Isaac Alves

D2D 02: Design Conversation: Kelsey Roth - Exhibit 'A' Brewing

Isaac Alves
D2D 02: Design Conversation: Kelsey Roth - Exhibit 'A' Brewing

Framingham, MA.  Jack's Abby Brewing has a new neighbor; Exhibit 'A' Brewing Company.  Now located in the old Jack's Abby brewing space, the brewery run by well-known brewmaster, Matthew Steinberg, has gained popularity within the craft beer community after opening up in the fall of 2016.  Their diverse lineup of beer includes hop-forward IPA's and DIPA's, porters, kettle sours, and other experimental offerings -- something for all beer enthusiasts to enjoy.  But more than just the beer receives careful consideration.  Exhibit 'A' also has a very intentional, detailed design initiative through their label design and branding.  Here is how it started:

When Matthew Steinberg was putting the pieces together to launch Exhibit 'A', he was looking for help developing the retail side of the business, as well as design help in establishing and defining his new brand.  He needed someone to be an overall voice of the company.

Kelsey Roth entered the picture.  Prior to learning about Exhibit 'A', Roth spent many years in the film and video industry, doing media marketing and graphic design.  He later had the opportunity to enter the craft beer industry to work with local retailer, Craft Beer Cellar, in a number of facets; one of which included helping to further develop their brand image.  During that time, Roth met Matthew Steinberg.  The two hit it off after meeting a couple of times, and a creative partnership was born.  Now, Roth serves as the lead designer and head of marketing and photography for Exhibit 'A'.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Kelsey about his design philosophies, how he approaches new projects for Exhibit 'A' Brewing Company, and what advice he has for other designers who may be looking to pursue a career in the craft beer industry.

Read on to experience our inspiring and insightful design conversation with Kelsey Roth.

Kelsey Roth/Exhibit 'A' Brewing Company

D2D:  First thing's first. Why is Exhibit 'A' called "Exhibit 'A'?" I'm curious about the logo that you have.  It looks like it is one of those balance scales out of a lawyer's office potentially?

KELSEY ROTH:  The name actually comes from a concept that the beers we are making are an exhibition -- like exhibits of what we do.  We felt that it needed a number or a letter after it, so we picked Exhibit 'A' and liked the ring to that.  But we also really like the storytelling aspect of beer, and the idea that all great stories begin with Exhibit 'A'.

D2D:  So I'm a big fan of your can label design.  I feel that when I look at "Hair Raiser" and "The Cat's Meow," those are really playful, whimsical, and have this not so serious feel to them.  They're just fun!  How did that style come about?

KELSEY ROTH:  It kind of came about in the way that we didn't want to take ourselves too seriously.  You had asked about the scales -- they came out naturally with the whole scales of justice thing, but also beer being about balance, and balancing bitterness with sweetness, and hops with malts, we felt that the scales worked in that way.  But it would be way too easy to go through the legal dictionary and pick legal references to everything.  In fact, "Goody Two Shoes" started out as being called "Innocence."  For that particular artwork the shoes and the cat were actually done by a friend of Matthew's.  We really liked them and decided to incorporate them into the labels.

D2D:  It definitely seems to fit in with the rest of your lineup.

KELSEY ROTH:  Right, and we didn't want it to be too serious.  We wanted the labels to be fun, but also to be somewhat provocative -- that they help start conversation.  All of our printed cans that we do have a front and a back.  Again, going back to the storytelling aspect that there are two sides to every story.  Especially in a legal case, you literally listen to the two sides of the story.  No matter what it is, there are always two sides.

D2D:  I love that about the storytelling aspect because people go in to get a beer and they are walking away with these cans, and may skim over that subtle message.  So it's really cool that you guys have thought everything down to the finest detail.

KELSEY ROTH:  Thank you.

D2D:  What is your background as a designer?  What came before Exhibit 'A'?

