This interview is part of a series of staff profiles on Product Ventures’ talented staff. Below are excerpts from an interview of Director of Client Engagement Laura Chequer and Industrial Design Team Leader Sean Evelich.
Sean Evelich is Product Ventures’ Industrial Design Team Leader and has been with our agency for almost a decade. Sean has led design projects with Product Ventures’ biggest clients including Kraft Heinz, The Hershey Company, Anheuser-Busch, Nestlé, and General Mills. His love for design began at a young age by dismantling household tools and machinery to see how they work at the granular level. This passion was later applied at the University of Bridgeport where he studied Industrial Design. Sean was introduced to Product Ventures through an internship opportunity while he was still in school. Over the years Sean has grown alongside our agency and is now one of our most talented designers.
Laura Chequer is Product Ventures’ Client Director and brings with her over 20 years in CPG marketing. She has worked both on the client side — helping build blue-chip brands like Pepsi, Starbucks, Gatorade, and Lipton — and on the agency side, running cross-functional teams in support of Fortune 500 clients like PepsiCo, Nestlé Waters, Ocean Spray and Unilever. After majoring in American Studies at Yale, Laura translated her obsession with popular culture into a fascination with how consumers fall into enduring relationships with brands, and how it all begins at the point of sale.
How did you hear about Product Ventures in the first place?
Sean Evelich (SE): I went to school at the University of Bridgeport — down the street, like five minutes away. Product Ventures was on the radar as a packaging industrial design agency near school.
Laura Chequer (LC): [CEO and Founder] Peter [Clarke] went to University of Bridgeport and has an ongoing recruiting relationship with them.
SE: A lot of prototypers and a handful of our designers are alumni from that school.
Arthur Augustyn, Product Ventures (PV): Laura, you obviously had a much longer career prior to starting at Product Ventures compared to beginning as an intern. How did you come across Product Ventures?
LC: I started here four years ago, but I first came across Product Ventures when I was working for Pepsi in Hydration Innovation. We did a project with Product Ventures and I was very impressed by the level of intelligence that went into the work. Specifically, in terms of bringing consumers into the design process, the level of design thinking… there were many aspects where the work was very smart and I was very impressed. I kept Product Ventures on my radar in terms of potential opportunities for 10 plus years, and eventually saw a posting for my role. A Pepsi friend of mine was working here at the time. I called him, had an interview later that day and started about two weeks later.
You’ve both been at Product Ventures for a good amount of time, do you remember meeting each other?
LC: No. I introduced myself on a need-to-know basis so I didn’t learn too many names at once and forget them promptly.
SE: I wasn’t introduced, but I started as a summer intern. I worked through school, then became full-time the summer after graduation. I was slowly brought in without introduction. I met everyone through my internship. I should say my internship was a long time ago. That was eight years ago now.
When did you know you were going to be in your current career path?
SE: Industrial Design wasn’t something I knew about when I was looking for a school. When we found it — my parents and me — we were like “that’s what you do all the time.” When I was younger I would tear apart lawn mowers, or skis, and a bunch of stuff. I was always tearing things apart and putting them back together. I wanted to tweak how they look and how they work. When we found the description of industrial design as a major, we knew that was the area I should go into. The other side of that is engineering, but that’s more on the math side — more technical. Industrial design is definitely more on the creative side and I fit into that wheelhouse.
LC: In my current role as Director of Client Engagement, I work with a lot of people across all functions: creative, technical, marketing, financial… which I like. I also like consumers and understanding what makes people tick and what makes them like things or not like things. I think that’s why marketing appealed to me in general — which is how I started my career. I was first in advertising, then brand activation, then worked on the client side, and then went back to the agency side. I prefer the agency side because I like working on different brands and challenges all the time versus one thing for several years. I like the variety that you get working on the agency side of things.
PV: Laura, you and I were in another conversation where you said you like talking to creative people specifically. Can you share your thought on that here?
LC: It’s true. My favorite part of this job is definitely the people here and working cross functionally with the designers. I am in constant awe of the work they do — their wisdom and thoughtfulness specifically. When I was in CPG marketing, I felt like great ideas could come from anyone — the creative team, the account team, the clients, the mailroom… Here, I feel like the designers and engineers do something that others cannot do and our clients are consistently impressed by the work that we deliver. I’m always very proud of the work that comes out of here. I learn a lot every time I sit and speak with any of our designers because they are teaching me about all of the technical and consumer usage considerations that go into to each design. They point out thoughtful details I might not have noticed. It constantly impresses me and makes me very proud to be the person that often gets to present their work and take ALL the credit. [laughs] Just kidding, mostly!
