Isaac Alves

D2D 06: Importance of Design Details: Sarah Hedlund of Toppling Goliath Brewing Company

Isaac Alves
D2D 06: Importance of Design Details: Sarah Hedlund of Toppling Goliath Brewing Company

Design can be a delicate balance of visual elements when trying to win over consumers.  The more saturated a market gets, the more difficult it can be to find a competitive edge.  Luckily, in the growing craft beer industry, there seems to be no right or wrong way to approach branding and package design.  From detailed illustrations, to simple, organized graphic layouts, to bold uses of color and imagery, the entire spectrum gets covered – and consumers support just about all of it.  But at the end of the day, details separate ordinary design from extraordinary design.  For example: treatments such as the weight and stock of the label paper, whether the label has a tactile element that the consumer can feel, or if the label has a special material finish can affect how a consumer perceives its value.   This can ultimately influence the decision to purchase or pass.

Sarah Hedlund is the Marketing Director for Toppling Goliath Brewing Company and knows a thing or two about balancing different design elements to create a cohesive brand story.  She comes from an illustration background, and her attention-grabbing work can be found on the labels of bottles and cans of Toppling Goliath’s full lineup of beer – but that’s not all she does.  Her daily tasks go well beyond the job title, as she is responsible for marketing, art and design, merchandise, and event planning.  Between rebranding the overall image of the brewery, and the design that went into the top-rated Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout, we discussed it all and more.  Read on to relive the full conversation.

Pictured here: Sarah Hedlund  Photo: Carla Alexandra Rodriguez of Blkk Hand Studio

D2D:  Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to be the marketing director for Toppling Goliath?

SARAH HEDLUND:  I started at Toppling Goliath in October of 2016.  Even though my official title is Marketing Director, I do all of the artwork for the brewery – so the position is all-encompassing.  It covers marketing, design, social media, and merchandise.  It’s a cool job and I really enjoy it!  Before I started here, I got my degree in Illustration from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design back in 2008.  I have been a full-time, professional designer ever since.

D2D:  Have you always worked in the craft beer industry?

SARAH HEDLUND:  My first job out of school was with a toy company.  I was doing packaging, catalog design, and then eventually some toy design, consisting of children’s books and environmental illustration for doll houses.  I also worked at a hospital designing brochures for wound care, diabetes, and worked for a non-profit that specialized in suicide prevention.  That work was not always the most fun, but benefitted great causes.

D2D:  It sounds like you have done some very fulfilling work.

SARAH HEDLUND:  Yes.  Having been in the toy industry for four years, it was nice to get away from that consumer product experience for a while.  But on the other hand, I did miss the fast-paced environment and the hectic craziness of it all.

D2D:  When did you end up transitioning into the craft beer industry?

SARAH HEDLUND:  When I was making a list of dream jobs before I graduated, craft beer was on that list.  I did freelance design for Second Salem Brewing out of White Water, WI, which included designing all of their labels, posters, etc.  I also did an internship at Phillip’s Distilling in Minneapolis.  Both were great experiences that ultimately led me to Toppling Goliath.

D2D:  Regretfully, I have not had the opportunity to taste Toppling Goliath’s beer due to living in New England, but I love the creative work that you do with the label design.  Before we get into your design process, I am curious how the name Toppling Goliath originated.  I have a couple theories.

SARAH HEDLUND:  Our president originally had the name chosen for something else – I believe for another business, but ended up keeping it to use for the brewery, and that’s it (laughing).

D2D:  That’s not exactly what I was expecting, but interesting nonetheless (laughing).  I was thinking that the name may have come from small craft beer trying to take down big beer corporations, or that it had to do with your more popular beers, "Pseudo Sue" and "King Sue" being dinosaur-themed.

SARAH HEDLUND:  Those beers came a bit later.

Early concept sketch, "Peach Grove Saison" by Sarah Hedlund

Final label design, "Peach Grove Saison" by Sarah Hedlund

D2D:  Every beer has a story behind it.  What would you say the story behind Toppling Goliath’s beer is?  Is there any background story to why the beers get assigned certain names, or why the labels look the way that they do?

