Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

How This Creative Team Comes Up With Brilliant Ideas (Hint: It Involves Playing With Food)

When you walk through a traditional office, you probably don’t expect to see photography created by the Chief Legal Officer, or sculptures made by your friend on the digital team. But when you leave Chris Ayres in charge, all bets are off.

As the Creative Director at Taco Bell, Chris doesn’t believe in the traditional. Instead, he constantly looks for unconventional ways to inspire brilliance and creativity among the team.

In this case, Chris reached out to employees across the company and put together a group art show. More than 100 people participated, including a designer who loves to surf offering up wave-inspired paintings on reclaimed driftwood. Chris hung his own subversive typographic screen prints.

“It became a week-long event,” he marvels. “We actually ran out of wall space.”

Chris even came up with the idea to let employees bid on the artwork they liked. Setting up a silent auction, his efforts raised more than $5,000 for the Taco Bell Foundation.

Some of the work still decorates the hallways, evidence that inspiration can be found anywhere, even in a corporate office.

Play With Your Food

His group, which operates like an internal creative agency, is responsible for all of Taco Bell’s merchandising design, including packaging, billboards, and window signage. The goal? For everything to look craveable, something Chris says is more challenging than it seems. (Turns out, food is pretty hard to photograph.)

Once, to push his team to out of their comfort zone, Chris rented a photo studio, bought bags of groceries, and challenged everyone to create art with food. The result? One person built a diorama of a swimming pool out of blue Jell-O. Another made a stop-motion film starring a villainous cabbage. The goofy exercise, Chris hoped, would spark new ideas back at their desks.

“I want fresh thinking,” he says. “I want us to always feel nimble, strong, and unafraid to make bold decisions. To keep our brains excited.”

When it comes to their work assignments, the team always presents a few ideas—one design that seems safe and others that are a little more edgy. “We say, what happens if we turn the volume up maybe too far?” Chris explains. “Every now and then, one of those bold ideas gets picked.”

The Whole Package

His team’s cheeky sensibility struck exactly the right note for the Steak Doubledilla packaging. They tooled with the notion of “fancy-ish,” or what a millennial considers to be fancy.

The result was a black and gold deco-style box with a pop-out coaster. “We had fun with that insight,” he says.

Chris took it a step further when making special packaging to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the Doritos Locos Taco. When the company decided to donate a portion of the sales proceeds of this "Dream Taco" to the Taco Bell Foundation, a public charity that helps America’s young people follow their dreams and reach their full potential, the team’s typical process around packaging didn’t feel right. “Our agency had a great idea - if this is truly about the kids,” he recalls, “let’s make it for them, by them.”

So he brought scholarship winners on board the design team. The high school students worked within real parameters—like the fact that metallic print is too expensive—and came up with a whole series of new taco packaging, which customers can check out when they purchase a Dream Taco.

Taco Bell tacos
Designs for the Dream Taco

“As you get older you get jaded, right?” says Chris. “Kids have a youthful perspective and look at the world in a more optimistic light. That brought some truly inspired thinking to the project.”

Más Creativity With a Little Quirkiness

Like many designers, Chris spent much of his career in advertising agencies, developing campaigns for a variety of brands, which kept him sharp. To encourage the same dexterity on his team, Chris sets aside time for them to work on their own art and often devises offbeat assignments. Once, he asked them to take a menu item and design an album cover for its imaginary band, like the Baja Blasters or Chalupa Supremes.

“It’s just irreverent fun,” Chris says. “But then you start filtering the work that we do day to day through a different lens, like music and vinyl.”

His own quirky perspective is informed by his Kansas childhood and undergrad majors in advertising design and musical theater. (Mention tap dancing and he might show you a few steps.) After years working in New York City agencies, he moved to Southern California to build the new Taco Bell Design group, now 30 people strong.

Previously, the company hired external creatives for graphic work. But at some point “they just felt a little ballsy and said maybe we could do this better in-house,” says Chris.

What they got was a creative director not afraid to take a few risks, think a little bigger, and find the fun in his work.

“I’m so proud of our team culture,” says Chris. “We keep it light and fun. It’s a supportive, ego-free zone. When you have that, you wake up every day and want to come to work.”