Product Ventures focuses on its holistic design and how it influences the creative process. How frequently do you find yourself working with other departments?
SE: Each department has its own influence over our designs. We may sketch something then talk to our [engineering team] Eric [Hartman] or Trond [Tollefsen] and they’ll say “you probably have to change this.” We can use that information to adjust the design to work for that. It’s very different from being just a design studio then handing off our work to another engineering agency that’ll do some fixes but then lose the design essence we were going for. I think that’s one perk we have here. There’s always a back and forth with us versus just handing it off. In that situation, we may not even know what got tweaked but it doesn’t have the design we wanted it to have anymore.
LC: When we handoff a design for manufacturing, we want to make sure everything our client and the consumer loves about the design is maintained through commercialization. Everyone at Product Ventures is working towards outstanding design, whereas the manufacturer may be most concerned about efficiency and cost. Our engineers work closely with both the client and the manufacturer to make sure the design intent is preserved, optimizing the design when the manufacturer raises potential issues.
SE: It’s very commonly the case. We don’t want to lose the consumer learning that led to our design, or the visual language that led to our design. Sometimes that gets lost when an outside resource gets its hands on the design.
Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on (or taken credit for)?
LC: I don’t know if I can talk about my favorite projects.
PV: You’re not the first person to say that in these interviews.
LC: The project that comes to mind is a recent project. It hasn’t been released and may not be released, but I can talk about it generally. It was a design we shared with consumers and they loved it. It was largely because our engineering team had done a masterful job making a very technical, large-scale package that has to withstand a staggering amount of use. This package was designed to get even better looking with wear and tear. It delivered against all of the requirements, and it was beautiful. It got handed to the manufacturer who made a lot of changes. At this point in the process, our work was “done.” The client had paid us for the full scope of our work, but when they shared what they got back from the manufacturer, we saw that the design had really departed from the intention. Peter actually offered — at the agency’s expense — to stay in the process so we could troubleshoot what they had changed in the design.
[Head of Mechanical Engineering] Trond took it back and identified everything they had changed after it left our hands and he was able to understand why they made those changes. He addressed the manufacturer’s concerns but was able bring the design back to the design selected by consumers and the client, and make it beautiful again. We were able to do that and it was an incredibly successful project. The clients were so pleased with the collaboration between Product Ventures and the manufacturer and saw the value we brought to it. They saw how important it was to keep us in the loop and our investment in maintaining design integrity. We were committed to this being a very practical, manufacturable finished good.
SE: My favorite project was actually with Laura. We worked on the Armor All bottle. Selfishly, I liked that project a lot because it tied back into my personal hobbies of automotive design and being a gearhead. I was able to relate a ton to the project and not just temporarily be the consumer, but to design as the actual daily consumer. I purchase these products. I do all the car care and car modifying stuff. That project fit me. When that project came to market it was really cool. Every time I go to buy more car parts or something, that is in the aisle in most stores now. It’s cool to get regular reassurance of “there’s that design I made.” It also went through exactly how we designed it too.
PV: Can you talk a little more about that project?
SE: Yeah, that brand had inherited their original bottle that was identical to cleaning product bottles. It felt like a household item. It wasn’t automotive geared at all. It didn’t feel like it belonged in its aisle. It was a good canvas because we didn’t need to use the original design cues or language as a starting point. We could build it from scratch on that one. We were able to do a ton of visual language on that project within the automotive scene. Not just modified cars, but also trucks, high-end vehicles. We found design languages across multiple branches of automotive. It was fun because we were able to find a good happy medium between all these different automotive areas and find something that anyone in that scene would actually like — or anyone who cared about their car — versus a generic household cleaning product.
LC: One thing I want to add about that project is that it had really tight parameters we could operate in. We couldn’t change the height, the width, the color, or a few different variables. Sean and team still had an array of very distinct design options for them to choose among. It was one of the first projects I worked on here and I remember thinking “wow.” It had seemed like a very challenging assignment: how could we make a big impact with such limited parameters? But then Sean and James blew me away with a dramatic array of very different designs to share with the client.
We often provide multiple designs for consideration. Do you ever include a really outlandish option?
SE: Yeah. There are sometimes where we’ll really push the limits. We might start with what we consider the ideal package but it’s the hardest to produce on manufacturing lines. We try to do a “mild” to “wild” spectrum. We try to stay close in while still hitting the goals of everything. The mild concepts are more realistic, but we’ll still include something we consider the Holy Grail the client should aspire to be.
PV: Does that process start with the mild or wild side of the spectrum? Do you pick the ideal package then trim it back from there?
