Design is difficult to define. If you asked ten people how they would define “design,” you would likely get ten different answers. Some think it is all about aesthetics. Others would argue that it is all about problem-solving. Both are true, but the term that may be the most overlooked is “communication.” Design is truly a language of its own, and is spoken through most consumer products and experiences that we come across daily. It is through this language that companies connect with consumers in the hopes of making a lasting impression.
Design communication has a magnified influence in the craft beer industry. Take the well-established Harpoon Brewery, for example. Harpoon has breweries in both Boston, MA and Windsor, VT, and exists in somewhat of a craft beer gray area. They are not macro, but they are not exactly micro either. Therefore, they cater to a slightly different consumer than the big beer consumer, or even the small, startup brewery consumer. While there is always some overlap, they strive to stay true to their core consumer. How do they achieve that? Through excellent design communication, of course! No one knows this better than two of their veteran designers, Adam Bailey and James Holzman, who, between the two of them, have almost thirty combined years of experience and design knowledge compiled at Harpoon. Through the iconic “Harpoon IPA,” their “UFO” beer brand, and small batch projects such as Harpoon’s “100 Barrel Series,” they have had an influence on the design language of all things Harpoon since the early 2000’s.
We had the fortunate opportunity to sit down with both Adam and James to get a better understanding of how Harpoon approaches their design process. In the following interview we discuss the challenges and advantages of designing for that craft beer middle-ground consumer, as well as various reasons why clear communication between package design and consumer is one of the most important goals of the brand. We encourage you to read our entire interview below.
D2D: To start out, I’d like to get a good understanding of your design backgrounds. Have you always worked in the design industry? What ultimately led you to Harpoon?
ADAM BAILEY: I have always been a designer. I went to school at the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. I had a design job over the summer and then applied at Harpoon when I saw they were looking for a designer. This was in the late summer – early fall of 2000. I didn’t see myself working at a brewery as a career at first. I saw design as a career, but thought that designing for a brewery would be a step along the way. But I have come to love the industry and love the company. One year turned into two, which turned into five, which turned into ten. Now they can’t get rid of me! (laughing). I have learned a lot here, that’s for sure.
D2D: Is your background in graphic design, product design, or Illustration?
ADAM BAILEY: My background is in a little bit of everything. In school, I did lots of design, print-making, illustration, and some photography. I pursued as many avenues as possible, with the thought that I would be a designer when I came out of school.
D2D: James, how did you get your start at Harpoon?
JAMES HOLZMAN: It was a different path for me. I majored in Illustration, and when I was a senior, my professor told me that I should think about becoming a designer. I thought it was strange for that message to come from an illustration professor to an illustration student (laughing). When I graduated, I was working at a liquor store, and co-workers suggested that I consider working at Harpoon, and that they had a great internship program. I applied, got hired as an intern, and never left. Actually, I did leave (laughing). I had a going away party at the end of my internship, and then came back later.
ADAM BAILEY: We talked him back in (laughing).
D2D: Have you always worked within the craft beer industry? Even after you left Harpoon briefly?
JAMES HOLZMAN: When I left, I gave a short-lived attempt at illustration freelance work. My design education was really through Harpoon. But most of my professional working life has been geared toward craft beer.
D2D: Do the two of you have a particular approach to your design work each day to help get your ideas off the ground? Any design values or philosophies that fuel your creativity?
ADAM BAILEY: I think design needs to be in service of the brief, the goal, and the brand. One consistent thing about design is trying the make the world understandable to people. We have really taken that approach to packaging so that the consumer can look at the beer shelf and understand what they are getting. There’s a lot of beer out there now. Our goal is to make our packaging understandable, make it stand out, and make it look good.
JAMES HOLZMAN: I think it is important to try to solve problems, and keep solving problems. It’s the design cycle, and I love that process. I find a lot of joy in finding those guardrails throughout the process. As you try to solve a problem, you spend a lot of time figuring out what doesn’t solve it. That can sometimes lead to solving other problems you may have not even thought needed addressing in the first place. You also cannot discount the power of trying to make something look cool. If something looks cool, someone is likely to pick it up.
D2D: There are other breweries that have a diverse beer lineup where every label looks different, and on the other side, there are breweries that use templates, and every label looks almost the same across the board. How would you describe Harpoon’s design aesthetic?
