Welcome back to Part 2 of our in-depth chat with Mike Van Hall, the mastermind behind Aslin and Stillwater’s phenomenal can design. Part 2 takes a closer look at Mike’s work for Aslin, one of the most prolific breweries out there. If you missed Part 1, have a quick read of that before you charge headlong into this. You know it makes sense.
At first glance I can see people thinking that Aslin and Stillwater are a little similar, but the more you look at the work you do for both, the more obvious it is that the two are very distinct brands. How would you describe the difference between the two in your own words?
You have to look at the whole brand to see the difference - the story is bigger than the labels. It has to be because of how many beer brands there are now. Differentiation based purely on individual label style or even a logo is almost impossible. The story matters most and any given label simply plays a part, even a misfit part, in telling that full story. To me, Aslin is a family beer company intent on creating an environment where beer encourages a fun community. Stillwater is an art project.
I do not try to hide my tone in any work that I do - you can always find my perspective in my work. Maybe because people know it is me, similarities are easier to discern in the two. Only rarely have I sat down to work on one brewery’s label and later decided that the final result was better suited for the other one. There just isn’t enough overlap between the personalities for that to happen often, and what I do is not always just about the visual output. I do keep some redlines to ensure differentiation in my mind.
One thing that is common to both is that I minimized the up-front branding, generally speaking. For Stillwater, I start by trying to avoid any layout that implies there is a “front” to the label, especially on fully printed cans.
Early on with Aslin, I established a base template with a bookend for all the mandatory information, freeing up the rest of the available surface to be a blank canvas. Man, that was a good call. We would have hit a wall long ago if we tried to stick to a more involved, systematic branding approach. I think that has proven to be a failed tactic in beer branding now anyway. But I am also evolving Aslin’s visuals into something that fits where we will be in a couple years.
Does your approach differ substantially for both brands?
Yes, the difference really comes during my design process and how I want to interact with the potential audience. Aslin and Stillwater are very different when it comes to audience and I do my best to cater to each on their own terms because, ultimately, that is who I am doing the art for. I would not expect a Stillwater fan to fully connect with an Aslin label and vice versa.
One thing I do in all my work is to leave some imperfection. This is important to me because I don’t want anything that I do for Stillwater or Aslin to come across as sterile and corporate. Imperfections show the hand of the maker and lets some human element translate through my work. My connection to the final person holding the can is so tenuous and distant, yet my work is so personal to me, those imperfections are my way of telling people that ‘hey, an actual person did this, not a machine or, ahem, a committee. There is effort behind this label and hopefully, before you throw away the can, maybe there can be a moment of human connection.
I’ve moved away from always trying to create perfect labels. When I do leave imperfections, most of the time, it is purposeful. Those imperfections are an attempt to show humanity, a quality devoid from a lot of consumer product packaging. I don’t mean careless design flaws, I mean accepting deviations from perfect that could only be made by an actual person. Trying to get rid of that stuff to make a “perfect” design is not only a waste of my time, it does a disservice to the people making the product. If you are a faceless brand I have little reason to care about your product, other than having a problem solved by purchasing it. And then you are easily replaced by a different product that solves my problem more efficiently. I have loyalty to individuals, not brands, and with my designs, I try to appeal to that mindset.
It is a weird thing - I am “hand making” stuff but with digital tools. There is a paradox there. With digital, I could make things perfect, down to the pixel. But any machine could do that - probably better than I could. Yet I am doing this work with my hands and mind. There is a real person behind it and the machine is merely the tool for expression. So how do I convey that best given the paradox? How do I show it is hand-made with a digital tool? How do I create the feeling of one-of-a-kind in a mass-produced item?
Aslin have to be one of the most prolific breweries in North America right now – how the hell do you keep up!? Do you ever feel the strain churning out such beautiful labels with such regularity?
Um, I did not keep up. The whole “Special Drops” series we created last year was a band-aid. I simply couldn’t keep producing quality work at the same pace they were producing new beer. We have gotten a better rhythm down but I do feel the strain. I want Aslin to be successful and since my work is often the first thing people see with their beer, it can get stressful.
My theory is that Aslin doesn’t need some cohesive branding regimen - experimentation and fun are priorities in the brewhouse and so that should be the case with the label art and with the brand in general. Practically it is great for me as an artist because I get to try ideas, learn and push myself. The result is that we widen Aslin’s appeal and have a way to give back to their fans who wait in line for hours or jump through all kinds of hoops to trade beers online. I want people to get an Aslin beer and be as surprised and entertained by the label - every time - as they are delighted by the liquid itself.
With that as my mantra, it makes it a tad easier to keep up. I’m not concerned about being an artist who is known for a certain style so I don’t have to worry about trying to wedge my personal artistic “brand” into or on top of Aslin’s brand. It’d be disingenuous to do that anyway.
Your recent string of 70’s style ad labels (Brunchies/Big Silly) are amongst some of my favourites. Do you have any particular favourite labels you’ve designed for either company?
Thanks man. I love those labels and have always wanted to do that kind of re-appropriation of vintage photography. I don’t think the guys expected to get something like that thrown back to them. The series is a great example of why I like working with Aslin - we don’t over plan design direction, so I have a free hand to interpret the beer names in a way that entertains us all.
I think the most successful designs are the ones that are the least explicit. I leave vagueness in a design so the audience can define what the label means for themselves. I like to leave blanks for others to fill in - that helps reinforce the connection with a piece and generate some longer-term meaningfulness.
For Aslin, Mind The Hop is one of my favs. We have some printing challenges with fully exploring the ideas behind the Orange Starfish series, but the art for Chocolate Orange Starfish was really meaningful to me and a new direction in that story. But like I said, we experiment and things evolve so I’ll probably have a new favorite in a couple weeks.
For Stillwater, we had some idea breakthroughs in 2017 and I was able to create a couple new starting points for my design process. We do some can runs on such a huge scale, there isn’t much room to experiment. But Critical Thinking turned out great to me and ended up being exactly the kind of objet d’art that I set out to create. Aesthetically, that is my current favorite. Micro a close second.
Do you have any specific artistic influences? Or designers you think are pushing boundaries at the moment?
I’ve been realizing childhood influences more and more lately - stuff from growing up that I took for granted with regard to the influence it had on how I think and see. Marüshka prints from the 70s and 80s is one big influence - my mom worked there and those images were a part of my daily life. And the musician Wally Pleasant. My sense of humor owes a lot to his song writing.
Graphically, there is Don Pendleton’s stuff for Alien Workshop. Massimo Vignelli came later but helped me organize my thinking and approach. Kenya Hara helped me see new paths to create meaningful stuff. They all have a more direct line to my current approach.
And I’ve been looking to fashion, furniture design and architecture to help me see differently. I got to live in an apartment designed by IM Pei for a couple years and the influence from that is hard to define - maybe it made me more purposeful in my decision-making. After living in such a considered space you begin to appreciate how to live better and avoid choices that hinder that.
Huge thanks to Mike Van Hall for taking the time out of what is clearly a ridiculously packed schedule to give us such an in-depth look at the processes behind his exceptional work for these two fantastic breweries.
Mike's attitude is hugely inspirational to me. It's always amazing to see what can happen when a business and designer have such a deeply trusting relationship. Branding is elevated to art, and art, in turn, elevates the product. It's pretty magic, really.
If you enjoyed this interview, you'll love our chat with Rich Norgate of Magic Rock Brewing in the UK