Isaac Alves

D2D 03: Design Process with Kara Richardson & Erica Vigneau: Tilted Barn Brewery

Isaac Alves
D2D 03: Design Process with Kara Richardson & Erica Vigneau: Tilted Barn Brewery

Let me set the scene for you.  On the border of North Kingstown and Exeter, RI you are headed down a rural Rt. 2 and come to a worn out sign perched on the side of the road.  Keep your eyes open, because if you aren't looking closely you might drive right by it.  That would be a shame, because on the other side of a bumpy dirt road that leads into the woods, emerges a clearing with a small house and a barn that looks like it belongs on a Christmas card.  Dogs, cats, and chickens greet you warmly upon arrival, and roam the land freely.  Then the sweet scents of grain mash and hops hit the nose.  You have reached Tilted Barn Brewery.

Tilted Barn simply has a different aura about it.  Although you may be a mere guest for a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon, the host family led by Matt and Kara Richardson, along with their children, Violet, Libby, and Milo, truly make you feel like family.  The Barn is a great place to kick back, relax, and disconnect from the bustling paces of life all while enjoying some of the freshest beer you can find.

Speaking of fresh, nothing beats enjoying beer that has ingredients used directly from the source.  Via their web site, Tilted Barn Brewery, "Rhode Island's first farm brewery," has been in Kara's family for more than fifty years and established itself further as a hop farm in 2007.  Many of those hops make it into their diverse lineup of beer.  As I'm sure many craft beer connoisseurs are aware, the recent trends of New England-style IPA and consuming beer fresh from the source has taken off.  Despite the trends, it did not take Tilted Barn Brewery very long to establish an identity in the craft beer community, and turn heads throughout Rhode Island, New England, and beyond.  In fact, as of a couple of months ago, Tilted Barn began to offer four-packs of cans to go.  This is where Kara Richardson and Erica Vigneau came into play.

Kara and Erica are family, and they are also talented artists and designers.  Designing the labels and branding for their new line of cans is a passion project for both.  They have a refreshing collaboration dynamic, which results in some beautiful, attention-grabbing design that visitors can now take home to enjoy.  The Richardson's and Erica were generous to allow us to visit them at the Barn recently to gain a more detailed insight into the design process that leads to their beautifully designed can labels and branding.

Read on to experience the full design conversation, and to see the process behind the creation of the labels and branding!

Pictured left to right: Kara Richardson and Erica Vigneau

D2D:  First of all, I'm a big fan of your beer and the label design that goes with it.  I know you have only been canning for a short time, and you are selling out of everything pretty much every time.

KARA RICHARDSON:  Thanks! Yes, it has been very crazy and very busy.  Every week I am amazed at the amount of people who visit the farm.

D2D:  What I really like about the labels is that when I look at them -- and knowing a bit about your history as a hop farm previously -- you really get a nice idea of the setting, and they put you in a mindset to where you feel a connection with this place.  They seem to be the perfect compliment to the beer that Matt brews.  Where did this style come about?

KARA RICHARDSON:  I knew that I wanted to make the labels and it was starting to become crunch time, and Matt was saying, "well I'm going to start talking to other people," so that we could make sure that we got them done (laughing).

D2D:  That will add some pressure, right? (laughing)

KARA RICHARDSON:  We have a busy house as you can see -- a one year-old, a four year-old, and a six year-old -- and at first I was thinking, "I'll try to do something with watercolor because there are not that many labels out there with that media," and thought I was going to do that.  Then I thought, we read to our kids all the time and we, as a family, really enjoy all of the Eric Carle books and a lot of other authors that illustrate with paper cutout artwork.  I also took a class in college about art education for elementary students and for one project had to create a children's book using paper cutout collage and really enjoyed it.  At that point it just clicked -- that's what I wanted to do for our labels; I thought it would look really awesome.

D2D:  And Erica, you handle all of the graphic design for the labels?

ERICA VIGNEAU:  I do, yes.

D2D:  What is your background as a designer and artist?

ERICA VIGNEAU:  I went to school for art and graphic design, and I am currently a graphic designer for a medical device company, so the work for Tilted Barn is my fun job on the side -- to help Kara out with these labels and be able to use colors other than the color green (laughing).

