When I first started reading Design*Sponge back in 2004, I became obsessed with the written voices of each editor, conjuring up images of what I thought they looked like, what their passions were — it was sort of a version of the game “Dinner Party” where you name the six people you’d invite to a lavish meal at your own home. Shannon Grant was always on my guest list. Her name alone inspired visions of a sunglasses wearing, beautiful genius who only appeared at the most exclusive events and stayed for 10 mysterious minutes before she drove off in her convertible at top speed. While I’m thankful for my prolific imagination, my imaginary Shannon couldn’t have been further from the real Shannon Grant.
When I learned that Shannon was, in fact, the genius behind the package design of a favorite Aveda product I use every day, I knew I had to reach out and virtually meet her. And beg her for an interview.
A thoughtful artist at heart, Shannon is an open, down-to-earth woman who listens to her inner-voice with patience. That enviable characteristic led her from New York City to Minneapolis, MN, where she lovingly directs all aspects of design at one of my favorite companies, Aveda. Today, Shannon graciously shares a peek into her past, present and future — and I’m still hoping she’ll appear at my dinner party someday soon. –Caitlin
Photography courtesy of Peter Phung
What was your career path like?
In my last semester of design school I was offered a job as a graphic designer at a small boutique design agency in NYC. It was just four of us in the company and I worked on a variety of projects, anything from travel, to fashion to non-profit. After about a year and a half I moved onto a graphic designer role at Club Monaco, because I was very interested in moving into the fashion industry. Though I met some incredible people, one of whom became a mentor for me, I became restless and wasn’t as professionally fulfilled as I hoped to be. In retrospect it was a fine job, but I was struggling with fashion being my sole fulfillment. I also wanted to feel connected to a higher purpose, and give back in some way.
I was volunteering at MoMA in their education department and loved it. I landed a graphic design position at Brooklyn Public Library in their Marketing department. I stayed for five years. After a while I realized that this role wasn’t checking all my boxes either. I liked the subject matter, but I missed the fast paced excitement of the fashion world. During that tenure I also started moonlighting here at D*S which was so exciting. As a teenager I was a voracious magazine hoarder and in my twenties I was a voracious blog reader and so it was no surprise that my passion turned into an eventual job editing for my favorite design blog.
I spent the the better part of a year working on my graphic design portfolio and sought out other opportunities that would hopefully be more fulfilling. For personal reasons, my husband and I decided to move to Minneapolis which required me to shift my job search to the Twin Cities. Looking for a job in MN while still living in NYC was very challenging and a bit grueling. I knew nothing about the Twin Cities design scene, other than the fact that Target was based here. We had a timeline (9 months), however, so I set up as many informational interviews as I could and went out one weekend to meet people in person to feel out the job market. The design community was quite welcoming and connected me to more and more people. Out of maybe a dozen connections, one really good job prospect came out of it. I met someone who was recruiting for the Aveda position I am working in today. It was a 3-month interview process, but it landed me in a job that ultimately merges my love for fashion/beauty with a desire to give back or contribute to something bigger. I traveled down a winding road, professionally, and it wasn’t until I looked outside of NYC that I found the right fit. This was something I didn’t expect.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I bounced around so many ideas! When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an actress, but that was short lived. In high school I changed my mind a lot: psychologist, lawyer, art therapist, interior designer. The one constant was that I always loved art and loved to draw. But I didn’t know what the possibilities were, and I didn’t really know my job existed, to be honest. My parents wanted to make sure I got a traditional, stable job and artist didn’t really fit the bill. So, it was a push and pull between what I thought I should do and what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I was in college and majoring in Psychology that I discovered Graphic Design and its great career potential.
What’s the best part of your job?
It’s a tie between three things. First, as design director at Aveda, I love that I get my hands in so many different types of projects that are creative. Graphic design is truly a spring board for so many other things and from packaging to campaign launches to art directing photography, there is always a new opportunity. Second, I find the environmental mission component very compelling. I’ve learned so much about the life cycle of a package or product. I never envisioned myself in a corporate setting, but there is brand authenticity that informs our projects in a way that I can get behind. On one photo shoot in a studio, the plan was to photograph product lying in snow. But of course you can’t use REAL snow when it could take an hour or two to nail down the composition. And since it’s Aveda, we couldn’t just run to the craft store and buy any old fake snow. After an extensive search, the producer sourced “eco flurries” and now that’s what we use when we need fake snow. We strive to minimize scrap and waste in our work process. Lastly, I love the collaborative dynamic we have on the design team and within the larger creative department. Everyone is ready and willing to help each other out, which is not a given at every job.
And the hardest part of your job?
Managing people can be very challenging. Like most designers, I didn’t learn how to be a manager in design school, so there was a learning curve there for me. Ironically, it’s one of the things that brings me the most joy at work, because I love my team, but it is also probably the hardest. It’s more than just the design work — often it’s about the interpersonal and navigating different working styles.
