3 SUM IPA. A play on words and symbols with lots of primary colors, Curtis Dopson’s design for this label is more geometric and abstract than his other label designs. His range is intentionally daring: “Even if someone is criticizing my label, at least they’re talking about us, hearing about us.” The exchange is all part of the joy of beer and art.

 

Do YOU Love your Labels? If you do, great. If you don’t, find out how you can fall in love with your labels, from design to production. 


The old saying “You can’t tell a book by its cover” runs completely counter to today’s beer marketplace. A product’s packaging wants to tell the full story of the awesome brew inside. You CAN tell a beer by its label. Whether it is high-quality, refreshing, worth buying, an adventure worth taking.

The beautiful thing about craft beer and label craft, is the freedom to create and express your tastes. Mass appeal is not the goal; connecting with like-minded beer lovers is. 
 
In the forward of the book “Cool Beer Labels (Daniel Bellon and Steve Speeg), Greg Koch, CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing Co. writes: “Great beer represents a vast number of things—passion, artistry, authenticity, creativity and honesty.” (Great design does too!) He also points out that a label is “capable of conveying style, a sense of place, an attitude, or a philosophy. “ Koch, who admits he grew up reading the backs of cereal boxes over his breakfasts, likes using his labels to literally tell his story, writing lengthy paragraphs on topics he’s passionate about. He does recommend consumers at least start reading the can before drinking the contents, if they plan to get through the entire message.
 
Meet Artist and Assistant Brewer Curtis Dopson

Curtis Dopson, artist and assistant brewer at Pipe Dream Brewing in Londonderry, NH, is daring to design provocative labels and is proving that risk = profit. 
 
Cotton candy double IPA. “Today’s beer is as diverse as artwork is diverse,” says Curtis Dopson assistant brewer and artist at Pipe Dream Brewing. “Brewers are doing new things every day,” marvels Curtis when asked about a recent label design for Milkshake IPA (darker malts for chocolate effect balanced with creamy milk lactose) infused with cotton candy. Out of this world for sure.  
 
“We brew a variety of different styles: we like IPA’s stouts, sours, blonde and brown ale. Founder/Owner head brewer Jon Young loves a variety. And anytime we come up with a new beer, we come up with a new label.” Which means Curtis has created 20-30 labels in the past year, each with a personality of its own, a unique style and flavor. Every artwork is original.
 
If the goal is to stand out on the shelf, Curtis achieves his goal with every label. His work is eye popping. Provocative. Fun. Playful. “We’re not overly serious with stuff,” says Curtis referring to Pipe Dream’s art choices. Recurring themes with a California vibe include beaches, beautiful women, sunsets, sunrises. “California surfing and Raggae are a huge part of our vibe,” says Curtis. “We want the labels to pop.”
 
Pipe Dream’s Cookie Stout label is a great example of Curtis Dopson’s California surfer-style art.
 
“I’m often asked if I’m smoking anything when I coming up with labels,” laughs Curtis. He’s not. He is naturally creative and loves to tell stories in his illustrations, to use symbolism and suggestion.
 
In an understated way, Curtis describes himself as, “Versatile in terms of style.” He commuted from Merrimack, NH, to the Art Institute of Boston for six years to develop his art skills. He draws psychedelic, surfboard-style art, fractals, abstracted twister games, and lots of sexy female figures. He admits Pipe Dream pushes the limits with risqué IPA names and images but we are “Tasteful in everything we do,” he says reassuringly. “We push the limits a little to get people to laugh out loud. We want the reaction. If a label gets you to laugh, that’s great.”
 
Pipe Dream is going for a “blatant emotional reaction.” The product packaging promises an enjoyable experience.
 
The Design and Production Process

At Pipe Dream Brewing in an upstairs office, Curtis creates his images freehand, using graphite and non-repro blue pencil. Most of the art is produced in Photoshop. “It works faster that way,” reveals Curtis. “A finished piece will go to Jon for approval. Pipe Dream brewing is his vision. My job is helping him fulfill that vision. If Jon reacts saying, ‘Love that label—it’s great,’ we’ll send it off to the NH Liquor commission for approval. We’ve only ever had one denial. Sometimes Jon comes back and says, ‘Not quite. Change certain colors here or there. Add something or take something away.’ When it’s all finished, he’ll say, ‘That’s awesome.’”
 
Jon and Curtis have entrusted Amherst Label with the production of their designs. Curtis says, “I found you guys to be excellent in terms of customer service. I sometimes feel like I am being a pain but I have never been dissatisfied. Amherst Label has bent over backwards to make deliveries. We like to do as much as we can locally so having a local label manufacturer is a bonus.”
 
Amherst Label sales rep Nicholas Kepka-Calvetti speaks for everyone at Amherst Label when he says, “We’re here to help our customers tell their stories through labels.”
 
Where  to start

You may be introducing a new family of beers or one product and may already have ideas about the personality of your unlabeled brews. Here’s a simple way to organize the design process. If you have a designer you would like to work with, he or she will have a way to guide you along the way.

Creative agencies often do a “marketing map” for new projects to collect information about competition, favorite colors, style preferences and philosophies. This exercise is used for both the design and marketing strategies. Although design is an art and therefore can be unpredictable, there is plenty of science that wants to support your design. Color theory, typography, figure/ground relationships and other design principles. But as the customer, you can leave all of this up to your expert designer.

Here are three simple things people do to aid the process:

Exercise #1: Write down adjectives that describes your beer. 

Exercise #2: Collect examples of graphics that appeal to you. Also collect a couple of samples you do not like.

Exercise #3: Describe how you want people to feel when they experience your product—from purchase to recycling bin.

In the process of collecting design examples that catch your attention, you may stumble upon a great designer in your area. Ask around. 

Set a budget and the scope of deliverables. A not-to-exceed budget for roughs, final art and post-production follow-through. 

Take a shot at designing your own label. Your effort may actually work out, or may provide a guide for a professional to start with. If you have visually talented co-workers, relatives or neighbors, freely ask for their suggestions. Again, someone may produce something ideal for your story. Or may help start the idea for a designer/illustrator.
 
Ask around for reliable label manufacturers, keeping in mind that there is more to labels than printing. The adhesion, application and construction are all critical. How labels perform in your production environment and finding a label company that will “stick with you” through your process can be the secret to loving your labels.
 
About the author
Ruth Sterling’s career as a graphic designer has taken her from teaching graphic design at Keene State College to her own firm where she designed more than 80 logos, to her current position as marketing manager at Amherst Label.