Examples of Harmless Studio design work for a range of plant-based companies. Image courtesy of Harmless Studios

Cayla Mäki-Pittman considers herself an activist disguised as an ad agency executive. She and husband, Dave Pittman, own Harmless Studio, a Camden-based food product design firm that stands out as one of the few, and possibly the only, exclusively vegan U.S. ad agency.

Harmless Studio will work only with clients who produce vegan and plant-based products. The firm was founded in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2018; the couple moved it to Maine in 2021.

“I love the work we do because I see design as a form of activism,” Mäki-Pittman said. “We’re creating more of what we want to see in the world. We’re very picky about the people and projects we work with.”

Harmless Studio has created marketing campaigns for restaurants, packaged food companies and manufacturers creating plant-based wholesale ingredients. Past clients include restaurants PlantPub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and San Luis Obispo, California, and vegan food hall Plant City in Providence; food product companies Pure Batch, Unicreamer, Frankie & Jo’s, Umaro, and Party Sloth; and wholesalers Teese Vegan Cheese and Yali Bio.

“We’re using our backgrounds in marketing and advertising to bring those to bear for vegan clients,” said Pittman, who worked for traditional agencies before he and his wife founded Harmless Studio. Both Pittman and Mäki-Pittman are graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design.

When PlantPub co-founder Pat McAuley was working with Harmless Studio to develop the restaurant’s branding, he told the team that he didn’t “want PlantPub to be a hipster, granola, vegan spot.” Instead, PlantPub aims to entice non-vegans to enjoy its totally plant-based pub fare by creating a mainstream fast-casual brand identity. McAuley said the Harmless Studio team understood the concept and delivered a design aesthetic free from “Buddhas and bright colors.” He was impressed with the firm’s technical expertise and knowledge of things he’d never given much thought to, such as fonts.


“It was hours and hours of just choosing the fonts,” said McAuley. “They were really up to date. It’s been two-plus years since we worked with them and you can see now that a lot of brands are headed in the direction they suggested two years ago.”

Setting up a design firm solely for vegan businesses meant overcoming both the uncertainty of a new venture and of launching a company in an emerging business category.

“We did have some feedback that it might not have been the wisest decision,” Mäki-Pittman said. “But because we took that leap of faith, it allowed us to develop this hyper niche, and as the vegan scene has grown, we’ve grown with it.”

Competition has also grown.

“Over the past eight years, I’ve seen more and more professionals launch service-based businesses with the aim of only serving the growing vegan and plant-based market,” Australia-based author, and vegan business and marketing expert Katrina Fox told me. “Whereas once you may have been only one or two in your category, such as a vegan graphic designer, now there’s a lot more competition. I believe this is a reflection of more professionals wanting to work for businesses that are in line with their ethics and values.”

Cayla Mäki-Pittman and Dave Pittman, founders of the vegan ad agency Harmless Studio, which relocated to Camden in 2021. Aaron Field Simmons photo

That’s certainly what led Mäki-Pittman and Pittman to launch Harmless Studio. What makes them unusual even among design firms that focus on plant-based businesses is their policy to restrict their clients to exclusively plant-based companies. Other players in this space include the ad agencies Levo, founded in 2013 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Scout 22, founded in 2015 in Los Angeles, and Faster/Forward founded in 2022 in Phoenix. One of the oldest vegan marketing firms is Vegan Mainstream, launched by Stephanie Redcross in 2009 in Kissimmee, Florida.


On occasion, Harmless Studio has turned down prospective clients; however, Mäki-Pittman said their stance “has made us more attractive” to other clients. As lifelong animal lovers, ethical vegans for seven years, and vegetarians for eight years before that, the pair see the business move as the right thing to do.

“Regardless of if it’s helped us or hurt us as a business, we get to work on projects that we care about deeply every day, and it’s hard to put a price on that,” Mäki-Pittman said.

One issue all of these firms face is whether to use “vegan,” “plant-based” or another descriptor on the packaging they design and the marketing they create.

“Context matters,” Mäki-Pittman said. For example, using the word “vegan” is helpful online because the word is a popular search term. “However,” she said, “that’s not necessarily the word to use if (the product) is going to be shelved next to animal products” in a grocery store. In that situation, the better choice might be “plant-based.” In between, there’s a lot of gray area.

“Businesses tend to see the term plant-based as less politicized and less divisive, less activist-oriented,” Pittman said.

“If you’re not a vegan and you’re looking for a restaurant that sells these products, you would still google ‘vegan restaurant’ rather than ‘plant-based restaurant,’” Pittman said, “Vegan is everyone’s shorthand for these things.” The Google Trend data bears this out, with only a tiny slice of people googling “plant based restaurant.” In Maine, that tiny slice drops to zero and all the searches are for “vegan restaurant.”


Most of the start-ups and small firms Harmless Studio works with are looking for ways to make their products stand out in a crowded marketplace. Often, the first step to achieving visibility is helping the company founders become comfortable with “being different and taking more risks,” Mäki-Pittman said. It also means helping owners understand how the best design for a product may not be their first design choice.

Mäki-Pittman said that creating eye-catching package designs and tempting advertisements is “not like designing your living room. The point is to make people a little bit uncomfortable. To get their attention.”

It’s clear that Harmless Studio has the attention of many of today’s vegan startups.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at avery.kamila@gmail.com.

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