Isaac Alves

D2D 05: Designing Memorable Experiences: Tim Oxton of Night Shift Brewing

Isaac Alves
D2D 05: Designing Memorable Experiences: Tim Oxton of Night Shift Brewing

The current competitive space of consumer products and services has made design consideration a key focus across many industries.  This is largely due to a shift in consumer wants and needs.  Those who previously cared most about a bottom line price tag are now yearning for products and services that provide a lasting emotional connection and fulfillment.

The same concept is true in the craft beer industry.  Consumers have what seems like an infinite selection at their fingertips.  Between what they see on the shelf in a liquor store, and what they have located nearby with local breweries, they have some tough decisions to make when money doesn’t grow on trees.  Now, it is more important than ever for breweries to make a lasting impression on the shelf, in an attempt to develop and maintain a loyal customer base.

Night Shift Brewing has embraced the way that consumers interact with and buy beer. Their iconic owl can be spotted quite easily on many liquor store shelves in and around the Boston area, and that is all by design.  While it cannot be denied that most of the credit goes to their high-quality beverage, they also have a lot to thank for Tim Oxton, and his contributions as the brewery’s art director.

As the art director for Night Shift Brewing, one of Tim’s responsibilities is the label design of all bottles and cans.  New beer is released frequently, which gives him the opportunity to showcase a wide variety of graphic design techniques.  Each beer yields a different label design, but one thing remains consistent: the overall brand image of Night Shift.  Tim will tell you that having a consistent, recognizable brand is paramount in today’s competitive craft beer industry.

We had the opportunity to chat with him about his design process, what inspires him, and why making a strong emotional connection with the consumer is so important.  Read on to relive the full conversation.

Tim Oxton, Art Director, Night Shift Brewing

D2D:  I am familiar with the story of how Night Shift Brewing came to be, but I am interested in learning more about your background.  What came before Night Shift, and how did you end up there?

TIM OXTON:  Oddly enough, I originally went to school to be a doctor.  I was really into medicine, I took AP bio classes, and worked in a hospital and an emergency room.  I didn’t really touch the arts at all until I noticed that my college friends were taking lots of photos of various things around the campus.  It piqued my interest, so I borrowed a camera from one of them, started shooting more regularly, and had a lot of fun with it.  My dad was a former commercial photographer, so he lent me my late grandfather’s camera and gave me a crash course tutorial on film photography.  From that point forward, photography really consumed my life.  I would sneak into the dark room at my college at three in the morning, because I couldn’t get in otherwise.  I wasn’t a photography student, but I really wanted to develop my own film, so I would stay there until classes resumed at eight in the morning.

D2D:  Wow, that’s some crazy dedication and persistence!  How did you go from photographer to art director for Night Shift?

TIM OXTON:  I graduated and got some work doing film production.  But after a few years I started gravitating back to photography and graphic design, doing motion graphics, after effects, and album art.  I really enjoyed the album art.  Then my brother approached me – and full disclosure, my brother, Michael Oxton, is one of the owners of the brewery.  He was short on time and asked if I wanted to design a beer label for him.  I agreed to help him out and he really liked my work, so he started asking me to design labels more frequently.  It came to the point where I was there all the time designing labels, taking photos in the brewery, designing their menu and some other posters – so he offered me a full-time position.

D2D:  Might as well go full-time at that point, right?

TIM OXTON:  It’s awesome because I love my brother and love working with him.  I absolutely love graphic design and photography, and I’m fortunate to get to do that all day, every day.  I could not have dreamt a better dream.

D2D:  It sounds like an amazing opportunity.  Now to shift the conversation to design – It seems that Night Shift has new beers hit the taproom and distribution almost every couple of weeks.  With that comes vastly different imagery for each label, and as a result, you get to show off a wide variety of graphic design techniques.  What influences your design style?

TIM OXTON:  I really like worn-looking things.  Brand-spanking new things don’t really satisfy me.  I try to make the labels look weathered.  I love the old aesthetic of vintage beer labels and other industrial things like old car manuals.  I probably have five hundred manuals from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and other resources like tube radios, car mechanic manuals – things that are very industrial and worn.  I’m not sure why I identify so deeply with this worn look.  It is a look that inspired me well before working with Night Shift.  I feel that in the digital design world we live in today, that tactile translation gets lost.  I have taken screen printing classes, and as a photographer, worked for hours in dark rooms.  I miss feeling the process, like mixing the chemicals, feeling the photograph, and seeing it come together in front of you.  I think that has been lost in recent years, where everything is done on the computer.  In some regard I am trying to return to that aesthetic.  I want to try to represent that physical struggle of making beer.

