A good brand tells a story. That story makes your product more than just a commodity, it gives it personality, allows consumers to identify with it, to invest in your brand emotionally. And that story can be anything – whether it’s “we like trucks”, “we are an exclusive club with exceptional taste” or simply “we make great beer and also we’re right next door to you so come and drink it”.
Few brands, however, take this advice quite as literally as the MacDonald brothers at Zero Issue brewery in Calgary. Mark and Kirk MacDonald are unabashed sci-fi fans and comic book lovers and their brewery is a celebration of their passions. In fact, “Zero Issue” is actually the term for special comic book releases that generally detail a character’s origin story. So perhaps it’s no surprise that these brothers jumped at the opportunity to really tell a story through their brand by harnessing the canvas that is the craft beer can and turning their product into what is essentially a graphic novel, enlisting Winnipeg based graphic artist Scott A. Ford to design their brand and can artwork.
These can labels are truly outstanding. The way I see it, the illustrations essentially act as the front cover of another issue of the comic book – Ford has a phenomenal knack for capturing what feels like the pivotal moment in each imaginary issue, suggesting vast worlds with minimal details and bold colour palettes. Each can provides a tantalising hint at a thrilling story and the longer I stare at the artwork the more I want to find out about the backstory. I want to read this beer. It’s one thing to pick up a beer with a great brand story and think “oh yeah, this is cool, I can get on board with this” and that happens fairly often in Vancouver, but to pick up a beer and go “oh man, I NEED TO KNOW MORE – WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!?” … that’s a pretty unique feeling. If I could find any Zero Issue here in Van, I could definitely see myself drinking a lot of them purely in the hopes of gaining some kind of miraculous insight, as if the story is there swimming in the boozy ether of oblivion.
Alas, it’s not, so the second best option seemed to be to reach out to the artist himself in a bid to find out more:
Hi Scott, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
The folks at Zero Issue clearly like their sci-fi and comic books, but to what extent did they hand you the reigns? How involved were they in the process?
Honestly, Zero Issue has been one of the best clients I have ever worked with. They came to me with an overall aesthetic, and the names and visual themes behind each of their beer varieties. So right from the start I had a really great foundation to work off of, but beyond that they were happy to let me do my own thing. It was my choice to go with flat 2d perspective on all the cans, the consistent central character, and the simple bold colour schemes for each illustration. But they still had really helpful feedback throughout the entire process. I definitely felt like we were always on the same page when talking about the art and branding of Zero Issue.
Does the Zero Issue character have a storyline sketched out somewhere? is there a Zero Issue for Zero Issue?
Actually, funny you mention that, when I started these separate illustrations, I never thought of the central figure as the same person, but by the end, I was starting to come up with a story in my head of how these vignettes were perhaps connected by a single narrative.
Do you think there's an Alberta Aesthetic? We find we can usually guess a 'Berta brewery from the style of artwork on the can. This definitely isn't your typical Alberta can though. Were you conscious of that when designing?
I live in Winnipeg, so to be honest, I wasn't aware of any Alberta brewery trends. However, it was a conscious decision to do something different from most modern can designs, so I'm glad that you feel it stands out. I've seen a lot of can designs that try to put too much detail on such a small product, so from the start I knew I wanted to do something really bold and simple. I wanted to make something that would stand out from a distance, something that would be clear and eye-catching from all the way across the liquor store. So, yes, I was conscious of general beer art trends, but not specifically Alberta beer trends.
What are your thoughts on the idea of the "can as a canvas" // the growing inter-connectedness of craft beer and the art/design world?
Beer can art is definitely a growing trend, and something that I wanted to contribute to with Zero Issue's can designs. My girlfriend and have actually started collecting cans and bottles that we think are particularly nice. Obviously I love packaging and graphic design, but I think some people still see graphic design and branding as very "corporate" and not artistic. I try to treat every project like a work of art, no matter its application. I think if you design a product that simply "looks nice", like a standalone piece of art, then the product sells itself and it feels less like just an advertisement on a bottle.
Do you have anything else you'd like to add about these labels?
Funny story, since I've been working out of Winnipeg, and Zero Issue beers are currently only available in Alberta, so I hadn't had the opportunity to try their beer for myself. So naturally the tension was building and I was keeping my fingers crossed that it was good beer. And then out of the blue, my friend came back from a trip to Calgary and surprised me with some Zero Issue cans. I was super excited to finally be holding my can art with my own hands, but the cherry on top was when I finally cracked them open and they tasted super good!
Finally, do you have any personal projects outside of all this that you're excited about?
I am currently working on my first full-length graphic novel, Ark Land! It is also my first ever professionally published book, by ChiZine Publications out of Toronto. In short, Ark Land is a colourful and whimsical sci-fi adventure story about a humble fantasy world turned on its head by the arrival of mysterious alien arks. Basically it's The Legend of Zelda meets District 9. It's a project I've been dreaming of and working on for a long time, and it's easily my most passion-filled project to date. Needless to say, I am extremely excited to finish up this book and get it into the hands of the public!
When I first saw these cans before I knew anything about the brewery I was really excited to see such a different approach to a beer label. I loved the colours, the energy of the illustrations – everything about them. Since I’ve spoken to Scott, learnt more about the story behind Zero Issue and stared at the artwork for hours on end, though, I’ve realised how invested I am in the story being told here. The descriptions of each beer are beautifully crafted to pique your curiosity. Alongside the artwork they hint at more; a rich sci-fi adventure that’s unfolding somewhere, secretly just out of reach. I want to know more. I am emotionally invested in the brand. It works. The trick works!
Check out the 'Berta competition - read our interview with Pete Nguyen about his designs for Yellowhead Brewery.
Prefer something a little more abstract? Take a look at Four Winds' Notus Series, designed by Justin Longoz.