Share

Designs with Character: Tad Carpenter and Carpenter Collective

By Kim O’Neill

Fast food cups printed with colorful characters sipping soda; an adorable neon penguin beckoning frozen yogurt lovers; smiling faces peering out of murals on office walls—the work of graphic designer and illustrator Tad Carpenter appears takes many forms. No matter the vehicle, Tad’s style is guaranteed to delight. From huge clients like Coca-Cola, MTV, and Target to adorably illustrated children’s books and funky posters for rock shows, the underlying theme is one of joy: bright colors, funny characters, and a whimsical, illustrative style.

Carpenter Collective designs for Sonic.

Colorful characters give life to the Kansas City Royals, Yummo Frozen Yogurt, and the Carpenter Collective offices.

FAMILY FUN

Tad opened his Kansas City studio, Carpenter Collective, as a lone designer in 2009. In 2015 his wife, designer Jessica Carpenter, left her art director position at the renowned Willoughby Design Group, and the two now run it together. Tad explains, “My wife and I make a really good team. Our processes and personalities complement each other really well. Jessica is thoughtful, has a strong sense of typography, and has an amazing attention to detail. I’m a bit louder, I work quickly and refine later, and I often lean towards the illustrative. Everything I do is better because of Jessica.” The design gene not only appears in Tad’s marriage, it runs deeply through his family of origin as well. “My mother is a fiber artist who dyes her own wool and creates rugs and wall pieces. My dad, Stephen Carpenter, is a super-talented illustrator and creative director. He’s worked for over 41 years at Hallmark Greeting Cards as an illustrator, designer, and creative director. Everything I know, I know because of my Dad.”

Jessica and Tad Capenter

Perhaps thanks to his pedigree, Tad is an unabashed lover of everything about being a designer, and his enthusiasm is contagious. When asked what he feels is unique about his design style, he is both modest and extremely passionate: “Yikes, that is a really tough question. I can say this—there are so many talented designers working today with incredibly unique voices. I’m not sure my approach is much more unique than anyone else’s. But for me, I am so thankful to be a designer. I am so thankful to be able to wake up every single day and look forward to getting to work. As a designer, every single day we get to create something that didn’t exist in the world the day before. To me, that opportunity is unique and something to be very thankful for. I love the act of design…. My overall approach to design is pretty simple. I depend on research, I value listening, and I always try to have fun. And at the end of the day, being able to draw is a damn helpful skill.”

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN

Tad’s design style relies heavily on illustration, and he credits his upbringing for that, the fact that he was the son of a Hallmark Cards–trained artist who collaborated with many extremely talented cartoonists and illustrators (such as Jim Henson, Paul Coker, and Al Jaffee). He says, “My father always emphasized the value and responsibility of being able to draw. Oftentimes saying something might not be heard.”

He continues, “But a drawing of something can’t be ignored. Also, illustration cuts through a lot of crap. We as humans approach everything we see, read, write, or watch with years and years of preconceived notions. But when you attach an illustration to a message or a brand, a lot of those notions are stripped away. You’re able to control what you want the audience to see and feel much more successfully than you might be able to with photography, for example. We create a lot of brand identity systems with illustrative backbones—illustration libraries give such flexibility to who the brand wants to become and how they want to convey a message. It allows you to approach gender, race, age, location, and various other variables in a very natural and easily digestible way.”

DAY-TO-DAY DESIGN

When it comes to working with clients, Tad is just as enthusiastic. “I hope my clients can expect to feel heard, have a lot of fun, and be thoroughly involved in the process,” he says. “Design is so important to all of us, but in the grand scheme of life, this is the fun part. I try to remind myself of that and not to let it get at me. Because it can. I love designing and making things on my own, but I truly do love working with a client and the challenges that come from that, even though it can be unexpected and scary. It’s the difference between playing hoops in the driveway and then going to play in Madison Square Garden. Results can really change when you’ve got a group of people looking at you.”

Carpenter Collective designs for Adobe Illustrator, MTV, and Target.

And when it comes to blending creativity and commerciality, Tad is exacting: “It is always hard. But for me, they really have become the same thing. We have amazing clients that trust us, and for me that is always one of the main qualities I look for in a client. Not just will they pay on time and not be a jerk, but will they allow us to take a risk. If that answer is yes, then it’s a great client and project.”

Carpenter Collective–designed murals at a Plexpod co-working space.  

ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

When Tad manages to find a bit of time for himself, well, he’ll be creating then, too. “A couple years ago I started a passion project titled SUNday Suns,” he says. “It is exactly what it sounds like, with a very simple rule: make a ‘sun’ each and every Sunday, for yourself. Draw it, sculpt it, design it, whatever—just make something and share it. When creating this project, I wanted it to be an exercise in exploration. I wanted the opportunity to examine my own personal process and how it could improve. But in the end, like all art and design practices, these SUNday Suns’ true purpose might just be to better the lives of the people who view them. In an uncertain and troubling time in our country, I hope these works are a little ray of sunshine for anyone who sees them.”

Images from Tad’s SUNday Suns, a passion project he has been pursuing for more than two years.

Tad Carpenter is one of the creative luminaries who will be speaking at Adobe MAX in October 2017. Create Magazine readers save US$400 off the full conference pass price of $1,595 with promo code 17CRA.