D2D:  I can definitely see that come through with a lot of the labels.  As a matter of fact, I have a can of “Annie Oatley” in front of me now!  Those worn and weathered details show up well.

TIM OXTON:  Thanks man!

D2D:  I have noticed that Night Shift has a very diverse lineup of beer, and as a result, there are many different names and designs that follow.  There doesn’t seem to be any particular theme and no one label looks the same as the next -- just a lot of variety and experimentation.  Is all of that variety done by design?  Do you try to provide a different look with each beer, and intentionally try not to look uniform?

Photo: Tim Oxton/Night Shift Brewing

TIM OXTON:  Yes.  The idea is that every beer is essentially a fingerprint.  Every beer we make is very unique, and in some cases funky.  I want someone to see our beer labels and easily identify with it.  There are some beer brands that I really like the look of, but I have a hard time identifying immediately with what that beer is.  These days that is very important.  I like to see that reactionary immediacy – when you can look at the label and say to yourself, “I know that beer from a distance because that’s the weird cow label” (laughing referencing “Cow Tipper”). 

D2D:  Yeah, and I think it helps make an immediate connection with the consumer.  It draws them in by backing up the liquid inside.

TIM OXTON:  And every label isn’t perfect.  I’m sure I could look back on some that I have done in the past that may have fallen a little short.  I really want the label to reflect the nature in which the beer was created.

D2D:  One more thing that I noticed is that the Night Shift owl is often displayed prominently, front and center on the label.  It looks like it is the background that gets most of the design attention, which I like because it gives the consumer the opportunity to have to almost do a double-take to see all of the nice detail happening.  It provides an added interaction and connection.  You also seem to have some fun dressing up the owl from time to time to help integrate it with the background and the overall story of the design.  Just my observation.

TIM OXTON:  I’ll give credit where credit is due; putting the owl in the front started with my brother.  He wanted a very strong brand recognition.  There are some beers that have really awesome labels, but when you look at it there’s nothing unique or consistent that immediately stands out.  I think he wanted it to be that when you look at one of our beers on the shelf at a liquor store, that you would make the immediate connection, “that’s a brand that I know and recognize.”  So ultimately, we drive for consistency when it comes to the branding.

Photo: Tim Oxton/Night Shift Brewing

TIM OXTON:  Sometimes as a designer it can be difficult because of having to work around very strict parameters.  For example, each of our labels has the Night Shift logo, a beer description, the name of the beer – there are a lot of different elements that need to be consistent.  On the flip side it can be fun because if you work too open-ended, that can be almost paralyzing.  Having that consistency can be fun, yet challenging.  I am always considering how to work around the owl so that it stays consistent with the brand, but also how it gets integrated into the rest of the design without just sitting on top of the artwork.  We don’t necessarily want it to read as a separate foreground and background.  We want it to read as one piece, where all of the design elements work together.

D2D:  I want to dive into your working process.  Can you talk a little bit about your approach to designing a new label?  After you know the name and style of the beer, where do you go from there?

TIM OXTON:  The marketing team works to name all the beers after we find out what the style of the beer will be.  It is difficult to come up with a good name because there are so many other brands that make the same styles of beer.  We will check to see if other brands have taken a name; which, of course, they almost always have (laughing).  Then we will sit down and start to go through some ideas based on that style of beer.  For example, with “Ahab,” it is a white, wheat ale, so we play off of that information.  We decided on the theme of a white whale, and the name “Ahab” followed to create this nautical, old theme, fitting with the Moby Dick aesthetic.  Next, I will sit down and start to put the design together.  I write out lists of key words that jump out at me, such as whales, ships, oceans, old, weathered journal parchment to start out.  Then I try to nail down a color palette – blues, soft reds, etc.  I will start sketching out some of the objects from the lists and see if I can manipulate them to look like something else, trying not to make it so literal.  For “Ahab,” I used a couple of whale sketches and manipulated them in a way to make them look like they formed a pint glass.

Final label design, "Ahab."

