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Big Ideas

Get Noticed in a Crowded Marketplace By Challenging the Design Tropes

A new wave of craft breweries is using label design to break down gender stereotypes, shape client stories, and express more ideas with fewer graphic elements.

In most markets branding and packaging tends to fall into one of two camps: time-tested mainstream commercial design appealing to the masses (usually seen from big brands) and unorthodox concepts featuring a strong personality (typical of craft brands). Too often, you’re either in one camp or the other, making standing out difficult.

Like most problems, we can illustrate the solution using beer. Amid the worldwide surge in brewing popularity, package designers are creating a new style frame by cleaner, more modern and sophisticated design to stand out without being too generic or too contrived — a way to get noticed in a crowded global marketplace.

Below five designers share the ideas behind their labels, demonstrating the universal creative challenges they faced and how they utilized those challenges to create images that push against convention and speak in a new design language.

Labels from the Vocation Brewery

Labels from the Vocation Brewery

Designer: Robot Food

Location: United Kingdom

Brewer Client: Vocation Brewery

Design challenge: Standing out with no story

Contrary to popular belief, beer label designers rarely get to taste the brews before they design the labels because usually the beer and packaging are being created at the same time. For Simon Forster, the creative director at Robot Food, that was his team’s biggest challenging when working with Vocation Brewery. “The brewery was still being built while we were working on the design,” he notes. “It is very difficult to design for a product when you don’t know the product.”

Robot Food not only successfully pulled off the task, but it also helped Vocation’s owner chart the brewery’s course. The owner was originally going to call his company “Brewery on the Hill” because it was…built on a hill.

“But I said, ‘What’s your story?’” recalls Forster. “And he said he used to work for a bank and was sick of spreadsheets — he wanted to create something with his hands. He ended up buying a home brewing kit and that was a revelation. So he quit his job and sold his house and started his brewery. This was a really good story — you don’t want to call it Brewery on a Hill. We settled on Vocation.”

For the bottle and can labels, Robot Food set out make the traditions of craft beer design, like hand-drawn illustrations, relevant to today’s hipster beer drinker. “The branding feels like the outline of a tattoo — it has a certain starkness about it that makes it quite clean,” says Forster. “We balanced that with angled typography.” Each illustration compliments the name. The Life & Death IPA, for instance, incorporates a grim reaper drawing. Due in part to the Vocation brand, Tesco, one of the world’s largest groceries, has decided to carry Vocation.

“We get under the skin of and help shape all of the business we work with,” says Forster. “And we have to in order to add real value, rather than superfluous design.”

Labels for the fictional Goldhawk Brewery

Labels for the fictional Goldhawk Brewery

Designer: Don’t Try Studio / Quentin Monge  

Location: Paris 

Brewer Client: Goldhawk (a concept project) 

Design challenge: Standing out with no set client

Like any savvy entrepreneurial designer, Quentin Monge looks for the market opportunity and then takes the initiative to drum up new work. To capitalize on the boutique coffee craze, he mocked up Indonesian-themed packaging for his fictional Luwak coffee company. He then hooked up with a local French brand to create something similar for them, but the talks fizzled out over high materials cost. Last year, Monge tried another concept project. He was living in London at the time, on a street called Goldhawk Road, when he noticed the booming craft beer business and established the fictional beer brand Goldhawk. “It was a quick idea, like when you get something in your mind when you go to sleep,” he says. “Except I woke up and did it.” 

Over the course of two weeks, he designed the label for an imagined pale ale. “I wanted to get away from the idea that you have to have a lot of information on the packaging,” says Monge. “I didn’t want anything like marketing. I wanted the brand to speak for itself with minimal expression.” The label might not pass the regulatory guidelines requiring alcohol warnings, but, if you look close enough you will spot a certain animal woven into the golden lines. “The image is of a hawk chasing its pray, and it looks like the hawk diving in the golden liquid,” explains Monge.

Despite not landing clients for either idea — “I think that I should’ve knocked on more [potential client] doors,” says Monge, lamenting his lack of hustle — he considers the personal projects worth it. “You can go against fashion, break the rules and experiment,” he says. “It can be scary as we’re often used to work taking common paths, but if it’s scary it means it’s taking you out of your comfort zone and that’s when it gets interesting.”


