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culture

I Want Your Job: Andrew and Matt McCracken, Beer Label Designers

Brothers turn Bellwoods beer bottles into works of art.

Matt (L) and Andrew (R) McCracken.

Names like Wizard Wolf, Bounty Hunter, and Cat Lady make Bellwoods Brewery beers difficult to ignore—and so, too, do their cheeky and clean-lined labels: it’s easy to see why the bottle shop regularly sells out and the brewery’s patio is perpetually busy. The labels are courtesy of Matt and Andrew McCracken, 33-year-old twin brothers who run Ossington-based Doublenaut Studios. Matt works as a full-time graphic designer, while Andrew splits his time between the studio and Town Moto, which he co-owns. Both are trained graphic designers (Andrew graduated from Humber College, while Matt attended Algonquin) who launched Doublenaut Studios 10 years ago after moving to Toronto from Ottawa. They’ve done concert posters for City and Colour and The National, logos for local businesses like North Standard, and, for the last eighteen months, labels for Bellwoods Brewery.

Our interview—about Bellwoods’ new location, why some labels make for lousy T-shirts, and the perks of designing for a brewery—is below.

Torontoist: How did the collaboration between Doublenaut Studios and Bellwoods Brewery begin?

Andrew McCracken: We met them in the neighbourhood, but they didn’t necessarily know what we did. They knew me as the guy with the motorcycle gear shop and weren’t familiar with our design work. They were interested in doing labels for all their different beers, but they didn’t really know where to start. Patrick [Ridley, Bellwoods' brewer and operations manager] was doing some stuff for them, but I got the impression that they were looking for someone, and a few mutual friends knew that we did design work and poster art. So our friends pitched us to them, and then we had a meeting with the two owners and took it from there. It made sense, because they’re so close that we can just walk over any time we have a question, and they pop in here all the time. It’s a pretty easy working relationship.

Matt McCracken: I don’t think they were that familiar with our design work before they met us, but we showed them some things. I gave them some of our beer print posters, and they looked at our website. We do branding as well, and we were looking at this as more of a branding job. But they were looking at it more like the work we do on our concert posters: they wanted each label to be very different, and not to have a common theme to run through them all. Initially, we had to figure that out. We thought they wanted one thing, but they wanted something else.

These labels are also produced as T-shirt and posters—how does that inform the design process?

Matt: We start with the label, and go with imagery that works on a small scale. The labels are roughly three inches wide, so it has to be easy to tell what’s going on and not be too busy. We like to do simple, direct design. The goal is to sell in the LCBO, and they wanted to be able to stand off the shelves there, as well. That plan hasn’t really happened yet because they’ve been so busy and so popular that they can’t make enough to sell to the LCBO, but that might change when they open the new location. We try to create something that’s visually appealing and that someone would want to buy. We start with the label and try to make it appealing. If they think the image will work well as as a poster or shirt, and they get people asking about it, they’ll print it. For posters, it’s just a matter of scaling it up. Shirts are a little more difficult, because you have to think about which colours work well together and other considerations. You can get away with more things on paper.

How collaborative is your relationship? Do you get to taste a beer before you design its label, and does that play into your design process?

Matt: When they have a new beer that they need a label for, it’s usually not bottled yet. Normally, we haven’t tasted it, but they will give us a breakdown and description of the beer. If they have ideas based around the beer, they’ll give us some notes. For example, a dark stout might get a label that’s a little bit evil. A lot of their names are plays on music or metal bands, so sometimes the names give imagery right away. With their beer Gotham, they wanted a dark ominous city. So sometimes they have specific ideas of what they want, and other times they just want us to run with it.

We start with a sketch of an idea that we think will work and show it to them. If they like it, we’ll go ahead and do the label, and if they’re not sure about it, we’ll go with something else. The goal is to make them fun and cool, and a beer that people want to drink.

What is like working with a brewery as a client?

Matt: With clients, it kind of depends. It’s nice, because these days, we’re kind of established and people have seen our work. People are starting to come to us because they like our style. They’ll give us some direction and explain the project, and then some clients give us free rein to do what we want. Other clients have a more specific idea, and they want us to work with their idea. We can do it either way. The Bellwoods labels are pretty much left up to us, and they’ve been a great client in that respect. It was a little rocky to start. We nailed the first couple that we did for them, and everyone was happy. Then we tried different approaches with some labels, and they didn’t necessarily like them. We had never worked with them before, and we tried a lot of different things that weren’t right and that got rejected. Now, though, we just kind of know what they like and don’t like. It’s better to make the client happy.

Andrew: We have a friendly handshake agreement with them, and we get paid for each label. We also have an agreement that we won’t do labels for other breweries, because they want to have that look for themselves. We like working with them a lot, and we do as many labels for them as we want to do, basically.

Matt: We design an average of two labels a month, and sometimes more. They’re always releasing new beers! We’ve been approached by a couple of different breweries who want us to do for them what we’re doing for Bellwoods. And we get also get lots of free beers and samples, on top of getting paid for the work.

What would be your dream beer/design project?

Andrew: It’s hard to say, because in a lot of ways, this is kind of already it. It’s so relaxed and very free creatively. For us, it’s great having this the way it is. As far as being designers, you always want to work for big companies, and be doing redesigns of well-established brands, but I don’t know if that’s us. Doing something like that would be fun, but this is more our style.

Matt: They’re definitely one of our favourite clients, and this has turned into a really great job. We’ve gotten a lot of recognition, and everyone seems to enjoy the labels. We love seeing everyone posting pictures of the bottles on Instagram. We’ve talked with them a little bit about doing some artwork for their new space up on Dupont, maybe somethings based on the labels but on a bigger scale. It’s the same kind of work but it could be a lot of fun.

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