christian helms – founder of helms workshop™




christian helms is the founder of helms workshop™ an independent, strategic brand design studio based in austin, texas. their work covers everything from identity systems, custom typography, packaging and more. christian told designboom more about his influences and design approach.



designboom: what originally made you want to become a graphic designer?


christian helms: I was a creative kid, but growing up in small-town north carolina I never had any idea that design was a profession. most of the design I saw was either made locally out of necessity- like crude hand-rendered signage- or the type of product packaging that looks like it was spit out by a machine. I didn’t know there was anything in between, much less a crafts person making it.


I was constantly making art, but I never really saw that as a potential profession— I didn’t see any artists in my day to day life. I was a good writer, and I focused on that in college. I was in journalism school at UNC and taking art classes on the side when I found design, and it was an epiphany. Design was a perfect combination of art and communication. I was so excited.


fullsteam beer identity and packaging




DB: how would you describe your approach to design?


CH: curious and collaborative. I love learning about our clients and their industries. the longer I’ve done this the more I’ve fallen in love with really working together with clients, architects and other outside partners, and our team to solve problems and build something that impacts people. design in a vacuum is boring. these days my favorite projects are the ones that come out wildly different than I’d imagined because of collaborative work.


modern times beer identity and packaging



DB: who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?


CH: it’s honestly a patchwork quilt, with a handful of folks holding ownership of various panels. I’m lucky to have a group of friends across the country— writers, musicians, artists and even a priest— who all influence me more than they probably even realize.


and of course my family. maybe it’s because I have a son now, but it all seems to come back to things I learned early on from my parents or things I’m rediscovering through my son. jeez, I sound like a sap!


in terms of challenging my views, I think that’s something we’re doing a lot of at the studio currently. I have a great team, and we’re all starting to push and pull at the boundaries of what we’ve done traditionally— which is exciting.


bauhaus brew labs identity and packaging




DB: what would you say is your strongest skill?


CH: one skill that has served me well is writing, which was my focus throughout college and something that I employ pretty heavily in our work. being able to communicate well in a written format is invaluable in crafting our work and in communicating with clients.


a good writer knows a little bit about a lot of diverse subjects, and that’s exactly what makes a good designer. I had no idea that my journalism training was priming me for a career in design.


the skill that I’ve probably done the most work to hone over the past few years is the ability to get into a client’s mindset and build creative solutions that are driven directly by business needs. I know that to young creatives that sounds like a drag, but it’s honestly a lot of fun. but again, our clients are pretty fun folks.


austin beerworks identity and ‘fire eagle’ packaging




austin beerworks identity and ‘fire eagle’ packaging



DB: what type of brief or project do you enjoy working on the most and why?


CH: more and more I enjoy briefs with hurdles or limitations, or projects outside of my immediate experience. having a wall to push against allows you to push a lot harder than if you’re unrestrained. we’re good at figuring out how to do things we’ve never done before, and coming at an industry as an outsider often leads to unexpected solutions. I love unconventional problem solving. that, and packaging. I just really love packaging.


we just finished a project where the brief was to help generate consumer awareness for an under-appreciated beer made by our clients austin beerworks. we did it by renaming the beer anytime ale, and reintroducing it to the public with the world’s first 99-pack. there are plenty of reasons why that shouldn’t work, but it’s been a massive success so far.


anytime 99 pack concept and packaging for austin beerworks



anytime 99 pack




DB: what are your thoughts on specialization vs generalization?


CH: specialization gets boring quickly. our minds are trained to follow predictable patterns— so specialization can be a trap. I think generalization, or being new to something, keeps the work fresh and engaging.


DB: how do you think online design resources have influenced the graphic design being produced today?


CH: obviously trends cycle a lot more quickly, which isn’t bad thing. I wonder how long the david carson era would have lasted with today’s online media pushing it out in every direction, 24-7?


the other side of the coin is the rich and robust dialogue around design that’s been fostered by online resources. when it’s not a bunch of snarky armchair art directors clucking at each other, there’s a lot of wonderful insight shared. I like that I don’t have to wait for a book to be published to learn what someone like michael bieruit is thinking about.


frank restaurant identity and signage



frank restaurant identity and signage




DB: what are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?


CH: I’m fascinated by artists, companies and products that have built an industry by defining their own category. I love folks who create their own playing fields, like tom waits or richard linklater. neither were really embraced by mainstream culture, so they just made their own. it’s less about the product and more about the approach — taking something that’s personal and special, sharing it and building a world around it – marc maron did it with his WTF podcast. it’s all a good reminder of how success is measured — it’s not necessarily about popular opinion. it’s about doing what you love.


kohana coffee identity and packaging



kohana coffee iced coffee packaging




DB: what are you passionate about besides your work?


CH: so much. my family. southern literature. birds. growing plants. music, comedy and film. BBQ and craft beer.


DB: do you have any superstitious beliefs or rules that you live by?


CH: I’m less superstitious, and probably more obsessive compulsive. I have more quirks than superstitions.


grit identity – logo




grit store interior




DB: what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?


CH: keep it simple, focus on what really matters and let the rest go. I’m not always good at following that advice, but it’s golden.



DB: what’s your personal motto?


CH: I think it’s changing. whatever it might have been before, it’s going to be different after this year. It’s been a crazy one.