KARA RICHARDSON:  I don't know, our first couple of labels had a lot of green! (laughing)

ERICA VIGNEAU:  Very true! (laughing).

D2D:  Kara, what is your background?

KARA RICHARDSON:  My background is elementary and middle school education, and I was a teacher before we opened the brewery.  I taught middle school pre-engineering for eight years.  I always enjoyed art, but I never pursued that career -- yet.  You never know, maybe once the kids get a little bigger (laughing).

D2D:  So it sounds like you both have a lot of experience.  Do you have any design philosophy that you put to work each day?

ERICA VIGNEAU:  I knew we liked the clean simplicity of the label -- where everything was easily identifiable.  When we first started planning out the labels we wanted to create a template that would be very easily adaptable to all of the different pieces of art that Kara created.  Once we found that, it worked really well to help us keep things really simple and clean -- and had it look somewhat the same but also different at the same time.  The color differs and the artwork differs, but when you have them all lined up -- the names, the logos, everything -- you can tell it comes from the same company.

KARA RICHARDSON:  Yes, that's one thing we definitely talked about -- consistency -- knowing that it's our brand, our label, and our design.

D2D:  Where do you both search for or find inspiration?  Do you get a lot of it from being here [at the Barn] every day?

Original cutout artwork: "Libby" American Blonde Ale by Kara Richardson

KARA RICHARDSON:  A lot of my inspiration comes from nature itself and my kids and just day-to-day things that we do.  For example, the "Libby" label -- I knew I wanted to portray Libby somehow and her crazy hair.  In the morning it's just a total mess, so the label design is her profile and the back [of her hair] is this whirlwind all about her.  She loves shells, the stars and the moon, and flowers, and she really encompasses all of those neat and natural things.  In all of the designs there is an element of a hop in there, whether it be a cone, vine, or leaf, that is me having fun.  I also like to look at imagery from local magazines to get ideas for little snippets.  Ultimately, I always try to draw on the natural aspect of life and bring you back to that simplicity again.

D2D:  You can definitely see all of that come together across all of the labels.

ERICA VIGNEAU:  I think we have done seven labels now?  Today is seven with "Raffi."

D2D:  Let's talk about some of the process.  Let's say you are sitting down to start a new label.  Does that initial idea come from Matt?  Does it come from a combination of all of you getting together to discuss it?  What is the approach when you first start the project?

KARA RICHARDSON:  Lately everything has been determined by our brew schedule and whether or not I can get a label done in time to meet that deadline.  If I can, great!  If not, Matt brews a repeat of a "Peeptoad," or "Cactus," or one that we have already done.  When beginning to think about the "Raffi" design, I thought, "do I want it to be based on a farm-scape" because it's all about the children's song by Raffi -- "oats and beans and barley grow."  We have had this beer pretty much since we opened when we were listening to a lot of Raffi.  Am I dating myself here? (laughing)  That whole song is about the farmer, and working the field, and planting his oats and beans and barley and watching them grow.  So I thought about my time limit constraint that I had and said, "I don't know if I can really do that," so that's when I thought I would come up with an oat frond, a coffee bean plant, and the barley.  I didn't have any idea what those looked like -- the details of each -- so I did a bit of research and printed off some internet pictures and then sketched out some of my own layouts.  I try to make them look realistic, so I say, "what does a coffee bean look like underground, and what does the root system look like?"  So I try to get information about those things too.  Then, of course, I add my own little twist.  In the "Raffi" design, a hop cone takes the place of the traditional "bean/seed."  The plant is essentially growing from that.

D2D:  So you really start out with some rough sketching.

KARA RICHARDSON:  Yes, I start there, and sometimes I look at it and say, "that's not all going to fit on a label!" (laughing)  Then I will sketch some other design or try to resize it using my copy machine.  I also start thinking about Erica's side of fitting all of the other graphic elements onto a small label -- it is still a learning process.

ERICA VIGNEAU:  And we don't want it to look like the different elements are just cut, so there's some finesse with making it look like it's intentionally designed that way.  For the most part, we have made them work.  Knock on wood!