SARAH HEDLUND:  It depends on which beer you are looking at.  Since I have only been here since last October, some of the labels were created before I started, so I have only heard stories.  Some of the names were created after thinking about it for a few days, and others were conceived by a group of people having a beer together, and someone may have said something or made a joke, and a name clicked.  Before I started, there was more of a “design by committee” happening.  They would have the designer come up with the sketch and post it in the brewery, where everyone would comment on it, draw over it, and make other suggestions.  When I started the job, they told me that was how they worked, and it made me nervous at first.

D2D:  It sounds like it would have been intimidating at first.  Coming from a design background myself, you put your work in front of someone that may not be of a similar professional background, and they may tear it apart, or they may love it.  You never know what type of reaction to expect.  That’s why it is great to get outside opinions.

SARAH HEDLUND:  Having attended art school, I have no problem with people ripping my work apart.  A large part of art school is critiques.  My concern was that I would not be able to take everyone’s feedback into consideration for every design, and that it would potentially slow the process down.  I have since suggested a new way of working through our design process.  The nice thing is that since I have started working here, I am given lots of space to be creative.  They really trust me and don’t push back too often.

D2D:  Are you supplied with any design briefs or inspiration from the brewers, or president?

SARAH HEDLUND:  The brewer may come to me and tell me that they are working on a new beer, and that they want it to be special, and that may be the extent of it.  From there we will start discussing if they had any particular vision in mind.  Sometimes they leave it up to me, and other times it comes from somewhere unexpected.  For example, we just came out with our “Fire Skulls & Money” IPA, in which the owner, the head of sales, and the brew master got the inspiration for the name of the beer when they came across an old, broken down food truck while traveling.  You just never know when inspiration will strike.

Early concept sketch, "Fire Skulls & Money" by Sarah Hedlund

Final label design, "Fire Skulls & Money" by Sarah Hedlund

D2D:  How do you work through a new design from start to finish?

SARAH HEDLUND:  I usually start with hand sketching and then take that into Illustrator to refine the design and add color.  Much of my job since I started back in October has been refreshing old brands.  That may consist of taking the existing file and making a few tweaks to it, or in some other cases, I will completely re-illustrate a label just to bring it up to the same quality that the rest of the brand strives to achieve.  Making the labels look as good as the beer tastes has been my priority.  For example, I just redesigned the label for “Naughty Temple.” For that particular beer, the owner came to me saying that he wanted a new look for the label because the previous design was not completely in-line with his vision.  Since he didn’t want to fill my head with a bunch of ideas, he let me explore what that new look could be.  So, I did a few sketches before refining down to a final design.

Final label design, "Naughty Temple" by Sarah Hedlund

Photo: Sarah Hedlund, "Naughty Temple" 

D2D:  For new beers, do you usually only present one concept per brand, or do you like to show multiple options and refine from there?

SARAH HEDLUND:  It varies depending on the beer.  Sometimes I will show only one concept, and other times I like to show multiple options to the rest of the team, to see which one they gravitate toward.  I have been lucky in that they usually agree on a design direction without too much back and forth.  They are an awesome team to work with.

D2D:  You mentioned earlier that you missed the fast-paced working environment of the toy design industry.  When tasked with a new label, how quickly can you have a design drawn up?

SARAH HEDLUND:  Since I have been doing digital illustrations full-time, and through my freelance work for almost a decade, I can move through a design very quickly.  I can usually turn out an illustrated design concept in a day or so.

D2D:  From blank piece of paper to a completed, ready for print design?

SARAH HEDLUND:  Yes, that is if I am not needed for any other tasks at that time (laughing).

D2D:  That’s impressive!  I’m assuming that not every sketch or digital illustration comes out to your liking on the first try.  What methods do you use when you get hung up on a design that you cannot visualize clearly, or just don’t know how you should approach it?

SARAH HEDLUND:  Sometimes I feel that I am just not in the right place, and other times I feel that the project is simply difficult.  Those are two different road blocks.  If it’s me, and I am not feeling creative, then I just need to walk away and come back to it the next day.  Otherwise, I will waste colossal amounts of time trying to fix sketches and will end up getting more frustrated.  Ultimately, that leads me nowhere.  If the brand is giving me a hard time, my go-to method is to revisit the name of the beer and try to break down the words.  Sometimes I will pull out a dictionary to put together a list of words, and will do some word association.  They will often pop up and lead to other thoughts.

