Creative Minds: Inspiration for Dog Products Come from Anywhere

November 7, 2018

Saturday morning cartoons. An old wool blanket. The National Parks’ wildlife. Inspiration has to come from somewhere, and those are just some of the places dog product creators have gotten theirs.

Growing up, Ryan Rutherford spent his Saturdays watching cartoons and playing with Madballs and Garbage Pail Kids. Little did he know then that those childhood pastimes would eventually inspire him to create some of the industry’s most exciting dog toys.

Since 2003, Rutherford has been designing all sorts of products for the industry, including grooming tools and bowls for companies like Kurgo, Caitec, Ethical Products, Multipet, Nerf and JW, the latter being where he created his first toy out of college, the Cuz. He says that, over that time, he has created hundreds of products, but it is in the design of dog toys that he can truly draw from his childhood.

“I’m the age of many consumers right now, so what I was into when I was a kid is kind of important again because that’s what other consumers are interested in or catches their interests,” Rutherford explained. “If I can create references to cartoons that I watched as a kid, even if they’re not licensed references—like, ‘Hey, that makes me think of this’—that’s a success.”

Rutherford is now the vice president of Product Development for Hyper Pet. While what he’s developed in his year and a half there has not yet hit the market, he promises the products are “out of the box” and have “not been done before.” The industry already got a sneak peek at one of those products at this year’s trade shows. Hyper Pet’s new Crazy Crew line, which are character-driven balls, is an example of how Rutherford created a toy with his childhood in mind.

“With Crazy Crew, I treated it just like a Saturday morning cartoon,” he said. “These are just completely absurd characters with stories that are really ridiculous.”

Each squeaky, bouncy Crazy Crew character has a name with a backstory. Some are made of natural rubber and have an open mouth to dispense treats; others are made of EVA Foam so they float for water play.

Around the House

Penny Stolfe, partner at Carolina Pet Company, finds inspiration for her products not in the childhood toys in her house, but in home decor colors and trends.

“We design our beds based on it being an accessory in your home. We don’t look at a pet bed as something that stands out,” Stolfe said. “We consider it just like a beautiful table or pillow on your couch. We consider pets as family members, and when you’re purchasing a pet bed for them, you want something that’s going to complement your home because a pet is a part of your home, so you want the bed to feel like it’s part of the room.”

Going along with the current home decor trends, the beds the company makes today are more monochromatic, with lots of gray and yellow undertones. Style buzzwords like natural, organic, linen, industrial and farmhouse are also kept in mind.

“I find a lot of inspiration in rugs, too, because rugs are generally the focal point of your room,” Stolfe explained. “They just kind of complement the room, and there’s a lot of beautiful shading in the yarn that they use in rugs where it’s monochromatic, but there’s still a pattern in the texture.”

Stolfe has also received inspiration for Carolina Pet Company’s products in an old Pendleton blanket she once found. Looking at the color and design, she thought they would make for a beautiful pet bed.

She contacted Pendleton Woolen Mills, an American brand that’s been around for more than 150 years, and told them her idea. The phone call turned into a licensing deal, where Carolina Pet Company can now make pet beds, clothes, collars, leashes and more using the Pendleton patterns and colors, but with a more pet-friendly fabric than wool.

“Now you have the beautiful look and colors of Pendleton, but the durability you can also wash,” Stolfe said.

One of the Pendleton patterns Carolina Pet Company brought into its line this year is that of the sweater Jeff Bridges wears as “The Dude” in “The Big Lebowski.” Dubbed The Big LeBARKski, the dog sweater celebrates the movie’s 20th anniversary.

“We find a lot of great inspiration from the Pendleton line because it’s so iconic in our culture,” Stolfe said, who pointed out that the Beach Boys were originally called The Pendletones because of the Pendleton board shirts they wore on their first album cover. With that in mind, Stolfe hopes to design a surf-inspired line for dogs in the near future.

Popular within Carolina Pet Company’s Pendleton line are the National Parks items. Pendleton has been making National Park-inspired blankets for more than 100 years, when the company’s designers looked to the colors of each park’s landscape to create new designs. Carolina Pet Company takes those colors and designs and translates them into pet items.

