The birds are singing, the streets are awash with pastel-coloured blossoms and Vancouverites everywhere are crawling out of drawn-curtained condos, squinting hard as they high five each other and punch the air in celebration. That can only mean one thing: CraftCans is finally back with another killer insight into the world of craft can design. So gather your friends around your screen, crack open that fancy bottle of Cantillon, and get ready to read your eyeballs off - there ain’t no time to waste!
This week we’ve managed to distract Shawn O’Keefe, graphic mastermind at Phillips Brewing in Victoria, BC, from the task of fitting out the incredible new Phillips tap room in favour of answering a few questions about his phenomenal designs.
The Phillips Brewing story is a thing of legend in the BC craft brewing world, but for those unfamiliar with their journey, here’s a potted history: At 27, brewer Matt Phillips decided it was time he started his own brewery. The banks, however, did not agree. Matt proceeded to max out all the credit cards he could, building his brewing empire on a solid foundation of high interest debt. He used this pile of pretend money to pay for his dual function brewery/bedroom in a windowless apartment. In a hostile 2001 beer market, he launched Phillips with an espresso stout, a raspberry wheat and a hoppy IPA. This insanely bold move paid off and the company has since launched a soda company, distillery and a maltworks because why not?
Way back when CraftCans was just a twinkle in my eye, Phillips’ Solaris sleeves were some of the first I found scattered on the warehouse floor beneath the sleever that really got me excited. That psychedelic illuminati pyramid topped with a peach was a straight win in my eyes and, interest piqued, my research then turned up such wonders as Space Goat, Electric Unicorn, Dino Sour… I was sold right there and then. The names alone would have been enough for me. Honestly, they could have had dodgy, traditional English brewery branding and I still would have found some excuse to write about them probably. But instead they had Shawn O’Keefe’s eye-blistering, technicolour magic on them. Look at Tiger Shark. TIGER SHARK! What’s not to love? Nothing. Everything is to love.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Shawn O'Keefe:
Hey Shawn, thanks for taking the time to talk about your work, I really appreciate it. First thing’s first: you’re clearly an extremely talented artist, how long have you been in the art/design game and how did your relationship with Phillips come about?
Thanks! I’ve been freelance designing and illustrating since the late 90’s. I was working 9-5 at a small T-Shirt shop in Victoria doing their graphic design work and burning the midnight oil hustling freelance, working for a variety of board sports magazines trying to build up a client portfolio. I had been doing work for a mutual friend and client Gerry Heiter. He was one of the men behind Lighthouse Brewing Co. and creator of The Great Canadian Beer Festival. He recommended to Matt that he pay me a visit to talk about his new brewing company. Matt was super excited about his new project and his enthusiasm was contagious. Before we knew it I was designing his company logo and first run of labels. That was back in 2001 almost 17 years ago now.
Phillips’ cans have to be some of the most recognisable out there, I’ve heard nothing but praise for the Phillips brand. How did the branding develop into what it is now? Was it a collaborative effort or were you handed the creative reigns from an early point?
It’s been a really fun and organic process. I would say that in the beginning it was a lot of baby steps and there was a learning curve for both of us. I was a young designer and he hadn’t built a brewery before. My goal at the time was to just try and nail what Matt had envisioned for his brand. One of the things that made our labels unique in the beginning was our terrible spelling...a trait we still sometimes display. As time went on I became more integral to building the brands. Coming up with beer names, drawing up crazy concept art, helping to formulate copy all became part of what I would do. It’s been a long series of beer-soaked jam sessions that have continued to multiply and amplify in creative scope. It really is an amazingly collaborative effort at Phillips. I’m very thankful to be a part of the family.
What does the design process look like for you? Where do you draw inspiration from?
It all begins and ends with beer. In developing the brand we start with the beer style, it’s character and perhaps some word play based on that style. We throw it around in a creative session with a small group of Phillips creative folk and mostly just try and out do each other with bad puns for the first hour. Then it begins to take shape enough to be left with me to flush out a label concept and brand. Amazingly not many “back to the drawing boards” occur and we have a pretty good track record for making fun and graphically appealing labels. Most of my inspiration comes from my love for vintage packaging, skateboard art, gig posters, graffiti and comic books. I keep busy in my local art scene as well and have a pretty sweet art studio downtown that is a bit of a creative hub and hang out.
Do you have a favourite Phillips design? Are there any designs that never made it to can?
My favorite Phillips Brewing Co. can is probably our Electric Unicorn White IPA and our new Tiger Shark Citra Pale Ale in a Tall can. Super fun graphics that came together nicely and really speak to the spirit of the beers. Not many designs get to production stage and don’t make it to a can... but I do have a small folder of designs that didn’t make it further than concept stage. Some definitely don’t need to see the light of day... but there are a couple that I may pull out in the future and try to re-shape and put through.
Cheers JJ, thanks so much for chatting with me and checking out the work I do with Phillips!
There we have it folks, that's how it happens. If you find yourselves on the island anytime soon make sure you find your way to Phillips' brand spankin' new tasting room, or even to the awesome Phillips Backyard Weekender if you like a good party.
I also highly recommend following Shawn on instagram @trust36 because my God can that man wield a paint can.
Thanks for reading folks!
If Shawn's rad artwork is your bag, you want to check out Bellwoods' incredible labels by Doublenaut.
After something from a little further afield? Check out Rich Norgate's work for Magic Rock Brewing in the UK!