Labels & Shrink Sleeves

Flying Dog Brewery’s Recaptured Passion

Posted: March 26, 2012 by
Linda Casey

When a brand claims a mountain-climbing physics professor (George Stranahan), a renowned political cartoonist and caricaturist (Ralph Steadman) and the father of Gonzo journalism (Hunter S. Thompson) as its virtual godfathers, it better have a bold approach to package design. That’s exactly what Flying Dog Brewery’s (Frederick, MD) creative director Adam McGinnis returned to the brand when he redesigned its packaging.

The beer brand has continually refined its packaging and artwork over the past 20 years. A series of continuous package-design improvements can be a great practice for brands. But in Flying Dog’s case, the package-design changes were taking the brand away from its fearless, counterculture persona. These changes were especially evident in the package’s primary graphic element—character art hand-drawn by Steadman. “For a huge Ralph Steadman fan like me, I felt we were doing his artwork a bit of a disservice,” McGinnis says.

Much of the character art had become victim to such Photoshop sins as poor image cropping and improper resizing. And unlike modern image collections, where wiping clean design transgressions can be as simple as pulling up a master file from a digital asset-management system, Flying Dog’s two-decade-old artwork collection was fractured—including physical prints and digital files scattered across CDs, DVDs and external hard drives.

McGinnis combed through all of these files to create a central collection of originals. He then used high-resolution photography, like a museum archivist would, to zoom in on minute details in each piece of artwork. This information helped McGinnis create new digital masters with fully restored artwork.

Building intrigue
The freshly restored artwork receives more prominence in Flying Dog’s new visual hierarchy. McGinnis says that previous package designs tried to do too much on the beer label’s front panel. “Our label does wrap all the way around the bottle, but only 2 or 3 in. are visible from the front,” he explains. “Everybody was so worried about fitting all the printed information, such as the beer name, the style name and the logo. My opinion is that if you’re going to get this great artist to do bottle art for us, all you should see from the front angle is the Flying Dog logo and the character art.”

This works in part, he says, because Flying Dog’s beer hits a different target market from national brands that need to communicate information quickly from grocery store shelves. Flying Dog’s brews are primarily sold in local craft-beer stores and liquor shops within a 150-mile radius of the brewery. McGinnis says these stores are frequented by craft-beer fans who enjoy exploring each shop’s different offerings. These consumers, he adds, are also more likely to buy a beer after they’ve interacted with the packaging and pulled it off the retail shelf.

McGinnis aimed to attract these consumers by removing almost everything but the logo and the character art. On some varieties, you can see the beer name, which was hand-drawn by Steadman as part of the character art, and variety info. When the beer and variety copy is visible from the front, they are there as part of the character-art design and not for merchandising. The character art is clearly the hero of the design on all of the beer labels.

McGinnis also simplified the beer’s neck band by removing all copy and art except for the brewery logo. He added a white cloud to the brewery logo to help the logo pop on the color backgrounds and tightened up the whole unit by moving up the “g” in Flying Dog slightly.

Form and function
Nearly all of McGinnis’s design choices carefully weigh the functional aspects of the package design against the artistic. He argues it’s all too easy to overemphasize the functional aspects of a label, such as barcodes. “A lot of times in package design, when you have to build in a UPC you just throw it on a white box,” he explains. This ensures the product code can be read easily.

But McGinnis challenged that thinking by adding color in the code’s background. “For our packages, I wanted the UPC to be more incorporated into the design,” he says. McGinnis began experimenting by printing the codes on color backgrounds using his desktop printer and testing those prints in-house using a UPC scanner.

With some trial and error, he discovered the maximum amount of color that could be introduced into each UPC background. Although McGinnis found a stark, white background an extreme response to ensuring UPC readability, he did want to make the codes legible in retail environments. He dialed back the saturation on the UPC backgrounds by about 10% in the final label designs, as a precaution.