ADAM BAILEY: Having a unified aesthetic is our goal. What’s interesting about design, in general, is that people often think of it as fine art. Consumers think that our job is to make the beer look good, when really our job is to make the packaging look on-brand to communicate what it’s supposed to communicate and represent. James and I have different aesthetic tendencies. You can tell quickly who worked on which project between the two of us. However, the Harpoon aesthetic is neither of our natural aesthetics – it’s Harpoon’s. Even though we help create that image, it isn’t always a direct reflection of our design style. It is a style that was chosen to represent Harpoon. We have a different one for UFO beer, and a different one for our cider line.
ADAM BAILEY: Getting into the history of Harpoon a bit: Before us, there was a designer named Mario Norbis, and before him, a designer named Nick Godfrey. Nick helped create the second-generation Harpoon aesthetic with the release of Octoberfest in 1988, which had a hand-drawn checker look. That look eventually went to all our seasonal beers and has morphed over the years. Mario changed it a bit, and we have changed it in our time here. We went through a minor refresh in 2013, and then a much larger, more comprehensive refresh last year. In that latest refresh we were trying to be bolder, more confident, and were working towards a better shelf presence.
D2D: I am a fan of the newest direction. The packaging is very clean and bold. It’s simple, but it stands out. The Harpoon logo has great presence as well.
ADAM BAILEY: I have been here for a long time and Harpoon has been here for a long time. The market has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. Our old look was successful when we wanted to stand out from the big beer companies of the world. At that time, we needed to be loud and colorful, and have a different aesthetic to stand out. In the last five years, the whole package store has gotten loud and colorful, and now we have to find a way to block out a calm space within the chaos to communicate our brand. Everything must work individually and together to stand out.
D2D: Harpoon is not macro, but is not exactly micro either, and with the rise of startup craft breweries that seem to be drawing the attention of many people, has that affected your design strategy at all? Is it more of a challenge finding ways to be unique and appealing to that audience?
ADAM BAILEY: We are in a funny spot when it comes to craft beer. We don’t have the power of the big national beer companies, and we don’t necessarily have the cool cache of the darlings out there. We try to remind ourselves and stay on top of who our core consumer is. While there is some overlap, the person that is going to wait in line for a limited release beer may not always be the core Harpoon consumer.
D2D: That is a great way to approach it, so that you don’t get caught up in trying to keep up with trends and beer that changes with each batch. That wouldn’t seem to be true to who Harpoon is – at least from an outside perspective.
ADAM BAILEY: It definitely affects how we communicate to our consumers. We know that we want our core products, such as “Harpoon IPA,” to say “India Pale Ale,” and “hoppy, floral, crisp,” so that they understand what they are getting. We also know that if we introduce a new beer that has a strange name or unfamiliar style, that we need to find a sufficient way of explaining that too.
D2D: I want to dive into your UFO series. The packaging has a fresh, new look, and there is now an entire web site devoted to it. What led to the decision to update that brand and give it more attention?
ADAM BAILEY: The rebrand was something that we had been thinking about for a long time. UFO has been a great product for us, but we didn’t feel like we had been doing enough for it. We tend to think about Harpoon more often because that is the main line of our beer. We felt that if we gave UFO more attention, that it could really do well, and potentially do well in markets where Harpoon doesn’t necessarily do as well. It has a slightly different consumer, so we thought that we would give it its own space and then step back and see if the brand is doing what we want it to do.
ADAM BAILEY: For years, our focus consumer group was us. We asked ourselves if we liked what we were making, and if we thought it was working in the market. In the last two years, we have started to branch out and talk to different consumers to see if the product is resonating, and if what we are trying to communicate is clear.
D2D: I feel that the new UFO labels really accentuate the fruit character of the beer now. Do you think that fruity blast was missing from the previous brand image?
ADAM BAILEY: We want to make it clear that UFO is about flavor. It’s unfiltered, quality flavor.
JAMES HOLZMAN: It is our responsibility to show and tell our consumers exactly what they are going to get. We make that as clear as possible with the UFO series by showing that the beer is unfiltered, and by showing which fruit is represented in each offering. Putting the fruit flavor on the UFO packaging assures the consumer that they know what they are going to get. It’s important that we translate that message clearly.
ADAM BAILEY: We never want to completely strip that wonder and discovery either, but there is a certain level of transparency that we need to provide. We have found that is helpful for our consumers.
