I have been working on gathering the thoughts and knowledge of people who educate and inspire me... and then sharing them. I am thrilled to be inviting Chuck Bajnai, Chief Creative Officer at Astound, to participate in this "verbal history" at The Experiential.
Chuck is first, a friend. He and I share a love of boats, race cars, and huge spectacles… But he is also a collaborator, and his creative vision and enthusiasm for art infused with “why?” makes him a potent force in the world of Auto Shows and permanent brand installations. So, without further ado, our speed round.
Chuck, what’s your origin story ? How did you find the creative life ?
This is a much larger question than it first appears. My road has been constantly evolving. It is built upon a series of obstacles and achievements that give light to the next challenge…
Growing up I always loved to draw. My father was an Architect and him and I were drawing cars for as long as I can remember.
I was accepted to RISD as an illustration Major in 1990. RISD has all freshman go through a Foundation Program. This included all types of art and design. It is intended to expose students to the wide range of majors the school has to offer and the different opportunities to find a profession in. During this time, I quickly realized illustration was not my thing.
I was fascinated with a profession called Industrial Design. It offered me a completely holistic opportunity to draw, think, solve problems and find a well-paying job. RISD’s ID program was fantastic. It did not (unlike most ID schools) teach me how to be an amazing illustrator… It instead focused on the solving problems and understanding materials.
I had a professor once tell me about this industry called Exhibit Design. He thought my history with architecture aligned with a speed in which projects get done would be an interesting fit for me.
I started at a very small company and I was 1 of 2 designers on staff. A Place called Star Displays. They expected me to hit the ground running. I had one major issue… Because this is prior to CAD being a common place in the industry, everything they did was hand sketched. Remember that part about RISD not teaching me how to draw... I spent the next few months learning how to draw with markers. My boss sent me home weekly with a drawing exercise focusing on perspective, rendering materials and composition.
After a few years, I decided to search for a company that would give me bigger opportunity. I ended up at Exhibitgroup/Giltspur. Projects here were so much larger and the amount of creative talent that worked in the studio was so inspiring. I was challenged here to learn this program called AutoCad and 3D Studio. After a few projects, I was for the most part self-taught and had an unique skill set not found on the team. This allowed me to be part of a team that got to design an RFP for Pontiac and GMC. I had seen these auto show stands before and they were at the time the pinnacle of the industry. They dealt with Architecture, Furniture Design, Graphic Design, Lighting Design, Media Design and even had a substantial budget to design to. We won this RFP with what ultimately was the first double deck display at NAIAS.
I knew I needed to stay in this industry and the Automotive sector was perfect.
After a small stint, back in New England for Exhibitgroup/Giltspur I was recruited by George P Johnson.
GPJ was the place to work if you wanted to design auto show stands. I was in awe of all the talented designers they had. I was quite intimidated.
My first few years I become creative director on the Saturn account. But it was when I was asked to work on New Business opportunities I came into my own. I was asked to participate on numerous RFP’s including the Launch of a new brand Scion.
The competition of the RFP was amazing… Not only was I using my problem solving skills and my design skills I was using something very primal in my DNA… Competing! I found so much fire in the quest to win business it was addicting. This also put me in a very unique position on the team, I was the only designer not dedicated to a single automotive account. This unique spot allowed me to touch a wide variety of industries and get exposed to the business of the industry.
Trying to sell work to new people you don’t have prior relationships with was quite a challenge. I was confident in my design and my ability to have an unique perspective to the clients challenges, but how do you get them to buy my vision? I realized all of my competition could design “nice” exhibitions. I differentiated myself by learning how to tell them “Why” I designed what I did and “Why” it solved their problem.
Experience design quickly became another aspect of my creative recipe. Combining my unique perspective to understanding questions, designing unique solutions, integrating experience into everything I do and being able to take a client on a journey within my presentation; I found my niche!
This recipe has allowed me to not be intimidated by the scale or obscurity of a challenge. I believe 100% that there is nothing out there I cant do.
I joined EWI in 2013 as their Chief Creative Officer. EWI was a much smaller company compared to GP,J however they too were a major player in the Auto Show world.
The first challenge was to create a culture that fosters Attitude, Competition and Enthusiasm.
Applying those principles, in the next few years I created a very well rounded team. One that blurred the line of traditional roles and focused on cross disciplined skills. The team had traditional Industrial Designers and Graphic Designers but added Creative Strategists, Story Tellers, Digital Designers, Technologists and even a Political Cartoonist.
That group proved to be incredible, and being at a smaller company allowed us to be nimble. We had extended success at winning and executing projects so much larger then I could have ever imagined. I always said I would not want to compete against this team! Now, at Astound, I am having yet another opportunity to explore new markets, and build another team.
As much as I have done in my professional career as an individual, I have found so much passion and challenge in developing these visionary teams. Design is not done singularly, It is a process that involves many voices and through those voices we identify amazing solutions and our individual skills allow us to bring those solutions to life in amazing and unexpected ways.
What is your super power as a creative ?
Solving problems and telling stories
What are some of the current implications of design in today's culture that are on your mind ?
Design today is needing to be so cross disciplinary. Audiences expect more and more out of everything they engage. There are limits to this and we must figure out how to harness simplicity and focus in everything we design.
Looking back, can you describe a moment where you had some profound impact through creative work ?
The designing of GM World. Living in Detroit and observing first hand how hard this city has struggled to get traction in its renaissance. It was amazing to design a project that was larger than the company I was designing it for. We were not only creating a space to highlight GM’s vision and achievements but a space for all the world to come and be inspired. This is a small piece in the much larger project called Detroit.
Looking ahead, where do you see immersive experiences and storytelling going?
The convergence of Architecture and Experience. Architecture has always been purposeful, inspiring and utilitarian. As the decades have past the expectation on what architecture can and should be has evolved. Today we want environments that responds to us, ones that we can interact with, share with others and of course be inspired by. Similar to my exhibit industry Architecture is looking for this evolution. Architectural companies like BIG are perfect examples on how architecture can be more experiential.
Living or dead, if you could sit with anybody for an hour, who and what would you discuss ?
Bjarke Ingels founder BIG. I am so completely inspired by his problem solving and ability to see the world through unique lens. I would love to discuss his motivation, his process, where he finds inspiration and what it took to create a team that can conquer the world ;)