Play to Your Strengths (and Take Advantage of Your Friends)

On a recent trip the east coast, I was reminded why I don’t go to Italian restaurants in my hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s not that the Italian restaurants in Fort Collins are bad; it’s just that the Italian restaurants on the east coast are so much better.

I take food seriously, so when I go somewhere, I want to experience that place’s strength. In Fort Collins, we have great microbreweries and brewpubs. On a visit to Texas earlier this year, I sought out Mexican food and barbecue. (You know any Texas barbecue place with a hand-painted sign is going to be great.) In Los Angeles this summer, Shea and I enjoyed seafood and, of course, Roscoe’s Chicken ‘N’ Waffles. A couple years ago, my wife and I had sushi for breakfast in Japan at the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo because we knew it would be the best sushi we would ever eat. (We were right.)

Each of these places excels in at least one area of cuisine, and my goal as a consumer of food is to take advantage of the best options available.

It’s the same in the world of design.

When I was in graduate school, I was told by one professor that I should work to improve my “level of craft.” By this, he meant that, in the course of constructing three-dimensional projects like models or packaging samples, I should try to avoid accidentally gluing my hands to the table or impaling myself with an X-Acto blade. Other students in the program would construct elaborate scale models of the Parthenon out of corrugated cardboard in the time that it took me to get the dried glue unclogged from the bottle of Elmer’s.

From this I took it that perhaps my strengths as a designer lay elsewhere. I developed a particularly strong interest in typography, because no matter how tightly you kern, it’s pretty hard to injure yourself with a keyboard and mouse.

One of my responsibilities as a designer is to know what resources are available to me—not just where to get good photos and fonts, but utilizing the knowledge and expertise of fellow designers. Not every designer is going to be great at every aspect of design. Just as certain locales will specialize in a particular type of cuisine, certain designers will excel in a particular area, like color, composition, type, animation, and photography, to name a few. There’s real value to understanding the strengths of designers you know and getting feedback from them. (Just make sure you go to the right person for specific feedback, or else it’s like eating sushi for breakfast in Texas and Mexican food in Japan.)

I’ve found, as I’m sure it is with any profession, that being a designer is most rewarding when you can set aside ego and competition and open yourself up to ideas and inspiration from fellow professionals. (I probably don’t even have to say that to IBD readers. I’ve always admired the way interpreters inspire and support one another, rather than tear each other down.)

I would encourage designers—those new to design in particular—to add one more resolution for 2011: Keep an eye out for work that you like and talk to the people responsible for it. One particularly great place to do this is at an NAI event like the International Conference or National Workshop, but even if you can’t make it to an event, pick up the phone or fire off an email to someone whose work impresses you. I can guarantee the conversation will be worthwhile.

And now if I could just get a few restaurant owners here in Fort Collins to pick up a phone and call my people in Philadelphia, maybe we could get a decent marinara out here.

Happy 2011!

New Belgium Beer: Say Goodbye to the Trippel Girls

According to the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Fort Collins, Colorado, the top two reasons tourists visit the town are its proximity to nature and its beer. The New Belgium Brewing Company, which I bike past twice a day on my way to and from work, is the most popular local brewery—its signature product, Fat Tire Amber Ale, can be found in 26 states. Not only does New Belgium craft good beer, but it is a prominent member of the Fort Collins community. It’s a model of environmentally friendly practices and is consistently ranked among the top places to work in surveys like this one in Outside Magazine.

The brewery offers a free tour that focuses very little on the actual beer-making process and very heavily on the company’s social and environmental ethics. I have taken the tour four times now, and each time it has done an amazing job of creating an emotional connection to the company and its product. (That may have something to do with the free samples included on the tour, which may explain why, after 90 minutes on my most-recent visit, I was hugging our guide and saying a little too loudly, “I love you, man!”)

If you live in Fort Collins, this bottle is a mainstay at parties—including every Fourth of July cookout that took place in the town yesterday. The bike on the label is an homage to a trip brewery founder and CEO Jeff Lebesch took through Belgium to learn about brewing this style of beer before he started the company. One of the perks the company offers to employees on their first anniversary is one of these cruiser bikes, and you see them all over town.

For 19 years, the labels for all of New Belgium’s beers have featured artwork by local artist Anne Fitch, including the Fat Tire bike pictured here. So it was something of a shock recently when New Belgium unveiled its Explore Series pictured below, which to my knowledge is the first time New Belgium’s labels have deviated from their familiar style. The series includes four beers, including the three pictured here and one more I’ll discuss below. All of New Belgium’s other beers continue to feature artwork by Anne Fitch.

On my most-recent visit to the brewery, I asked our guide about the new labels. He snarled and said, “We’re as happy about them as everyone else is,” which I took to be not very. When I asked if the same woman who did the artwork for all of the other labels designed these as well, our guide responded, “No, these were done on the computer,” as though someone at the company grabbed a computer monitor with both hands and shouted “Beer labels!” and this is what it spit out.

One of the four beers that now features the new label is Trippel Belgian Style Ale. The original label depicts three angelic, robe-clad women affectionately known as the “Trippel girls” (pictured above, left; the new look is on the right). New Belgium acknowledges the challenge it faces in rebranding this beer on its website with the following disclaimer:

We know you may be attached to the Trippel girls (who isn’t!?) or that Abbey holds a sacred place in your heart, so rest assured that while the packaging has changed, the well-loved liquid remains true. Our hope is that you’ll celebrate with us as we set out to Explore new beers and get reacquainted with old friends.

According to spokesperson Bryan Simpson, the decision to create the new look was made because the first beer in the Explore series, the Ranger IPA, is different enough from others crafted by New Belgium that it deserved a different visual treatment. The three other beers in the series were rebranded with the new look because they are a bit more adventurous than the company’s mainstays, designed for that beer fan looking for what Bryan describes as that “next level” of the craft brew experience.

From a pure design perspective, I like the new labels. They’re consistent and clean and instantly recognizable. Plus, the beer tastes the same as it did before. But there’s a strong emotional attachment to the illustrative labels New Belgium fans are accustomed to, and the new look for these selected beers is a decided departure—a surprisingly conservative look for a company that is known to push the envelope visually. New Belgium has an uphill battle on its hands in this rebranding effort. (I ran into the same thing in designing a new logo for the National Association for Interpretation in 2007, and still run into people who have an emotional connection to the logo NAI used for 20 years.)

I’ve always enjoyed the visual aesthetic New Belgium uses in its advertising and on its website, which to me evokes an early 20th-century circus. The company’s advertisements are frequently photographs of real, three-dimensional shadow boxes that they keep on the walls of the brewery.

At the end of the tour, visitors enjoy their final samples in a tasting room that includes a life-size version of an advertisement that appeared on the back of Rolling Stone magazine, among other publications. The ad is pictured above on the left, while on the right, NAI members Kelli English and Kevin Damstra pose on the version found in the tasting room.

One of the subthemes you’ll hear if you take the tour of New Belgium is that experimentation is encouraged, even if it results in failure. The company originated, as many do, with a leap of faith and massive debt. Today, the Lips of Faith series of beers is the result of creative recipes devised by brewery employees, and the Follow Your Folly program encourages creative input on all sorts of content matter from the community. (Seriously, go check out the Follow Your Folly website. It’s one of my favorites.)

This new branding effort from New Belgium looks to be another experiment from an interesting company—one that balances the risks of tinkering with the visual presentation of a product whose look and feel are well known and widely liked with the benefits of continually innovating and refusing to stagnate.

And now I’m thirsty.