D2D:  You were talking about time constraints a bit and how you are at the mercy of the brewing schedule to get a concept finished.  Is that more or less about a month to get something designed?  Or is it less than that?  What is the timeline like?

KARA RICHARDSON:  It takes about two and a half weeks to get the labels printed once we place the order with the printing company.  If it is a new design, the label has to be done by the time Matt brews that batch of beer.  That way we have time to label the cans before can day.  The actual creation of the artwork depends on how detailed the design is.  Generally, I have to get them done pretty quickly.

D2D:  I'm assuming that you will also have to send ideas to the printer ahead of time to get proofs back, correct?

KARA RICHARDSON:  Yes, what will happen is I will finish the cut artwork and then I send it to Erica to do the Photoshop work.

ERICA VIGNEAU:  I will get a scan of the artwork which will be on the white background of the paper, so I'll bring it into Photoshop to clean it up, remove the background, and tweak anything else that needs it.  Then I will scale it down so it's not this gigantic, 600 dpi-sized file (laughing).

D2D:  As good as that would look, I'm sure! (laughing)

ERICA VIGNEAU:  The printer would kill me if I sent that! (laughing)  So I will scale it down to the size of the label and then will bring it into the template, which, usually at that point, I will kind of work backwards.  We add the name, the text, get in all of the static elements, and then will put the artwork in.  That is the variable that ends up changing or being scaled, or rotated.  Once it is in the template, I can move it around or figure out where it works best with the other elements on the label.  For example, with "Raffi," the scanner kept cutting off part of the barley, so Kara ended up doing two different scans of the artwork.  I had to Photoshop one over the other just to get the edge of the barley back into the template.  In addition to that, I wanted to have the coffee beans hide below the red footer.  As a result, I had to move the "general warnings" up, which we haven't done on any of the other labels.  But I felt that this worked best with Kara's artwork.  The coffee beans also ended harshly, so I added a few more to bleed off the edge so that it wasn't as blunt where it ended.

D2D:  I think it's really cool that you guys essentially put everything together by hand first and then take it into Photoshop and Illustrator to refine the design.  In the digital world we live in now, you don't see that very often.

KARA RICHARDSON:  I definitely enjoy creating the labels by hand.  It is a nice outlet for me to be creative and do something for myself and the business at the same time.  When I work on the label designs, sometimes my kids are right there at the kitchen table with me making their own art.  This is awesome, and probably couldn't be done if I were always designing on the computer.  However, sometimes my art doesn't always translate as easily onto the computer as Erica and I hope.  The "Libby" label was a learning curve for us because that was the first label we designed horizontally.  It was tricky to do because it did leave us that huge white space.

D2D:  So you do all of your labels vertically now?  Just because of the way the template is designed?

ERICA VIGNEAU:  Yes, and now Kara tries to think of a completed design where no matter how you scan it, we can capture everything at once.  If we need to move anything around, we can do that easily.

Original cutout artwork: "Milo's Phoenix" by Kara Richardson

D2D:  One of the other things I love about the labels is that you are not afraid to get colorful.  I'm sure you are both aware of cost implications with printing.  So is that something that you ever worry about or take into consideration when you plan a new label?  Or do you just go for it?

KARA RICHARDSON:  We just go for it -- whatever we like we tend to do.  We are still operating at such a small scale that maybe we haven't realized those price hits yet.  I mean, it is a pretty good chunk of change, but for now we are making it work.

D2D:  Throughout the process, where does Matt come in?  Does he have any say?

KARA RICHARDSON:  He says, "Go for it hun.  Whatever you want to do." (laughing)  For the most part he is pretty easy.

ERICA VIGNEAU:  He writes all of the beer descriptions, and does give us his feedback.

D2D:  So you are pretty much given full creative freedom.

KARA RICHARDSON:  Yes.  We get creative freedom with designing the labels, and he gets his freedom with writing beer recipes.  We are well balanced. (laughing)

D2D:  Do you ever get stuck on an idea in the middle of your process or is there ever a time when you are playing around with images, shapes, or colors and it's just not working?  Given the tight time constraints in the back of your mind, how do you combat creative block when you are stumped?  

