Midwest illustrator Tad Carpenter on valuing playfulness in design
On Overtime, designer and illustrator Tad Carpenter shares what he loves about the Kansas City and the Midwest design communities, what it’s like to grow up with a creative father who worked at Hallmark and how that’s influenced his own career, and how he got started writing and illustrating children’s books. In this episode, he also shares thoughts on imposter syndrome, play, his tools and process, and the best barbecue in Kansas City.
This episode is brought to you by Wix. Push the limits of design and start creating beautiful, impactful websites that are uniquely yours at wix.com/dribbble.
Links Mentioned in Overtime:
- Carpenter Collective
- Carpenter Collective on Instagram
- Tad on Dribbble
- Tad on Twitter
- Tad on Instagram
- Kansas City AIGA Chapter
- Hallmark Greeting Cards
- Paul Coker
- Sunday Suns
- Made In the Middle
- Made in the Middle Conference: September 14-15, 2018
- The Best BBQ in Kansas City with Tad Carpenter
- Tad’s Children’s Books
- Jessica Carpenter
- Willoughby Design
- Where the Wild Things Are
Tad: This is super random. I had a dream that I was doing a podcast once, interview with somebody. I have no idea why but I just did this incredibly stereotypical French artist accent the entire time when I did it.
Dan: This is a dream? This is a dream?
Tad: This is a dream. I always am so jealous of people that have literal dreams, where they’re like, “I have this epiphany in my sleep that I was going to do this”. My dreams are like me riding a banana down a sand dune,” and I’m what in God’s name did that mean and literally, I had a dream once that I was doing an interview, I don’t know if it’s a podcast or an interview but it was this over the top like, “Ho-ho-ho-ho, I am an artist.” Like this very like whatever voice and I remember waking up being like, “What in the world was that?” Dreams in our subconscious fascinates me …
Dan: Oh yeah.
Tad: … but I’m just like why … I wonder why that day, that night had this weird little dream of like … I’m sure there’s somebody that’s like a deep in psychology that could probably rip that apart, but yeah, I always think about that.
Dan: You know, we could make this is a reality. We could do the whole interview with that.
Tad: So Dan, what-
Dan: Which I think is going to be funny.
Tad: You make dreams come true? That’s fun, that’s fun.
Dan: That’s what we try to do here at Overtime is make dreams come true even if that means fake French accents.
Tad: Obnoxious accents, yeah, exactly.
Dan: Yeah. I love it. I love it. You’re not from France though?
Tad: I am not unfortunately. Well, fortunately, I am from the wonderful state of Missouri. I am born, bred and will be buried in the great city of Kansas City, so yeah, I’m born and raised here right in the heart of the Midwest. I actually really, I really, really love the place I get to call home for a lot of reasons I think.
Dan: That’s awesome.
Dan: I especially like talking with folks that are in cities that aren’t New York or San Francisco, that sort of …
Tad: Yeah, right.
Dan: Because there’s so much talent in those areas. I love the perspective from people that are outside that and then, find their own communities, and it seems like you’ve done that in Kansas City, for sure, right?
Tad: To me, it is a really easy thing because Kansas City … and a lot of these mid-sized cities probably that, people just kind of … not all people, but a lot of people might just not even think of them or consider them being a really creative place or a really progressive place or whatever, and Kansas City is historically, always been an incredibly creative city, and incredibly supportive of the arts and people that are making their living in a creative fashion in some way and Kansas City’s creative community is so, so unbelievably strong. If you’re just speaking specifically to graphic design, Kansas City which is, I think from a metropolitan area, it’s probably like a top 30 city in America, I would say, probably, somewhere in that range but from a graphic design standpoint, I want to say it’s the seventh or eighth largest AIGA in the country.
Dan: Wow. Is that right?
Tad: It’s incredibly active in that way, and a lot of that has to do with … I mean there’s a lot of reasons but I think one of the specific reasons is Hallmark Greeting Cards is headquartered here in Kansas City and they hire designers and all these creative people from all over the world …
Dan: I didn’t realize that.
Tad: … when they moved here.
Dan: Yeah. I didn’t realize that that’s where it’s based.
Dan: And now, there’s a story there too with your dad, right, worked for Hallmark.
Tad: Yeah. My father, Steve Carpenter, got hired at Hallmark Greeting Cards in 1975 and it was his only job and he finally retired in December of 2016, so he’s about a year and a half in retirement right now after almost 42 years of being at Hallmark Greeting Cards.
Dan: Oh my goodness, wow.
Tad: I know. It’s crazy, right? My entire childhood was really spent in the halls of Hallmark Greeting Cards. Yeah, I mean all of my babysitters were either stylists or photographers or cartoonists or designers or whatever from Hallmark, I feel like.
Dan: This is all in Kansas City?
Tad: And this is all in Kansas City, Missouri. Yeah. Absolutely.
Dan: This is fascinating. I had no idea.
Tad: It’s really cool. Because of my father, I got to meet and become very close friends with Paul Coker. Paul Coker is one of the original cartoonists with Mad Magazine back in the day.
Dan: No way.