Labels from Cargo Brewery

Designer: makebardo

Location: Queenstown, New Zealand

Brewer Client: Cargo   

Design challenge: Standing out without relying on tropes

A genderless beer bottle design sounds like an oxymoron in a market dominated by male consumers, but that’s what Luis Viale and Bren Imbroden set out to do when creating the label for Cargo Brewery’s new line of brews. “We tried to break gender stereotypes linked to the beers with a gender-neutral packaging to open the scope of the business,” explains Viale. The colors, too, are genderless. makebardo used copper – and not gold or silver – to convey a premium brand. They chose dark greens for Cargo’s beer trucks, to pay homage to Queenstown’s rich natural surroundings. And even the blue used for the pale ale label has nothing to do with marketing to guys. “The pale ale is a really strong beer, so we focused on the navy blue,” says Viale.

In a nod to the importance of good branding and packaging, Cargo Brewery started using makebardo’s design to sell consumers and stores on the idea of the beer before it had product available. “So when they released the beer, they already had a position of the brand,” says Viale.

Labels for the homegrown Vincit Brewery

Labels for the homegrown Vincit Brewery

Designer: Marco Vincit

Location: Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Brewer Client: Vincit Beer (aka himself)

Design Challenge: Standing out when your main purpose is personal branding

At the end of 2015, designer Marco Vincit was looking for a unique gift to give his clients when it came to him – beer. But not just any beer, Vincit beer, otherwise known as craft suds that he asked a home brewer to bottle especially for him. Naturally, the bottles needed a label, so Vincit customized them himself to represent his personal design taste. “My style is simplistic,” he says. “I believe that the fewer elements we use, the bigger the impact.”

The mustard yellow color plays multiple roles. First, it’s Vincit’s favorite color. Then there is the symbolic. “I used a more vibrant shade to signify the positive vibrations I meant to show in the project,” he says. “The yellow circle is also a representation of our planet’s biggest star, the sun.”

The most notable symbol used in the bottle is the letter “Phi” (Φ), the 21st letter Greek alphabet done in a stripped-down style. “I choose this letter because it is related to the the golden ratio, which is one of my passions and for me summarizes what design is about, to converge the aesthetic and the functional,” says Vincit.

 The personal project afforded Vincit the freedom to riff according to his own desires. “Any client who hired me to develop a commemorative label would like more elaborate manual lettering with references to the brewery,” he says. “I sought to go against the tide of the visual standard applied by breweries, valuing the concept and simplicity.”

Labels for Colmita

Labels for Cervecería de Colima

Designer: Anagrama

Location: Monterrey, Mexico 

Brewer Client: Cervecería de Colima

Design Challenge: Standing out when you have unclear client direction

Few people would say that branding comes easy. More often, it’s a delicate dance between a company trying to simultaneously expand and protect its brand and a design team with a wealth of experience, know-how, and ideas the client may or may not accept. Sometimes, that last one repeats itself until the designer is ready to give up – and that almost happened to Anagrama partner Mike Herrera over the Cervecería de Colima packaging.

“The collaboration process with Cervecería de Colima was very hard and took four design rounds to get it right for the client,” says Herrera. “We really wanted to get this in our portfolio, so we fought hard to get our ideas and the client objectives out.”


Some of Anagrama’s explorations rejected by the client.

The pain point revolved around the client being unsure of what it wanted – all it seemed to know was what it didn’t want. By the third round, Herrera’s business partner convinced the client to scrap the brand’s original ideas and let Anagrama create something based on the fauna and geography around Monterey. On the fourth round, Anagrama started fresh…and voila, the client liked the relaxed design Anagrama developed. “The logo is a very casual, diagonal hand-script along with a mix of typefaces selected by us to get a familiar look between the different kinds of beer,” says Herrera, who walked away wiser about how to deal with tough clients.

“Your most useful tactic is to be as clear as possible with the client since the beginning of the brief,” says Herrera. “Also, learn to say ‘no.’”

More Posts by Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.

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