D2D: “Camp Wannamango” is not part of the UFO beer lineup. Why doesn’t a beer like that fall into that category? What makes that beer fall into the Harpoon line instead?
ADAM BAILEY: It’s not a wheat beer? (laughing) Seriously though, we have talked about that, but the goal for “Camp Wannamango” was to create a new summer seasonal. It was time to switch up from “Harpoon Summer Beer,” as we had been brewing that since 2000.
D2D: It was a great summer beer!
ADAM BAILEY: I agree! In fact, we are bringing it back as a year-round offering in the middle of this summer with a new look and name. We love that beer but realized that consumers are always looking for something new these days. Seasonals don’t have the same life span as they once did. It’s where consumers used to look to find variety, but now that variety is everywhere.
D2D: Agreed. I believe the seasonal beers still hold value, but so many breweries change up their recipes every time they release a new beer now, that sometimes they can get overlooked. I would imagine that it would be difficult for Harpoon to compete with that rapid change of pace on a consistent basis, due to your size and scale of production.
ADAM BAILEY: It is a challenge, and we’ve worked hard to adapt to the new pace. In doing so, we have become much more nimble. There is a lot more that goes into releasing a new Harpoon year-round or seasonal beer than what may go into releasing a pilot beer or small-batch beer. Names are especially challenging for our more rotational offerings because chances are that the name has been used by another brewery, or even the name of the brewery is what we sometimes want to use.
JAMES HOLZMAN: You asked earlier about how the smaller, startup breweries affect our design process – that is how they affect it. It makes it much more difficult to come up with a good name or good illustration for the label to back up our beer. You think you have come up with the perfect combination, and “Crap! They have both been taken!” (laughing) I have pages and pages of names that cannot be used.
D2D: Does the design team come up with the names? Or do they come from the brewers or owners of the company?
ADAM BAILEY: Yes to all, in a way. A beer may naturally have a name, which is great. We have a beer coming out called “Nana’s Night Cap.” It was part of an internal brewing competition in which the brewers came up with the style and the name, and it worked well and fit with what we wanted to do with it design-wise. In other cases, names are harder to come by and implement. They may work well for a pilot batch, but may not be appropriate for a year-round beer. The most important piece of all of it is making sure that everyone in the company understands why we make the design decisions we make.
JAMES HOLZMAN: We have an open office concept here, and we are employee-owned, so anyone on the team can come by to give feedback, give suggestions, or ask questions. It’s a great, collaborative environment.
D2D: Being a bit of a larger company, does your sales team affect your design decisions, or ever step in and feel the need to push certain decisions for you? I happen to work in a design industry that is heavily sales-driven, so I am curious if that happens to you as well in the craft beer industry.
ADAM BAILEY: It depends. Much of the source material and packaging that we design is for sales. We provide a lot of support material, point of sale visuals – they are our clients in that regard, so we need to make sure that the material is doing the job for them. The fun thing to talk about with beer is the packaging, but there is so much more that we do in addition to that.
JAMES HOLZMAN: If we have done our job well, it should make their job much easier.
D2D: I want to get a good understanding of how you work through your process en route to creating new packaging for Harpoon. Can you describe how you first approach a new design brief, and then how you go about working through it?
ADAM BAILEY: We will start by figuring out the general direction of the design through talking with consumers or talking with each other internally. For example, if we are thinking about doing a new fall beer, we will try to hone in on things that are resonating with people that relate back to that idea. In fall, you’ve still got your shorts on, but you put a vest on because it’s cool outside. It’s a strange, seasonal transition. We may try to find some trigger words to help jumpstart some ideas. Next, we will think about potential names and descriptions, and then move onto design concepts. Sometimes names can lead to designs, and sometimes designs can lead to names. It varies with each project. Throughout the design process we also have several internal reviews, and take some concepts to consumers to get their reaction. Many of the conversations with consumers come from our beer hall and brewery.
D2D: It sounds like the process is much more research-based. I think it is a great approach – trying to get to know your target consumer inside and out.
JAMES HOLZMAN: It really starts with a brief. It’s blue-sky as long as it answers the original brief or leads us in a new brief direction. We start there and then take a step back to see how far off the mark we are.
ADAM BAILEY: We see the research as a gut-check, and a way to find our guardrails. We are so close to beer and the product, that it is sometimes difficult to step out of that world to get a fresh look at it.
