In-house at Whole Foods Market: An Interview with Kelly Stevens

Andy Kurtts, design manager at The Fresh Market, sits down with Kelly Stevens, art director for the Southwest region of Whole Foods Market, to find out what it’s like to work in-house for the natural foods supermarket chain. 

Andy Kurtts: So perhaps you could start us off by describing your professional background. How did you get into the in-house world of the food industry?  

Kelly Stevens: After graduating from college, I first took a job with an advertising agency and was laid off after only a year and a half there. But I had this project I’d started working on in school, where I designed a line of pajamas. And I thought, “Call me crazy, but I think I want to go make those pajamas now.” I took out a loan from my parents and worked at home for a year on the pajama line. But just as the product was about to go to market, the clothing industry started to fall apart.

At that very moment, a friend of mine who had also been laid off called me and said, “Hey, I just turned down a job. But Kelly, this job is for you. This team is for you. These people are for you. I’ve already given them your name. I’m not asking your permission.” The company was Whole Foods Market. This past January was my tenth anniversary there.

What’s the most satisfying part of working in-house at the company? 

I’m a total people person. When I see a happy person, that’s what’s most emotionally fulfilling for me. It’s when a customer stops me and says, “We’ve been waiting for you to open. This store is beautiful and I found this product that I’m in love with. I’m really excited that you’re here.” That is truly rewarding.

On the design front, I enjoy taking the idea of wholesome foods and turning it into packaging, into interiors. I get to tell a story. I work closely with the team that oversees the interior designs of our stores. I also do a lot of the writing for our marketing materials and I shoot a lot of our photos. I enjoy sitting down with our bakery coordinator or our seafood coordinator and asking, “What are you trying to do? What do we want people to feel? What do people have to know about this product?” Because we’re in a story-rich environment, it’s sometimes hard to develop succinct messages. So I sit down with my colleagues to craft language and photos that succinctly tell someone cruising past, with a shopping cart, why a particular Whole Foods Market product is the right product to buy.

And what sort of stories do you tell through design? 

There’s a gentleman, Jeremiah Cunningham, who I’m very fond of. He’s about 30 minutes outside of Austin, and he started producing pasture-raised eggs. He was the only local farmer grinding his own organic feed and grazing his chickens in a pasture, and we were going to carry his eggs. We first drove out to his place and had a nice, long chat with him. And he told us, “I just know that these are going to be the world’s best eggs.”  

So I said, “Jerry, I really want to call them Jeremiah Cunningham’s World’s Best Eggs, because you’re a real person.” He’ll tell any customer to come out to the farm and meet his chickens, and I couldn’t disconnect his product from his personality. So he and I worked together to develop his brand. To be able to take that story, from “this is what someone is making” to “this is how it gets to our stores” to “this is why we think it’s best,” I find that very fulfilling.

Given Whole Foods Market’s regional focus, where do you get your inspiration?  

I personally do a lot of our retail design work. Often, I’m art directing and sometimes even designing by hand, depending on the store interiors. So if we’re looking at a new market, we get to know the community and the people; we eat in their restaurants and we shop in their shops. We really just go into a neighborhood and kick the tires on that community, so to speak, to try and figure out their needs and aspirations. Getting out there and gaining a sense of what’s happening in other places, having that full sensory experience, it helps me design. It’s probably more inspiring than anything else.

How much time do you and your team spend in your own stores around employees, customers and vendors? How do these interactions affect your design process?  

Well, there’s the design side of things and then there’s the fundamental implementation, at the store level, with graphic artists. We have two to four folks who are responsible for all the gorgeous chalkboards and the price item signs that you see in our store. Graphic artists understand the operational side: how design collides with the customer experience, as well as issues of implementation. The designers will call me and say, “We’re not going to be able to keep these signs up because the carts run them over. We need to come up with another idea, because the way you’re placing the signs, it literally isn’t going to hold up.”

Getting out into the stores themselves is important, so two folks on my team are on the road full time. They hop from store to store, looking at what’s going on and giving us constant feedback. I really depend on them. Our regions function quite autonomously, so maybe there’s some wicked stuff happening in Northern California that I have to go see for myself. There’s also a lot of photo exchange across the company, a lot of, “Hey, I heard you had a great program in your meat department. Can you send me pictures?” Or we’ll run into somebody and they’ll say, “Your bakery signs better than ours. Can you send them to us?” It’s incubation not in silos but in different Petri dishes. Part of my job is to make sure these innovations hop from Petri dish to Petri dish, across the whole company.

How does this collaboration play out at a higher level, beyond the individual stores?  

Every Whole Foods Market has a store team leader, who is the manager. All of our folks report in part to our team and in part to the store team leader. Then there’s the regional level and what we call our global team, since we’re now an international company. In many ways, we are quite independent; I don’t report to anyone at the global office, but we have this lovely relationship with them. If they see a global need for a program, sometimes they will take on that program for us, which takes work off of our plate. They function almost like another brain feeding us ideas, so we rarely feel like we’re being told what to do from on high.

I think everybody at the company acknowledges that the best innovations come from the store level, meaning we get a lot of bottom-up rather than top-down innovation. I would say that 90 percent of the time, I don’t feel like I’m being told I have to do something, or that I’m simply executing programs that come to us from a faceless office. Every day I have a chance to participate in collaborative problem solving, which is part of the reason I’ve stayed with the company for so long.

How do you prioritize your projects? Do you have a tiered system? Or is it first come, first serve? 

Our team has grown quite a bit over the last three to four years. Back in the day, I used to be the only designer. Our marketing director did a lot of the project management; I did all the production management. I basically took the information, designed it, sent it to the printer and got it to the stores. Our team has since quadrupled in size, and we’re also supporting a growing number of stores. I think we’re at a sort of crossroads. Information lives in so many pockets, and we’re going to have to find new ways to prioritize our work.

