For over ten years, Jason Kernevich and Dustin Summers have been working together as The Heads of State. They’ve created award-winning posters, book covers, branding, and illustration for a diverse and impressive list of clients. In 2012, they launched Pilot and Captain, a design venture focused on creating T-shirts, posters, and products inspired by the golden age of travel. They lecture frequently about their work and process and teach graphic design and illustration at Tyler School of Art, where they both studied.
Summers likes non-fiction, single speeds, western epics, 3-4 defenses and Levon Helm. He lives in South Philly with his wife and two sons. Kernevich is always thinking. About projects, ideas, songs, recipes... He'd rather be fishing, but he'll settle for listening to baseball on the radio and reading the newspaper in a bar.
Collaboration and Trust
How did you get started in illustration and design? JK: I attended Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia with hopes of studying sculpture. I don't think I even knew what graphic design was, but my CD collection was filled with it! Eventually I was able to connect the dots and start finding a way to make design and imagery for music and art.
DS: At a young age, thumbing through my parents’ record collection, there was a kind of mythology to the album covers. It was all larger than life. When I started to buy my own music, there was the ritual of taking the crinkle wrap off the CD (remember how hard that was?), smelling the new ink, poring over the liners. I knew I was interested in doing that as a career.
What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work or style, as individuals and as a team? JK: Teaching has influenced my work tremendously. You can really find clarity of thought and a wealth of inspiration when faced with art directing a solution for a problem, on the spot, in front of a full class. It’s sink or swim.
DS: As a team, the experience of designing together really created our style, and at the same time has allowed us to experiment outside of our style, to push ourselves. As individuals I don’t believe we would have come to the same place.
What advantages do you think small firms and partnerships have in the market? JK: You can specialize, collaborate with smart strategic partners when needed, avoid being labeled as “boutique” and do it all with low overhead.
DS: You no longer need to be a twenty-person firm to be able to create broad campaigns. With the collaborative ability of the Internet and the increasing number of folks interested in freelancing, your personal network can be competitive and more agile than the big firm down the street.
What inspires you lately? JK: Travel. I can clear my head and allow images and ideas to take shape in a very organic way when I am between locations.
DS: My kids. But not in the way you think. With kids, you’re forced to go and experience things you’ve done before, see movies you’ve seen twenty years ago, learn about something you thought you knew but totally forgot or revisit opinions you’ve had for half your life. It’s invaluable if you open yourself up to rediscovering and re-evaluating.
What has been the biggest challenge of working together over so many years? JK: The work and the ideas have been the easiest part. We have a shorthand and a very similar aesthetic. But like any relationship, it takes work. You compromise, you get irritated, you apologize, and then you realize that collaboration and trust lead to amazing things.
DS: Jason’s got it right. The business is always changing, the partnership is always changing and we, as individuals, are always changing. It’s always work and compromise but it’s never been for the worse.
How does working with someone you know so well influence the work you produce? JK: Over time, you intuitively foretell how the other person will react. You can self-edit and adjust along the way. It’s very useful when time is tight.
DS: There is also competition and inspiration. When one of us is in the doldrums we’re usually brought out of it by something interesting or innovative the other has done. Especially in illustration, it’s easy to get complacent, but important to evolve. Having the other person there keeps the machine moving forward.
What would be your dream assignment? JK: Branding and collateral for an airline. Or a major league baseball team. Even a minor league franchise would be plenty cool. Are the Toledo Mud Hens looking to rebrand?
DS: Between 2015 and 2020, all the remaining novels, novellas and short stories of J.D. Salinger will be published. To design or illustrate the first covers would be a dream.
Where do you think the field of design is going? JK: Design is getting more respect than ever before. I think people understand now that design adds value.
DS: I agree, but it’s interesting that technology is becoming the great leveler. For a long time, a huge part of your career was being able to master the crafts and the programs. Now, when I’m teaching, I see the level these kids start at, and they are way better at image-making than I was at that age, because they messed around on Photoshop or had design classes in high school. It means that the ideas behind the images are much more important.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? JK: Relationships are the most important part of all of this.