KELSEY ROTH:  I worked for about seventeen years in the film and video industry doing a lot of media marketing work.  I did motion graphics, graphic design, logo design, work for web sites.  I am self-taught on Photoshop and Illustrator, but I have always loved design concepts and looking at design genres and learning from the Swiss school of design -- from the minimalist, Crate & Barrel look to a lot more modern stuff like Andy Warhol, pop culture, and street graffiti of the 70's.  Just the way that they all use color, empty space -- all of that always intrigued me.  So I love doing graphic design.  It was one of my favorite parts of the job that I used to have, doing media marketing.  Then I got into the beer industry about four years ago.  I had an opportunity to work for a company out here called Craft Beer Cellar.

D2D:  I'm familiar with them.  In fact, that's where I found your beer because I had heard about how good Exhibit 'A' was, and ended up finding it there, at the Braintree, MA store.

KELSEY ROTH:  Oh, awesome!  I helped them open their second store and then they transitioned me from managing the store into working for the brand team and handling all of their social media and marketing -- kind of helping to define their brand and their language.

D2D:  So is that how you ended up getting introduced to Exhibit 'A'?

KELSEY ROTH:  Correct.  Through that job I had heard of Matthew Steinberg and met him once or twice.  I saw that he was looking for someone to head up the retail side of the business, but also help define their brand and to be the lead voice for the company.  One of the reasons I got into this industry is because I wanted to work for a brewery, and thought that this was a perfect opportunity.  So I applied for the job, we hit it off, and were like, yea, let's do this.  So I have been with the company for almost a year now, last May.  Matthew didn't have much of a logo at that time, and the taproom space wasn't really finished yet, so I helped with that development, and other things like getting point of sale set up for the taproom and getting the first run of printed can designs done before we could even open.

D2D:  So you really got in right at the start.  How long has Exhibit 'A' been around?

KELSEY ROTH:  We officially opened in September (2016).  So a little more than seven months.

D2D:  It seems like you guys are growing.  I'd say a lot more people know about your beer now, almost like you have been around for a few years already!

KELSEY ROTH:  Yeah, we were blessed with some very good press when we first opened.  Obviously, Matthew's beer is phenomenal, so that makes my job a lot easier (laughing).  We are kind of figuring out some of it as we go, but we were able to expand a bit sooner than we had originally planned.  We increased our production, mostly with "The Cat's Meow."  That allowed us to be able to distribute out a little more.

D2D:  So I want to get into the meat of the design part of the conversation now.  You have a lot of experience, so have you ever carried any type of design philosophy or mentality that drives your work every day?

KELSEY ROTH:  That's a good question.  Whatever the design is, it always has to speak to the concept that you are trying to get across.  It has to work in that language.  So no matter if it's an ad for a laundry detergent, or you're designing a logo for a bread company, it really has to relate back to the feeling and the message you are trying to get across.  I think the biggest challenge -- and I think most designers would agree, is trying to figure out what that message is from the client, and being able to communicate that without letting the client get too much in the way (laughing).

D2D:  Yeah, I can fully relate to that (laughing).

KELSEY ROTH:  It's like, "make the logo bigger!"  So for me it's always that challenge of, is this really the right visual message that we are trying to get across?  For our beer labels we generally name the beers first, so then what does that look like?  For example, for "Hair Raiser" I was banging my head against the wall for several weeks about trying to figure out what that right image was.  The original design had a giant spider on the front, and the back of the printed can had a spider web.  We were pretty well set on that idea and we realized that our co-founder really hates spiders (laughing).

D2D:  It's funny that you mention that because I have a can of "Hair Raiser" in front of me, and I never really took a close look at it until I was preparing for this interview, and I'm thinking, "I think there is a spider dangling from one of the ears of the rabbit!"  So you still found a way to sneak that in there (laughing).

