By Abernathy Miller

In a growing market driven by individuality, smart design is no longer an after-thought for craft breweries. It’s a necessary business strategy.

Craft breweries aren’t fighting the mainstream, mass-produced behemoths anymore as much as they are each other. Retail shelf space is increasingly limited and the attention spans of craft beer enthusiasts are dwindling, too, as the next new trend emerges with each season. Lesser-known breweries rely on well-executed design to tell their story and illustrate the traits of a specific beer. Striking a balance between good design and a great brew is becoming one of the go-to ways of winning a coveted spot in the baskets of craft consumers.

“You can make the best beer in the world, but if nobody picks it up off the shelf you’re not going to succeed as a brewery,” said Walt Keys, creative director of Land-Grand Brewing. “You hear about the brewery business becoming a crowded market; I still believe there is a lot of room for growth, but it’s key to get your name out there and remember it. Visual cues and identity have a lot to do with that.”

According to the Craft Brewers Association, overall beer sales for 2013 were down almost 2 percent as a whole, but craft beer sales were up 17 percent. In Ohio, the number of craft breweries has surged from 45 in 2011, to 76 in 2013. Now that craft breweries are competing against each other, differentiation among brands has become more prevalent.

“Being a craft beer is no longer enough. When you’re making a purchase, you identify with the product. When you’re picking something out from a million choices, the reason to choose it is that you identify with it,” said Mira Lee, creative director of Actual Brewing Company. “You have to give people something to identify with.”

With a savvier customer base and a seemingly never-ending array of choices, brewery designers believe the key is standing out, not fitting in.

“I was told the really critical thing was that [we] make [our designs] look like beer, so [our products] would fit in on the shelf in context with the other beers. I knew right away that was horseshit,” Lee said. “Playing it safe is a mistake.”

Due to the intrinsically limiting production process, craft beer designers are more concerned about visually connecting to a specific consumer, rather than selling the most beer possible to the largest group of people.

“If you’re appealing to the lowest-common denominator, you’re dumbing yourself down,” Lee said. “Maybe that’s the way to reach the broadest audience, but I can’t make enough beer for the broadest audience anyway. [Craft breweries] are more focused on being who they are, and letting the right people respond to them. We wanted to have a more serious conversation with a more limited consumer.”

Though there is less pressure on craft brewery creatives to please a wide audience, some would argue that the stakes are higher in getting design right the first time. With more limited access points than bigger producers, it’s important to keep the message consistent across products, while still displaying the specific brew’s unique traits.

To do this, designers set static guidelines (e.g., color schemes, design elements and fonts) to work within in order to create a cohesive look across the brand. This simultaneously makes the challenge of creating both easier and more difficult.

“You set yourself limits to work within and it keeps everything on brand and consistent,” Keys said. “Working within a system is more of a challenge. It can bring out the most creative solutions. We needed to keep a consistent look but also showcase [each beer’s] personality. They all have their own specific traits and identities, but if you look at them all from a birds-eye view, they all speak Land-Grant.”

Craft brewery creatives are also keenly aware of the importance of interpretation in their designs. Since craft beer as an industry garners both camaraderie and individuality, Keys and Lee try to leave room for the buyer’s imagination to run.

“You don’t want something too specific, because you want people to put their own meaning behind the images,” Keys said.

Of course, what’s on the inside will truly determine how well breweries fare in the end. But most brewers believe the care and effort put into the perfect brew should be reflected by perfect packaging.

“If you really love your beer, and you’re putting out quality beer, you want the branding to be a reflection of that,” co-owner of Seventh Son Brewing Company Collin Castore said. “If your design is lacking, that will be an obstacle. The beer is still going to speak for itself; but the design has to get the person to the point of trying it.”

“A lot of time and effort goes into both our beer and our design,” Lee said. “But we don’t take ourselves too seriously. At the end of the day, you just drink it, right?”