JAMES HOLZMAN: For a recent package design we did, we thought we had the perfect name and the perfect look for the package, and found that nobody knew what it meant. While that was very surprising to us, if we had not done our proper research and found that out before releasing it to the public, it would have potentially been a huge flop. So, we took a step back and asked ourselves, “what don’t they understand, why don’t they understand it, and how can we correct it to make sure that they do understand?”
ADAM BAILEY: The stakes of a particular beer play a big role too. For example: Our “100 Barrel Series” beers are small, one-time beers that have lower stakes. We only make a certain amount, and only sell it once. Those beers give us a bit more leeway to experiment with different design concepts.
JAMES HOLZMAN: Those beers are for a consumer that may be looking for something less mainstream – something different or obscure.
D2D: I’d really like to dive into the nitty-gritty parts of your process. James, you have an illustration background. Do you start with sketching after you have received a design brief?
JAMES HOLZMAN: I do sketch quite a bit. For me, I like to know what space we are playing in – the brief, the research, the competition – that gives me a space do whatever I can within it. I sketch, write, take notes, and then will take my ideas to Adobe Illustrator and see what I can refine there.
D2D: Can you talk a little bit about how you hone in on fonts, colors, and some of the icons?
ADAM BAILEY: Icons are tough because you want them to be simple, memorable, shareable, and something that relates back to a story. For example: Some people may ask, “why is there a tiger on Harpoon IPA?” You could ask a bunch of different people that question and generally, they will come up with a reason. They may say, “this beer has bite,” or, “tigers are from India, and it’s an India Pale Ale.” They will come up with a reason, and that is an important piece.
JAMES HOLZMAN: They are making a connection to the product and the brand that way. That connection is vital to have consumers keep coming back to buy your product.
ADAM BAILEY: You asked about fonts – If there’s one thing we all love here it’s fonts. We spend a lot of time looking at fonts, and we have hundreds of albums of them that we can use and reference.
JAMES HOLZMAN: It is just as important as the icon on the package and the name of the beer itself.
D2D: Looking at much of your bottle and can design of your seasonal beer and year-round beer, the Harpoon type logo shows up prominently. I’m assuming that is by design, to have the branding be the primary focal point of the package?
ADAM BAILEY: Generally, for our year-round and seasonal beers we want “Harpoon” to be clearly visible, and it’s going to own that product. For other small-batch beers we wanted that name and the symbol on the label to drive that mystery for the consumer. In that case, “Harpoon” takes a back seat. We are not as concerned with “bill boarding” on a 22oz beer shelf.
ADAM BAILEY: We also test ourselves and our packaging by seeing what it looks like across the package store. What do you see when you are at the cooler? What do you see when you are picking up the package? We know that there are certain things we need to communicate at those different levels.
D2D: How about inspiration for both of you. Is there any particular place that you consistently look for inspiration? Do you go on inspiration trips? Does the design team get together to hash that out? What is your approach there?
ADAM BAILEY: Inspiration is one of those things where you are always looking even when you aren’t looking. I happen to think that the cereal aisle at the supermarket is one of the greatest places to look at consumer goods inspiration. Cheerios absolutely owns that section (laughing). There are regular Cheerios, Multi-Grain Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios – there are so many of them, but they all work together. Same thing with Cheez-Its. Who thought there would be so many different types of Cheez-Its? That covers inspiration on the consumer goods side. Then there is inspiration for us designers – sources such as blogs, web sites, magazines, museums, and fine art.
JAMES HOLZMAN: Some of my favorite inspiration comes from conversations with other people about beer, or products. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?” Other times I will flip through books about old beer cans, or the Communication Arts Illustration Annuals, or I’ll look at rock music posters, or just listen to music. Everything you consume can find its way into being usable. Sometimes it can be simply trying to teach yourself something new in Illustrator – and then it may bring you somewhere else that you were not expecting.
D2D: When it comes to designing concepts and having reviews, what are the various checkpoints throughout your creative process?
ADAM BAILEY: We have three big checkpoints throughout the process. The first one is when we have a wider net to explore. Second, we may choose two or three concepts to move forward and refine. Last, we will try to hone in on one of those concepts to take to a final design.
D2D: Can you elaborate on how long that process can take? What other things factor into the process that are outside of your creative control?
