A feast for the eyes

Challenged to create consumer connections within seconds, a boutique design firm helps food-and-beverage producers stand out

Photo: Graphic designer and owner of Eye Candy Design Amanda DeVries

IN THE GRAPHIC design world, working in food packaging is a bit like playing in the major leagues. Where else is the division between consumer needs and impulses more influenced by branding, colour, design and vibe? Where else is the competition so steep?

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“It is one of those sexier industries,” says graphic designer Amanda DeVries, owner of Eye Candy Design. “Junior designers I talk to always say, ‘Oh, I’d love to do packaging.’ And I get why; I have the same feeling. But there are also a lot of constraints that go along with food branding and design — it’s definitely more challenging.”

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If you live in Southwestern Ontario, or if you’re well-versed in some of the new food products emerging from the region, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some of Eye Candy’s work on brands like Cafézia coffee, Pepper North Artisan Foods or Booch’s new Squeeze sparkling water line.

The story of how DeVries and Eye Candy became one of the go-to design firms for upstart food brands in the region starts, DeVries says, way up in Ottawa, two decades ago. After working in the city’s tech sector for a couple years in the mid-2000s, she was looking for something new, and found it in graphic design courses at Algonquin College.

“I realized right away that it was something that I absolutely loved,” she recalls. “I found it very intuitive.”

“I really love listening to a client explain why they’re making the product that they are, and then trying to hone in on what makes it special” ―Amanda DeVries

It was also in Ottawa that her husband picked up a bit of a green thumb, which — when the career change itch became too much to ignore — led to the couple purchasing a 40-acre farm just outside St. Thomas in 2009 (it’s now called Common Ground Farm and is a certified organic operation growing a variety of produce).

DeVries recalls the nervousness of the time — the Ford Talbotville assembly plant closed in 2011 and St. Thomas was pretty much the Canadian poster child for the economic sting of the Great Recession. But it’s here that her story intersects with a larger, longer tale in which plucky local entrepreneurs sought to overcome being dealt a bad economic hand in an area that lots of folks were ready to write off.

“I really feel like people just kind of picked themselves up and figured things out,” she says. “It really fostered a new economy, and being a graphic designer, I ended up working with a lot of small businesses. There were lots of people ­starting new brick-and-mortar businesses, and they were looking for branding, marketing ­collateral, websites, things like that.”

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In many ways, it gave DeVries exactly what she was looking for — a creative outlet, a chance to work one-on-one with other entrepreneurs and the opportunity to work with food products.

What was still needed, she says, was to learn how to turn skill and passion into a business. “I just thought people were going see my portfolio and say ‘Wow, she’s great, let’s hire her.’ But that’s not how people work. People hire people; you need to build relationships.

“Now I’m telling new businesses the same thing,” she continues. “You can’t just make a great product and hope. You’re going to have to constantly promote yourself, build awareness and do the work to market your product. It took me such a long time to learn that for myself.”

A feast for the eyes design Design

Patience and a paced approach have helped, too. “I’m cautiously growing,” DeVries says. She has one junior designer and illustrator, Emily Barnes, on her team, and works with freelancers and ­compliance contractors as needed.

“I sometimes worry that I’ll get too far away from the actual designing, and if I do that, it’ll become more of a client management role and I won’t be able to be playing around in Illustrator, which is honestly the thing that I still love doing,” she says.

DeVries has watched with interest the recent boom in food products and startups in the London area and recognizes it as a potential opportunity for more growth. “There is some really cool stuff happening in London, and I would love to be able to be a part of that.” (She also says she really wants to design a beer label, because “the design bar is really high.”)

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Overall, DeVries is happy to have found her niche, and with the region’s food sector promising further expansion, her aim for Eye Candy Design is to maintain a measured approach to growing the business.

“I just find food branding and packaging ­intuitive and natural,” she says. “I really love ­listening to a client explain why they’re making the product that they are, and then trying to hone in on what makes it special. It really is fun.” A feast for the eyes design Design Kieran Delamont

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