Labels with Artistic Allure

By Julie Johnson

Two graphic designers walked the aisles of a local bottle shop on a mission: Without consulting one another, pick a beer based solely on the design qualities of its label, then talk about their choices over a pint. The challenge: Identify which designs work, and why?

Nancy Frame, who is the creative director of her own eponymous design company in Durham, selected Paycheck Pilsner from Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. The can is wrapped in golden yellow and the name of the beer scrolls across the label. The only image is a small top hat in the lower right corner.

Design by Helms Workshop, Austin. Illustration by Kurt Lightner

Design by Helms Workshop, Austin. Illustration by Kurt Lightner

“It’s just a gorgeous label. The brand mark is really interesting with the backwards ‘F,’” Frame says, pointing to the company’s logo that appears on all its products. “Then there is the gorgeous typography, and the cute little hat illustration. But what really sold me was this copy: ‘Beer from the Beautiful South. Crisp. Dependable. Rewarding. You’ve earned it!’ It’s got a tongue-in-cheek message. The look is very organized and well thought-out. It made me think that if they put that much into this package, the beer has to be good.”

The typography, she explains, encompasses the selection and arrangement of type. “Each letter has a relationship to the next; it flows together in this really pleasing way. It has a nostalgic, vintage look. There’s a lovely shadow, and some transparent ink that is almost metallic-y. Someone who worked on it knew what they were doing, and that deserves to be rewarded.”

Her beer companion, David Watts, had been tempted to pick the same beer. The typography struck him, too. “The interesting characters they created with the ‘y’—the way the tail loops around—and the ‘k’ fills that space,” he says. “They designed the name of the beer, that whole unit, as a single area on the label.”

Instead, Watts, the creative director with MSA Marketing in Raleigh, chose Bad Penny Brown Ale from Raleigh’s Big Boss Brewing Company. In a silk-screened image on the bottle, a woman stares straight at the viewer, wearing stylized flowers in her hair. Her look is challenging or sultry; the hair could be a bouffant or an Afro.

Design by Scott Pridgeon, McKinney, Durham

Design by Scott Pridgeon, McKinney, Durham

“I probably could have selected any of their beers: as a whole line they work well,” he explains. “It’s a very retro look, it has some really interesting icons and graphic images they use on each beer. One of the things that attracted me was the name of the beers—I’m just intrigued by Bad Penny. There’s another one called Angry Angel. I have no clue what they mean for the most part, but I’m intrigued.”

The label includes boxes beside a cryptic checklist: “Heads? Tails?” The brand mark is a shield outline enclosing the brewery name. “You might expect to see this stenciled on the back of a World War II airplane,” Watts adds. Lines of stylized figures in groups of five suggest a tally.

The two labels were similar in some ways, each featuring a retro sensibility and a limited palette of two or three colors. Some other labels on the shelves suffered by comparison. “There are some down there that have very elaborate illustrations, but you just kind of gloss over them,” Watts suggests.

Frame had a different criticism. “There are a lot of bad looking labels. I saw a few that sort of put me off as a woman, a little misogynistic. That was kind of a turnoff.”

In creating a label to catch a consumer’s attention, the designer has a canvas that measures a mere 3 by 3 inches, or so. “It needs few words, highly impactful visuals. You have to get their attention right away, and they have to sort of understand what you are trying to communicate quickly,” Watts says.

But despite the limited space on each can or bottle, a unifying look across a whole brand can create what Frame calls a “billboard effect.” “You start seeing a pattern of repetition. It’s pleasing and creates strength on the shelf, something that’s consistent and powerful.”

What competitors are doing is important, too. The Fullsteam and Big Boss images would not have been as effective if too many other North Carolina breweries were also going retro. “You want to zig when they zag,” Frame says.

Ultimately, of course, all that a good design can do is tempt a consumer to pick up the bottle or can. If the contents disappoint, no amount of gorgeous typography will guarantee a second sale.