Tad: Yeah. If you Google Paul Coker and his work, you would recognize him for several things. You’d recognize him for his cartoons that he did in Mad Magazine back in the day. You’d also recognize him as … if everybody remembers all those amazing Christmas claymation movies, the Rudolph one and the …
Dan: Oh, yeah. Yeah, like the Rankin/Bass stuff?
Tad: Yes, the Rankin/Bass, that’s exactly it. He used to do a ton of work for them and he was the one that did a lot of the character design, specifically if you remember the abominable snowman …
Dan: Oh yeah, of course.
Tad: … Paul designed him among countless other things. My father was a huge Mad Magazine fan as a child in the 1950s and very much was in love with Paul Coker’s work and Al Jaffee and a bunch of these classic original cartoonists.
Dan: Yeah, right.
Tad: So, my dad started hiring them when he was the creative director at Hallmark to start doing greeting cards, and they all just became friends and strangely, Paul Coker actually grew up in Lawrence, Kansas which is about 40 miles west of Kansas City, so Paul and my dad became very close and Paul would send me original artwork and I would always talk to Paul about how I love to draw. It was amazing to have this community growing up that not only encourage creativity but almost, almost demanded it, you know. Everybody in my life is creative in some way and God, that was so unbelievably inspiring to be …
Dan: Oh yeah.
Tad: … with all these people just making things for a living, like putting their hearts out there, I don’t know. To me still to that day, I think those are the people I gravitate when I walk into a room, are those people that are actually making things and throwing them out there.
Dan: Oh yeah, I totally agree. That sounds like an amazing environment to grow up in and get inspired by for a fearless creativity probably, right?
Tad: It was. Yeah, I mean I think there’s probably a lot of kids out there that … a lot of people, you know, that, “Oh, me and my dad, we would work on old cars together,” or “We would …” whatever and then, my and dad, our connection and our bond has always been art design and we would draw together. At night, we would sit around and draw. My father’s an amazing illustrator and cartoonist …
Dan: That’s awesome.
Tad: … and he had a nationally-syndicated comic strip for years and years with King Features in New York, and I got to watch him do a comic strip for years. He always refers it to his prison sentence there for a while. I don’t think he loved the experience of doing comic strip every single day.
Dan: Yeah. It’s a grind, right?
Tad: Oh my gosh, man. He tells me stories about it and I’m just like there’s no way I can conceptualize and draw and ink and get to the client every single day in some way.
Dan: Every day.
Tad: Oh my gosh, you know what I … it’s just about work ethic that he had, because he was at Hallmark 9 to 5 every day and he was doing all those other stuff. I think that work ethic very much rubbed off on me, and he’s a small town Kansas boy. He grew up in southeast Kansas and all my family is from a small town in southeast Kansas, there’s very much this kind of Midwest roll up your sleeves attitude that I think is very much ingrained in my family and myself, for sure.
Dan: Yeah. Midwest is nice or there’s something …
Dan: Am I getting that right? I can’t remember.
Tad: That sounds good to me, man.
Dan: Oh, the west nice I guess. Yeah.
Tad: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, right.
Dan: There’s a certain type of … which is true. I haven’t been to Kansas City but I’ve been Omaha and a couple of other places, and Midwest, I don’t know, everyone does seem nice.
Tad: Oh, it is.
Dan: And you roll up your sleeves and kind of … I don’t know. I think there’s a certain humbleness too to creative folks in the Mid … I mean that in a good way. I mean-
Tad: Oh, I agree, I agree. To me, there’s a lot of things but something I’ve always recognized is that talent only really gets you so far and everybody’s talented so it’s … Gosh, it’s like you really should never think of yourself any differently. Maybe it’s the creative part of me, I think, as creatives, we’re … Maybe not everybody, I can just say this about me and other people that I talk to about this on occasion, but I feel like I’m constantly chasing something and I’m chasing something that I know I’m never going to catch, and to me, that keeps me very humble because half of the … Gosh, 99% of the time, I hate everything I ever make and if I make one thing I like, after I look at it for 15 minutes, I freaking hate it.
Tad: So, it’s this constant chase of like, “Oh man, I can’t wait until I make that thing that I just absolutely fall in love with,” but it’s never going to happen because I know how I’m making things, and that clouds my judgment a little bit on the aesthetical value of that. What are you doing to do?
Dan: That’s funny. I totally relate to that in a big way, but at the same time, I’m listening to you say that and then, at the same time, I’ve got all your work up here in front of me and I’m like, “How can he say that? This is amazing stuff.” I’d be in love with any of these things. It’s funny, the more people I talk to on this show and whatever have very similar feelings and there’s sort of that impossible syndrome that creeps in or …
Tad: Oh, man.
Dan: … just not being, I don’t know if satisfied is the right word but I think that, correct me if I’m wrong, for me, it’s always been a driving force in trying to get better every day and it keeps me going rather than resting and saying, “I …”
Tad: Dang, you’re absolutely right, yeah. Because it’s like to me, it’s one of those things that’s like, maybe if a designer or somebody got to a point where like, “Oh my God, everything I crap out is just gold,” you know what I mean?
Tad: Then, you get … like why the hell aren’t you doing this anymore?
Dan: Right. Right.
