December 2, 2021

Spotlight Series: Fred Hart

Shining a light on a design thought leader who has made "challenging the category" a mission.

Welcome to the Designalytics Spotlight Series, where we connect with thought leaders in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) and branding worlds who are helping to drive growth through design. In this series, we’ll introduce you to experts with unique perspectives on what’s new (and next) in package design, some lessons they’ve learned along the way, and insights to help you maximize your brand’s design potential. 

Our first spotlight is on:

Fred Hart 
Designer, Storyteller, Creative Director & Partner at Interact

Spotlight Series - Fred Hart

Fred is a self-described “phrontist”: a deep thinker. For most people, this word would bring to mind philosophers and contemplatives… and this does, in fact, apply to the Hawaii-born Hart. He has an inquisitive mind that seems to embrace tough questions and eschew easy answers, particularly as it pertains in the world of design.

Along with his agency, Interact, Fred has blazed a path of aesthetic innovation in the food and beverage space. The firm’s “guided by strategy, measured on consequence” mantra embodies a central tenet of design-driven growth: that measurement holds the key to releasing packaging’s untapped power. Companies have taken notice of its impressive work; Interact counts food and beverage brands like FitVine, Boulder Canyon, Fat Snax, Dogfish Head, and more among its portfolio.

Two ideas seem to animate Fred: exploration and obsession. The former expresses itself in his curiosity: whether it be criss-crossing the U.S. to discover different towns and cities, or absorbing as many ideas, perspectives, and insights of others as possible. Obsession (a quality celebrated by Interact as well) is where the “phrontist” in him really comes alive. He is relentlessly focused on the principles, concepts, and imperatives of great design and maintains a playful penchant for challenging the status quo.

We caught up with Fred over Zoom and asked him about curiosity, creativity, risk, and how he helps put the “challenge” in challenger brands. 

You’re a partner at Interact… what was your journey to this job? 

My business partner Blake bought the agency from his father. He had some ambitions for it and had a strength for setting a “vision” — but he wasn’t a designer or a strategist. Our paths collided, and I moved from San Francisco to Boulder six years ago to bring our collective vision to life. We’ve since built Interact from three employees to 20, and we’ve now started our next evolution as a team.

You’ve described yourself as “cultivating curiosity about the world around you.” How does that mindset inform your approach to design and to your job in general? 

Our offices are in Boulder and Austin, but I’m talking to you right now from Portland, Maine. Before this, I was in California for two weeks. Before that, I was on a six week road trip through the Southwest working remotely.

All of this to say: Changing your environment usually changes the way that you think. As a creative person, mental and visual stimulation is really important. For me, there’s a real appetite just to see what's out there. I like being open to unconventional and unorthodox ways of getting information.

What's the most consistent hurdle you have in your job?

I think it's getting clients to do brave, bold, different things, and trying to align on vision.  

Our clients come from different perspectives than us. They know their business, which is integral to the process. We see what could be. Our job is to literally create the future. So the human elements of the process come in, and you ask yourself: How open is someone to change? How risk-averse are they? 

So I think the biggest thing is just getting clients to believe in good ideas enough to leave their comfort zone.

How do you counter the risk that is inherent in that kind of boldness? 

What we like to do is build out really robust brand worlds. We’ve worked with a lot of companies in CPG, which means the primary sales tool is the packaging. Packaging is what we call “brand in hand,” because it has all these elements that have to live in one place together. Logos, copywriting, photography, color palettes, messaging, claims... all that living harmoniously in one place.

But our reach and influence goes way beyond that.

We’re working to make the “brand in world” a much larger consideration. Show as many brand touch-points as possible—how it would look on social media, what a website would look like, what swag and collateral would be. Because usually, the more you show someone, the more comfortable they become with it. 

You’ve mentioned that you like getting feedback from design testing research early in the process, rather than at the end. Why is that better for you as a designer? 

It allows us to not get swept up in this game of “testing to win.” We test to learn. 

We like testing for several concepts early and seeing how things are playing out. So that it’s more indicative, more quantitative, and tells you if you're on the right track. It can provide a level of confidence. 

You have worked with a lot of challenger brands. What does the word “challenge” mean to you in your day-to-day job?

I like to recite this quote: “The opposite of bravery is not cowardice, but conformity.” 

Challenging is a fundamental pillar of our company and our philosophy. What we're trying to do is get our clients to do things differently, because you can't just simply replicate the playbook of others that came before. That trail has already been blazed. 

What we are constantly trying to figure out is: Where's the room to challenge? Is it through design? Is it through positioning? Is it through the product? Is it through the audience that we speak to?

Can you give an example of a brand out there that found the room to challenge? 

Take Banza. They're a chickpea pasta. Now, pasta is not novel, but chickpea pasta is. The entire pasta category is filled with blues, reds, greens and whites. Banza launched in this bright orange box, and it was the right signal for them.

Another is Liquid Death, the water company. There's a simple playbook for water—you talk about the pristine quality of it, or whether it’s from Fiji or the Alps or some spring. Liquid Death was never going to win playing everyone else's game, though. So they did basically everything that you were told not to do. They were as extreme as possible. 

Their marketing is out of this world and their mission is unlike any other. “Murder Your Thirst.” “Death to Plastic.” They cater to a very different audience as a result. As a challenger brand like that, you have to mean a lot to a very small amount of people in order to make some noise.

Given the differences in organizations—some are massive and potentially risk-averse, others are trying to break through in their category—how do brands cultivate and maintain a “challenger” mindset?

It's not easy being different. We ask our clients to challenge their categories, because that's the way to lead them to success.

But I can't build you a Ferrari, knowing that you're more comfortable behind the wheel of a Prius, right? I have to give you a vehicle that you're going to actually drive at the end of the day.

In the same way, I can't build you an extremist brand if you're not an extremist person or have an extremist vision.

And so that's where strategy comes in. We try to be very contrarian and ask: “Well, what if we did this?” Because most people don't expect it. It may not be right, but then someone else will hear that and go, ‘Oh, I don't know if we have to do a 180-degree turn. Maybe we go 90 degrees this way.’ And that'll be different enough.

If you could offer one bit of advice to people in the CPG space, what would it be?

Challenge the category, not the consumer.

Anyone can be different for difference’s sake. You can show up in a clown suit to a roomful of tuxedos, but you're gonna make the wrong impression. Keep that challenger mentality. You just need to apply strategy and not just intuition.