Milton Glaser on Design and the Current State Booze Branding

milton glaser graphic designer

When it comes to industrial design, there are few people more influential than Milton Glaser. Even if you haven’t heard of him, you’ve probably owned an item featuring packaging that he designed, seen the posters he created for the final season of Mad Men or are familiar with his ubiquitous “I ♥ NY” logo.

In the drinks world he’s created packaging for everything from the Brooklyn Brewery to Donald Trump’s (now-defunct) vodka to the New York Distilling Company’s Dorothy Parker and Perry’s Tot gins. He is considered by many to be the country’s foremost graphic designer. (In 2004, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Arts in 2009.)

Thanks to the recent rebirth of American whiskey—and the popularity of spirits in general—label design and bottle art is experiencing a golden age. Dozens of products produced throughout the U.S. feature labels that run the gamut from sleek and modern to old-timey, harkening back to the turn of the century. Over the last few years, I began to look at design as a means to understand the evolution of American whiskey, the culture of distillers and drinkers and the country’s development as a whole. It turned into an obsession, and ultimately a book: The Art of American Whiskey: A Visual History of the Nation’s Most Storied Spirit, Through 100 Iconic LabelsAs I researched the book, Glaser was on my mind. How would he go about designing a bottle for today’s whiskey market? Would he play off of the nostalgia so prevalent in historic whiskey branding, or the novelty that whiskey represents to the current generation?

While Glaser had a hand in creating some successful alcohol packaging, he is quick to point out that he doesn’t think of himself as a liquor design specialist. (In fact, he’s not much of a drinker, either.) But given that he is, well, Milton Glaser, he has plenty of opinions on the subject.

His approach to design is fairly simple. “I write down what I know then forget about it and wait for an idea to come that is not objective,” he explains. “You can only go so far objectively, rationally and intellectually. Then you have to give it all up because really interesting ideas only occur beneath that intelligence.”

For one, the taste of an alcohol doesn’t kick off his creative process; many times he begins work on a project before the final product is even finished. And “very often there’s no product differentiation,” he says. “They’re only differentiated by their promotion and their label, but intrinsically the product doesn’t vary very much.”

His approach, for the most part, is fairly simple. “I write down what I know then forget about it and wait for an idea to come that is not objective,” he explains. “You can only go so far objectively, rationally and intellectually. Then you have to give it all up because really interesting ideas only occur beneath that intelligence.”

While he hasn’t worked with a whiskey brand yet, he knows exactly how he would take on the challenge. The liquor presents a particularly interesting case, he says, since it’s normally connected to the idea of aging—one of the few categories where not being fresh is an asset, and something worth referencing.

“In the area of whiskey you want to convey some reference to traditional and old-world virtues and a warming effect and a sense of peace and closure,” he continues. “You want to make sure that people feel that the whiskey will make them feel better. That’s a complicated thing.”

Complicated, yes, but not impossible. For instance, the label on Templeton Small Batch Rye Whiskey features a vintage sepia photo of a group of men enjoying a drink with a bartender. The image and font choice manages to link the brand to a rich and long distilling history (not to mention the communal delights of drinking) even though Templeton itself is only a few years old. (The company is also battling attacks asserting that the label is misleading, since the company buys its whiskey from a distiller in a different state.) And Diageo went even further with the labels and branding for its Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Co. projects, including the whimsically named Old Blowhard and Barterhouse. Both whiskies feature label art that looks like it was created for a Wes Anderson movie, complete with traditional fonts and folksy animals. The result is a memorable package that draws the eye and is approachable even for a novice whiskey drinker.

Of course package design should ultimately suggest that the product it represents tastes good. Glaser explains how that normally involves using shape and color to get the message across to the consumer, which is an abstract idea even for him. “It’s in the realm of the metaphysical,” he insists.

That intangible strategy is what Glaser used for his work on the Brooklyn Brewery’s iconic logo and packaging. He admits that now—nearly 30 years after the fact—he sees an influence of traditional German beer labels and the brand’s familiar and distinctive script B is “like a swirl of foam,” he says, “it evokes something about the liquidity of the product.”

Influences and inspirations aside, at the heart of a good design is its ability to attract and hold the attention of a savvy shopper. “If you do something that is overly familiar, which is to say is banal or repetitious—that’s been seen before—your potential customer turns away in indifference,” he says. “If you do something overly novel that is complex and new and has not been seen before, your customer turns away in indifference.”

That careful balance is, in fact, reflected in the struggle of the whiskey industry to remain tied to distilling (and American) history while still having room to innovate and introduce new products. With any luck, a wave of creativity and a new era of spirits packaging design isn’t far off—and when the time comes, Glaser will no doubt have plenty to say.

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