Tad: You’re not getting any better, you’re not exploring new avenues. After all, this is our profession and this is our career, but it’s also our practice and a true definition of a practice is you are literally practicing to get better and grow and I know I’ll never have that feeling. I have the exact opposite feeling most of the time of like, “Oh my God. What am I going to do? I don’t know how … I’ll never get this done.”
Dan: That must fuel the work, right? And then, you get to see like popcorn trail of that and …
Tad: Totally, and it’s also, in the culture and the world we live in, it’s like all of us out there, all creative people in some way, right, for the most part, they post the beauty shots, right?
Dan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tad: They post the perfect stuff, right? For every one perfect thing posted, there’s 97 artboards of absolute garbage laying there, you know what I mean? At least I can speak for myself. You know?
Dan: Oh, yeah, oh, absolutely.
Tad: “Oh my gosh.”
Dan: Absolutely. That’s part of the process I think is …
Tad: And I kind of like that.
Dan: … this self curation.
Tad: Is it, man. It’s the baseball metaphor. A hall of fame baseball player is a guy that hits, let’s say 300. Well, that means 70% of the time, that dude is straight up failing at his job, 70% of the time, that dude is garbage, man. As designers, we are like baseball players, man, 70% of the time, we are garbage. Absolutely. At least I’m probably more of a 197 hitter or something, but it’s absolutely the truth. I mean you are forced to create and make and do all these things, just the numbers are … aren’t going to add it up but in the end, all you need is one, right? All you need is that one great idea out of all the things you make.
Dan: Yeah. I think that’s beautiful. I’ve never heard that analogy before and it’s perfect. And I think being a clutch hitter is the goal in successful design probably.
Tad: Yes. Maybe that’s what we all are. These clients are calling us in at the bottom of the ninth, try to get a hit.
Tad: Here we are hopefully.
Dan: I think so. Well, I would say you’re very clutched, there’s some stuff I want to talk about, your work, specific projects and things, but you mentioned earlier, your dad doing a comic strip everyday and you’re saying, “Oh, I could never do that,” but it’s funny because one of your projects I wanted to mention is the Sunday Suns which is really cool. I didn’t know about it until recently so I’m looking through them on. The idea is it’s an illustration of the sun every Sunday.
Dan: Yeah, it is. But you’re doing this for a long time and this is like some dedication to this.
Tad: Yeah. It felt like when I came up with the idea, that it’s like … I see people doing all kinds of passion projects and they’re like, “Gosh, for 100 straight days, I’m going to …” everyone like “Bullshit, there’s no way I could do that,” and I’m like every day, it’s like between dealing with client work and just all the kinds of things we got going on in our lives, that could be really hard, but I was always like, “Once a week seems like a very achievable goal for me”. To me, the way I look it, for me, play is so unbelievably important in my work and the value of play, and again, piggybacking on what we’re talking about, I think a lot of that comes from the people I was around and my growth as a kid being around my dad and his artist friends that all were working at Hallmark Greeting Cards and think of Hallmark Greeting Cards and what you want, I never worked for them, I don’t care, but at the heart of their business, man, that’s some of the best creative minds and illustrators and artists that really, really value play.
Tad: For me, a huge part of what I do is really try to remind myself how lucky we are to do this and I feel like I never feel more alive sometimes, this is the saddest thing I’ve ever said, when I’m actually creating something, I don’t know, there’s a feeling I get from that that sometimes, I wish I could bottle up and that’s what it is is me getting to make and play for myself. Not for client, not for a specific deadline even really but let me just make things for myself and just explore new styles, explore new mediums. And at the bottom line, what it is is it ends up being practice also for me.
Dan: Yeah, I get that.
Tad: And to forget to practice our craft, where we think we can just show up … I swear to you, this is the last sports analogy I’m going to make, but it’s like you just show up in a ball park and grab the bat and think we’re going to crank one out, you know.
Dan: Right. Right.
Tad: You have to constantly practice and get your skills better and try new things and for me, that’s really how it started, I would say, is me trying to find an outlet for doing these things.
Dan: Yeah. Yeah. I was going to ask what the inspiration to start it was.
Tad: Yeah. It really was me trying to find a way to make something for myself and purely explore and do things for myself, but as things went on, I start seeing different needs and different avenues on how this project is starting to come into people’s live in some way potentially and it’s just a fun thing that I do. But the bottom line, what I hope is that through that work, it kind of shines, for lack of a better term, a little ray of light on their life that day they see that thing, that object, when it comes into their lives. I’m a firm believer that as designers, I mean the bottom line, if you really cut through all the crap with design is we’re here to better the human experience. That’s what it is, like bottom line, yes, navigation and then, communication and all these things but at its core, design is here to better the human experience.
Tad: To me, I would hope or I hope that these little exploratory things that I get to make and have fun doing can free people from any concerns they might have that day or just make them have a little smile. That’s what you hope your work could potentially do. And just have a blast doing them. I never thought in a million years, I’d be 160 or whatever, 173 years and counting. I’m sure my wife is like, “Are you done with this crap, Tad?” Like what is going on, I mean we got clients we got to take care of.
Dan: I love it. It’s like a very disciplined way of making sure you do something for yourself every once in a while.
Tad: That’s exactly what it is. And to be frank, it’s become very therapeutic for me.
