Carpenter Collective brings Dotte Mobile Grocer to life

LAWRENCE – Husband and wife Tad and Jessica Carpenter strive for optimism and positivity, whether their Carpenter Collective is designing a soft-drink cup for a fast-food chain or a graphic identity for a classy condo project. 

And now, capping a process begun by colleagues from the University of Kansas School of Architecture & Design, they’ve created an entire brand-identity system for the Dotte Mobile Grocer, which is about to hit the streets to combat food-desert conditions in the central city of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas. 

The Carpenters met while they were students in the Department of Design at KU during the early years of the millennium. Tad Carpenter has been a lecturer in the department since 2009. 

Together they’ve created posters for rock bands, identity systems for restaurants and coffee shops — even the overall, interactive design of Boulevard Brewing Company’s Tours & Recreation Center. But Tad Carpenter said there is something different about the job for the nonprofit mobile grocer. 

“Wyandotte County has some serious food deserts, and this seems like a project that’s really going to help people,” Tad Carpenter said. “Not every project we do can we hang our hat on it and say this is really going to improve people’s lives somehow. Design always improves people’s lives in some regard. But it feels like this particular initiative could really help a group of people’s day-to-day lives and make them a little easier, and it’s nice to be a part of the team doing that. That was the biggest draw to this project for us – using the skill set that we’ve been given to help our community in some way.” 

The Carpenters (plus the third member of their Collective, Chloe Hubler) pitched the volunteer members of the mobile market’s governing council earlier this year to get the job. 

The project has its genesis in the Dotte Agency, “a multidisciplinary design collaborative engaging neighborhoods to shape the built environment in order to improve public health” created in 2013 by Arc/D professors Nils Gore and Shannon Criss. Shepherded by Arc/D doctoral student and now NourishKC Director of Grocery Access Initiatives Matt Kleinmann, and with student and community support, they built the truck and moved legal, political and logistical mountains over the past two years. 

“They gave us a budget right off the bat, and we came back and said, ‘This is what we can give you,’” Jessica Carpenter said. 

That includes not only the custom wrap for the truck, but a related system of logos, signs, tablecloths, ballcaps, etc. The design includes geographic and historical references like Strawberry Hill and the Rosedale Arch. 

“It’s very reflective of doing a restaurant identity, which we do a lot of,” Tad Carpenter said. 

“It started with a strategy session with all the committee members to really understand the problem and get any vision that they had down on paper,” Jessica Carpenter said. 

In such strategy sessions, Tad Capenter said, designers listen for key words and phrases they can turn into visuals. In the case of Dotte Mobile Grocer, the Carpenter group worked with the organizers on the name itself, as well. 

“We had a bunch of more fun and abstract names, and they ended up wanting the most descriptive, simple name solution,” he said, adding that its juxtaposition with “the bright and inviting identity system we landed on is a really nice kind of partnership.” 

Across disparate projects, a certain Carpenter Collective style can be discerned. 

“I would say probably everything of ours has at least a wink of whimsy — even the more serious stuff,” Tad Carpenter said. “We don’t do overly serious work, but we’ll design a hair salon or a condo building downtown, and even in those moments there is a lot of positivity in it. … there is a lot of optimism in that work.” 

Perhaps that positive outlook is not surprising when one learns that Tad Carpenter’s father, Steve Carpenter, was a creative force as an illustrator, designer and executive for more than 40 years at Kansas City’s Hallmark Cards, and that young Tad “grew up in the halls of Hallmark.” 

“My mom is a fiber artist, too, so she always had her thing she was working on,” Tad Carpenter said. “I can’t remember a time when we weren’t drawing and making and creating something. There were times when it was really intimidating, too. My dad, he’s like on another level of talent. So wondering where will I fit into this world, or could I even fit into this world, was something I actually thought about a lot. But he was such an amazing mentor, so supportive, and still, to this day, we bounce ideas off him all the time.” 

Tad and Jessica Carpenter met at KU while working together on The Kiosk, a magazine made by journalism and design students. They hit it off, personally and professionally. 

“I’m probably a little more intuitive and quicker with my movements, and Jessica’s much more refined and strategic and detail-oriented, so we really are a good balance in the way we approach design,” Tad Carpenter said. 

Everyone in the Carpenter Collective does everything, they say – illustration, lettering, design – and they share the work at various stages. 

“Our studio is run as a pingpong match, a little bit,” Tad Carpenter said. “People are back and forth. And the projects, for us, that are the most successful are the ones where all of us have touched them, versus one voice. 

“The mobile market is a perfect example. All three of us have worked on that project quite a bit.” 

This kind of flexible skill set is what employers today are seeking, the Carpenters believe. 

“Every design studio, every agency wants that multifaceted designer now,” Tad Carpenter said. “I think there was a period of time 10 to 15 years ago and well before that where designers lived in silos — especially if you are thinking of Hallmark or the big studios. They said, ‘You know what? You are a lettering artist; you are going to work in the lettering department; and don’t cross those lines.’ Or, ‘You are an illustrator; you draw the card and hand it off to a designer, who will then design the layout.’ But now I feel like employers want people who can really wear a lot of different hats. They encourage people to cross lanes, and we are a good example of that. I do lettering, I draw, I design. Jessica does lettering, she draws, she designs. Chloe does lettering, she draws, she designs. It’s like we want people that can take on a lot of different challenges.”