“I'm a modifier - the Quiet Modifier.”
This is what Eric Jackson told us mid-way through our conversation with him as we asked him about the evolution of the Tractor Supply Company brand. He made us all laugh when he told us that over the 14 years he's been with the company, he has slowly, but purposefully, tweaked minor things about the brand that have made TSC the successful branded powerhouse it is today—without anyone even noticing.
Over a delicious lunch from Calypso Cafe, Eric explained the challenges, opportunities, and surprises of working at a company that designs for over 1,600 stores. Here’s a look at our conversation:
WhaT ARE THE LIMITATIONS OF THE JOB, AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITIES THAT IT BRINGS?
The opportunity is that every year the company changes. The target audience completely shifts all depending on where they are. I’m never bored because there’s always a complete 180 of a project. We’ve gone down every path and we’ve always taken the approach of constantly refining our growth models, and pushing to see what more we can do. We want an over-the-top experience but we have only a certain amount of money. This makes our simple art even more of a rock-star since we can’t use elaborate tricks to make it come to life. We have to get creative in other ways.
One of the biggest challenges of the job is that TSC is a public company, so every dollar is scrutinized. Everything is weighed against the stock-price which is hard to navigate around in a design sense. When the designer in you is telling you to create more dimension, you will actually have to think small instead. We have to know when to exaggerate design and when not to, like in our stores. In our dark stores, we want to over-exaggerate colors and type, like stage make-up, so that it will be noticed. That’s always a challenge because people want to see a muted softer palette, which just won’t work in the store. You have to be a constant negotiator.
You face challenges with the company and you growing - how do you stay fresh and creatively current?
Every year I put out design test projects for my team to see what different approach they bring. Once a quarter, I want to bring groups together to put the big stuff up—and then rip it apart. I ask, what do we do here, and what do others do? All designers watch trends, and I can tell when my teams does when they send in their proofs. We want to constantly push options of their work, one that’s safe, one that’s “out-there”. I want to see a bunch of options, with exploratory steps earlier on so that we can narrow down and get the job done when it’s needed.
Where do you think the growth in UX design comes from? is it all really based on customer and user experience? How do you navigate UX design?
The design works in tandem with the experience, because it fails if the customer doesn’t know how to use it. A lot of the time, we see hard-to-navigate graphics around us where you can tell that a designer put too much time to make it look “cool” or “cute”—but it doesn’t actually function well. In reality, you need something simple and user-friendly. At TSC, we have an initiative that the company started called “One Tractor.” It takes all the digital focus and puts it squarely in the store. We’ve opened two stores that have the top tech package, one in Connecticut and one in Florida, where it allows self check-out. Every team member can use a handheld device to check someone out no matter the location in the store. At first it made everyone nervous because of being so forward-thinking, but it changed the entire layout of the store for the better. It allowed us to add more aisles for pet products, pushes and encourages customers to buy online and pick-up in the store, and made spaces for digital lockers. It made for a much better flow for customers and actual successful UX design. We’re doing a huge push for it because of its success so far, and have deemed it successful enough of a model to be the standard to roll-out in the future.
Can you tell us a little bit about your branding work?
We have to keep up with how fast our brands within TSC are growing and where they’re re-treated as a stand alone company under our company. Nothing we do will ever end up on Amazon or another online sales platform. It will always only be sold through us.
We have a huge focus on packaging and branding where we spend time on packaging, product labeling, clothing, and footwear. This is a huge push for the company, as these brands are constantly evolving. Sometimes brands want to be renamed, and no one wants to align to a brand name that doesn’t “mean anything." As new products come through constantly, we want to a creative name plus a creative formula.
What skills do you think are important to keep up as a designer?
Digital - for sure. You need to know it, know the language, have the skillset, and how to talk to people who know what they’re doing in the backend. Digital personalization is important, as every compartment can help, link, and source—that’s why they’re getting more templated so that we can do the job without having huge oversight. We work with creative and evolving clean templates so that the work can be interchangeable.
What do you do outside the office to stay creative?
I grew up playing the drums and drawing with Crayola. I learned about metal shaping and welding. I’ve always enjoyed just making something real. I’ve always pushed, not only in design, but against authority. (I don’t deal with rules too well, which I think is the only way I can keep my sanity.) And I always, always want to push myself so that I stay creatively active.
What is Lunch & Learn?
At Circa, we have a bold understanding that education never just stops after college. This has been the motivation for our new series: Lunch & Learn. Every month we will have lunch with some of the brightest people in the creative field ranging from painters to SEO masters; and poke their brains to get a better understanding of the world and our role as visual communicators.
Eric Jackson is the current Creative Director at Tractor Supply Co, headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee. He has been with Tractor Supply Company for 14 years, working his way up from Advertising Manager to Creative Manager, and finally, to Creative Director. He oversees a team of 8-full time designers, as well as connects to freelance writers, designers, and photographers in order to cover the needs of the growing company.