Dan: Yeah, I bet. I bet.
Tad: It is. I literally do them every Sunday. I get up before the sun rises pretty much every Sunday and I can come to my little space. It’s quiet, there’s nobody around and it does, it’s become incredibly therapeutic and part of my weekly routine. And I really value that time every week of getting to do this and have fun. Sometimes, we all have bad weeks or hard weeks or busy weeks, I feel like I’m in a middle of one right now, and it’s such a jolt of energy and it makes me feel so great going into Monday after I got to do something for myself. You know, some of them are great, a lot of them suck, and that’s okay. They work and they’re fun and they serve another purpose for me. I don’t know, that’s cool.
Dan: It’s awesome. I would say none of them suck. They’re just so fun. I think that’s an important thing to mention too is the play aspect you mentioned. Because I think a lot of your work and even not just this project but even the client work you’ve done, there’s a certain playfulness in that too which I certainly gravitate towards as well. I also wanted to mention, we talked about the Midwest before and your upbringing, because there’s another project called Made in the Middle that you’re involved in and I wonder if you could just tell us about that because …
Tad: Yeah, of course.
Dan: … it’s kind of, in a way, sort of celebrating Midwest design, right?
Tad: I think that’s it in a nutshell. It is years and years ago, it’s like … I mean that’s one of the things I love about our industry is I have been lucky enough to be invited in a few places to come and speak and go to conferences and whatnot. I love doing that, I love meeting new people and seeing people’s environments and just being able to conversate in person about the thing that we all love which is design. It’s funny, for the longest time, I would meet people and they would think I lived in San Francisco or New York.
Dan: Of course. Of course.
Tad: And I was always like, man, damn, I’m from Kansas City and man, people need to know that there’s some amazing stuff going on not just in Kansas City but the whole Midwest region in general. And so, years and years ago, my wife and I created Made in the Middle and we have little features and interviews on people doing all kinds of different really cool creative things. It’s a natural transition to create these conferences, which is Made in the Middle and it is, it’s celebrating design in the Midwest.
Dan: That’s awesome.
Tad: We bring people, everybody who speaks or gives a workshop has a connection to the Midwest in some way. Maybe they were raised here or from here or still live in the Midwest in some way. Our next conference is September 14 and 15-
Dan: Oh, it’s coming up. Excellent.
Tad: Yeah, it’s coming up, yeah, we’re about month away and we have amazing speakers, people like the AIGA medalist, Steve Frykholm which was Herman Miller’s first ever in-house graphic designer. We’ve met before and I really, really admire him and as a kid, I was in college and falling in love with his picnic poster series which I think are just some of the greatest poster design that we’ve ever had. I can’t wait to have someone like him that has such an amazing knowledge of this industry be there and then, people that are my peers that I just admire the hell out of. People like Dana Tanamachi and Andy Miller and Mina Markham, just some amazing, amazing people. Dawn Hancock from Firebelly up in Chicago. We have Amber Goodwin which is amazing letter and illustrator from Hallmark who’s one of their lead creatives there.
Tad: So it’ll be an amazing. It’s one of the things that I thrive and love the community that we all get to create and be a part of. This is just, hopefully, one way to heighten that, and we also brought on AIGA Kansas City. I am a partner of it because I really want them to benefit from it and I want the funds that come out of the conference to benefit our local chapter so they can continue to do great things for our community. That’s my way of, hopefully, trying to help our community even more, is starting something like this and then, giving it to them to benefit from, to hopefully give back to the design community in the Midwest.
Dan: Wow. It’s so awesome that you’re doing that. It’s great. I want to go.
Tad: Dude, please go, come hang out, man.
Dan: This looks like a blast. I’m just learning so much Kansas City, there’s Hallmark there, there is a lot going on over there.
Tad: There is. There is.
Dan: No wonder-
Tad: There’s music and art and design. I promise, the tourist industry at Kansas City is not paying me to get on a soapbox on your pocket.
Dan: No, it’s all good.
Tad: We can transition off of my love of Kansas City real quick. We haven’t even mentioned maybe the best thing about Kansas City.
Tad: You’re damn right, damn right, the best barbecue on the planet. My God, if you love to eat, boy, this is the stuff for you. We don’t got mountains and beautiful oceans and shit, we got amazing, amazing barbecue all over the place, so that is a great benefit for sure.
Dan: Oh, it is. I mean my goodness. I would go just for that alone. I’m sold.
Tad: Yeah. Me and somebody started a barbecue tour, we tried to do it every quarter. We’re a little late at the moment, but we did a thing where we picked four barbecue restaurants on a Saturday and we picked one type of fare, if you will, normally we do ribs. We call it the Rib Tickle Tour. And what it is is we pick four barbecue restaurants and we go to each one and order a slab of ribs for the group. And fries too, you got to have fries.
Dan: Of course.
Tad: We only eat ribs that day at all four of them. Of course, I design a scorecard on all these very specific things that one must judge, and so, we really can go around. The goal is to visually try ribs at every barbecue joint in Kansas City, have a really clear cut answer on who has best ribs. That’s going to be a lifelong thing I think.
Dan: It’s a worthy goal.
Tad: Oh, it is.
