Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Gratuitous Self-Promotion

I'm going to toot my own horn here a bit. On a blog that is 99.9% about me, my interest in beer and most importantly my opinion about beer, it's nice to branch out a bit and talk a little about me every once in a while, right?

When I'm not clickity-clacking away on my keyboard, writing about beer, I'm click-clicking away on my mouse, designing graphics and exhibitions for the New York State Museum (You can see some of that here). I've been a designer for 16 years, but I haven't always been in the museum biz, in fact, I've had a number of run-ins with some beery projects over that time— I even worked for a now defunct brewpub in town, the Big House Brewing Co., doing their advertising and design. More recently, one of those run-ins was the logo development for the western Pennsylvania craft brewery Helltown Brewing. The brewery seems to be doing well for itself, (although I haven't had any of their beer—hint, hint) so, I thought I'd pat myself on the back, give a little unsolicited publicity to Helltown and tell you what goes into designing a brewery logo.

A year-and-a-half ago I received and email from brewery owner Shawn Gentry asking for some help designing a logo for his new place. Shawn explained that they named their brewery was a nod to the history of their town, Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania—where, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries the area had become a "wild west" of the east. Men from that area participated in the post-American Revolution, tax protest—and good old insurrection—dubbed the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s. Booze and social unrest go hand in hand in western PA and the area continued to thumb its nose at authority well in the the next century—earning pleasant little Mount Pleasant the nickname Helltown. There's nothing like a cool back story to fuel the fires (pun intended) of logo design. Plus the ZIP code for Mount Pleasant ends in 666, so that's a little bonus, too.

Keep in mind, there's a difference between designing a beer label and a brewery logo. A good beer label should draw you into buying a beer you've never had—it's the hook. Yes, I've heard that "real" craft beer enthusiasts could never be duped into buying a beer just by the label or packaging, to which I say—horseshit. Package design in the beer industry is just as effective as any other industry. If is wasn't, then all beer would have white labels. Packaging design can be expensive, so why would a brewery spend the money if a great label design didn't work? Does great label design support a great beer or brewery?Absolutely. Will great label design help to re-sell a shitty beer. Nope. The product will dictate its own success, the packaging should simply support that achievement—but remember, the opposite is true as well—a shitty label will only hinder a great beer. Want to see effective label deign? Colorado's Left Hand Brewery is producing, what I think is, some of the best beer labels out there—and they make great brew, as well.

A detail of the pin-up concept.
In any case, a brewery logo is a bit different than a beer label design. The main logo for a brewery is an over-arching identity for that brewery (or any other business, for that matter). The logo is all about identification and recognition—or to use an industry buzz word "branding." If everything goes according to plan, the consumer should recognize that breweries logo and associate it with a quality they appreciate. Think about the Nike Swoosh, it's not selling a particular shoe, it's representing—and therefore selling—the company of Nike. The Swoosh stands for what Nike stands for. It has appearance of sharpness, speed and boldness—like a razor blade. Attributes that an athlete—or someone who wants to be an athlete—might want to emulate.

Okay, enough self-indulgent deign theory—back to Shawn in western Pennsylvania. After a few phone discussions we decided that the Helltown logo, which could easily skew spooky, should evoke, instead, an edgy mischievousness—something a bit ominous but not Halloween-ish. Shawn initially liked the idea of a she-devil and I riffed on that, developing a George Petty–esque pin-up girl, with a devilish edge. She was the girl next door gone bad—complete with red skin, horns and a tail. It had a very graphic comic-book style to it, and I have to say it was cool, but it wasn't right for Helltown—at least not for its full identity. Back to the drawing board—so goes the logo development process.

Figuring out the font.
From that point we decided that a word mark—or text only treatment for the logo—might work best. Shawn had mentioned that he liked the simplicity of the logo for Rochefort Brewery in Belgium. Having your client give you an idea of what they like, helps the process along. The Gothic nature of Rochefort's type worked well for a brewery named Helltown, so finding the right font, for Shawn's logo was key. Unfortunately, I couldn't—so I made one up. The fonts that I liked that were in the same vein as Rochefort all had something that didn't work—from strange looking Ts to excessive embellishemts—I took the elements that I liked and tossed the ones I didn't.  I knew I wanted a few hard angles and parts of the letters to extend down and curve sharply at the end—like the edge of a dagger or knife—sort of a modernized Blackletter font, where the letters fit nicely into themselves. I wanted the text to be implicitly Gothic but easy to read and I knew I was only going to use two colors black and red. It came together quickly, but I wasn't done, not by a long shot. I still had the hardest part ahead of me.

Once the text treatment was in the can and Shawn had given the thumbs up, we agreed that there needed to be something to lighten up the mood in the logo. The Gothic text, while executed well, still seemed a little to Interview with a Vampire and not enough Little Nicky. Developing a playful icon—something that could be used with the text or alone—that could be instantly recognized, on a t-shirt or pint glass, as "Helltown." This was not an easy task. I did a number of little bugs—that's designer lingo for stand alone icons that can work with or without the main text—everything from a laughing devil head to a halo with horns to a fire ball. It took weeks. Of course, the one that worked best was the one I did first—a simple circle, from which essed upwards, a forked devil's tail. This little graphic, worked well, above or beside the text, by itself or grouped with the words. I set the secondary information in a sans serif font (that is, a font without the little platforms on the top and bottom of each letter) to set it apart from the Gothic word mark. The simplicity of the san serif font looked good with the graphic nature of the devil's tail icon. When all the parts were together—the Helltown Brewing logo was done.

Eight months ago the picture to the left came across my Facebook feed. Helltown Brewing was operational and their Mischevious Brown Ale was on tap at a local Mount. Pleasant watering hole. I've seen my work on TV, billboards, in magazines and online—but this was really a thrill to see. There sat my logo—okay, now it's Shawn's logo—between a Southern Tier and Victory tap handle. You've come a long way baby.

Best of luck to Shawn and the crew at Helltown. If your in western PA, try them out. let me know if the beer is a s good as the logo!


  1. I like your logo, story and of course the beer! Good job all, keep it up and thanks. - Beer Dave