“Each of those products, whether it’s a pet bed, collar, leash or anything that carriers the National Park blanket colors, also provides a donation to the National Park Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the National Park Service that helps raise money for capital improvements in the park,” Stolfe said.

The Call of Nature

American Pet Nutrition’s line of Elevate dog food also gets its inspiration from National Parks. According to Jim Reimann, American Pet Nutrition brand manager, each recipe’s protein source has a natural connection to the park for which it is named. For example, the Yosemite recipe has salmon as the first ingredient while the Bighorn recipe has beef as the first ingredient, as well as premium bison and lamb.

“We love that our recipes are inspired by our National Parks, as they are great places for pets and pet parents to enjoy exploring together,” he said. “We have already created a list of other National Parks that we are using for inspiration and would love to use to name future products under the Elevate brand.”

Fromm’s new Rancherosa line has roots in the country’s landscape as well.

“When it came to formulating Rancherosa, we knew we wanted to add another grain-free entree to the offerings and also wanted to feature a blend of proteins,” Fromm Family Foods Brand Director Bryan Nieman said. “The choice of beef, lamb, pork and trout felt similar to what cowboys once ate on the range, gaining nutrition from the animals they raise on the ranch or catch in the streams out West.”

Like the other entrees in the Four-Star Nutritionals line, Fromm wants Rancherosa to provide variety-driven premium nutrition, be complementary with nature and have packaging art that supports the theme.

“The Rancherosa packaging art features an open range with a wagon, cattle, creek and other elements that contribute to the overall theme and inspiration,” Nieman said. “This art direction is further brought to life in the supportive advertising and POS materials created.”

Dog food isn’t the only product that can be inspired by nature, though. The Wolfgang Man & Beast team grew up spending most of its time outdoors, hiking, fishing, camping, surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding in the West, according to the company’s co-founder and vice president, Todd Finney. They had design roots in the human outdoor and board-sports industries, conceptualizing products such as footwear and backpacks for brands like Burton and Quiksilver.

“When we were looking for products for our own dogs, we found that nobody was designing to our taste, and we saw a gap,” Finney said. “We thought our method of building great products for disruptive brands in other product categories would translate well to the pet industry, a place where people care just as much about great product design as anywhere.”

The Wolfgang team still places a heavy importance on the outdoors, especially because they do many of the same activities with their dogs by their side, Finney explained. It is during these adventures that the Wolfgang team finds some of its inspiration, such as through the ancient petroglyphs and pottery Finney and his team find during their hikes in Utah.

“While that indigenous American artwork has influenced some of our designs since our launch, we’re also in tune with what’s going on in the world of art, streetwear design, sneakers and modern culture,” Finney said.

Wolfgang makes leashes, collars and harnesses in a variety of prints, often collaborating with other brands outside the pet space, such as Goldcoast Skateboards, The Loki Project and Nena & Co., to stir the pot, create interesting stories and connect the products humans buy for themselves with what they buy for their dogs.

With such original designs, Finney says there is the chance that some pet owners might not be that into certain products, but that can be true of any design.

“Our style may not be for everyone, but neither are bones, paws or daisies pulled from a bucket full of Clipart,” Finney said. “We think there is a big swath of pet customers out there who care more about original design and brand authenticity than in the past…The design bar has been raised in most industries, and we hope that we’re a part of that evolution in the pet biz.”

Rutherford also said that his style of design might not be for everyone— pointing out that his Crazy Crew toys are a bit on the “masculine,” “aggressive” side. However, this pull of inspiration from different arenas is what the pet industry needs in order to stay relevant.

“I think there’s been a huge change in the past 15 years. When I started in this business, I don’t think there were many trained designers working. I think a lot of stuff was made on the fly by entrepreneur owners,” Rutherford said. “I think now you can walk into any pet store and everyone’s got good design. Good design is not the huge advantage it used to be—it’s something you have to have.”

And as more people catch on to how important design is, something more than just that is needed to separate a brand from the crowded shelves—and cool inspiration just might be the background story people need to single out a product.

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