Graphic Designer/ Illustrator at Carpenter Collective, plus instructor in the design program at KU, Tad Carpenter, has been there and done that. We talk about his recent Beer Hall design for Boulevard Brewery and the emphasis on engagement and interaction the design allowed, his partner in crime (wife & fellow designer) Jess Carpenter, and growing up at Hallmark Cards – despite never actually working there. huh?
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design? I feel so lucky to have grow up always knowing I wanted to do something creative. I have never worked at Hallmark Cards, but I literally grew up there. My father has been an artist, designer, writer and CD for them for 41 1/2 years. My earliest memories of life a lot of the times was at Hallmark Cards. So many of the artist at Hallmark were my babysitters and playmates while growing up here, in Kansas City. I really do owe so much to my Dad and Hallmark for showing me that you can make a career our of art and design and to follow that passion.
The earliest memory I have of really falling in love with creativity and how that could translate to a career was when I was in 3rd grade. I entered a contest to draw the season tickets for the Kansas City Chiefs and won. It was the first time I experienced art and commerce together and it felt really good. I was so proud that day as a 3rd grader. I felt happy, I felt proud and I felt like I had found something that gave me a bit of purpose. I knew that day I wanted to be an artist (designer). When it comes down to it, my Dad always encouraged me to draw because he liked to draw. Eventually. we liked to draw together. I will always be so thankful that we share that together, I can never thank him enough for giving me that push and ultimately sharing his passion with me.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs? I went to the University of Kansas and received a degree in both graphic design and illustration. I loved both so much I wanted to focus on both. Being able to think like a designer and illustrator has really helped me in my career. Not to mention has helped a lot in our current design climate that is really rewarding versatility and illustrative brand identity systems. But, back to schooling…I did not just attend the University of Kansas. Yes, I attended KU for 3 years and graduated from KU which has an amazing graphic design program that I’m proud to still be a part of as an instructor in the design program. However, I floated around a bit before I ended up there. Right out of high school, I thought I had to go the art school route to be successful. That was my plan and my intention. But for various reasons, that did not end up happening. My first year of college I ended up going to community college. I knew I wanted to be in design and illustration but the path did not seem clear to me. While going to community college, it allowed me to continue to grow, research my goals, save money and in the end, find the right place for me which was KU right down the road.
As for first job, I had so many random jobs growing up:
I wanted to be a zoo keeper when I was really little and helped clean animal cages at a small zoo in Independence, Kansas. I mowed a lot of lawns, I painted houses & did construction, I worked the front desk at a gym, I waited tables, I worked retail, and was a design intern at several studios while in college. I did anything I could really, was never too proud or too tired to work. After graduating college, for 5 years I worked at a small branding studio before going out on my own. I always tell my design students some very simple advice, if you want to work for yourself one day, go work for someone else while you are young for at least 5 years. You will be getting paid to learn all the ends and outs of our industry. Those years will allow you time to plan, save and be strategic in how you want to pursue your career for the rest of your life.
Give us the elevator pitch on what you do. I am a graphic designer and illustrator. Our shop, Carpenter Collective is a branding and design studio. We are so thankful that we get to work on really diverse types of projects. But really, everything we do has a backbone in brand identity and creating strong brand experiences. Our focus is to design brands and experiences that emotionally engage and connect with consumers. Everything we do is developed in design, strategy and innovation with a whimsical wink.
Recently we designed Boulevard Brewery’s new Boulevard experience and branded their new Beer Hall which was much more of an exhibition design challenge. Exhibition design allowed us to put a strong emphasis on engagement and interaction. We were forced to really think how people will move around objects, digest information and ultimately live with the objects we are creating. We also design a lot of restaurants, brand identity for start ups, design and illustrate children’s books, create logo systems, posters, wayfinding, and packaging.
Who’s on the team, what are their roles and why do you love them? For nearly 6.5 years my studio was just me and several interns working with me. But a year and half ago, my beyond talented wife, designer Jessica Carpenter partnered with me after being an art director at Willoughby Design for over 10 years. We always knew we wanted to work together but she was happy at her job and I was happy with my situation. But things got so busy and we just knew it was time to partner and evolve our business. My wife Jessica is one of the best designers I have ever worked with and frankly have ever known. Her attention to detail is like no one I have ever been around. She creates beautiful typographic work, illustrations and is so thoughtful in everything she does. Our individual strengths as designers complement each other really well which we are both very thankful for. Each project and how we collaborate on each project is very different. We tend to like to pass files and ideas back and forth. Allow each of us to improve on an idea. We also have 2-3 interns in the office at all times. Since I also teach at the University of Kansas, our studio is blessed to have some of the most talented young designers around. Our interns help us with things that are at times not as exciting (helping pack print orders, file prep, etc) but we also pride ourselves in having the right young designers around us that bring a fresh take on things and because of that fresh approach we want them to get in there and design. We want our employees and interns to be a vital part of each projects process.
What has been your highlights since you started out? Just getting to do what I love is the biggest highlight. Seriously, so many people have to do things they don’t want to do for a living and WE as designers, get to be part of this community. WE as designers get to wake up every single day and create things that did not exist yesterday. WE as designers get to make a career out of hopefully your real true passion. That is a pretty darn lucky thing if you ask me.
I would also have to say, my wife and I getting to run our studio together. We get to spend pretty much 24 hours a day together and share our love of design together as a couple. Very thankful that we get to share that together.
What advice would you give students starting out? Be patient.
I see so many young designers get frustrated because they are starting to understand what good design is but don’t understand why their skills are not catching up with their taste. Give it time. It will happen. Like anything in life, you have to practice at it. Find a way to continue to cultivate your skills. When in school time is limited I get it, but over breaks, summers, create a passion project for yourself. You don’t have to show anyone if you you don’t want to, but do this to create a structured environment for you to practice your craft and get better. Every single day, every single project you get a little better. That is not just students but all designers. Go create opportunities for yourself to improve.