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Sweet stuff: NSCAD alumna shares her decadent journey to chocolate-making

Lynne Rennie completed her Bachelor of Communication in Design at NSCAD and is the design director for Calgary-based chocolate company, Cocoa Community Confection Inc., also known as Cococo.

A smiling woman with grey hair and a green shirt stands in front of a stand with chocolates and confections.
When chocolate is your passion, there's more reason to smile. Alumna Lynne Rennie at the Cococo chocolate counter.

Lynne Rennie’s sweet tooth is as fervent as her business acumen. As design director of the Calgary-based chocolate company, Cococo, Rennie gets to merge her skills and love for chocolate into one sweet package.

“I’m actually eating chocolate right now,” she says as she slips out of a meeting.

With the theme — “together in cocoa, together in community, together in confections” — at heart, Rennie creates branding, packaging, displays, content, and other sundry design delights for Cococo’s products sold in-store and online.

Rennie completed her Bachelor of Communication in Design at NSCAD in 1994 and after time in Vancouver, London, and New York, she continued her career in Calgary where she also teaches at the Alberta University of the Arts.

“I haven’t been back to Halifax in a long time, but I dream about it—those little stairways leading from the painting studio to the streets,” she says. “It’s just wonderfully symbolic of the creative process.”

Cococo currently has five store locations in Alberta and one in British Columbia. Rennie took the time out of her busy schedule to discuss her journey from graduation to ganache.

How did you end up at NSCAD University? 

At the University of Calgary, I did a minor in screen-printing and a major in English lit. I loved screen-printing because every time you went into a studio you could come out with a finished piece rather quickly. You could make a number of these things and sell them or hang them up.

The combination of those two insertion points—the finished product of the thing that could be multiplied and manufactured, combined with how people interact with that thing. Those two points led me quickly into design.

Design is trying to communicate ideas, to make an inanimate object emotionally appealing to a human being. We communicate and develop a brand, brand voice, and a mode of understanding. Then we have design thinking and the design process—research, ideation, iteration and then development of a final concept. And then testing that thing in the marketplace and asking—is it working, where do we tweak, where do we tighten up?

It’s circular in that regard: design is never finished. I didn’t understand that until I came to NSCAD.

How was your time here? 

My instructors were German and British, and the influence they gave me—which we know now is male, white, European, and colonial. Back then, the famed “Swiss designers” were guys, there were no women.

Our storytelling machine, the art history machine, didn’t share those stories. But Frank Fox and Hanno Ehses, the group of men who taught at the time, were excellent instructors in terms of the craft. Hanno taught about semiotics, the theory of meaning —why does the shape of a tree mean “tree?” How do we as humans understand what is being shown to us, and mindfully choose images, fonts, colours and layouts to communicate to a particular group of people?

They opened my eyes to that; how to design as a communicator and creator with an audience and message in mind.

We always felt it was an important and valuable profession; a profession that smart people did. A vaunted, excellent, and appropriate career for any of us, because you were making things that affect people. Now I’m in my 50s and I’m as passionate about that as ever.

How did you end up in chocolate?

My husband had an opportunity to be involved in a company that was in bankruptcy; he had a background in operations and law from Dalhousie, and I had a background in design. I worked for free because I wanted the flexibility to parent our three small children at the time, and I helped with development of packaging, chocolate collections, professional photography of the work, press releases. Anything I could help with I did.

I got trained on the factory floor by the team I work with now. I took courses myself in chocolate-making, cannabis pairing, chocolate-tasting, and I’m WSET (Wine Spirt and Education Trust) certified. I was just very interested in the product and the experience; its manufacturing, its story, its beautiful appearance, encased in packaging. It comes right back to my undergrad— connecting the end-product with communication about the product.

I get to work with chocolate — it’s just the best and it’s so much fun. If I didn’t have this design education I wouldn’t be as good at my role. Design education is transformative. I use design thinking every day, and I have NSCAD to thank for that.