Dan: And also, ribs are, that’s the specialty there, right, in Kansas City?
Tad: Well, I don’t know. Definitely we do. The thing that Kansas City specifically is known for as far as barbecue is concerned is Kansas City is who really perfected, what, burnt ends are, if you’re familiar with burnt ends.
Dan: Oh yeah, I’m a big fan of those, yeah.
Tad: Yeah. So people might not know, a burnt end is essentially when you make the brisket or whatnot, you chop off the ends of it and it’s a wonderful, juicy, crispy kind of ends it. So Kansas City, burnt ends is what they’re known for, specifically Kansas City. What’s makes it different from the other three types of barbecue is Kansas City has a sweeter, more thick molassesy sauce almost. So, it’s a sweeter sauce compared to the Carolinas which has more vinegar or Texas which is dry rub, stuff like that. Yeah, it’s my flavor of choice.
Dan: Of course. Of course.
Dan: I love it. I kind of want to do an episode just about barbecue now.
Tad: Dude, we can do that. Come on. Maybe we should get somebody from Memphis, somebody from Texas …
Tad: … to talk about all their garbage barbecue and I can come again really tell them … No, I’m kidding. I got to get barbecue every day, but you know …
Dan: Each has their own sort of style which is nice.
Tad: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Dan: Again, I haven’t been to Kansas City, so I got to go for that because I love it so much.
Tad: Yeah. My favorite is Joe’s which is run out of a back of a gas station. I’m a firm believer in the shittier the location, the better barbecue most of the time. That’s a thing to do. But yeah, I’ve had good barbecue … I mean Austin, Texas, I had some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had in my life.
Dan: Yeah. Likewise. Likewise.
Tad: Oh my gosh.
Dan: Speaking of brisket, yeah.
Tad: Yeah, exactly. Beef all day in Austin. Yeah, man, it’s all over the place but yeah, I think you’d really dig it for sure if you’re …
Dan: Absolutely. I’m coming.
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Dan: You know, I want to talk about barbecue, now, I’m hungry too. But to transition a little bit, in terms of what you’re up to now, you’ve got Carpenter Collective, right?
Dan: Which is your studio basically, right?
Dan: The client list is insane. I mean your list … I guess you’ve worked with pretty much everybody that’s out there, but also, you’ve done a lot of illustration for children’s books, which I find fascinating too because I love that style of illustration and the stuff I grew up on and little yellow books and all that stuff. I wonder if you can tell us about that. How you got into that and did that come before client work or after client work? I mean it’s client work but before other illustration work?
Dan: How did that happen?
Tad: Yeah. Gosh, from a timing standpoint, I don’t quite remember. I definitely think I was doing client work prior to starting to do some picture books and just work in publishing. It’s always been something that I really, really wanted to be and was really passionate about, was picture books. And for me, I think about it all the time, like every one of us who’s listening to this podcast or every one of us, period, what was your first experience with what art was? Just straight up like your first time you ever interacted with art. Probably, it was in the pages of a picture book.
Dan: Yeah, absolutely.
Tad: And that’s a really powerful thing. I know as a dumb kid from Kansas, I didn’t excel in math and science and all these other things, I can bullshit my way through pretty nicely, but I was not good at those things. To me, reading picture books and reading graphic novels and things of that nature were always the place that I felt most comfortable and I love storytelling. Again, it goes back to me and my father’s relationship. We’ve agreed a lot together and read books together and he would show me a lot of his favorite picture books when he was younger and those kind of mid-century illustrators of 1950s, ’60s kind of era illustrators which were my dad’s heroes very quickly became my heroes.
Tad: And I think that also probably really explains a lot of the reasons probably why I use color the way I do or shape the way I do is there’s always a little bit of that like that kind of 1950s, ’60s era illustration that’s always going to be locked in my brain a little bit because of me and my dad’s experiences.
Dan: Yeah. Such an influence, right?
Tad: Oh my gosh, man. To me, it really, really sort of dictate me wanting to tell my own stories and create my own kind of stories that I could share with other people and hopefully, future designers and get people excited about the value of design and the value of literature and how important reading is, and that’s something that I continue to do and will continue to do, written and illustrated a lot of books and I love it. I’m not going lie, I feel like after I complete any book, I say that’s the last one I’m going to do.
Tad: And then, it shows up in the mail and I cry and I get so excited and I’m like, “Oh shit, bring it on. I can’t wait to start another one.”
Dan: Start another one.
Tad: Oh yeah. It’s such a labor of love and something you have to do because you truly love to do it because it’s so much work, but it doesn’t feel like work, it’s so rewarding and fun. So, I continue to work on books. I actually just talked to a publisher today about a new project we’re going to kick off which is super exciting and is lovely and joyful and inspiring as they are. The publishing world is a constant kick in my crotch, if you will, also. I have box I keep in my office at my house. I have a box with all the rejection letters I get all the time.
Dan: Oh wow. Oh wow.
Tad: Which are now rejection emails, but I literally print them out and keep them in this box because it’s just so-
Dan: You want to keep those?
Tad: I want to keep those. Even some of my most successful books that I love like were rejected 10 times before they were ever actually acquired and to me, it’s almost a healthy reminder that … I mean for example, there’s a book I’ve written right now that, I think it’s probably the best one I’ve ever done that’s not saying much, hear me out on that point, but …
Dan: No, no, no. Yeah.
