"Wanted: Ultra runner design guru for aztec energy bar"

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Designing the look & feel for Peak Pinole

It was early January 2018. A bout of flu combined with a lot of overtime at work resulted in some significant post-christmas blues, and virtually no running. It wasn’t the start to the year I had hoped for, and I ended up breaking all my resolutions in record time. But then I received an email from a friend; ‘Wanted: Ultra runner design guru for aztec energy bar’. To a keen designer who enjoys to run a bit, this was my dream job! Already, things were looking up, and I didn’t hesitate to reply. And so began my involvement in the crazy world of Peak Pinole.

After a couple of email introductions, I began corresponding with Alexandra, who had an exciting new energy bar product she was preparing to launch to the ultra-running community. One of the first things I received was a brand proposition document that outlined the vision for the product and defined the brand ‘character’ as ‘Explorer’:

‘The explorer, seeker, wanderer leaves the known to discover and explore the unknown. It desires freedom, space and a better world.’

This immediately resonated with me, but alongside it was a picture that had me both intrigued and excited -  a photograph of the legendary fell runner, Joss Naylor. As someone who loves running in the hills and mountains, I have really enjoyed reading about Joss Naylor’s incredible exploits and have more than a unhealthy interest in fell running. By now I just couldn’t wait to get involved and start designing. But first, I had to make the phone call…

The problem is, I am terrible at phone calls and so try to avoid them if at all possible. But Alexandra was in Mexico at the time and keen to talk about the project. So, with a bit of trepidation, I gave her a call and nervously introduced myself. I think the call lasted for about 30 minutes which was the equivalent of running an ultra marathon in my mind! The conversation was a bit of a blur, and ended up with Alexandra missing her exit (she was driving at the time). A couple of things stuck in my mind though; Alexandra was incredibly motivated and passionate about the product, and quite possible a bit bonkers.

I didn’t get too many words in edgeways but we talked about a couple of specific design approaches; I already had in my mind doing something around Aztec Gold which I thought would make a really striking design so when Alexandra mentioned a ‘Willy Wonka golden ticket bar’ I knew we had some common ground. Alexandra was also keen to have some element of drawing in the design which was perfect for me as I love illustration.

So armed with a 10 word brief, I started thinking about what could be done:

  1. Bold
  2. Authentic
  3. Natural
  4. Legacy
  5. Outdoors
  6. Primal
  7. Carefree
  8. Athletic
  9. Free
  10. Premium

Starting the design process can be a bit like going for a long run in a new place; you enjoy the exploration but you can get hopelessly lost and experience various highs and lows. For every field with an angry bull, a goat track that meanders into tick-infested heather, or a plunge into a waist-deep bog, there are routes leading to hidden coves to swim in, exhilarating climbs and beautiful vistas. Routes that initially look promising actually lead nowhere, and others reveal unexpected surprises. And so it is with the design.

I spent quite a bit of time sketching out very rough ideas, I had plenty in my head that I wanted to try out so I tried to capture as many as possible on paper. I combined this with quite a bit of research - based around the Aztec legacy and imagery. It’s a bit like studying maps and routes before a long or difficult race, the more you can get a feel for the terrain and lie of the land, the more confident you can be in the race itself.

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However, typical of the non-conformist adventurer, I actually started out by ignoring the brief completely and started with a photographic approach!

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I knew Alexandra would probably hate it, but in my mind it was something I was confident could work straight away. Even with a pile of potential routes sketched out, an empty artboard can seem a bit intimidating so it is good to get something nailed quickly before focussing on some of the more difficult options. Strangely enough, this approach seemed to go down really well when the designs were shown around but I was right, Alexandra wasn’t so keen and ultimately it didn’t make the cut!

Next I concentrated on the two routes we had discussed in more detail; namely the golden bar and a more illustrative route that somehow referenced the cover artwork of the iconic ‘Born to Run’ book by Christopher McDougal as this was the key reference point about the Tarahumara Tribe and Pinole to ultra runners in the UK. I was quite keen on a stylised sunburst which had a certain Aztec feel, had a lot of energy and seemed to do a good job of capturing the benefits of the bar and running:

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Trying to depict the Tarahumara runners posed more of a problem. They wear quite distinctive outfits with the women wearing long flowing dresses in vivid colours and the men wearing billowing tops and skirts, a world away from the usual running attire in the UK but it did allow me to try and get some nice flowing shapes and give a sense of energy:

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Once I felt I was in a place where I had answered the brief, I then set about trying a few other ideas I had sketched out including a very lo-fi natural approach which I felt would particularly appeal to hardened ultra-runners, and perhaps my personal favourite with a silhouette of a Tarahumara runner masking out a desert landscape. I felt this approach was a good combination of the joy or running and being totally immersed in the landscape, was bold, authentic but also athletic and felt right for a premium and performance product. Unfortunately it didn’t make the cut!

I amassed quite a number of different options - I always find it hard to know when to stop (a bit like running really!). Alexandra was still in Mexico so I ended up doing an online presenter of all the designs which I ended up sending pretty late at night. As soon as it was sent I started feeling pretty nervous - I’d put a lot of work into the designs but had no idea if they would go down well or not! Luckily the initial feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but I realise I’d made things quite difficult by showing so many routes - Alexandra was finding it difficult to choose and various people preferred different options.

After some weeks of discussion, a potential winner began to emerge (I think it had been Alexandra’s favourite all along!). I had done a design based on the Aztec calendar; it captured the whole Aztec legacy aspect but I also tried to fashion it into a compass motif which really symbolised the whole ‘Explorer’ brand character and a sense of adventure. It also makes quite a distinctive brand marque. It’s taken some time and quite a bit of refinement to get it right but the final design for the Peak Pinole packaging will look something like this:

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I’m looking forward to these hitting the shelves sometime soon.

Like running an ultra, working on Peak Pinole has been quite an experience; It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been immensely rewarding and enjoyable. It’s also helped change my outlook on design, and reconsider what I plan to do in future as I leave a steady job to begin life as a freelance designer and really make that ‘Explorer’ leap into the unknown.

Thanks Alexandra for getting me involved in this crazy adventure!