Of course, there’s always the issue of retail, where innovation happens on the turn of a dime. We’ll think that we know what we’re doing for any given week, but then something big comes along and we have to drop everything, switch gears and work on it. Then we go back to our bigger, longer-term projects. So we’re constantly striking a balance between doing a little bit of planning and leaving a little bit of wiggle room for things that appear out of the blue, like comets.

Does your team do a lot of prototyping—just printing something off and taking it to the store itself to see how it works?  

In some cases, yes. Our stores are all over the map in terms of size, age, execution and style. A store we designed in the 1980s feels different than a store we designed in 2005. We aim to keep them more or less in step with each other, but we might still design something for a case in one of our stores that simply won’t work well in the others. Overall, we’d really like to do more in-store prototyping. Occasionally we’ll send something to one store and say, “Hey, can you guys put this up, shoot a photo and tell us what you think?” And sometimes they’ll write back and say, “You know, it looks okay in the photo, but it’s not really working for X reason.”

I think our new stores are really the incubators, especially when it comes to permanent items, such as signage. While we make smaller leaps when we do a remodel or embark on a new program, I would definitely say that the giant leaps happen when we open a new store.

Does your team do brand design packaging? 

Yes, we design a lot of the regional packaging. So if we’re talking about the box that holds pies in my stores in the Southwest region, then yes, I design those boxes. If my bakery coordinator decides that they want to create a new candy and we need packaging for that candy, then yes, we do that as well. All the stickers that we use to label our products, my team does a lot of that work. If you pick up a salad in one of my stores, my team probably designed the sticker.

When you’re creating these items, is it challenging to work with the Whole Foods Market brand while also trying to make the design mesh regionally?  

That is always a really interesting challenge, because we do have brand standards. I think that as a designer, you find the places where you can color in the lines, and then you find the places where you can innovate. That’s something really awesome about the Whole Foods Market brand; it’s so elastic that you can sometimes stretch the boundaries a bit. Our measure here is, “Does it feel like us? I know this isn’t our standard typeface, but I think it feels like us.” You can go too far in the other direction, however, when you pick a new typeface just for the sake of picking a new typeface, or you do something off the wall and it doesn’t stick. I like to think that we’re not so much brand warriors as we are brand shepherds.

Yes, or brand stewards. That’s what we call ourselves at The Fresh Market.  

Absolutely. As shepherds, we have to herd the entire flock. But sometimes a bakery box escapes! In fact, we just had a big discussion about redesigning all of our bakery packaging. We sat down with our bakery coordinator and she outlined her goals: where she wanted to be and what she wanted her department to feel like. Something that felt more earthly. Something that went back to our roots. Something that felt like an old-school bakery.

So I sat down with the designs we’d been working with, and I pushed them to the left and then to the right. We executed a bunch of mockups and put them all on the table. Then, when nobody was looking, I went into my corner and did something completely different—something that I felt was truer to the aesthetic direction we wanted to go.

I sat down with the team and said, “Here’s what would happen if we did what we thought we were supposed to do, if we follow the flock.” And then I moved all that stuff over to the side, put a couple of the new boxes on the table and said, “This is what I would do if we were to start from scratch.” The new designs still fit within our brand, of course, but they gave the vision more tooth. My project manager looked at me and said, “I just think it’s right.”

What are some of the unique challenges you face as an in-house designer? 

I think you have to work extra hard to expose yourself to new ideas. In an agency, where you have multiple clients, you have multiple points of feedback coming in and you’re constantly forced to consider radically different perspectives. But when it’s food and retail, food and retail, food and retail, you have to take extra steps to make sure you’re exposing yourself to outside stuff. In-house, it’s easy to get tunnel vision.

Do you have any advice for in-house designers who find themselves struggling to reconcile client or corporate demands with good design? 

I think the most important thing you can do is build strong relationships with the people you’re working with. For instance, I wouldn’t dare tell our meat team what’s the best cut of meat. That’s their job. And once I’ve developed a good rapport with them, they won’t dare tell me what makes good design. We simply respect each other’s worlds and we respect the knowledge, passion and experience each side brings to the table. And then we work together to find some place in the middle. That process starts on a personal level, with being able to talk to my colleagues as individuals, not as a department or an office.

A great example of this is our new Seafood Sustainability program. Whole Foods Market no longer carries seafood that is rated “red,” which includes species that are threatened by overfishing or harmful fishing methods. It’s a hard program to talk about, and it’s difficult to effectively explain the rating system to customers. The seafood team, of course, knows all about the fish and why a specific type of fish is no longer sold. But they weren’t quite sure how to communicate that information to the customer. So they came to us and said, “Hey, we’ve got to figure out how to tell our store’s guests this really complicated story.” Finding a common message isn’t always easy or comfortable. But I think once the seafood team understood that we had their best interests at heart, and the best interests of the customer, they entrusted us with the design decisions. In the end, they don’t care what color or typeface it is—they simply trust that I’m using their knowledge and their passion for the product to communicate the issues visually.

You’ve been in-house at Whole Foods Market for more than a decade. What is one of the most important takeaways you’ve gained through that experience? 

Given all that I’ve learned during my time here, if I had my pajama line to do over, for instance, I would be obsessive about organic cotton and the inks that I would be using. It’s funny, but when I look back on it all now, my experience here has taught me how I should have produced a product differently. I realize how important it is, for the environment and for our global community, to develop products in ways that don’t trash everything we hold dear.

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About the Author:

Andy Kurtts is Creative Director at Buttermilk Creative, a small studio focusing on packaging design and happy clients.