D2D:  What are your typical time restraints?  How does that affect your design process?

SARAH HEDLUND:  For the most part I usually have about a month to get a label designed.  However, a lot happens in that time, and our entire team is involved.  I work really closely with the brew master, our sales team, and our taproom manager so that we are all on the same page.  It’s a domino effect – we all need each other to get things done successfully.  Not only do we need to come up with a legal name, draw up a design, and make sure it is ready to have printed, we also need approval from the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau).  Our waiting time with them used to be around forty days to review a label.  That would really slow down our process.  Fortunately, that waiting time for approval is down to just a few days now, which is amazing.  For our bigger releases, such as our barrel-aged beers, I will have more time to design those labels or redesign the existing ones.  I do much of the event planning for those releases, so I can plan accordingly, knowing the schedule well ahead of time.

D2D:  How does your head not spin constantly with all of the different parts of your job that you need to balance? (laughing)

SARAH HEDLUND:  Oh, it does – trust me (laughing).  It’s a big job, but it provides great challenges for me that I welcome every day.  In fact, I just finished rebranding the company, which was also a big undertaking, yet it felt like a huge accomplishment.

D2D:  Why the decision to rebrand the brewery, and what went into that process?

SARAH HEDLUND:  When I started working here, I felt that the branding didn’t represent how good the beer tasted.  I felt that we could do better, so I spent about a month and a half developing a new logo and a complete presentation, showcasing what it would look like on new merchandise, and in our new facility.  Did I mention that we are building a huge new brewery? (laughing) We are scaling up massively, so I thought that this would be the perfect time to update our image.  When I finished the development, I presented everything to the president of the company.  He was impressed and excited about the new look, so we worked back and forth for another month or so – just finalizing details.  It was a huge undertaking, but one that I felt would help the company in the long run.

Photo: Sarah Hedlund

D2D:  What type of reaction did this draw from the public and some of your loyal fans?

SARAH HEDLUND:  As with most things, there were some positive and negative reactions.  People have a lot of ownership over brands, which is very common now.  After a week or so, it started to die down, and people started to adjust to the new look.  I think it has been a refreshing change because it has allowed me to give our labels a more unified look, and has given us more brand continuity, which we lacked before.  It is all about small details leading to a greater, more complete, overall image.  Things like introducing new bomber bottle boxes, new can trays, new crowns – when all of these details come together, it looks amazing.  It’s very exciting to see all of the pieces come together out in the marketplace because it makes such a big impact.  I want to make sure that our brand is recognizable, and sticks with the consumer.

D2D:  That is so important now, because consumers are faced with so many options.  Every detail counts.

SARAH HEDLUND:  It’s crazy.  There is an absolute sea of different options.  The shelves are becoming so congested that it can be overwhelming and visually staggering.

D2D:  I want to backtrack for a second to get a sense of how you approach your work.  Is there anything in particular that motivates you each day to help spark your creativity?  Any rituals, or values that you use as a backbone to drive your design process?

SARAH HEDLUND:  I don’t really have any rituals like that when approaching a new project.  However, when I am sitting down to design a label, I try to eliminate distractions.  I log out of my e-mail and social media, and will just turn on some music to get started.  When I know what I need to get done on a given day, I like to commit to it.  As far as design principals, I like to make sure that the labels are legible from a distance.  So, I will tape up a bottle with a new label, put it on the other side of the room, and see if it is recognizable.  I try to walk the line between being visually fun and being bold.  I have noticed a trend of more breweries simplifying their labels instead of going crazy with their label art.  Those stand out on the shelf because everything else is so crazy.  On the other hand, I think that crazy art and illustration is what makes craft beer fun, so I try to find the balance between the two styles.  I try to work some humor into the labels I design, because it’s craft beer, and these beers and breweries should be fun.

D2D:  I’m sure many craft beer connoisseurs would love to know how you approached the design of some of your more sought-after beers, such as Beer Advocate’s current, number one ranked, Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout.  What went into the design of that label?