Photo: Tim Oxton/Night Shift Brewing

D2D:  How many different design iterations will you go through, and how long will that take?

TIM OXTON:  I go through a lot of different revisions throughout the process.  The timeline changes with every new label, so some take an hour and others take a week or more.  Sometimes I need to kick out three labels in one week, and other times I will know when a beer release is happening well in advance, so I will have more time to develop an idea. 

D2D:  Can you talk about some of the other challenges with printing the labels?  Are you limited to using a certain number of colors?  Do you have any issues matching the high fidelity graphics on your screen to the printed label?

TIM OXTON:  For the most part, I don’t think it makes a difference which colors we use or how many we use specifically.  Fortunately, we have found a great system that delivers us a high-quality label that backs up what I see on my screen.

D2D:  Night Shift does a fair amount of bottled beer as well as canned beer.  Does the size of the label effect how you approach your design process?

TIM OXTON:  Size wise, we change formats from time to time.  That was done just to improve the overall look and presentation.  We used much larger labels on our bottles, and when we moved to cans, that label was too big.  We scaled down to 4”x4” but that left too little room to work with.  You could still see the edge of the unlabeled part of the can, which was not aesthetically pleasing.  We made the labels a little bit longer and moved to 4”x5.”  Even just adding that one extra inch made a huge difference.

D2D:  Do you ever feel restricted with the space that you are provided?

TIM OXTON:  Not really.  I think having some limitations are better because if I could do any size or any shape that I wanted, then I would need to make those sizing decisions eventually.  By having set dimensions, I don’t need to make as many decisions like that, which means that I can put more time and energy into the more concrete parts of the design.

D2D:  You mentioned that one of the owners is your brother.  Does he play a role in your design process at all?

TIM OXTON:  I work with him pretty closely.  He will provide feedback on whether or not he likes a design direction, and will often ask the reasons why I decided to go in the direction I did.  I appreciate that feedback because we have such a close relationship.  His involvement keeps me honest.  If a design isn’t done at one hundred percent, he will know.  I can’t really fool him or get anything past him that’s less than one hundred percent (laughing).

D2D:  Let’s say that you are not coming to an agreement on a design direction.  What are your methods of working through that?  What do you do when you get stuck?

TIM OXTON:  Fortunately, I haven’t had that happen to me recently.  However, when it does happen, I usually put it down and come back to it at a later date.  I will go check out a museum, or I’ll read a book on design, or watch a film to try to get inspiration from different visual elements that I can connect with.  I may find something really inspiring and try to follow that direction.

D2D:  To shift the discussion a bit, I am eager to get your thoughts on the variation in art and design styles that craft breweries have been using recently to build their brand image.  Some of the design is very clean and organized, and others are more expressive and wild.  What do you think the future holds for the industry in that regard?

Photo: Tim Oxton/Night Shift Brewing

TIM OXTON:  I think it’s fantastic what we are seeing today.  There is a huge variation of design aesthetics that I think will only continue to get better because it is essentially a giant blank canvas.  It really depends on the brand.  Like you said, some brands keep it pretty simple, and others go crazy.  All of their aesthetics feed into their greater aesthetic and brand story.  I think beer labels provide a great opportunity to try different things.  I don’t think the craft beer community is a very pretentious community, so I think you have the flexibility to try new things.  For example, we can do a beer like “Annie Oatley” and it’s a weird owl with a cowboy hat.  Is it the highest form of art or design?  No.  However, it is something that provides room for experimentation of different aesthetics, which I think is super important.  Beer labels are a wonderful art form, and provide a way to turn a memorable beverage into something more.

D2D:  I completely agree.  That is a great way of putting it.

As far as the consumer experience goes, what do you want them to experience when they pick up a can or bottle of Night Shift beer off the shelf?

Photo:  Gene Buonaccorsi

TIM OXTON:  I want the labels to represent the beers well, and I want them to create a memorable identity for them.  For example, “Bennington” was a crazy label.  It looks like a log, but I had to trek through the woods to find a cut down log that I carried for twenty minutes through the rain.  I put a blowtorch to it and used a printing device to transfer the ink from the rings – it was just a crazy process!  I did all of that just to have the prints of a tree, so it would better identify the beer.  Overall, I want the designs to supplement the beer.  The brewers spend so much time and energy creating this product that they want to share with the world, and I want the imagery along with it to match the enthusiasm and love that is put into the actual product itself.

