continue.”

Want to read about 5 more U.S.-based design firms blazing the trail for stellar design? Get your hands on the July 2014 issue of HOW, with its cover designed by The Heads of State.

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