The Honest Company’s director of creative services talks about the upside of assumptions and the importance of recognizing life’s opportunities.
Unlike many design and creative directors in the industry, Tim Hankins, The Honest Company’s current director of creative services and former director of design, isn’t a formally trained designer. “As a child, I was always drawing and creating things like my own superheroes out of construction paper,” Hankins recalls. “But I was ignorant about design as a career when I was in high school.
“So, I ended up going to Pepperdine to study advertising as a career,” Hankins adds. But his calling is to be a maker. “I wanted to create things,” Hankins explains. He also wanted to solve problems, and intuitively knew a basic principle of design thinking is problem solving.
“Being an artist and being a graphic designer are two separate things,” Hankins says. “As an artist, you have virtually no limitations because you are creating for yourself. When you’re a graphic designer, you have to solve the problem that’s been given to you.” Hankins started to seek people with problems that he could solve.
THE ANSWER’S IN THE MUSIC
Around this time, his social circles started to lean towards music. “My buddies were playing guitars and drums,” Hankins recalls, noting why he chose to become a bassist. Having no prior knowledge, Hankins found a mentor in a friend who taught him how to play the bass versus seeking out formal music lessons. This experience positively reinforced Hankins’ behavior of assuming he can learn just about anything, further ingratiated him into the music culture and encouraged him to recognize connections and opportunities to advance himself in all parts of his life. Soon, Hankins was daydreaming of platinum records.
Hankins was also dipping back into his artistic skills to build websites for his friends’ bands, eventually becoming a freelancer to the music industry and landing one of the largest music labels as a client.
“One of my first big clients was Walt Disney Records,” Hankins recalls. Marketing and designing for families was a large part of Hankins’ work with the mega music label. “I did [the package design work for] almost every single album for the Cheetah Girls. At the time, if you had a young daughter, you knew exactly who the Cheetah Girls were and your daughter would have their CDs and watch their movies. Then I was lucky enough to work on the ‘Cars’ soundtrack for the first film. Pixar created a lot of the art that was used in the package but I also created some of my own, and I was really kind of happy to be able to insert myself into the Pixar world a little bit. at was fun.”
A child changes everything
“Before I joined the Honest Company, I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of musicians to do album packaging and websites for them as well as building portfolio websites for photographers or models,” he adds. “I had great clients, and I enjoyed the work that I did.”
Walking away from a client list that included not only Walt Disney Records but also the L.A. Philharmonic and supermodel Marisa Miller, Hankins started to look for a more traditional job after the birth of his son, Benjamin. “Life changes when you have kids,” he opines. “Before it’s just you and your significant other, but now that you’ve got a child that you’re providing for, things are just a little bit more important. I needed a little bit more stability because I was doing work primarily in the music industry. The music industry was struggling and continues to struggle. Then, I just happened across a job posting on a random job board and saw that it was for this company called The Honest Company. It was hard to find any information about it at the time. I found one hit on Google for The Honest Company and it was an interview that Jessica had done. At the very end of the interview, she just mentioned, ‘Oh, I’m starting this company called The Honest Company.’”
Although he was looking for something more stable, Hankins thought taking a risk on this unknown company would pay off because it had the backing of a celebrity. This, he believed, would help The Honest Company ramp up quickly. And what he learned about the company’s mission resonated with what he and his wife were experiencing as young parents.
Hankins and his wife were re-examining the products in their home and how these products would interact with their newborn. Hankins recalls, “My wife and I, were saying, ‘Whoa, we need to get all of the toxic stuff in our home out,’ and asking ourselves, ‘How do we do that?’ It was very strange timing on how this job worked out to allow me to help make a difference in not just my own home but in homes across the country and hopefully one day across the world. Today, The Honest Company provides me the opportunity to fund my work, put the product line that I could use in my home, with my family, but more importantly share with others and have an impact in their homes.”
Authentic start to brand’s success
“We opened for business on January 17th, 2012 at www.honest.com,” Hankins recalls. “We started with only 17 products, which include diapers, bath and body, cleaning essentials. In just three years, we’ve released more than 100 products and that number continues to grow.”
Part of the reason the brand message resonates well is that it comes from a place of authenticity, Hankins says. “The company story began with a mother trying to do the right thing for her family and how that soon turned into a mission to do the right thing for the world. That mother also just happens to be the actress Jessica Alba.
“Shortly before the birth of her first child, Jessica noticed that she broke out in a rash, an allergic reaction to a detergent after washing her unborn baby’s clothes,” he adds. “Due to the fear that the same thing might happen to her newborn, frantic research on the Internet led her to discover Christopher Gavigan’s book, Healthy Child, Healthy World. In it, Christopher informed her all about the toxic chemicals found in everyday products like baby shampoo, diapers and household cleaners. She began purchasing the healthy alternatives only to learn that these so-called natural products still had ingredients to avoid. Both Jessica and Christopher knew there was a void of true, nontoxic products in the marketplace. And they decided to fill it by teaming up with Brian Lee and Sean Kane to found The Honest Company.”
Seeking transparency in all interactions
Hankins and his seven-person design team at The Honest Company aim to tell that brand story in every detail of their designs. “The visuals of the packaging represent everything about us as a company and tell our story when we can’t personally share it,” Hankins explains. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously in our design. They have some levity and delight if possible. But we don’t let that take away from the importance of making a difference in the world by being transparent about the ingredients, materials and processes we use.
“Our designs and entire business philosophy for that matter deals with transparency,” he adds. “We try to make our products physically transparent whenever possible. We make the conscious choice to use clear packaging and labels anywhere we can to showcase the products and their ingredients. We have nothing to hide, and we let the packaging speak to that.
“The use of transparency is also a tiny moment of its own when a customer realizes the connection to our company philosophy,” Hankins says. “It’s subtle but it’s there. Use design as the gateway for your message. Bad design will turn people away from all the good you have to share. Good informed design is inherently trustworthy, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
“One of the biggest moves we made in transparent packaging was for our diapers,” Hankins explains. “Diapers are some of the most important and popular products in our line. And the patterns that can be found on them are big reasons for The Honest Company’s initial success. Nobody else was creating eco-friendly, nontoxic diapers with skulls on them. Design as differentiation worked pretty well for us in this category. Yes, sometimes what seems like a great design idea isn’t always the best approach long term. But you won’t learn that unless you take a chance. You can only truly learn through failure.
“Those failed moments end up actually providing so much more information to you than if you were to succeed on the first try,” he adds. “And so that’s why I’m always trying to learn new things.”
Hankins is currently teaching himself photography. “A couple of years ago, I ended up just grabbing one of those Photography for Dummies books,” he remarks. “I haven’t felt so inspired by something since when I first started becoming a designer. My mind is always moving so I’m always thinking about, what’s the next big thing I can do? How can we [The Honest Company] really push the boundaries with the next product that we’re doing? I think I’d much rather think about my future than my past, although I’m very proud of my past.”
So it’s no surprise, when asked which project is he most proud of, Hankins answers, “I hope it’s still out there. I haven’t peaked.”
Transparency is one of the company’s core business tenets, so Hankins and his team try to build that message into the designs by using transparent packaging whenever possible.
Fashion and design played a big part of the honest company’s early success. to showcase the edgy patterns, which include a skull and cross-bones’ pattern, and ensure that the product offering continues to look fresh, the young brand has already refreshed its diaper packaging.
“My friends’ homes are becoming shrines to the Honest company, and not only through me giving them products. They’ve been buying the products themselves. It’s really great when I go into friends’ homes and I see our hand soap out on their sink.”