“Marketing’s job is to get people to do something,” says Portland-based graphic designer Hugh McCormick. “Branding’s job is to get people to feel something.”
In a crowded marketplace packed with great beer, an affective attachment to a brewery can be the difference between what comes home and what stays on the shelf.
Hugh McCormick Design Co. (HMDC, for short) has designed logos and branding for Maine breweries Austin Street Brewery, Bissell Brothers Three Rivers, Batson River Brewing & Distilling, and Kit Brewing – winning 21 national design awards in the process. Those awards have included “crushies” from the Craft Beer Marketing Awards competition, including a recent award for work done for Battery Steele Brewing, as well as Austin Street Brewery’s rebranding and the mural of Batson River Brewing & Distilling in Bayside in 2021. HDMC also won a number of awards from Graphic Design USA in 2021 and 2022 for specific beers like Kit Brewing’s On Your Mark and a number from Austin Street, including Anton Vienna Lager, Austin Street Lager, the Narrative Pilot Series, Marquee Moon Pale Ale, Bombtrack IPA and Bennu Black IPA.
According to McCormick, a beer label should not only draw attention to itself, but also “tell the story of the beer.” This isn’t about being loud, but being “present,” McCormick says. “You want to create something interesting that grabs people’s attention, but can also look handsome in a fridge, instill confidence while in someone’s hand, and answer the question, ‘Why did the brewery make this beer?’”
To be too literal is to “take an easy way out,” he explained. “For example, let’s imagine a brewery creates a Blood Orange IPA. Now, if the label is covered in oranges… and that’s the label, it would be like painting music notes on a guitar. The story ends fairly abruptly and that’s pretty disappointing.”
Rather, he said, the design should emerge not from what’s specifically in the can, but why the brewery chose to make that beer at that time. Were they inspired by an experience? Are they trying to reinvent a mundane style? Answers to such questions should fuel the label’s visual representation of the beer.
These considerations apply to the brewery as a whole as well. From beer to logo to tasting room to merchandise, a coherent branding strategy should evoke the brewery’s culture. If it doesn’t, “then it is time for a rebrand,” said McCormick. And as a brewery matures, it might want to reassess the association between culture and visual presentation. In McCormick’s mind, a brand is “a living, breathing organism that can always be refined.”
HMDC’s work with Austin Street illustrates this point. McCormick adapted the brewery’s old and familiar mash paddle logo so that it worked more as a “symbol than an image.” From there, he developed a typography system and color scheme that aligned with Austin Street’s values of being welcoming to a broad range of drinkers, as well as deliberate in its brewing process.
“We loved what he came up with,” said Jake Austin, co-founder and head of brewery operations at Austin Street. “It’s more modern looking and is a direct nod to our old logo, but not as literal.” Austin also points to the emergence of social media as vital to a brewery’s identity, and adapting the brewery’s design scheme to that fundamentally visual medium was important.
Adaptation – building a bridge from the brewery’s origins to its current identity – also defines HMDC’s work with Battery Steele Brewing. The brewery’s logo is its namesake, the World War II era fortification on Peaks Island. And that logo was the brand for a while.
“We ran so lean, just two or three business partners, for years. We were focused on making world-class beer,” said partner Jake Condon. “Now when we were more entrenched, we could put some dollars into making the branding more cohesive.”
Regarding the logo, Condon asked, “What can we do to make this pop a little bit more?”
McCormick took the “terrific and iconic” existing logo and tweaked it, by returning to the long afterlife of the fort. Abandoned after the war, today it is “covered in vibrant artwork and lush vegetation,” he said.
These qualities shaped his design plan, “to create something that would have the formal security and care of the fort, with the accents of vibrant color and a sense of the organic” that define the location today. In visual terms, this in a color palette of electric neon green set against a dark background. That also aligned with the existing color scheme of the brewery’s top seller, Flume IPA.
Condon said the new logo is being slowly integrated into the brewery’s online presence, and an impending, redesigned website will incorporate more of the color scheme. This builds upon the pivot from Battery Steele’s spartan can labels from its initial years to more sumptuous designs of late (Maine-based designer Katie Spofford designs the brewery’s lager labels, while Massachusetts-based Dean McKeever does IPAs and stouts).
While HMDC’s mural for the facade of Batson River’s Bayside location is certainly on a different scale than a brewery logo, McCormick says designing a mural isn’t so different from developing something the size of a business card. “Is it telling a story accurately?” he asked. “Is it on brand while creating some intrigue? Does it fit into its context well while challenging it?”
While storytelling, intrigue, and context certainly matter, so too does the very practical positioning of items on a screen, page or wall. Most of graphic design is “the arrangement of shapes to create visual balance and hierarchy,” according to McCormick. He says he will remove his glasses sometimes when assessing work, to get a better sense of how the blurred shapes relate to one another, asking, “Does it feel balanced?”
It’s a good question for a design and a beer alike, two things created at the intersection of technique and creativity, combined in the can in your hand.
Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.
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