Young and Restless: An Interview with Dress Code
OK, so you've graduated from design school. Now what? For 24-year-old Andre Andreev and 27-year-old G. Dan Covert, the answer was to start up a studio, dress code, and write a book about the experience of transitioning from school to work. Andreev, who is originally from Bulgaria but moved to the states when he was 13, and Covert, who grew up in Ohio, met at California College of the Arts (CCA). They moved to New York four years ago to work for various studios, and then in-house at MTV, where they got the gumption to strike out on their own. Together they teach graphic design courses at Pratt Institute, launched a helpful online resource for students at FunIsLearning.com and published Never Sleep: Graduating to Graphic Design, to share the wisdom they gained in the process—or, the stuff no one teaches you in school. We spoke with dress code one morning after the pair pulled yet another all-nighter.
(from left) dress code's Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert flaunt their riches; (right) cover of their book, Never Sleep (publisher: de.MO; editors: Wayne Kasserman, Gibson Knott, Caitlin McCann; designer: Melissa Scott).
Your book, Never Sleep, has been a long time in the making. How does it feel to finally have it out in the world?
Covert: [When we started the book] I was two years and he was one year out of school. When we finished writing we had just started this [company], we had just got this office. So we have been working on it in some capacity or another for about three and a half years. We're used to working on something for three days and have it be done. It is kind of surreal. For a long time I felt like it was never going to happen.
Andreev: It's like waiting for the next Dre album… you know it's gonna be good, but it takes a decade to come out.
You cited karlssonwilker—the studio you briefly worked for, Dan—and their book, Tellmewhy: The First 24 Months of a New York Design Company, as an influence for writing your own.
Covert: That was, like, one of the biggest influences on me, coming out of school. And I thought there was a lot more to the story than what they tell, because they were older when they started their company. So I feel like the whole getting up to that point and making your way out of school would be beneficial for students to hear about.
Spreads from Never Sleep.
You met at CCA, where you both were transfer students, but that didn't necessarily bring you together, did it? You were actually kind of competitive at first.
Covert: When we first met each other in school we weren't necessarily friends [laughs]. I mean, he was this weird foreign guy, and our program was very close—it was like 20 people in each class who would move on together—and he transferred in during the middle of the program.
Andreev: Weird foreign guy… I like that.
Covert: We were both kind of cocky… like, oh, let me see your work. His work was super good, and it was way better than anything I'd seen, at least in that environment. I was used to being better than most people, and all of sudden he's way better than me. We weren't really planning on collaborating at all back then, but eventually we were just like, hey, let's just try working on this poster together and see what happens.
Do you think you were more focused than other students because you had transferred?
Covert: A lot of people in our school were transfer students at that time. The median age was, like, mid-to-late twenties. There were people like lawyers, and all these other people that had established themselves in another career would come back, just do two years real quick and not even get the degree, maybe just get the experience.
Andreev: I had just finished a degree in a community college where most of my peers would make silly things involving photos of their cats or children. The teachers there critiqued the right use of filters, not the content or ideas. When I came to CCA I realized that most people there were much more talented than me, and that made me work much harder.
Interestingly, you both could have ended up in the military and not been designers at all. Dan, you were even considering West Point at one time.
Exterior shot of dress code's Lower East Side offices.
Covert: I was really serious about wrestling when I was in high school. And I feel like I could have really gone in that direction and I'm glad I didn't. In the beginning I applied as kind of a joke because I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I got all the way to the final step in the process. It just was something to do instead of going to school at Ohio State or Ohio University, where everyone in Ohio goes.
Andreev: The funny story about the army is, in Bulgaria you have to go to the military to serve for a year when you're 18, so I couldn't go back for a few years—because I wasn't a [U.S.] citizen yet—'cause I was going to get drafted. And if I got drafted, then I would have lost my green card because I would've been in the army for a year. But now I'm a full citizen.
Covert: The day after I started at CCA, 9/11 happened, so I would've been in Iraq, hands down. I would've graduated West Point midway through the war. It's insane to think, we're hanging out on the Lower East Side in our own office. Well, I still have short hair, but…
And you're wearing camouflage today!
Andreev: [to Dan] I think, deeply somewhere in you, you still want to be back there…
You seem to like order and discipline.
Covert: If I do something, I'm very mono-focused on it. I'll, like, go and go and go until I get my goal, whatever it is. So in high school I wanted to be a champion wrestler. And then when I found design in college, I was, like, I really, really, really want to do design.
And Andre, your father was a graphic designer. How much did that influence your decision to become one?
Andreev: He still is. My parents were divorced, and I ended up going with my mom to the states and my dad stayed in Bulgaria. When I was still pretty young he did all his designs by hand. So he'd do paste-ups and develop photos in a studio in the basement. Because it didn't have the mystery of the computer I saw how it was made and it didn't look hard, you just glue photos around. He would engage me with it, he'd be like, “Oh, I'm doing this ad for an orange juice. Do you have any ideas?” We grew up in a really blue-collar mining town [and] my dad worked in the capital. It was this big French company, and it was super-fancy. Beautiful studio with beautiful girls, I liked how glamorous it seemed…
How do you think your experiences/interests complement each other?
Spreads from Never Sleep.
Covert: We're both good at different stuff and approach things in a different way, which probably has something to do with the polar opposite environments we were raised in... We're both pretty capable on the computer, but we can't really draw. I feel like as far as discipline goes, motion vs. print vs. direction vs. branding, I think it's fun to do everything.
