This interview is part of a series of staff profiles on Product Ventures’ talented staff. Below are excerpts from an interview of Creative Director Ashley Rutter and Design Director Kaitlin Hermann.
Ashley Rutter has a multidisciplinary background in packaging, advertising and digital communications which brings a unique perspective to her designs. She is energetic, positive, and an award-winning graphic designer. Ashley has created packaging graphics for a broad range of clients in the food & beverage, personal care, and pharmaceutical industries including Harvest Hill, Unilever, and Bayer. Ashley has a hands-on approach, working closely with our industrial design and prototyping teams to deliver holistic solutions to design challenges. She has developed the visual strategy, brand guidelines and graphic design for brands such as Juicy Juice, Sunny D, Aleve, Dr. Scholl’s and Zest to name a few. Ashley holds a BFA in Communications Design from Syracuse University.
Kaitlin Herrmann has a prolific career as a graphic designer specializing in packaging and branding solutions. She holds a BFA in Communications Design from Syracuse University and has worked for renowned design agencies as well as CPG companies such as Colgate Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson. Kaitlin first found her love for design work after growing up with designer parents and spending many hours in design studios as a kid in New York City. Her innate curiosity and design expertise has been informed by her long career working on design projects across industries.
This interview was conducted by Marketing Communications Manager Arthur Augustyn.
Arthur Augustyn, Product Ventures (PV): We’re interviewing you both at the same time because you actually knew each other prior to working at Product Ventures, can you share how you originally met?
Ashley Rutter (AR): We met a long time ago at Syracuse University. It would’ve been 1999 or 2000. We were in the same design program together. At Syracuse we have a foundation year where you do all your fine art prerequisites and I’m not certain if we had classes together then.
Kaitlin Hermann (KH): We were part of the same group of paranoid students trying to get our work done. Our major was really small. We graduated with around 28 people.
AR: Because of that, everyone knew each other. I think we started with 80 people.
KH: From there it whittled down and we were both like: ‘Oh, hello. You’re still here? I’m still here!’
AR: [laughs] Yeah. ‘We made it! Wow!’
PV: Syracuse graduates always seem to have the vast network of other people who went to Syracuse, why do you think that is?
KH: Pretty much every design firm I’ve ever worked for… there’s been a Syracuse graduate. It’s always been a destination spot. I knew I wanted to go to an art school that… had a football team.
AR: [laughs] It’s true. I thought the same thing. I was looking at other design schools. A lot of design schools are just design schools. You’re surrounded by designers and artistic people, but I wanted a more well-rounded experience – a “traditional” college experience.
KH: I wanted to be able to say I went somewhere and people don’t go “Where???” It was nice to go to Syracuse and meet someone who says ‘Oh, my sister’s brother’s cousin’s uncle went there…”
AR: ‘Do you know him???’ [laughs]
KH: [laughs] Right. ‘Do you know him? His name is John.’ Oh, that John? Yes, of course I know him.
When did you know you were going to go into graphic design?
KH: I grew up in a design studio. My parents owned a design firm in the city and I was that little kid running around the design studio. I knew what an X-Acto knife was when I was too young to use one. I think design is in my blood a little bit.
AR: I always liked art as a kid. I was always doing arts and crafts. I had a teacher in high school and her son went to Syracuse which is why she suggested I check it out. At the time I went to school, I didn’t know I wanted to go into graphic design. I thought I wanted to do art direction for movies so I was looking at places like NYU, but then she told me about Syracuse. I actually looked into the industrial design program too, but that was a 5 year program so I thought ‘Nah.’ I went into graphic design instead.
KH: A funny memory I have is my mom used to have these illustrator books that were full – like a telephone book – if you needed an illustrator or something. It was a 600-page book. I remember leafing through it and thinking… do these people get called? [laughs] Like, can they make a living by being a page in this book? I remember thinking – because I grew up illustrating, doing fine art and all that – ‘I don’t think I’m going to get a job.’ Like, should I do this or should I go into design? Because design will probably make me some kind of income. I knew a lot of illustrators but they don’t do the same level of work anymore. I figured I should have more skills and communications design seemed to have more of that.
AR: You had the benefit of growing up with parents who understood what you were doing and that you could make money in a design career. Whereas no one in my family had any artistic background or anything. They asked ‘Wait, you’re going to do what?! You’re going to make money doing that?’ Luckily, I’ve been gainfully employed ever since. You can make money doing this, but most people are dismissive when you say you’re going to art school.
KH: The one thing about Syracuse was it was a 100 percent job success rate. If you graduated from the program you were guaranteed a job and we all got jobs. I got my first job in June after graduating.
AR: Your job was literally down the street from my first job in South Norwalk. I think we applied for the same jobs and we got the same offers from the same places. We ended up in different offices, and now we both work here.