ADAM BAILEY: There are a couple of factors. One is when we intend on releasing the product. Another is when the glass company is going to make our glass. It sounds silly, but that is the major milestone that drives the design timeline. They run our glass four times per year, which gives us three months between runs. We need to make sure that we get our final package designs to them before they do the run. If we make our orders together rather than separately, the price for those package runs goes down. Therefore, it is important for our team to have everything designed and pulled together on time. From there, we go back and look at how long it takes to print the labels. We may need anywhere from six to eight weeks for that.
D2D: Does that time include test prints and getting proofs back?
ADAM BAILEY: Yes. Before that, we need to get the government approval – and not only is there government approval, there is also a state approval process as well. If you are distributing into different states, you need each state to sign off on the packaging. The government approval waiting time is down to approximately seven to ten days. Previously, it was as high as forty-one days, which was terrifying.
D2D: I’d imagine that would affect the brewing schedule to a certain extent too, correct?
JAMES HOLZMAN: Yes. Sometimes that would happen because we can’t have some of the beer sitting in a tank waiting that long.
D2D: How does cost affect a brewing company your size? You have different sized bottles, cans, fully-printed cans, and various packaging. How do you save money and how are you able to push the limits?
ADAM BAILEY: Cost is especially important to us, as an employee owned company. It is an important factor in deciding what we can do or what changes we want to make. Our label dimensions do not change much because it costs a lot to produce a different sized label for a bottle of beer. Therefore, we know that we will be using the two label dies that we have – our rectangle die and our oval die for UFO bottles. If we want to try a different shape, we know that we need to have a very good reason for doing that. We try to push the limits as much as we can, all while knowing that sometimes it is not worth it and that we will eventually need to find a compromise. We love getting good color, so most of our packaging is six-color, consisting of four-color process, and two spot colors. There are times when we have done seven-color, and while it was a bit more expensive, we knew it was worth it.
JAMES HOLZMAN: We did a collaboration beer with a cymbal company and knew that a metallic label would help elevate that product and celebrate the collaboration if given that special treatment. Luckily, we were able to do that, and it came out great.
ADAM BAILEY: One of our biggest challenges with printing is making sure that our different packages of the same beer appear consistent. Our cans are printed one way by one vendor, and our twelve-pack wraps are printed by another vendor, which is different than our six-pack vendor, which is different than our twelve-pack bottle vendor, which is different than our label vendor, and so on. For a can or bottle product, we work with at least six different vendors using four different printing processes.
D2D: Ultimately you want everything to sit together well and consistently on the shelf.
ADAM BAILEY: Yes. It can be challenging at times, but we have a great system and all our vendors do a great job.
D2D: Both of you are seasoned veterans in this industry, so I’m sure you have seen many trends come and go throughout your time at Harpoon. What do you think the future holds for the creative side of the craft beer industry? It seems like there is no right or wrong way to approach it.
ADAM BAILEY: I think your normal, consumer product design rules don’t apply to the craft beer industry. Everything you think you know has an exception in this industry. The craft beer consumer is so much more fickle, and their experience is so much more personal, that the normal rules simply do not apply. I don’t know if anyone really knows the “rules” for craft beer. You have to make your own rules and be diligent about applying them. However, you do see success from all types of design here. The change in the market in the last five years is absolutely unreal. It’s very difficult to predict where it will go five more years from now.
JAMES HOLZMAN: It is really a great time to be a fan of craft beer, and an equally challenging time to be a brewer of craft beer. We love that challenge.
D2D: At the end of the day, what type of experience do you want to drive for your consumer who picks up a bottle or can of Harpoon beer off the shelf?
ADAM BAILEY: I want them to feel the full Harpoon experience. I want them to look at the beer shelf, see Harpoon, and have it trigger memories of them having consumed it with their friends and family, or memories from one of our festivals. I want them to have a cascade of memories and feelings that are positive.
JAMES HOLZMAN: If they haven’t made those memories yet, I would love for them to pick it up and try it. When they look at our design, I want them to know that we consider every detail at every step throughout the process. We want them to know that they come first. And most of all, we want the design to be worthy of the great beer inside.
A big thank you goes out to Adam and James for spending some time with us and for sharing some great insight into their design process.
To keep up with Harpoon beer releases and events, drop by their web site or find them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Of course, we would be remiss if we didn't recommend that you visit the breweries in Boston, MA and Windsor, VT for a pour or two, or for one of their many seasonal and special events. Harpoon Brewery provides an amazing all-around experience!
Don't forget about the UFO beer line either! Keep up with UFO happenings here, and on their Instagram and Twitter!