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The Shifty Episode 6: Designing Bell’s with two of our graphic designers

One of the things Bell’s is known for (besides our beer) is our awesome artwork. Our labels and packaging have featured everything from animals to magicians, and there’s even more engaging art on the horizon. To learn about what goes into producing label and packaging art for Bell’s, we talked to Graphic Designer April Russell and Senior Graphic Designer Alex Smith for this episode of The Shifty.

During the episode, April and Alex shared with us the process of transforming Larry Bell’s vision and turning it into tangible works. They also shared with us what it’s like to create art in such a fast-paced industry as well as the artistic process for works such as Arabicadabra.



Alex Smith: They're not putting a new Graham Cracker out every three weeks to every other month, you know?

Maddie Parise: Wouldn't that be great though?

Alex: Yeah. I mean, a man can dream, but Let's be realistic. Let's not get ridiculous.

Nick Lancaster: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Shifty, the show where we enjoy a post-shift beer with members of the Bell's team to learn more about what it is that they do. I'm Nick.

Maddie: And I'm Maddie. For this episode, we talked to graphic designer April Russell and senior graphic designer Alex Smith about the work they've done for the brewery. So why did you guys come into work today?

Alex: Interesting question.

Nick: We like to start with a curve ball.

April: We come into work because we just love what we do, we love the people. It's never a question. This is the first job I've had where I don't have to think about it -- I get up every day and I want to be here because I love what I do and every day is different, so I look forward to the variety and the spontaneity that the day usually brings, at least, for me.

Alex: Mm-hmm, I can say that it's hard to find a job in commercial art work where you not only care about your product at all but is a product that you believe in and you're making that product with people that you value from every level. It's just a rarity, it's a highly unlikely place to actually find work and when you get to remind yourself of that every morning, it's just a straight shot into work. Maybe a little over the speed limit.

April: Not too much though.

Nick: So, when it comes to coming up with labels for beers or just artwork, how do you translate Larry's vision into something?

Alex: Translating Larry's vision is something I think every person at this company has found a different way of doing. Larry is a visionary. Larry's got incredible history of seeing through the fog of war a thousand steps into the future, way past where anybody else can see and he recognized what craft beer was going to be before anybody else could. I think what's interesting about Larry is that he puts a huge amount of faith in his hires and especially as the company has grown and has gotten bigger and it's become more stable, he has become a lot less hands-on with stuff like artwork for example. He trusts his people, he wants to be involved, he wants to see it, he wants to give direction, but he ultimately is kind of like "Cool, you guys understand what I want. Make it happen. Lampshade is a good example, Lampshade Ale is going to be coming out this fall. He came into my office and he said, "You know that guy at the party with the lampshade on his head?"

Nick: You know the type, you know him.

Alex: "Let's do that."

Maddie: Make it happen.

Alex: Yeah, so we went through a bunch of different steps on that, at first, it was going to be an illustration. I drew a bunch of digital drawings of different ways it could be arranged and then we decided that that wasn't the way we wanted to go and in fact, it was going to be a photography thing. This was over the course of a year and a quarter that we worked on this project and eventually we kind of... You live with a project long enough and you talk to it and it starts to become a little bit more responsive and after that period happens the project kind of finds itself and gives its own momentum on which direction it wants to go. So, at a certain point we realized, no it's got to be photos and if there's going to be photos where do these photos come from? When was a lampshade on your head relevant? Well, back in the 60's. So who was in the 60's? Well, your aunt and uncle. What photos would have been taken of a guy in a lampshade of your aunt and uncle? Well, at a weird party that you didn't know happened and maybe you found photos in your attic when you were cleaning out your mom's house or something and you're curious who these party animals are. Well, that's Uncle Rick and Aunt Linda. I couldn't believe that they partied like that when they were young.

The story's here to tell itself and it starts to become a thing and at a certain point creatively you are seeing what's working and what's not working and then you start to let the project have its own gravitational sling-shot around the idea. The momentum of it starts to carry itself and you're kind of following it along and helping it in whatever direction is going to make the most sense. That's how I've, at least, approached most of my projects with Larry. It's trying to figure out what he's coming from, what reference he's making or what he wants the beer to do to you or to taste like and then take it to its final conclusion.

April: Yeah, I think he might not know exactly what he wants visually. He may not have this grand idea, like “Oh I want it to look like this,” but he's got a general idea, and he's got a theme or something has sparked this idea from the beginning. So, it may be a song, it may be a piece of art, it may be whatever, something has inspired him to think of something to brew and then it's kind of our vision through talking to him. We go through our director and then through our manager and there's many, many, many meetings, and even just Larry showing up at our office and sitting down and saying "Hey, I thought about this." And then whole design goes in a different direction because he's had some other inspiration and I think it's just the closer you get to Larry the more you get to understand the way he thinks and then it helps you put the ideas together better, like Alex said we went through many iterations for Lampshade until we finally happened upon the perfect way of marketing this beer.

