The Tricky Business of Beer Label Design

4 Aug

Time Out Chicago’s Amy Cavanaugh recently aimed her sites and fired at Rockford, Illinois. Specifically at Machesney Park, the suburb of Rockford that hosts Pig Minds Brewing, and more specifically than that, at a particular label they have for their PD blueberry ale. The label features the rear view of a mini-skirted lady whose undies have fallen down and are now stretched between her ankles (hence the “PD”: panty dropper, for those whose brains don’t automatically go there). Behold:

PD

I am friends with one of the brewers so I was privy to the fallout on his Facebook wall, most of it full of colorful language and such implications that Ms. Cavanaugh had perhaps not known the romantic touch of a man in a long time or maybe needs a vacation. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of calling her a “bitch” and implying that she is just an internet troll with no cred nor writing skill. Neither of those is true, she writes some of the most honest, carefully considerate (and sometimes harsh) restaurant reviews Time Out has, and I personally think it’s very unfortunate that the people who commented on my friend’s post resorted to that base of a reaction (something that Ms. Cavanaugh herself accuses Pig Minds of doing via their label, base denominator appeal). Nobody’s winning here, you guys.

Someone pointed out in his comment thread that Lagunitas (who recently opened a brew facility in Chicago with a female head brewer) features a lady on the label of their Little Sumpin’ ale. True, they do indeed. But um, it’s not quite in the same vein. To wit: littlesumpintaplogo

So after reading that exchange, I posted to my group’s Facebook page and posed the “does it matter?” question to the people.  Not much response yet, I’m hoping for more because this is an important conversation. The hard part of the conversation though, the thing that seems to stop it in its tracks, is that we’re talking about beer. We’re trying to speak seriously about something that most people don’t consider to be very serious (unless you’re the owner, brewer, investor, bartender, assistant, or promoter). It’s a product that folks beeline to in order to escape the heavy things in life, right? Unless we’re talking about a wee heavy, ha ha. Well, yes, ok. But it’s also a boys club and has been since it all began, which is hard to fight. Women have a hard time breaking in and staying in let alone with opinions that go against the industry and tradition. I’ve worked at breweries, I see what happens to the one female who may well brew beers herself, who may sling bags of malt over her shoulders and shovel out the spent grains right along side of the guys and who invests just as much heart in the process, but at the end of it, she’s still a girl. She still has to listen to the macho dick swinging that goes on whenever craft meets art meets nerd. She may even have a dick to swing of her own (you know what I mean) but in a lot of ways, she is just a woman in a man’s world. She’s the reason we have to have things like the Pink Boots Society, and Barley’s Angels, and ladies nights. Women can’t just show up and jump in yet, we still have to prove that these two lumps under our shirts don’t prevent us from thinking and doing, let alone appreciating and discussing.

Anyway, back to the labels. it doesn’t take much to see that beer labels are aimed in a particular direction. A lot of them look like metal band posters, stoner doodles and horror movie ads. As a graphic designer, I care less about the copious t & a and more about the sheer ugliness of the things. The taste level is what we should be talking about, here. Give me a crisp, clean label any day and I will dollars-to-donuts reach for your beer over the one that looks like a Xeroxed flier for that Pig Destroyer show in your buddy’s basement. Some of my favorites: beer labels

So, there we have it. An argument about visual preference, females, dudes, an ages-old idea of what appeals to beer drinkers (notice we’ve not even touched on how the stuff tastes, here), and perhaps one of the more important points designers take into consideration, we hope, is what the label says about the brewery itself at first glance. If I see a tasteful, clean label like the ones above, I get very little impression of what that brewery may be about. Is the minimal approach indicative that they save the goods for what’s inside the bottle? Do they just not like clutter? Do they want to give you a feeling before you take a sip or do they want you to simply open it and decide for yourself? And what about Three Floyds? When I look at their artwork, I see a bunch of misfits (dudes, honestly) who are into heavy guitars and who have ZZ Top-level beards, many black t-shirts, and have mastered the art of thrashing around with a half-full glass in hand. That is beer produced by a bunch of nutters, and it’s definitely working for them.

When I was 17, I wanted to dye my short hair oxblood red more than anything else in the world. I don’t remember what job I was working at the time, but I’m pretty sure I’d have had a harder time finding one than when I sported my standard brunette. I was indignant about what kind of narrow-minded jerk judges someone based on her hair color, and something about how it shouldn’t matter because I have a pretty good work ethic stomp stomp slam. But then I grew up and things stopped being theoretical. At the end of the day, I don’t care about a label as much as I care about what’s inside. If I’m so horribly offended, I’ll just pour the beer in a glass and banish the bottle to the bin. But handing someone their opinion before your brew has a chance to speak puts you near the back of the pack in a lot of ways, at least for people who do care about looks. And since women are among the fastest-growing group of beer drinkers, maybe it’s something worth caring about.

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One Response to “The Tricky Business of Beer Label Design”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Does Craft Beer Have a Problem with Women? | GDB - March 2, 2015

    […] a male saying this publicly to get through someone who otherwise would ignore all the other women saying the same thing I am. I don’t claim to know where the line is drawn, and I don’t know […]

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