April 30, 2011

McNeill's Brewery: A Cautionary Tale of Design

So up in the mountains of Brattleboro, VT, is a brewery called McNeill's. And, frankly, their design hurts.

Not because it's bad. Quite the contrary, in fact; the artist is talented, if a bit enamored of loud colors. No, the pain, I believe comes from one poor decision that messes with everything.

The artist for McNeill's is Maine illustrator and painter Rob Logan, whose site is immediately identifiable with bright, almost neon colors, jarring images, and a sort of twisted cartoon style (though he needs to put fewer red letters on black background). If you've got a minute, go there and click on the puzzle for a pretty decent pictogram.

This piece by him I think is particularly strong:

As we'll see, though, that doesn't always come through at McNeill's.

The most mild of the McNeill's labels is for the Maibock:
So, you see where I'm going with this. It's like an acid trip, albeit a fairly happy one with flowers and a smiling goat man (obligatory "bock" reference). On close inspection we even see some nice Celtic swirls. But still, how long do we need to look to see those. It's one thing to be eye-catching, but quite another to induce epilepsy. What a loud piece, right?

What if I told you one small change would completely alter the way you see this label?

What a nice, happy spring image that... oh, wait, it's the same, just without the totally unnecessary flashy background. One poor design decision, by either the brewery or the artist, took the label from fun to insane.

Let's do this again:
This label has something to do with radioactive hoarders, I think...

Oh, no, it's a perfectly down-the-line pirate design, complete with skills and cannons and ships. Nice and solid cartoon art.

One more:
Oh, man, turquoise, purple, radiating red, grinning teeth... what is even going on here? Is this a night terror?

Oh, it's a troll. Nice fantasy theme, got some axes and a rune up there, the cave is a vaguely threatening shade of red to drive home the sense of danger, but the jewel tones remind us not to take it too seriously. It's a real shame I couldn't see any of this before.

The point of this post is not to skewer McNeill's, which I'm sure is a nice brewery (I've had a few of their beers) that employs a capable artist. The point is reinforce that a seemingly tangential design decision - in this case, to employ radiating neon colors to make the beer stand out - can totally interfere with and even nullify good design decisions. Details matter, and, in my opinion, McNeill's is hurting themselves by not paying close enough attention to them.

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