KELSEY ROTH:  Yeah, we found a way to spec the spider back in, but when he saw the original he was like, "no, I can't look at that can every day" (laughing).  So obviously we went with hare -- rabbit -- and I knew it couldn't just be a normal rabbit, so I started playing around with shapes and putting them together.  I did some image searches to see if I could find some inspiration, and so that feel kind of popped out at me and we went with it.

D2D:  Well, I'd say you have a winner there.  There's something nice about the contrast between the black and the white, so the rabbit really does pop off the can.  Then the fact that you have some texture overlaid, and the little detail of the spider that you have to go back and take a second look to really see it -- I think it's a really nice design.

D2D:  So let's say you and Matthew have decided on a name -- how do you approach that project when you first sit down to start thinking about what it can be?

KELSEY ROTH:  So for example, with "Sunday Paper" I struggled with that process too.  I had five or six different design concepts that I was playing around with and was thinking, "what is that visual?"  It's a coffee imperial stout, but I didn't just want it to be a cup of coffee.  That's a little too simple -- I wanted it to have a bit more story to it.  For me, "Sunday Paper" with coffee is sitting in that chair Sunday morning with your cup of coffee reading the paper.  It's that moment when you are in that quiet time.  The sun may be coming up, or you may be hearing the birds while you enjoy that cup of coffee -- and then trying to figure out, "okay, what does that look like on a beer label."

D2D:  So do you start out with something like hand sketching?  Do you try to pull images?

KELSEY ROTH:  I'm actually a terrible hand drawer (laughing).  I'm not an illustrator by any means.  I consider myself more of a designer.  I like to take random elements and put them together.  So I will usually start with a sketch on a piece of paper to sketch out a visual, but from there I will start looking at pictures.  For example, for "Sunday Paper" I was looking at a comfortable-looking living room chair with a cup of coffee on the arm rest, and I wanted the view to be from the back of the chair so you wouldn't be able to see if someone was sitting in the chair or not.  So I did image searches for that, and sometimes an image would come up and I'd think, "that's exactly what I had in mind."  That will be the launching point to where the design goes from there.

D2D:  How many different design iterations or concepts will you go through until you get to a point where you feel you have reached an acceptable, final design?

KELSEY ROTH:  On my own side I probably go through two or three, and then when I feel that I'm pretty close, I'll send it over to Matthew to get his input.  From there we work collaboratively and we might work up two or three more concepts before we lock in on the final design.  For example, with "Hair Raiser" we played around with the rabbit's hair -- three or four different iterations of that before we ended up going with the scribble that you see on the can now.  I ultimately want to make sure that the label matches Matthew's vision for what that beer is too.

D2D:  Can you talk a little bit about the time constraints that you are faced with?  It seems like your "Demo Tape" series is in somewhat of a template format already so you plug and play there.  However, if there is a new beer that's about to be released, what is that timeline layout?

KELSEY ROTH:  It is probably in the neighborhood of about a month and as short as two weeks.  Two weeks is generally the worst-case scenario.

D2D:  Do you ever have to finish the design early enough so that you can send it to a printer and make sure all of your colors are right, and that everything is laid out in the right format?

KELSEY ROTH:  Yeah, the printing will generally take about two weeks to get back.  Everything is digital printing now so the colors are pretty much spot on.  The first couple times I will request a hard sample of the design so that I can proof it, but then we are usually all set to proceed.

D2D:  So I know that even in the blue-sky world of beer label design, I'm sure there are still some cost implications that get in the way.  How does cost impact your design process?

KELSEY ROTH:  Significantly.  Part of the cost factor is when we are dealing with small batches, the smaller run is going to be more expensive, and we aren't going to hit those price breaks that you get when you do a larger run.  So I have to make sure that we aren't spending too much on the printing side for each label because even a matter of a fraction of a cent can add up in the long run when you are doing six thousand or twenty five thousand cans.

D2D:  Absolutely.