Tad: … I think it’s one of the better stories and more interesting kind of reads that I’ve had a chance to do-
Dan: Is that out now or …?
Tad: No. It’s been rejected at least 15 times.
Dan: Oh, I see. I see. Yeah, right.
Tad: I literally can’t get a publisher to publish it.
Dan: My apologies.
Tad: And I think there’s a lot of factors in why that is, but it’s nice for me to be able to look back on all those other rejection letters from books that are not published, it say, you know what, you have a product here, it’s going to happen. It’s purely a timing thing. I need to continue to work on it. There are holes on it. There’s a way that it can be better and just knowing that it ain’t over yet. And I think that’s really nice because my gosh, we’re in an industry with a lot of rejection. You got to find ways to …
Dan: It’s true.
Tad: … look on the bright side, if you will, I refer back to those SUNS, if you will. For sure, it’s-
Dan: It’s amazing. I was looking through all the children’s books you’ve done and some of them you’ve written and illustrated and some of them you’ve illustrated with an author. But it’s incredible, I’m sure some people listening are prospective children’s book illustrators, what would you suggest to them in terms of getting into that world? Because it seems like you’ve worked with a lot of different publishers and had a lot of success at least getting a lot of these published, which is amazing.
Tad: Yeah. I wish I was an expect in that field, but all I can share is obviously how I started working in that industry.
Dan: Yeah. It’d be great.
Tad: For me, I knew I really, really liked that type of work and I had no idea, I had no connections in that industry. I was like, “How in the world do people get into children’s books?” this is really lame and probably dumb as far as a way to break in, but I literally went to Barnes & Noble. I literally went to the children’s books section and started looking at books that were reflective of the type of work that I want to do. Like oh, I love J. Otto Seibold and I love Lane Smith and I love all these illustrators from, let’s call it the early 2000s or late ’90s that I was really, really inspired by, which I think a lot of people listening probably were. And I started to look at their books and then, every book, it says who the publisher is, who the editor was and what publishing house. I don’t know, I just started taking notes and I was like boom, “Okay, that’s somebody. That’s somebody. That’s somebody.”
Tad: And I literally just started trying to share my work with those people and getting work in front of them. It took a long time. I didn’t do a book for quite a while and it eventually, their projects are opening up and they would start inquiring about things. It snowballed from there, and I just tried to make connections because it’s so lame, it’s such like a dad answer but it’s like our industry is an industry of relationships. It’s like building those relationships is what you try to do and continue to foster those relationships.
Tad: There’s a couple of art directors and editors in the industry, in the publishing industry I’ve been working for and with, collaborating with for probably eight or nine years now in some regards, and that’s awesome that you need to do that together.
Dan: You never know too, I’ve had this experience where I worked with a client, a certain company and then, a couple of years goes by and that went well and someone calls you and they’re a completely different brand and it’s a different project, but they want to work with you again.
Tad: Oh my gosh, you’re right.
Dan: Yeah. It always pays to do your best and be nice and try to be a good person.
Tad: Oh yeah.
Dan: Have you always designed digitally or analog or is a sort of mixture? Not that we’re looking to have you share secrets or anything but …
Tad: Oh yeah. I wish I had some. I’m a bumbling idiot on trying to design stuff. I wish I had some secret thing I could hide that made the thing work but you know, yeah, I’m definitely I would say a mixture. Myself and my studio very much start out with everything as pencil and paper. I can’t think of very many things that I’ve ever made that I didn’t sketch first in some regard. I don’t know, it’s just a lot easier for me to think with a pencil on my hand and concepting and sketching ideas and I try to bring that into our work at studio and with my wife, my partner, Jessica as well as designers working for us, really emphasized sketching and drawing.
Tad: It’s such an easy way to generate ideas quickly and it’s a great thing then too as a team, look at those ideas and quickly decide what is successful, what is not, what are you envisioning. First, it’s gosh, the second you hop on to the computer, you’re trying to perfect something and that’s not what we’re about at that stage in the project, we’re about quicker ideas, more ideas, bigger ideas, faster ideas, more of them. It’s a quantity, not a quality thing at that point.
Tad: So yeah, we do a lot of things with a lot of drawing and in even some projects, then, a lot of those projects, those more analog-based drawings come in to the computer and we actually use those in some way which we really like to do but then, there’s other projects that obviously, eventually in the end, they are purely digital. The backbone of everything we do and the majority of the work we do brand identity-based, so a lot of a brand identities we built end up obviously logo systems and visual systems that are in their nature digital.
Dan: It’s funny, I just had a thought when you’re talking about. In the interface design world, which is probably where I’m more familiar historically, but right now, I think there’s an interesting time going on with tools and it seems like there’s a new tool every week.
Dan: To sort of get websites built and say the visual side of that, but for illustration, is that true for illustration too? I’m going to say probably but the tools that, the digital tools that you use, have they changed a lot over the years or … Yeah.
Tad: I would say yes, the digital have changed. But it’s funny, the way I use them hasn’t really, if that makes sense.
Dan: Yeah. That makes sense.