KARA RICHARDSON:  Not yet, only because I think I have to make it work and I have to figure it out because of the time constraints.  If I do have one constraint from time to time, it would be not being able to get myself into gear due to tiredness and having to keep up with the kids.  Thankfully I have my Mom who lives right down the road.  Sometimes I have to call her and ask her to come over and watch the kids because I will need to get a label finished.  Some weeks I am really excited and ready to work on it, and other weeks not so much.  By the time the label is done I don't want to look at it for a little while. (laughing)

D2D:  Erica, do you have any method of dealing with creative block when you get stuck?

ERICA VIGNEAU:  I would say that on the design side it is a bit easier because you can keep playing around and keep hitting "command z."  So for me it's a lot more forgiving and I always tell Kara that she really has the hard part of the job -- creating the artwork.  If I do get stuck, I will usually work on something else and come back to it, or I'll save multiple versions to see which one I like best, or combine design elements from a few concepts to see if that works.

D2D:  To shift gears a bit, why do you think so many craft breweries are starting to take art and design so seriously now.  It seems like it has really ramped up for a lot of places as of late.

KARA RICHARDSON:  I think for this craft beer crowd you definitely have "the followers" that seek out your beer because of the taste, and the label design is a bonus.  I used to go into the liquor store and would always look at the labels to see which one was the most fun, or which one was eye-catching.  That's the one I would go for.

ERICA VIGNEAU:  And that's with anything.  I feel like any store you go into -- whichever label is the best or whichever book cover is the coolest -- that's usually the one you will pick up off the shelf.

D2D:  Do you remember the "Goosebumps" books?  I used to only buy those books because of the covers (laughing).  Half the time I didn't even read the book!  So I'm sure that a lot of people, like you are saying, go out and look for the coolest labels, and that directly influences their purchasing decision -- unless they are brand-loyal already.

ERICA VIGNEAU:  It's true.  I feel like with craft beer everyone just has so much respect for the brewers and the beer -- they have so much appreciation.  So to have that nice artwork to go with that whole story, it completes the circle of this great experience for the end consumer.  It adds to the whole story.

D2D:  I completely agree.  At the end of the day, what do both of you want the takeaways to be for your design work for Tilted Barn Brewery?

KARA RICHARDSON:  I'm just doing it because I enjoy it.  It's hard for me to speak from a design perspective because I'm just doing this because it is fun.

D2D:  Is there some type of experience that you want your customers to have when they pick up one of your cans or have a pour or two at the Barn?

KARA RICHARDSON:  I think people like coming to the farm, being in the barn, and going into the field and seeing the hops being grown -- and then you have these labels that are essentially home grown also.  I'm designing the art by hand, which doesn't seem to happen as much nowadays.  So a lot of our labels have that organic feel to them -- which our beer is also fresh, unfiltered, and natural, so I think they kind of go hand in hand.  That is what I would want people to take away.

ERICA VIGNEAU:  And they all tell a story.  I mean, "Cactus" with the guitar and ties to Phish, and the ones for the kids -- they are all connected.

KARA RICHARDSON:  I think people are able to see the big picture when they come to the farm.

D2D:  The last question I would have for you is if you could share any advice for aspiring artists and designers looking to enter the craft beer industry, what advice would you give them?

KARA RICHARDSON:  I would say stick with what you like doing and find a brewery or brewer that has the same interests and outlook on design as you.  That way you have freedom to do what you love.

ERICA VIGNEAU:  I would say definitely have fun.  Don't take yourself too seriously.  Like Kara said, anytime you can find inspiration from other labels or other designs that you come across and apply it to what you work on to make it your own, that will enable you to better yourself as a designer.

D2D:  Great advice!  Well thank you both so much for your hospitality and for this great discussion.  I really appreciate you allowing me to come to the Barn to see how this process works!  Very inspiring stuff!

I owe a huge thank you to Matt, Kara, and Erica for their hospitality and willingness to participate in this design discussion, and share some of their work with us.

If you want to learn more about Tilted Barn Brewery or see more of their great design at work, check out their web site and social media: @tiltedbarnbrewery (Instagram) and @TiltedBarnBrew (Twitter).  Of course, I highly recommend that you make time to plan a trip to the Barn in the near future as well.  A great experience and some great beer certainly awaits.

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