SE: I think it’s based on each designer. In general, I think you start a little looser with your sketching and designing. You’re a little farther out and more expressive. Then you have to put the filters through as you get closer to reality and start putting parameters in while keeping that essence and see how far it needs to change to be more real.
PV: Was there a project where the more wild recommendations were actually the leading option?
SE: We had a recent project we’re still working on where the client selected the farthest out design to move into research, and it actually did really well in research. That was a bit of a surprise. The manufacturer feasibility is most commonly the issue.
LC: You also commonly have a tension on the client’s side of things. You might have a marketing team that’s looking for something really disruptive but they have an engineering team that may not be able to change anything on their manufacturing line without a massive capital expenditure. They give you all these parameters to work within to operate efficiently on an existing line without costly changes. That’s often reinforced by the sales team that might not want to pay slotting fees with any change in footprint or shelf height. We like to design to reality but we also want to move the needle and make sure brands are in the right packaging to stand out.
Is there a connective personality trait for everyone who works at Product Ventures?
SE: I’d say hard working. You can count on anyone to get whatever task you need done. In a lot of other places you know there are places you can’t rely on or the work won’t get done in the next two days or whatever. Here, I feel like you can go almost anywhere and get someone reliable.
LC: I’d add that it’s pretty collaborative. There’s a lot of people working together. You rarely see one person off doing their own thing. You generally see groups of three people working in a bay together. Obviously, we all have to do our own work in our own time, but I see a lot of clusters of people working together to create. I think we’re set up to work that way. Peter uses the metaphor of a drummer bringing in other musicians to make great music rather than a drum solo. We’re set up to do holistic design and it works.
SE: Yeah, on that same point, there’s collaboration but every designer still has their own design style. In some projects, you really need two or three different designers to bring their little personal input and touch to get designs outside what one designer would do. Sometimes it’s easier for three people to design with Product Ventures’ style, but there is a mindset to get a broader range of designs that fit the project.
What does someone need to succeed in an agency beyond being good at their job?
LC: It’s a little more service oriented. You’re delivering for a client and they’re paying our bills. There’s the need to do what they’ve asked and do it on time, but we aren’t simply “order takers.” We bring our expertise to bear as consultants based on an amazing pool of highly specialized, cross-functional experience. That’s what we bring to the table. “Agency” comes from the Latin word ago/agare which means “to do.” I think understanding that we are doing this for them — that’s what we’re paid to do — that is part of the culture. We all need to work together, paddle the boat in the same direction. This isn’t for our own personal glory, but to the do the best job for what the client wants and then we all look good. Hopefully, they want to work with us again and again.
SE: I think it’s a skilled balancing act. In a normal design firm, you could be designing a similar thing every day, whereas here we’ve gotten very skilled at switching between jobs. One day you could be on a sauce package, then a trigger sprayer, then a tray, and it’s all on the same day. Being able to balance and manage all three of those jobs in completely different consumer areas — and making sure all three are successful — that’s something that comes with the territory of working in an agency versus other design fields.
What is something you would say to someone who’s considering working here?
LC: The people are extraordinarily nice. I was very glad when we were coming back into the office. I was looking forward to seeing everyone again.
SE: I felt the same way. You look forward to seeing people. You can group up and talk about some show you saw over the weekend, then dig into the visual language for a job. You know who can bring what to certain jobs when you’re all in the office. That really helps move things along quicker. Everyone brings a different energy that always helps the job.
LC: There’s also not an A team or B team. Everyone is really on their game here.
PV: Since Sean is here, I want to ask about favorite movies or television shows.
SE: I saw Nope. I thought that was really good.
PV: I wasn’t as big of a fan. I didn’t like Us either. I thought Get Out was the best.
SE: That’s the best one still.
LC: I saw Get Out. I really liked it. Have not seen Nope yet. I plan to.
SE: I liked that you really didn’t know what was going on until the last 15 minutes of it. You had all your guesses and predictions of what was going on, but you couldn’t guess what was going on.
PV: What are your top three favorite movies?
LC: Of all time? I’d probably say Star Wars, Sound of Music, and then a 3-way tie between Elf, Dave and Pitch Perfect. Is that cheating?
PV: That’s quite a list.
SE: I had to think about it but I’d say Ex Machina, Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift, and Iron Man. I’d sneak The Italian Job as number four.
PV: The original Italian Job or the remake?
SE: The original is a good movie, but I was thinking the one from 2003. It’s not serious enough to take seriously, but it’s fun. The whole movie.
PV: I remember it being fun. We’re out of time, but thank you guys for taking the time to chat!
LC: Thank you.