Andreev: I think we do gravitate towards certain things. I still enjoy designing websites and I don't know if that's something you [Dan] are really into. Dan is pretty meticulous whereas I'm more spontaneous. He can noodle shit for days and sometimes I don't have that patience.
Do you think your differences actually help you to work together? And what do you think makes for a good studio partner?
Covert: I mean, I don't need two of me. We've already got one. So he's usually good at stuff that I'm not, and vice versa. We weren't like, 'I'm rational and you're spontaneous, let's start a design company.' It just worked out that way.
Andreev: There's a few things... Your personalities have to mingle, you have to be, like, into different things and be good at it. And you both have to have a really good work ethic.
Covert: I think that's the biggest thing.
Andreev: No matter how good or how brilliant you are, if you're not willing to work hard… It's kind of like we got married—you marry someone, and you have a baby, and then it grows up and it wants new chairs or it wants an intern or it wants a couch. And then one of us goes on vacation and the other one is like, you're not spending any time with the baby. It's like you're married to him.
Covert: His girlfriend used to always joke, “Oh it's your man-wife.” We're with each other—
Andreev: —all the time.
So, let's discuss the other baby, your book. You haven't approached book writing in a very typical way.
Covert: It was tough because our stories were different and we wanted to alternate every other one rather than have it be one continuous story. That way people could take away different things rather than it being a typical how-to book. We also knew that people would get bored with just our stories, so we had a bunch of our friends write essays and added other little nuggets to keep it fresh.
I noticed you don't always credit your work or when it was made.
Andreev: That was intentional because I think that both of our work was really bad at the beginning. It's funny because it's kind of like a book filled with bad work, which you don't really see too often. I think it's nice because most published graphic design books are really polished and really overly done—
Covert: Like a monograph. It's like your life's work…
Early work on display in Never Sleep.
Andreev: —but for us it's all the crap work. Probably three quarters of it is really bad, it's like high school work and college work. But it makes a point.
Covert: Because even looking at some of our high school or college work, I feel like, when I look at it now, I don't even know how to react to it. It's work that's so long ago, it's not even credible anymore. It's more about the story. And you too can create crap work! [laughs]
Andreev: Also, I remember doing work and thinking, “This the best thing I've made thus far,” and now you look back and it's really bad. But I think if someone flipped through the book, there's a gradation. It gets better. A lot of student work people try to hide, but I think it's really fun to see it, just to see where you come from and how it developed.
Why did you decide to place small images in the gutter throughout the book? Isn't that a design faux pas?
Andreev: When we were playing around with the idea of the book, we knew we didn't want it to be an image book and wanted the words to be read pretty thoroughly. The images in the gutter are basically images that illustrate stories within the text, and the reason they're in the gutter is that they're almost hidden—you have to crack open the book to see them. That relates to the personal side of our relationship and what we've been through. You have to literally dig deeper to get to them.
Covert: In the beginning when we started designing, too, it began to feel kind of like a yearbook. We intentionally took that back a little bit, we had a lot more photos of us but we tried to tone it down and have more weird photos that would just be cool to look at.
Andreev: I'm sure our book is full of mistakes, but I think it adds to the quality of it.
Covert: I don't think we have to be credible yet. So we can be honest and open about our failures.
Andreev: As long as you're upfront about your mistakes, nobody can call you out on it.
Covert: We wrote multiple times in there that we were bad writers, so I feel like, if anybody says this book is horribly written, I'd be like, well, we already said that.
Branding for Iowa 08, a play about a small town overturned by the 2008 Iowa Caucuses (left); and collateral for Kent State University's satellite fashion school in New York (right).
And how's the business of running a studio?
Covert: There's definitely times when we've had, like, zero dollars in the bank, and then there are times we have a lot more than zero dollars in our bank account. But I think that's kind of part of it, you know? Before it was all about designing, where now it's a lot more about our business. Design is something we do 20 percent of the time and the rest of it is worrying about money or talking to a client or doing a bid or doing a pitch or something. And at night when nobody calls or nobody's here we just work really fast. We've gotten good at working really, really fast. Like, we did this pitch for a job where, before that probably would've taken us two weeks to do it, and now it took us a night. So I think we just got good at, like we know when the other one is totally bullshitting… I think it's just honing and getting better at it.
Andreev: That's also the great thing about having two people is when you present something to a client or you're in a meeting, all of a sudden you have two people telling you, this is a good idea, as opposed to one person. I think especially because we're young, it's easy for people to be all, what the fuck are you talking about…
What's next for dress code?
Covert: I feel like we're just getting started. Most of the work in our book is pretty bad and has developed a lot since then and we continue to push it to the next level. The past two years have really been spent getting the hang of running our own business. Now that we are in a better place and more comfortable being businessmen we think about this question a lot.
Our goal in the next three years or so is to have a lot less or no client work, unless it is stuff that we really want to do. Creating our own content excites us more than putting a pretty bow on someone else's. Ideally, we will be able to write/design books, create products, develop software, create a clothing line, write/direct movies or TV shows, etc. The reason we quit our day jobs was to be more in control of what we do and ideally as we get better the more control we have and freedom to experiment, excel or even fail in whatever fancies us at the moment.
Andreev: I'd like to hire some talented people so we don't have to work so hard.
About the Author: <p>Sue Apfelbaum is a freelance writer and editor with a focus on design, art, music, film and culture. From 2006 to 2012 Sue was the editorial director for AIGA, publishing critical, inspirational and educational content about design on the AIGA website and developing programming for AIGA's webinars. Visit http://about.me/sueapfelbaum</p>