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How one design firm helped a local brewery craft its distinct beer labels.

Since 2011, Third Ward-based design firm Translator has been working with Milwaukee Brewing Company to create a unified brand aesthetic on everything from bottle labels and the company’s logo, to its packaging and even a wrap on its distributor’s delivery truck. You won’t be surprised to learn that the “research” for this venture involved a lot of liquid gold.

Translator’s cofounders Mark Fairbanks and Cindi Thomas tell the magazine that when they first began working with Milwaukee Brewing Company and its founder Jim McCabe, they started with just that – research of the suds variety. Their team met at Sugar Maple, one of the city’s best beer bars, to observe how and why the beer drinkers ordered what they did.

“Our approach was about understanding the culture around the product,” Thomas says.

Photo courtesy of Translator.

Photo courtesy of Translator

Their logic for a brand like Milwaukee Brewing Company led them to question “if you’re going to be named after the city, what does that mean?” asks Thomas. McCabe recognized it was a big task. “We wanted [the branding] to reflect who we are but also represent the city in a cool way,” he says.

And so the Translator team kept observing, and organized discussion groups at beer haven Burnhearts, and even began following a weekly discussion between beer geeks on Twitter organized under the hashtag #beerclub. Then they went to big-time beer outlets like Discount Liquor and Sendik’s to figure out how they might set apart the Milwaukee Brewing Company brand from the rest of the suds on the shelves.

For the primary logo, they eventually settled on a hexagon shape that serves as the background for bold sans serif letters “MKE,” in the style of the airport code. The hexagon shape resembles a screw nut, they say, and serves as a nod to the city’s manufacturing past. McCabe says the shape also resembles one of the first tap handles at the Ale House, the Water Street brewpub that predated the Second Street brewery. And the color palette is more “subdued and reigned in,” Fairbanks says, which they hope will distinguish the Milwaukee Brewing Company beer from other breweries’ use of “crazy type” and a rainbow’s worth of colors.

Ultimately, the label and branding was “an extension of who they are,” Fairbanks says. McCabe agrees. The best comments he’s heard about the branding are from people “his age” telling him how much they did not like the packaging. “That’s when I knew we were heading in the right direction,” he says.

Read more about Milwaukee’s beer scene in this month’s cover story, “Something’s Brewing.”

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