“Marketing’s job is to get people to do something,” says Portland-based graphic designer Hugh McCormick. “Branding’s job is to make people feel something.”
In a crowded market full of great beer, an emotional attachment to a brewery can mean the difference between what goes 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. These awards have included ‘crushes’ from the Craft Beer Marketing Awards competition, including a recent award for work done for Battery Steele Brewing, as well as the rebranding of Austin Street Brewery and the mural of Batson River Brewing & Distilling. at Bayside in 2021. HDMC has also won a number of Graphic Design USA awards in 2021 and 2022 for specific beers like Kit Brewing’s On Your Mark and a number of Austin Streets 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 beer”. It’s not about being loud, it’s about being “present,” McCormick says. “You want to create something interesting that grabs people’s attention, but can also look good in a fridge, inspire confidence in someone’s hand, and answer the question, ‘Why did the brewery did she make this beer?
To be too literal is to “take an easy way out,” he explained. “For example, imagine a brewery creates a Blood Orange IPA. Now, if the label is covered in oranges…and it is the label, it would be like painting musical notes on a guitar. The story ends quite abruptly and it’s quite disappointing.
Rather, he said, the design shouldn’t stem from what’s specifically in the can, but from why the brewery chose to make that beer at that time. Were they inspired by an experience? Are they trying to reinvent a banal style? The answers to these questions should feed into the visual representation of the beer on the label.
These considerations also apply to the brewery as a whole. From beer and logo to tasting room and merchandise, a cohesive branding strategy should evoke the culture of the brewery. If not, “then it’s time to switch brands,” McCormick said. And as a brewery matures, it may want to reevaluate 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 functions more as a “symbol than an image”. From there, he developed a typography system and color palette that aligns with Austin Street’s values of being welcoming to a wide range of drinkers, as well as deliberate in its brewing process.
“We loved what he came up with,” said Jake Austin, co-founder and chief operating officer of the brewery at Austin Street. “It’s more modern and a direct nod to our old logo, but not as literal.” Austin also points to the emergence of social media as central to a brewery’s identity, and it was important to adapt the brewery’s design scheme to this fundamentally visual medium.
Adaptation – building a bridge between the origins of the brewery and 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 operated in such a restricted way, with only two or three business partners, for years. We were focused on making world-class beer,” said partner Jake Condon. “Now that we were more rooted, we could invest money to make the brand image more consistent.”
Regarding the logo, Condon asked, “What can we do to make it stand out a bit more?”
McCormick took the existing “tremendous and iconic” logo and tweaked it, returning to the fort’s long afterlife. Abandoned after the war, it is now “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 vibrant color accents and a sense of the organic” that define the location today. Visually, this resulted in a color scheme of electric neon green against a dark background. It also matches the existing color palette of the brewery’s best-selling Flume IPA.
Condon said the new logo is slowly being incorporated into the brewery’s online presence and an impending redesigned website will further incorporate the color scheme. This builds on Battery Steele’s spartan can label pivot from its early years to more lavish designs of late (Maine-based designer Katie Spofford designs the brewery’s lager labels, while Dean McKeever , based in Massachusetts, makes IPAs and stouts).
While HMDC’s mural for the facade of the Batson River Bayside location is certainly on a different scale than a brewery logo, McCormick says designing a mural isn’t all that different from developing something. the size of a business card. “Does it tell a story accurately?” He asked. “Is it on brand while creating intrigue? Does it fit well into its context while challenging it?
While storytelling, plot, and context certainly matter, so does the very convenient positioning of elements 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’ll sometimes take off his glasses when evaluating work, to get a better idea of how the blurry shapes relate to each other, asking, “Does it feel balanced?”
It’s a good question for a design as it is for a beer, two things created at the intersection of technique and creativity, combined in the can in your hand.
Ben Lisle is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries of East Bayside in Portland, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Join him on Twitter at @bdlisle.