This wasn’t the only time in the design project that McGinnis challenged the importance of form versus function. Coated paper labels have long graced Flying Dog’s beer bottles, providing some measure of protection against decoration degradation in coolers and from bottle perspiration. “I felt that the glossy paper made our beer look a little cheap,” he says.

Instead, McGinnis wanted a paper closer to the sheets on which the original character art was drawn. Working with the label printer—The Oak Printing Company (Strongsville, OH)—he found a litho-compatible, wet-strength paper with a matte texture that mimicked the look.

But moving from their glossy label stock to a 55-lb. uncoated paper wasn’t a matter of simply making a different purchasing decision. “The dot gain for an uncoated paper is greater than it is for coated stock,” explains Jeff Stoppenhagen, production manager at The Oak Printing Company.

Account manager Brian Hannes adds that the label-printing company has several customers who already were using uncoated paper, so it was able to use those learnings for this project—adjusting the plate curve accordingly. The Oak Printing Company also made press adjustments while the paper was on its Mitsubishi 3F 28 x 40-in., eight-color press to maintain the look and color balance of the design.

The resulting labels deliver not only a better visual experience than the previous glossy labels, but they also improved the tactile experience. “Just how that paper feels in your hands makes our beer feel like a higher quality product,” McGinnis remarks.

Sacrifices for sustainability
McGinnis credits Flying Dog’s culture for enabling him to make sweeping changes to the design. “One of the bigger philosophies here is an openness to try new ideas,” he says. “If you think you have a better way to do something, you are encouraged to roll with it and see how it works.”

One packaging requirement is not negotiable, though. Package materials and practices have to be sustainable. McGinnis was able to change the label stock because the new paper comprises 30% postconsumer recycled paper fiber. The labels are printed using a four-color-process set of inks made from a minimum of 55% bio-derived, renewable and sustainable raw materials. These inks also contain no petroleum-derived ink solvents.

“Sustainability is a big part of everything that we do here,” McGinnis says. “We’re willing to pay more for more sustainable products and services. Sometimes we choose a more sustainable option even if it means not reaching another goal.”

This is why Flying Dog didn’t change the paperboard carrier stock and printing process. Graphic Packaging International (formerly Sierra Pacific Packaging [Oroville, CA]) makes the carriers from 100% recycled paperboard and prints them using a 56-in. Mitsubishi offset litho Diamond series press using water-based inks made by INX International Ink Company (Schaumburg, IL). After reviewing the process, the brewery concluded its current printed paperboard package offered too many sustainability benefits to leave behind.

Top-level changes
Although it’s unwilling to move away from its eco-conscious carrier materials, Flying Dog did eliminate its use of four-pack carriers altogether. The brewery used to pack its premium, higher alcohol content beers in four packs. The goal was to keep the unit retail price down by lowering the manufacturing and packaging costs for a pack of the premium beers.

Instead, the brewery found that the packaging costs for the four-packs were nearly equivalent to those of the six-packs it was using for the lower alcohol content beers. Flying Dog realized that it could provide a better value for consumers if it standardized the six-pack and sold the more robust brews at a higher price point.

McGinnis tops off the design with more muted crown caps. Gone are the brewery’s previous electric blue and purple caps. The new caps, supplied by Astir Vitogiannis Bros S.A. (Attiki, Greece), sport a color combination of gunmetal gray and black. Flying Dog’s high-alcohol-content beers sport black crowns with silver print, and the rest of the beers are topped with gray caps with silver print.

McGinnis says that his aim was to bring the package design up to the artisan quality of the original prints from Ralph Steadman. “I want his art to live in a world that it looks like it belongs in,” he says. As an added bonus, he’s also helping make high art part of more people’s everyday experiences. “If I can blur the lines between art and graphic design a little bit more, that would be awesome,” McGinnis says. “And why can’t a beer label be 100% art?” PD

For more information, visit
Astir Vitogiannis Bros S.A.,
Bobst Group North America Inc,
Graphic Packaging International,
INX International Ink Co.,
The Oak Printing Company,