KELSEY ROTH:  Another factor is the size of the label.  Right now we are doing 4"x5" labels on the cans and it looks good, but if I had a little bit more to wrap around the can and do a full wrap at 8.75" that would give me much more room to design.  However, the cost of that made doing those labels prohibitive, for now.  We looked into it, and just that extra material was going to increase the cost of our labels by more than double.  While it would be nice, when you are looking at fifteen cents for the can itself, and then adding six to fifteen cents for the label -- so around 30 cents per can -- that adds up quickly.

D2D:  It's the creative killer isn't it (laughing).  It's a tough balance sometimes.  However, I still feel that with your labels you still do a great job despite having to be very conscious about that.

KELSEY ROTH:  Thank you.

D2D:  So I want to backtrack just for a second.  When you were talking about your process you mentioned that sometimes you would get stuck.  So I'm wondering what your method(s) are for combating creative block?

KELSEY ROTH:  One of the things I do is look at other designs.  Sometimes it's not successful for me because for beer label design, while it's getting much better, it has been pretty bad for a long time.  There's now a lot of creative stuff that is coming out that I'm really happy to see.  But as far as beer label design goes, it has been stuck in the 80's and 90's for many years.  So mostly what I will do is flip through designs on Behance or stock image sights to just get an idea of what other people are doing.  Often times I will find something that will spark an idea.  If I get really stuck, my instinct is to go in a completely different direction.  That is what was happening with "Hair Raiser" where I was playing around with the concept of "hair," so I was looking at things like old german fairy tales where some of the characters have extra-long fingernails and super straggly hair.  So I was playing around with a concept like that and it just wasn't working, so I decided to leave it completely and started playing with Hair Raiser as a rabbit instead of hair as actual hair.  That's when it clicked for me.  For "Sunday Paper" I was trying to go for this illustrated look and what ended up working was going with something much more abstract.  I went with more of a newsprint headline for the title with a newspaper background and a coffee stain on top of it.  This was a completely different direction than what I had started out with.  I even tried getting political with the newspaper (laughing).  A lot of times my wife is a good guide for me too.  She's like, "No! you can't put something political on a beer label!"

D2D: (laughing) These days it does seem to be a little dangerous, but you never know I suppose.

D2D:  So you just touched on it a little while ago talking about how beer label design has been stuck in the past for awhile and it's finally starting to emerge.  Why do you think that so many craft breweries now are taking art and design so seriously?

KELSEY ROTH:  I think the reason you are seeing a lot more attention to label design is because the competition in the marketplace has gotten much more difficult.  It is getting harder to really stand out.  Especially when you're on a retail shelf or are in a fridge at a liquor store, what's going to grab somebody's attention?  That's getting harder and harder to do.  You are seeing label designers being very creative with what they are doing.  I think one of the early ones that was absolutely brilliant was Maine Beer Company.  If you look at Sierra Nevada -- very illustrated, lots of mountains, streams, trees, and shafts of wheat and barley and hops -- very intricate.  Then Maine Beer company comes out with a very understated, plain white label -- their logo, a little illustration, and the beer name, and that was it.  I was like, "this is brilliant.  It stands out so much from everything else on the shelf."

D2D:  That's one thing that I really about your labels -- like you're saying, not that they are getting out of control, but if you look at someone like Other Half -- they have these crazy graphics on their cans and there are other brands that are doing these insanely beautiful, detailed illustrations.  But I still feel that at the end of the day, simplicity wins out.  One thing that I really like and appreciate about Exhibit A's labels is that you have found a way to have fun with it, but at the same time it is still very simple when you break it down to the layout and the text you have chosen to go with.  In a sea of different design approaches, I still think that the simple concepts stand out.

KELSEY ROTH:  Yeah, I think it always does.  If I have to look at something so long to see what it is, then it's probably lost me already.  I always want someone to be able to look at the label and be able to mentally understand it quickly.  Even on labels that change like "Leitmotif" it always keeps the recurring theme of the moon shape.  The label is very different every single time, but people will be able to look at it and still be able to say, "oh, that's Leitmotif."  If it's simple, they will be able to pick that up quickly.  Like an ad in a magazine, if there is way too much going on, I'm on to the next thing already.  It's those very simple ones, like the Volkswagen car in the white space that I'm thinking, "oh, what's this?"  It needs to be simple.  It needs to be easy to read, mentally.