Maddie: I love it. I think it's interesting because if you look at the majority of our labels, correct me if I'm wrong, are illustrations.

Alex: Like 99% of them are almost all illustrations.

April: Right, so this is really something unique, something new for us and I think even after Alex started working on it Larry came in with some old photographs for inspiration, so it was like OK we're all on the same page and everybody's got that box or that photo album full of old photographs. Right then it was like, OK we know we're on the right track.

Maddie: It's different from what we normally do, but it's still so on brand and it's still so Bell's Brewery even though it is a different medium than we generally tend to use.

Alex: And for Larry sometimes he's coming from a like "I've listened to this song that I want to make a reference to and all heads my age, all the music heads will get my reference." But sometimes it's coming from "I want to do a style" Side Yard is a really good example. We have been growing this hop yard for three years now?

Maddie: Mm-hmm

Alex: To our listeners, I don't know if you're aware, but hop yards take years to grow before they start putting out really good quality hops in the scale that you need to make anything out of them. Their vines just need to get long enough, so we hadn't really been able to do anything with it except grow it and learn more about the strains that we're growing. And now finally it's ready and Larry looks out the window and sees these hop cones growing and he says, "I want to do a harvest ale. I want to do a wet hopped harvest ale." Which we don't do very often, wet hopping is kind of a pain in the butt, it's a difficult thing to get right and you have to do it and sell it instantaneously because nothing sticks around. Its shelf life is very, very low. So, he decided he wanted to do this and then he comes to us and says, "I want to do a beer in this style." And we kind of have to take it from there.

Lampshade started very similarly I wanted to make it really strong, delicious IPA that's easy drinking because I want you to accidentally drink a couple and realize maybe I should have slowed down on that last one, now I've got a lampshade on my head.

Maddie: Right, natural progression.

Alex: There's a feeling or there's a tone or there's a thing that is frequently an inspiration for him not just, "The market is bending this way I want to do a sour," or "The market is bending this way I want to do a light session ale because that's what everybody is making right now." There's some measure of that, in our way we interact with our portfolio and we try to discover what our next thing is gonna be, but Larry's such an eccentric figure that so many of these ideas are coming out of his life and what he's been interacting with lately.

Nick: Well, if you come down to the café too, you look around and you see all the artwork and all the various pieces of history up there and it starts to make sense where he's getting all of these references and where all of these things are coming from.

Nick: Hoping to learn more about Bell's Brewery? Check out the action first hand with a tour of our Comstock or Downtown Kalamazoo locations. Tours are available Wednesdays through Sundays. Learn more about tour times and reserve your spot today at

Maddie: Alex, you worked on Arabicadabra, correct? That was your design?

Alex: Yep, that's right.

Maddie: So what was the process for creating that?

Alex: I was working with Laura Bell primarily on that, but we knew that we wanted to make kind of a companion beer to Java Stout. A silky, delicious coffee beer with a kind of creamy texture to it. We had a couple different variations of this beer that we had as kind of beta beers down at the pub that were very successful and well regarded and we love coffee beers so we're like, let's package it we can have it as an alternate for Java Stout. Even years we'll do Java Stout, odd years we'll do whatever this beer is going to be. I think that other people who might be listening to this in the industry will not be surprised to hear me say one of the most difficult things to do in the craft beer industry in this stage of the lifespan of the industry is coming up with unique and interesting and suitable beer names. It is really, really hard. I, myself, have written at least a thousand names for beers for this company. I've gotten one of them made.

Maddie: One. Which one was it?

Alex: Deer Camp from our sister brewery (Upper Hand) up in the U.P.

Maddie: Very cool.

Alex: Surprisingly enough, it wasn't taken. That's the big problem is that the industry is so broad at this point, there's so many players in it that everybody is looking for the name that hasn't been trademarked or used yet so they just get scooped up. So, we struggled to find a good name for it. We knew we wanted it to talk about the darkness of the coffee, we wanted to make it mysterious and interesting, to be eye-catching. Andy Farrell who I think you guys talked to on a previous episode actually came up with the name along with Zeke Logan our downtown brewer. Over Abracadabra for a coffee beer that they were planning on making and heard that we were struggling to find a good name, lent it to us, I guess we took it and then it became what is the process of figuring out what this artwork is going to look like.