How long have you been at Product Ventures?
AR: I’ve been here eight years, but I was here for a prior year then left for two years. So I’ve been here for a total of nine years.
KH: I started in October 2019, so almost three years now. We stayed very busy during the pandemic. The company had a lot of business during COVID lockdowns.
What do you think is the connective personality trait for people who work here?
AR: I think it’s a really strong work ethic. That’s the one thing everyone here shares. I feel that every project I’ve worked on, it seems like everyone has the common goal of doing what’s best for the client or our agency in general. Everyone works really hard. There’s never that feeling of someone not pulling their weight. I’ve worked for other agencies where I feel like there’s a team of 10 but two people are doing all the work. I never felt that here. I think that strong work ethic is rare.
KH: It’s because they feed us bagels on Wednesdays [laughs].
PV: It is Wednesday on the day we’re recording this for anyone wondering why that’s relevant.
AR: It is the ultimate motivation.
PV: Did you have your half-bagel already?
KH: I did, already. Yes. I have two half bagels.
AR: But we never eat each other’s half bagels, we always get something different [laughs].
How would you describe how Product Ventures is different from other design agencies? We have a lot of different disciplines under one roof and you are both the majority of our graphic design staff. What is that like?
AR: At most packaging design agencies you’re often only doing the graphics portion. The industrial design or structural design has already been completed and you are handed a dieline and maybe a rendering to design on. At Product Ventures, while our team is still focused on the graphic design, having exposure to the industrial design process from ideation to conceptualization and being able to influence the design from a graphics standpoint is awesome. At most packaging design agencies you’re often only doing the graphics portion. The industrial design or structural design has already been completed and you are handed a dieline and maybe a rendering to design on. At Product Ventures, while our team is still focused on the graphic design, having exposure to the industrial design process from ideation to conceptualization and being able to influence the design from a graphics standpoint is awesome.
KH: The holistic approach to design isn’t something I’ve experienced at another job. This is my first job where I’ve been exposed to the entire process as opposed to just the graphics. I think it’s fascinating.
Which department do you think has the most fun? Out of graphics, industrial design, engineering, research, and prototyping?
AR: I might be biased, but I think graphics has the most fun! I do think prototyping looks fun because I like to tinker and make things.
KH: Graphics is fun, but I can also say I don’t think there’s a single person in our office that I actively despise [laughs].
What’s a personality trait or skill you think someone needs beyond being good at your job when you work at an agency?
KH: You need a lot of patience. You need to be like a chameleon of sorts. You have to adapt to different personalities. I think the whole ‘the customer is always right’ mentality has to stick when you’re working with clients. There are exceptions to that rule though.
AR: As a graphic designer, I think you need a thick skin. Ultimately, with any project you work on, there’s going to be internal reviews as well as a much broader team of clients for that look at our work and provide comments or feedback. Even If you don’t agree with what is being suggesting, you need to process that feedback and make smart revisions. The ultimate goal is to make the client happy and deliver a design that meets the business goals while staying true to your design intent. One of the benefits of going to Syracuse is every week you had to get up and present your work and take a lot of criticism.
KH: I took it as a firing squad pretty much.
AR: There was always a lot of criticism and you had to take it then figure out what to do with it. Obviously, sometimes it was good feedback but a lot of times it was like listening to 20 people talk about your work and you had to articulate what you were showing them. You had to take the criticism and interpret it into changes to your design while staying true to yourself. It’s the same process with our clients. They might give you feedback where you think ‘what am I supposed to do this with?’ You have to figure out how to make them happy and not lose your design intent.
KH: You also have to take direction that is sometimes not super clear and understand how to work with it. A lot of what we do is all very subjective. It’s hard. There’s no right answer. You are dealing with a client who sometimes gives notes like ‘Can you make it not as smooth… but also very smooth’ [laughs]. How do you decipher that? How do you do something that ultimately makes them happy. Maybe you’ve done everything exactly how they laid out in their brief but then they make a U-turn and you have to be ok with that.
AR: I think that’s where patience and checking your ego comes into play. If you don’t check your ego you can easily fly off the handle and say ‘I’m the designer and I’m right.’ Ultimately, any project you work on, there’s going to be several clients and key stakeholders reviewing the work and providing comments or feedback. Even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying, ultimately you have to make the client happy. That’s where having a strong design brief comes in. Unless you have a benchmark of something you’re designing against – or trying to achieve – you can design anything. It helps to have a clear starting point or a path to go down.
KH: Especially in larger companies that have tiers and tiers and tiers of people. You could make something that goes great for the middle of the corporate structure but then you get to the top and the whole project gets destroyed. Somebody saw it and didn’t like it so now it’s not happening. That’s the adaptation – the chameleon part of it – going with the flow and trying to deliver the best product you can for whoever you are working with.
Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on in your time here?
KH: I like working on kids’ packaging. We had a client who gave us a lot of flexibility when we were coming up with conceptual stuff. I think it’s fun to work on lighthearted packaging. I can take my artistic background and create new characters and be playful. My husband likes to say we never need to get a golden retriever because I am all the golden retriever energy our family needs. That’s me as a person. Super goofy [laughs].
AR: I’ve been trying to think what my favorite project is. We do a lot of conceptual work that’s 5 to 10 years into the future. So, it may never see the light of day because it’s too blue sky. That’s not unique to Product Ventures. A lot of stuff is on the cutting room floor.
KH: It’s the nature of the industry, especially with graphics or package design graphics. You try a lot of things and a lot of times the clients are a little more conservative and don’t want to take a leap to something revolutionizing their brand.
AR: It’s true. You’ll do 60 designs for a project and one goes through. There’s always so much good work but it may just not be relevant.
KH: We’re always pushing to show clients we have the ability to create really meaningful graphic design to work with our structures. A lot of clients have been working with a graphic design agency for a long time. We work to get our foot in the door and say ‘We have people here that work on the graphics side and we can do that for you.’ That’s something we’re hoping to expand in the future as part of our portfolio. We do offer these services as part of our holistic design approach.
AR: To piggyback off of what Kaitlin is saying, Harvest Hill — and Juicy juice in particular — have been an amazing client. We were thrilled to work on their rebrand almost 8 years ago and they have continued to involve us in many exciting new projects and initiatives for the brand. The work has been fun and very rewarding. Otherwise, we have the opportunity to work on a lot of exciting conceptual work for various brands. Some of the work is so blue sky that it may never be fully realized. Even though we love seeing our work on store shelves, it’s also exciting to be part of projects that are dictating the future of packaging.
And I should say we – 100 percent – have the skill set. Kaitlin and I have more than 40 years of combined experience in graphic design. Kaitlin has worked in bigger agencies than I have. I took a break from packaging design for a while but Kaitlin has been immersed in it and is super talented. While PV doesn’t have as robust of a portfolio as some graphic design agencies who have been doing that work for 30 plus years, we do have the capability and talent. It’s exciting to work on graphics-only projects and also holistic design projects. Every day is a bit different and the variety of work keeps things interesting.
KH: On a day-to-day basis, I generally enjoy watching prototypes come to life with graphics. It makes me feel like what we do is definitely an important part of the process. You can just have a structure – it can be cool looking – but once you add graphics, color, and personality… it becomes something else completely different. The client can really visualize what it’s going to be in the end.
AR: In the past, we would present blank structures for certain projects, but now… it’s hard to present a blank structure. Now, more often than not, we present with graphics because it makes the presentation more robust and the concept feel more real. It makes the client understand the form better. It enhances the structural designs to include graphics.
KH: There’s a delicate balance between the urge as graphic designers to flush out designs fully and showing just enough to get the idea across. Certain projects you only need a little bit, a graphic impression, to really make the structure sing. You can’t overdo the graphics or else it could be distracting. We just want to make it look visually appealing and to hopefully draw attention to the structural design features. We want the client to say ‘Look at the cool twist of this bottle.’
AR: That goes back to the purpose of holistic design and Peter’s vision and why we have a graphics department. When industrial designers are concepting, we can give input on how the graphics will best work with the structure and show a client, who may not even be thinking about graphics, how graphics look on the structure. Without this step, a client might choose a structure that their current graphics will never work on. Showing them a holistic design brings the concept to life. Of course, we never want to take away from the structure. We want to enhance the structure, but we also want to make the client realize ‘I wasn’t thinking of redoing my graphics but maybe I should make it work holistically with this structure.’ Graphics are usually easier to update compared to the structure.
KH: Sometimes you are working with existing graphics and trying to retrofit them onto something new, and vastly different from the structure. They may not match up. You have to do a little bit of due diligence but make it so the client doesn’t completely know there was a change but it fits with the new design they want.
What would you say to people who are considering working here that they should know?
AR: Bar cart.
KH: They should know that we have…
AR: …a talented mixologist. Who makes drinks on Fridays. He’s not actually a mixologist, but the drinks are very good.
PV: Is that unique to Product Ventures? Or do a lot of agencies have casual Fridays where you get to wear jeans?
AR: Well, we can wear jeans every day here. I’ve worked for other agencies where we’d have drinks on Fridays… or more likely drinks at 2am because you’re still there working. That’s not this place.
KH: Yeah, because I have two small children and that wouldn’t work for me, but this place does work for me because it has a good work life balance.
AR: Which is unlike most agencies.
KH: I agree.
PV: That’s all my questions. Thank you both for taking the time to chat!
AR & KH: Thank you!