SARAH HEDLUND:  Not only is that beer delicious, it also gets a fancier label (laughing).  I did that label on a heavier, card-stock paper with embossing and foil.  Those are details that I could get away with because it sells at a higher price point, where as many of our rotational beers do not receive the same treatment.

D2D:  There are so many different big, bourbon barrel-aged stouts now, but this one stands out much more for some reason, aside from its high ranking.  For me, the font and the black base color with gold foil details helps elevate this label to a more premium look.

Photo: Sarah Hedlund, "Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout"

SARAH HEDLUND:  That was part of the intention behind that label.  It is a higher price point, so I really wanted to make it feel like it was worth the price.  I believe that for the consumer, the visuals and tactile sensation of something can impact the way that they perceive its value.  In the past, that label had always been on the same smooth paper, so for this year I changed it to a textured paper with embossing and foil.  I tried to keep the overall brand look the same, but cleaned it up, gave it a more decorative border and some more legible fonts.  The finishing touch was giving it packaging in the form of a wooden cylinder that had the brand burned into the wood.  The presentation was great when everything was packaged together.  It was a huge undertaking to redesign that label – it was one of the first projects I was given when I started at Toppling Goliath.

D2D:  No pressure, right?  We only have the top-rated beer and we need you to redesign it! (laughing)

SARAH HEDLUND:  Oh yeah, no pressure (laughing).  My main concern was making sure the product felt like it backed up the price point.

D2D:  At the end of the day, what type of experience do you aim to provide for the consumers that pick up a Toppling Goliath can or bottle with your work displayed on the label?  What should the takeaways be?

SARAH HEDLUND:  I definitely want there to be an aspect of fun to the designs.  I also think that there’s no excuse for bad design – I’m a bit of a design nerd snob about it in that sense (laughing).  I love the idea of being able to make a piece of packaging that is also a piece of art.  We have many people who buy our “Pseudo Sue” because it has a dinosaur on it.  I find something really fun in that.  I find joy in things that make other people happy, make people laugh, and make people stop and check out the art for a minute.  I try not to think about how it all ends up in the recycling bin later on (laughing).

Final label design collaboration with The Field Museum Chicago, "Pseudo Sue" by Sarah Hedlund

Photo: Sarah Hedlund, "Pseudo Sue in collaboration with The Field Museum Chicago"

D2D:  I have observed many people who collect the bottles and cans for the labels.  So don’t fear, some of them are being saved!

SARAH HEDLUND:  We get requests from people all the time asking for labels, bottles, and cans so that they can make their custom table-tops, or add to their beer fridges, or various other projects.  It is amazing how many people are saving the labels, and to be fair, they are probably smart.  Even if every brewery that is standing now lasts, we all won’t be making the same beers many years down the road.  So, these can and bottle labels will be pretty rare in the future.

D2D:  To bring our conversation to a close, my last question for you is if you can give any advice to other artists and designers that share a passion for the adult beverage industry?  What would you tell them?

SARAH HEDLUND:  My advice would be to make stuff for other people – as much as possible.  That’s what I did when I first started doing freelance work.  I would find a band that I liked in Minneapolis and would make a poster for them.  First of all, it makes for good practice. Second, it keeps you building your portfolio.  So, overall I would recommend keeping yourself active, and don’t be afraid to take little jobs here and there because you never know what opportunities it could lead to.  For example, I did a small freelance project for Surly Brewing Company when they came into Iowa.  It was a one-off, collaborative poster with two other Iowa artists.  It was exciting, and I think that project was a big part of why Toppling Goliath called me in for an interview.  It was a tiny experience that led to a big opportunity.  I have had a lot of bizarre jobs that all came together to make me extremely qualified for one job.  So, keep creating art and keep putting it out there because it is bound to get noticed.

D2D:  Great advice, and great conversation!  Thank you so much, Sarah.  I really appreciate you taking the time to share your many insights!  I’m not sure how you balance all of the different aspects of your job, but you do a fantastic job.

SARAH HEDLUND:  Thank you!  It was great to get to talk art and design.  I feel that I don’t get to talk about it like this too often.  Great questions!

Interested in seeing more of Sarah's inspiring work?  Want to learn more about Toppling Goliath Brewing Company?  Stop by their web site, or visit their brewery and taproom in Decorah, IA to see it for yourself!

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