D2D:  I have to say, “Bennington” is one of my favorite beers and labels that Night Shift has done, and now that I have some background on what it took to create that label, I appreciate it even more now.

Printed tree rings, "Bennington."

Photo: Tim Oxton/Night Shift Brewing

D2D:  How about design tools for you – what are your go-to programs or utensils?

TIM OXTON:  I really love Photoshop.  I like Illustrator too, but I feel that it doesn’t allow you to get as much of the decayed and worn look that I prefer.  I have been able to do a lot of that using Photoshop.  I also love pen and paper.  You can never go wrong with a good “Blackwing” pencil either.  I like to mix it up.

D2D:  I like to do the same thing in my line of work too.  I am a big advocate for hand sketching before you refine a design in Illustrator, and try to mix up what tools I use.  I have a few go-to ballpoint pens and other pencils and markers that I rotate from time to time.

Do you have a favorite color palette or color combination?

TIM OXTON:  I have been really into automotive color palettes.  In those manuals I mentioned earlier, I found a couple of 1950’s Chevrolet color palettes and came across “Aegean Blue.”  I have been really into that color blue recently (laughing).

D2D:  Any chance we see that color make an appearance on a Night Shift label soon?  Or has it already been used?

TIM OXTON:  I think it’s in the new “Ahab” label!

D2D:  Do you have a favorite Night Shift label through all of the design you have done so far?

TIM OXTON:  That’s a tough one.  I really liked “Broken Clock,” and “Barrel’d Sun,” but as a favorite I am most proud of “Bennington” because of how long it took to make it, and how insane the process was.  I thought “Timbo Slice” was fun too.  It was named after the brewer, Timbo – everyone called him “Timbo Slice.”  The beer was a barrel-aged sour with some different fruit mixed in.  I decided to go really 80’s with the design, and I listened to this crazy 80’s techno music for an entire day and went really Miami Vice with it.  I had a great time developing that label.  Timbo really liked it and connected with it, which made it fun for me.  It’s almost like the label design amplified his excitement for the beer, and how it was going to be represented on the bottle.

Final label design, "Timbo Slice."

Night Shift brewer, "Timbo" holding "Timbo Slice."

D2D:  What types of projects do you like to work on in your spare time?

TIM OXTON:  I love photography.  I have a project where I go into Central Square with a flash and a prop.  Sometimes I will bring this weird suitcase that I have or other odd things that I have people interact with.  I hold a sign that says, “free portrait.”  I don’t approach anyone because I don’t want anyone to do something that they inherently don’t want to do.

D2D:  So you want it to be a more natural interaction.

TIM OXTON:  Exactly.  It’s funny because I will see someone look over at me and the sign, then they will look away and slow down a little bit, then look back over at me – and you can see them debating whether or not to approach me.  Should I do it?  Should I not do it?  When they finally come over and ask what it’s all about, I tell them that I will take their picture and email it to them for free, but they have to interact with the prop (laughing).  I got that idea from my Dad who is also a photographer.

D2D:  Sounds like a great project.  I will have to venture into Central Square one of these days to see that all go down!

My last question for you is if you have any words of wisdom for other designers who have an interest in breaking into the craft beer industry.  What advice would you share with them?

TIM OXTON:  Have one of your family members start a brewery (laughing).  But seriously – I would be designing all the time.  Before I did this type of design professionally, I would do online tutorials, and create fake products to design for – like case studies.  I did that with beer labels as well, and would design my own labels for fun.  My brother started to see those and thought they looked pretty good, so he asked me if I would want to try to design a real one for production.  Overall, I would not recommend waiting for opportunities to present themselves.  I would try to design all the time in an attempt to create more potential opportunities.

D2D:  That is some great advice.  Thank you Tim.  I really appreciate you taking the time to join me for this discussion.  I have learned a lot from you today, and your story and work with Night Shift is very inspiring.

TIM OXTON:  Thank you!  You asked some awesome questions.  I hope I was able to give you some good insight!

You can find more of Tim Oxton's creative work through his Instagram and web site.  If you want to learn more about Night Shift Brewing, take a look at their web site as well; or better yet, stop by their brewery in Everett, MA for a flight or for some full pours!

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