So I did what I everybody calls mood boards. Basically, you define a few different creative directions that a design can go down and then you pull a bunch of colors and font and type treatments. Pieces of inspiration. Stuff that you find on the internet or in magazines or just examples of what this direction would look like and you build the collages of them and we bring those to our internal department, the managers of our department and ultimately to Larry Bell and say, here is what we are thinking as a direction, maybe there's three or four different directions. It seems to be a good number for him to review. Not too many, not too few. He'll point to one or two and then we go and we'll further develop those ideas, maybe we start by making some drawings.

I did that for Arabica where I drew up... the mood board that was chosen was these 1930s magician posters; which are super, super cool, very full of personality and color. The mysteriousness worked with the coffee dark beer, the color palette of gold and dark brown worked with the coffee and the creaminess of it, so it just made sense. I did some drawings and put together some preparatory labels that Larry could see the direction that it was going and how far it was going before he could say, "Nevermind, I don't want this anymore," or "Yeah, this looks good. Let's keep going." We keep going and it goes into the final production phase where I paint digitally on a Wacom tablet, it's a big, black, thin iPad-without-a-screen looking thing with a stylus pencil and I can paint in Photoshop or a program called Painter. So, I spent a couple weeks painting out what came to be the final label before the final details are put in and the last production files are built.

That goes again to Larry to make sure this is what he wants and this is how he has envisioned it. He liked the way it came out and so then it turns into the production side where you're making six-packs, you're making keg collars, labels. These all need to go through proof-reading. These all need to be reviewed with the vendor. Then there's a press check, there's proofs that have to be looked at for color and accuracy. So, once you get the final design figured out or even the concept there's still many, many, many steps to go after that. It's kind of the most fun part of the process, but it is maybe the most important because that's when mistakes get made.

It's a long process, I mean, you include TTB which is the government organization that reviews this stuff, makes sure we're not putting weird illegal stuff on there or not including maybe some ingredients that we are going to use in the product that could be an allergen or something like that. They need a certain amount of time to review this stuff, our vendors need a certain amount of time to print this stuff. Cans, if we're doing a can you're adding three months for just the vendor to create specialized plates that then print these colors onto these rubber blankets which then apply them to the cans themselves. So, if you're saying I want to make a beer and I want to put it in a can, you're probably saying I want to put a beer in a can in like a year and a half.

Nick: Wow, that's wild.

Alex: Including talking to our distributors and all of the different accounts that are going to sell it. It's a really wide and broad process that has hundreds of players involved and it's actually pretty impressive though. The people that supervise us are able to steer that ship without there being massive problems every step of the way.

April: Yeah, and sometimes we have the luxury of time and sometimes we don't because oftentimes Larry comes in and he's like, "hey, I've got this idea, and I'd really like to see this happen in several months, not a year, and it just kind of speeds up the whole process. And what we do is kind of in the middle of it because the brewers have to do their thing, so you have that whole front end. Then you've got us and then you've got the whole back end of it with printing and packaging and all of that so, as Alex said, the process probably should be very long, but sometimes we really have to compress it in order to hit the deadlines.

Alex: And especially if you look at, this is a retail operation. We're creating a product and we're putting it out into the market, we're advertising it and then we're trying to sell it. If you look at say how Graham Crackers, for example, sells their product maybe they have some shaped Graham Crackers or there's a cinnamon one, but for the most part you have a product that they sell at a large scale, day in, day out. They're not putting a new Graham Cracker out every three weeks to every other month, you know?

April: Wouldn't that be great though?

Alex: Yeah. I mean, a man can dream, but let's be realistic. So, when you're not designing beer labels what do y'all do on the day to day? Unless your day to day is designing beer labels.

April: It varies. We all perform a lot of functions for the company, so packaging is probably the high end of it and we've kind of come late to that game. We've only been doing that for the last couple of years, but I know from my own standpoint, I do a lot of support for the sales team, a lot of internal projects, but daily the jobs can vary greatly. You could have something as simple as internal documents or it could be as specific as working on packaging for a new brand, so it's really hard to pinpoint exactly like I do this one thing. No, we all do a hundred things and we do what's necessary every day. So, whatever needs to be done, we do it.

Alex: Yeah, and to give you some examples, we have a culture of not doing a lot of traditional advertising that goes back 30 years. I think there might be a few instances of it, but...

Nick: The accordion guy commercial.

Alex: I wasn't going to say it because that'll enthuse people to maybe go search some YouTube and track it down, but it's pretty funny

April: Yes, It's something alright.

Maddie: Thank you to our guests April and Alex for sharing a glimpse into the Bell's Brewery creative department. I'm Maddie.

Nick: And I'm Nick and you've been listening to The Shifty. Cheers.

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