Tad: I’m also probably not a good adopter of new things. Ask my wife, I’m kind of like, “Wait, I’ve always done it this way?” “Yeah.” “This is probably how I’m always going to do it now.” You know what I mean?
Dan: Right, I can relate.
Tad: Yeah. Actually, now, it’s like a creature of habit a little bit but yeah, very much so though, I try to start to bring in some of the new tools. I feel like I’m the last man on earth that’s still is not using a Wacom or a Stylus or anything like that. I’m a straight up mouse man. That’s the way I learned years and years ago and that’s the way I’ve continued to do it. I even have one, I just never taken that out of the box. It’s like, oh, it’s as old as hell but it’s a client 10 years ago, a client at the end of the year bought us one and I was so excited and I just never … Yeah, it was totally nice. It was also kind of like a junky like Staples version of Wacom. You know what I mean?
Dan: Right. Right.
Tad: But I was like, “Oh, this will be perfect to learn on.” And I just never found that like window of where I’m like, “Oh, I have a couple of days of down time. I’m just going to play …” that’s a stupid excuse, but you know what I mean. But like-
Dan: I do, I do though.
Tad: It’s so hard but it’s something that I want … That’s a goal for myself is to try to bring some of these new tools and technologies more into our work and we do. I know we create a lot custom brushes in Adobe Illustrator and we create a lot of custom design elements that are proprietary to us while we’re designing and that’s something that hasn’t always been around in the system. So, there are definitely ways that we utilize that stuff.
Dan: Yeah. I’m with you on the creature of habit kind of thing going and it’s hard, it’s hard to find the time to learn new things when you’re busy doing stuff that you know and you fall back on. Yeah. What’s happening with your Carpenter Collective now? That’s probably taking up most of your time other than children’s books and all the different other projects you’re doing. How did that come to be and how long you’ve been doing the things that way?
Tad: I guess technically, I started my studio when I went out on my own and it was just me. I think that is 2008-2009 I guess I would say and for nearly six or seven years, it was really just me. More than that, more than seven years actually, it was just me for the most part, which is true and kind of a lie because I married I think one of the best designers, definitely one of the best designers I’ve ever worked with, there’s my wife, Jessica Carpenter and she was an art director at Willoughby Design which is a really, really successful brand name studio. It’s actually the oldest woman-run design studio in the entire country actually.
Dan: Oh wow. Excellent.
Tad: Which is amazing.
Dan: Yeah, that’s great.
Tad: Yeah. Ann Willoughby who’s AIGA medalist also and a really dear friend and my wife was an art director for her for nearly 10 years, Willoughby had a goal of partnering but she had a great gig and it’s just the timing was never right. About three years ago, things had just gotten a little too much, too much work, too much going on, and my wife and I then officially partnered about three years ago and we’ve now run the studio together completely 50-50 and it’s amazing. I love being able to design with the person I enjoy being around the most every single day and getting to make and create things together. We always have collaborated very well together and it’s amazing to be able to do that. I’m just very, very fortunate to have that in our lives. Yeah, like the backbone and really, the majority of the work we do is create brand experiences and create brand identities for really amazing clients.
Tad: I feel like a lot of things fall under the hospitality realm from restaurants and experience spaces, to food and beverage and restaurants like that. I feel like it is the arena we live in a lot and the arena I actually like to live in. I really love restaurants, food, beverage, that kind of thing because most often, there’s most points that we could get in there and dig around with and that’s super fun.
Dan: Yeah. In those industries, there’s always a lot of, unfortunately, there’s a lot of turnovers but there’s a lot of new ventures, right, that need …
Dan: … systems from the get go.
Tad: Yeah. And you hope you can get in with those, early on, it’s always a bummer when you get the email from the person that’s … “Oh, we’re already have kind of like a logo that we love and there’s one other thing that we’ve got from somebody but we’d love your help with some of the rest of the stuff,” “Yeah, that’s totally something we could do but it’s just not as … you know, it’s just, not the greatest fit.” Yeah, you absolutely want to try to get in when they’re in the baby, infancy of that project and that idea and we’ve had some [narrowly 00:47:30] ones over the years as far as how those work, and then, sometimes you’ve had ones that are just unbelievably seamless. You get in there and you start designing everything right from the get go and it launches, then, it’s perfect.
Tad: We have one project that, I’m not kidding, we did the brand identity for it. Boy, I’m trying to remember, it’s years ago now. It’s probably have been close to three and a half, four years ago and they still not hit the market yet to this day.
Dan: Oh wow. Wow.
Tad: I love the identity, I love packaging system we developed for them and the concept, I’m really, really happy with the concept and it’s like, “Come on guys. Let’s get this on.” Yeah?
Dan: Right. It’s just …
Tad: It’s agonizing just purely from the like, I’m excited to get it rolling, and I can’t imagine how they feel though.
Dan: Yeah, right.
Tad: It’s funny, the nature of our industry, how projects sometimes can go. It’s a lot times in your hands, you can do what you can contribute but my gosh, there’s so many other forces that are involved.
Dan: Oh yeah, it’s totally true. And a lot of stuff, some things won’t see the light of day unfortunately, right? That’s the real bummer.
Tad: Yeah, absolutely. Right.
