Coca-Cola Red is #ed1c16. Not #ed1c15. Not #ed1c17. You won’t see another shade of red associated with Coca-Cola other than #ed1c16. Why? They have a style guide and follow the rules within as the word of God. Any deviation from typefaces, colors, sizes, or shapes would jeopardize their recognition in the marketplace. It would be blasphemy.
In some ways, Mike Van Hall embraces that blasphemy. After undergrad at the University of Michigan and law school in DC, a project in Cape Town, South Africa with some free-thinking creatives rekindled his interest in design that had lain dormant since grade school. Back stateside, his interests collided with his love of beer and eventually became The Single Hop Project. Work with breweries like Stillwater Artisanal and, later, Virginia’s Aslin Beer Co. pushed him even further.
Van Hall designs labels with an ethos that is growing in the industry: abandoning heavy-handed brand identity for storytelling and entertainment. Without marketing budgets and on various scales of distribution, if they distribute at all, many of the breweries Mike is working with are free to try something different every time, both with their recipes and their labels. But if your eye is keen, somehow you still know a Stillwater can when you see one.
I sat down with Mike to hear more about his efforts in beer design and what it means for the customer. What follows is a transcript of our conversation edited for length and clarity.
How do your labels change the way people engage with beer?
I want to draw everyone in. I love beer, and I’ve had a great life enjoying it. It’s fun, and there is a culture behind it; it’s not a just a product. I want to bring it to as many people as I can. It’s a religion.
So I do a lot of labels [with which] I am trying to grab new eyeballs. The On Fleek label is a great example. It’s a joke in a way: a gigantic stout in a Lisa Frank can, but the stout is amazing. If somebody gravitates to that design and picks it up because it’s a great design and they think, “It’s just beer,” but the label is funny? Then they try it and say, “What is this beer?!?” That is the goal: to get that person to grab that beer, not caring about whether it is beer or not, and to try that beer. Because then they go, “Well, if this tastes like this, what else is out there?”
Ultimately, what are you trying to accomplish?
It’s all experiential. The greatest realization I had was that when you’re holding a can it’s an extension of you. You choose it for a reason. If it’s Bud Light, it still says something about you. When I’ve done pattern labels, I think about what people might be wearing. I’ve seen people painting fingernails to match their beer cans. It proved it’s an extension of your personality.
But maybe I also flip it. What can I do to embarrass you? When someone orders a heavy stout to “prove something,” and it comes in a pink can, maybe they want put it in a brown bag. If someone says, “I hate the can, but the beer’s amazing,” that's also a win to me.
Isn’t it scary to abandon a recognizable brand for cool, one-off cans?
I’m glad it’s scary, honestly. That makes me feel good.
On one hand, it keeps things new, and that is what the vanguard of beer wants right now. More importantly to me, it is beneficial from a design experimentation perspective. My artistic drive is to impact people's perception of the world, but my canvas is a consumer product. Those two things often conflict because if I am too experimental and the market rejects it, then there is a business risk. Seemingly one-off can designs are a method of balancing the two priorities. In other words, as a consumer, if my first interaction is bad, I'm not going back to you. The trust is gone. So this method gives us wiggle room. I don't want to screw up but, just in case, if I do screw up, you don't necessarily know it is me. Your interaction with the brand might evolve over time so, instead of being one and done, we get to tell our story without putting ourselves in a sudden-death scenario.
I trust the customer to be smart. It's the opposite of "if I push it in your face enough, you'll buy it." My hope is that you'll get on board when you are ready.
But some breweries do want the opposite, right? Each of the top 50 craft breweries has a standard label that is very recognizable from beer to beer. With Stillwater and Aslin, though, you aren’t worried about that recognition? How are you positioning the beer with customers?
It goes back to trusting the customers. Somebody that is showing up or lining up? You don't need to baby them. Breweries that are in stores need to grab eyeballs. That's what I try to do with Stillwater, but that is a global brand, and we expect only like 1 in 10 people will get sucked into our story.
For Aslin, it is not that we abandon traditional brand identity, it is just that the ongoing conversation with customers is the brand identity. I think of it like talking with a good friend. They may tell me some crazy story, but my understanding of them as a person isn't formed by that one crazy story. We have a holistic approach that is reflective of the individuals involved on both sides of the cash register. It seems more honest than rote adherence to branding guidelines, and I think that matters to the people I care about engaging.
And you see these different distribution models, a huge variety in design, and even the beer’s style and recipes, as a better reflection of the customer’s expectations?
Lately, there have been some big beer companies that try to do this systematic label thing, and it doesn’t work because variety controls things now. Sure, there are are flagships and go-to’s, but when I sit down I want to be entertained by a beer, which is the way things are going now, and I’m trying three different breweries a night, that’s the standard.
What design advice would you give someone starting a brewery?
Don’t call it a brewery. Don’t say beer. Don’t say brewery. Just give it a name that’s an umbrella brand. It allows you to be so much more. I did work for Vanish, and they wanted to call it a brewery, but now they have a winery, a hop farm, and a petting zoo. It’s a destination. They’ve created a wonderland of booze up there. It’s awesome, so why call it a beer company? Or a brewery? You’re more than that. You’re a place for people to hang out and do trivia, play games, kids can come, whatever.
And what’s in it for you?
I feel like I don’t want to be expected. I’m friends with guys in beer who stick to their style, and that’s their style, but I can’t do that. I would feel like I was getting stuck. Maybe that’s cheating. Maybe a good illustrator knows how to not get stuck, but I like to explore. I feel like it’s more honest for me. I’m not creating a whole brand, I’m creating little pieces of entertainment for people. This model frees me up to do that.
Thanks to Mike for his excellent thoughts. Find more of his work at the Committee on Opprobriations and the Single Hop Project.