Each month, we ask 6 questions of a friend whose creative work we admire.
This month we’re featuring creative director Tony Ruth. He’s worked with everyone from Coke to Microsoft and is currently Head of Concept Development at Cleveland Avenue, a food and beverage accelerator in Chicago.
1. How’d you end up doing what you’re doing now?
I went to school for product design, but it became clear in my twenties that my main skill was digital illustration. I was working on innovation projects, doing concept visualization for consumer testing and helping clients create opportunity studies around new brands and services. I spent a few years collaborating with one of my favorite clients to help her develop a corporate venture group for food and beverage startups — it was long term strategic study, lots of research, more than anything else we were designing an organization. It never launched, but she and I met some influential people and now we’re both in-house at a new organization that’s custom made to accelerate food startups.
2. Describe a typical day.
So I go back and forth between doing traditional creative direction — packaging design, restaurant branding, UX mockups — and this more amorphous thing that I’ve been calling concept development. Creative direction is pretty straightforward — we have brands that we own or are invested in that need immediate attention and it’s our job to get them into the next phase of growth: refine their messages, define their offerings, and build out the brand architecture to communicate with the right audience. Pretty standard. Concept development is the longer play: how do we even figure out what we should be investing our resources in? I’m in a lot of meetings with entrepreneurs who are showing us new food products and tech, with investors and corporate partners that have gaps in their portfolios or brands that are losing steam. I do a fair amount of spec work, building early concept pitches that visualize where a brand could go if we invest in it, or if we find the right partner to help accelerate it. It’s basically telling the story of what we believe is possible if the right resources are aligned, in order to get everyone who matters on board.
3. What are you working on now that you’re most excited about?
Literally right now I’m flying back from meeting with a company that has a radical new environmentally friendly technology that could cut transportation costs in the beverage industry by 80%, which is amazing and inspiring. They don’t need much traditional creative because their engineering is so strong, but at the same time, the impact of the product is so enormous that it merits crystal clear messaging. So that’s a highly meaningful project that’s mostly communications strategy. On the other side of the spectrum, we’re entirely redesigning a small beverage brand from top to bottom. It’s exclusively a graphic job, with no practical limitations on what we do, so it’s liberating and therefore a lot of fun.
4. What have you done there that you’re most proud of?
Just the fact that this place exists at all. We’ve been trying to build some version of it for five years now, and it never would have happened if we hadn’t met our founder at the right time and had this crazy alignment between what we were doing and what he was doing. More than any individual design projects I’m super excited when we get investment into a great small company with amazing founders who’ve been going it alone for too long and deserve support. Working with people who are building their own companies is a really positive experience, the enthusiasm is infectious and you really want to make their little company grow because you see how much it means to them.
5. What would you most like to work on (fantasy or reality)?
That’s hard for me to answer because I love working across new categories — I’m becoming a professional dilettante, looking at new things constantly, keeping a library in my head of all the things I find fascinating or viable and trying to connect the dots between them. Ultimately I’d like to be part of a roving concept design SWAT team, flying into the Aspen Institute or whatever to do concept sprints in collaboration with my favorite design buds. I’m kind of in love with the idea phase in and of itself, and with the act of collective creation. At the same time I’d love to own a brand entirely so that I can control everything and nerd out about tiny details.
6. If you weren’t doing this, what would you want to be doing (fantasy or reality)?
Children’s books. I have a few in the works. Every couple of years I do a goofy side project with cartoons (you can search for Lunchbreath or Welcome To BusinessTown) and one of my immediate life goals is getting at least one of these books done and out in the world.