What on-the-job tools do you use every day?
Adobe Illustrator is the program I probably use the most out of the Creative Suite, definitely every day. For organization, I would say Evernote and my email. And to this day, for me nothing beats paper and pen for sketching out ideas.
You’ve mentioned that the tulasara project and product has special meaning for you. Can you tell us what that meaning is?
The tulasara project is meaningful to me because it was an incredible opportunity to truly innovate from within the brand. Often we are redesigning packaging for existing products but this was totally new, tulasara didn’t already exist. Every aspect of the package holds meaning, embodies the Aveda brand and its Ayurvedic heritage.The bottle shape was inspired by the three doshas of Ayurveda and the A in the Aveda logo. The amber glass references an old apothecary aesthetic. The bespoke illustrated symbols are inspired by sanskrit and many Indian languages but are unique to Aveda. The glass is recyclable and the product passes strict environmental standards. It was a collaboration among many people in-house as well as with a very talented design consultant, Paul Khera. It was difficult at times, balancing tight timing and environmental parameters and so, so many design approvals. The brand has a strong identity with rich heritage and it was important to honor that while innovating. In the end the product is pretty awesome but I think I’m more excited about the packaging!
How do you integrate Ayurvedic traditions into your designs?
One of the biggest tenets of Ayurveda that we draw from is the notion of balance. This is a natural fit for graphic design because as designers we are always trying to find the right balance in a layout, a color palette or a composition of any sort. Our color palettes are inspired by nature and in several projects, we have incorporated Indian motifs for illustrations and patterns.
How do you develop prototypes for products? Are they real objects made with materials like clay or paper?
We create 3-d prints of packages if they are completely new shapes that we don’t use already. While working on the tulasara project we worked on some designs in clay, but ultimately had much better precision with 3-D printing. Sometimes we also do paper mock-ups wrapped around existing package forms.
What’s your favorite Aveda product?
Hmmm, that’s a tough one. I would have to say Beautifying Composition oil. It’s a magical oil that you can use for everything. I use it as make-up remover or I put on minor cuts to heal faster. You can mix it with your moisturizer and put it in your bath too.
How do you handle on-the-job stress?
Two ways. One is going to see my baby daughter over my lunch at the on-site daycare. The daycare is such a serene environment compared to the busy office sometimes, and getting in a midday snuggle melts away all the work stress. The other thing involves absurdly silly text threads with my design team, usually with Bitmojis, animated gifs and crazy Photoshop creations. We know how to make each other laugh, which is the ultimate stress reliever for me.
What life skills have been most helpful in pursuing a career as a creative?
Not taking things personally. It’s easy to become very attached to an idea or your work as a creative but it’s important to remember that it’s work and you really have to go with the flow a lot of the time. You have to be able to let go of an idea — maybe it will be useful in a future project, and maybe not.
Seeking out meaningful work. I like my job a lot because most of the time, I am genuinely inspired by and excited about the projects.
Being able to articulate my ideas. Being able to present my work in an easy-to-digest, accessible way is key. Your ideas can come from an esoteric place, but you have to bring it back down to earth when you sell it, otherwise people won’t be able to get on board, relate to it and ultimately approve it.
Be confident! This one is always a work in progress but you have to believe in your point of view and stand by it, no matter what other people think.
How do you stay inspired? And where do you get your ideas from?
Inspiration can truly come from anywhere. Modern and contemporary art tends to inspire me the most. But inspiration can come from movies, nature, Instagram, Pinterest… Things that are inspiring me right now are the cinematography of The Crown on Netflix, the Instagram account of LA-based artist Lauren Spencer King and the Mexican design studio, Anagrama. At work, our sourcing stories often inspire me. For example, our holiday and gift boxes are made of handmade Nepal paper. We’ve been working with a village in Nepal to create the paper, every sheet by hand, for over 10 years. This project employs over 4,900 people in Nepal and we have a very close relationship with the community. The backstory makes the paper that much more beautiful and we hope it inspires people to use the boxes over and over.
Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on? Or one that you are most proud of?
I would say my favorite project to date at Aveda is the tulasara project. It was truly a labor of love and it was very rewarding to see it finally come to life. I also love art directing on photo shoots as well. Creating a beautiful composition with other creatives is so fun, and has that instant gratification component as well, compared to how long it takes to see a packaging project all the way through from start to finish.
What’s next for you? Are there any projects coming up you’re excited about? Or dream projects you’d like to tackle?
I’ve really enjoyed working on the bigger strategy projects at Aveda where one area of the business gets a huge visual overhaul. These projects have their challenges during development, but the final result is so gratifying. I look forward to more of those. In terms of dream projects, I’m very interested in continuing to explore the intersection of beautiful, artful design and sustainability.
And finally, just for fun, what’s your favorite decorative element?