Dan: It happens.
Tad: It’s like gosh, we all have graveyards of stuff and you’re like, “Oh man,” it’s “What am I going to do with this. I guess I’ll post it on Dribbble.”
Dan: There you go. Hey, I like that. That’s a good idea.
Tad: There we go, right?
Dan: Yeah. Tad, I didn’t pay you for that. So, I have a final question for you …
Dan: … and that is what’s your favorite children’s book that you haven’t created yourself?
Tad: Oh, definitely not mine. Well, I feel like it’s a cop out answer a little bit.
Dan: No, no, no. There’s no cop out answer.
Tad: All right. When I was, I want to say five years old, five, maybe four, I don’t know, somewhere in that age, my dad picked me up from school early one day and said, “Hey, there’s somebody in town I think you need to meet. I think you’ll be really excited to meet this guy and we’re going to go meet him,” and I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is amazing.” And there was an author in Kansas City, he was just visiting Kansas City doing a book tour and it wasn’t the release of the book but the book at that time, was being turned into a play and he was just going around the country promoting the play. The book had already been out for years and years. Well, I didn’t know who we’re going to see and and if we’re going to show up, a kind of fan boy as a four year old, right? But I showed up and it was Maurice Sendak, the Author of Where the Wild Things Are.
Dan: Oh wow. Oh wow. Yeah.
Tad: My dad was like, “You really need … I think you really … I think you’ll really like this,” I showed up and I got my Where the Wild Things Are book out and I remember I bought a … he had a Wild Thing plush toy like a stuffed animal, you know?
Dan: Yeah. Yeah.
Tad: And Maurice Sendak signed one foot “To Tad” and then, on the other foot, it says, “Love, Maurice Sendak.”
Dan: Wow. Oh my goodness.
Tad: And I still have that sitting in my office to this day.
Tad: I’ll remember that for the rest of my life. I just remember that day and that feeling of standing in front of this man that I was just like, “You created this world that I go to and I imagine,” and I lay in my room pretending the walls are turning to trees and vines and forests from this world you created and being so unbelievably inspired by this guy and getting to meet him. So, for me, it’s always going to be hard for our book to probably inspire me more than that book that Maurice Sendak wrote, Where the Wild Things Are”. A pretty special book for sure.
Dan: What a story. Folks at home, I did not know that that was going to be the answer. I’m really glad I asked the question because that’s amazing and what a classic book and amazing illustration, style.
Tad: Oh, the king, man. That dude’s … he’s tops, man, in my eyes. That dude is so profound.
Dan: He is.
Tad: He’s so interesting. I wish my dad would have been on top of his game to have me get my picture taken with him though. Literally, what happened is I got this plush toy signed by him and then, you move like 5 feet to the right of him or whatever.
Dan: Right. Of course, yeah.
Tad: And there’s like a giant like 10-foot tall wild thing that you stand in front of and get your picture taken in front of that. So, I literally had my picture with the plush toy …
Dan: Oh, no way. Oh, you have as a kid.
Tad: … standing on a log in front of a 10-foot tall wild thing but like Maurice Sendak is literally like 4 feet to my right off camera and I’m like, “Oh man, I wish I had a picture with him too.”
Dan: What a memory, oh my gosh.
Tad: It is. Right. Right.
Dan: And also, what a cool dad. I mean that’s-
Tad: Oh my dad, yeah, he’s great.
Dan: Talk about inspiring and obviously, he planted a lot of seeds for you in terms of …
Tad: Oh, man.
Dan: … what you’re doing now.
Dan: It’s just pretty awesome.
Tad: I’m super lucky to have a dad that, we have a lot in common and we get along really well and we had a shared passion.
Dan: It’s awesome.
Tad: It’s super cool. Cool to have that. It’s cool that early on, he was like, “Well, I like this kind of things so guess what, you might like him too.” Well yeah, it could have been the exact opposite because I know kids are like, “No. I hate everything my parents like.” My dad could even super into algorithms or something, I don’t know, something weird, and I’m like, “This is freaking boring, what the hell, man? You’re into algorithms?” I don’t know, it’s like … I’m glad he was into something that he’s in, I was also into …
Dan: Yeah. The planets aligned there and you guys have a shared … I love it.
Tad: Seriously, man.
Dan: Algorithms, that’s …
Tad: No offense to anybody out there that’s in love with numbers or algorithms or accounting or anything like that, it’s just not my …
Dan: It’s not your cup of tea.
Tad: … cup of tea, if you will. Yeah.
Dan: That’s awesome. That is super cool. Tad, thank you so much for being on here. Like I said earlier, I think we could go on and do other episodes about barbecue and probably a lot of other things as well. So, there’s so much to talk about. I really appreciate you being on because we’re big fans.
Tad: Oh my gosh, man, I can’t thank you enough. Like I was telling you at the jump, I appreciate you guys even thinking of me for something like this, let alone you giving me a ring tonight and all of us sitting down and having a fun conversation and thank you guys for the platform that you guys give everybody too. It’s been awesome just hanging out and chat tonight.
Dan: Yeah. Well, awesome. Thank you, man and keep up the awesome work. We’re going to be following and introduce your … thank you. Awesome, man.