D2D:  Yeah, especially since the industry continues to grow and there's just so much out there.

KELSEY ROTH:  You will notice that our logo is getting smaller and smaller -- the actual Exhibit 'A' logo.  And that's what we want.  People are looking for "Hair Raiser," and "The Cat's Meow."  While they may be looking for "what's the next Exhibit 'A' beer," when they go back, they are looking for something that can easily catch their eye -- that specific brand, not necessarily that specific company.

D2D:  Right.  I think that speaks to what you were saying at the beginning of our conversation about Exhibit 'A' really wanting the storytelling aspect of the design to show through more so than instead of "this is us," "this is our story."

D2D:  So I want to have a bit of fun now.  I want to have a bit of a lightning round.  I'm going to fire off some questions, and I hope I can get your quick thoughts on them.

First question is what your favorite design tool is and why?

KELSEY ROTH:  Illustrator, because its the easiest space for me to play around in.

D2D:  What is your favorite color combination?

KELSEY ROTH:  Black and white.

D2D:  Black and white, simple!  How about favorite Exhibit 'A' label?

KELSEY ROTH:  I'd have to say "Hair Raiser."  It's the one that I think people have resonated with the most, and that makes me feel proud.  I'm happy that I finally got a label out there that people have been drawn to the way that they have.

D2D:  Am I correct in assuming that's your favorite Exhibit 'A' beer as well?

Photo: Kelsey Roth/Exhibit 'A' Brewing Company

KELSEY ROTH:  I think right now my favorite beer is "Danko."  I tend to like the more hoppy beers.  This latest batch was just really good.

D2D:  So I only have a couple more questions for you.  First question is at the end of the day, what do you want your design work to communicate to beer connoisseurs or other designers out there?  What do you want the takeaways to be?

KELSEY ROTH:  What I want my beer labels to say is that I want them to represent the quality and the passion that we put into the beer itself.  At the end of the day it's still about what's inside that can -- it's not what's on the outside.  I'm hoping that what I put out there is just as good as what is on the inside, and that I'm telling that story correctly.  It always boils down to what that story is, and is that story being relayed visually to what people are tasting and smelling.

The takeaways for other designers is always to keep that story in mind.  I think all design is about stories, no matter what that story is -- and to not get too involved in the design side of it -- that you forget what the purpose is of that beer label.  I've seen some very intricate can designs that are very cool, but then does that match the beer that's inside?  I think sometimes we get so into what it is that we are doing with the design, that we forget why we are designing it.

D2D:  I'm one-hundred percent with you right there.  So the last question I have for you is if you have any advice for aspiring designers who may want to break into an industry like the craft beer industry?

KELSEY ROTH:  If you are a designer that wants to design beer labels, the best thing to do is to get to know your local breweries.  There are a lot of breweries out there, especially small ones, that may be brewing some great beer, or may have an awesome taproom, but they may need help on the design side.  It's something they may have not put a lot of thought into, and good designers will be able to find those people and just reach out and say, "hey, I'm here to help."  But also keep in mind that a lot of startup breweries don't have a lot of money, so it may not pay well at first, but there are a lot of breweries out there that could use the help of a good designer.  So don't feel like you can't reach out.

D2D:  Great!  Well I really appreciate all the time you've taken to answer these questions!  I certainly learned a lot from you, and I'm looking forward to making a trip up to the taproom soon!

KELSEY ROTH:  Awesome!

I would like to thank Kelsey for a fantastic interview.  If you want to see more of his work with Exhibit 'A' Brewing Company, check out the company's website, or pay a visit to the taproom in Framingham, MA and enjoy some great beer with some very inspiring people.

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