Reflections on Beer Design by James Ockelford

Following our nomination in the ‘Best Branding and Design’ category of the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards 2017, we asked North Brewing Co’s designer (and old friend) James Ockelford to write about his influences, his approach, and his thoughts on what happens when the worlds of beer and graphic design collide…




I would describe North Brewing Co design as a filtered, structured eclecticism.

Many influences went into the mix: Cold War Soviet propaganda, African textile design, European sign writing, post punk record sleeves and American minimalism. These all played a role in the North Brewing Co designs. They are influences I was drawn to that seemed to fit.

Rather than focusing on distinctive illustrative styles – we developed a palette of layout rules to direct our designs including the use of a 10 degree angle and the arrow element from the logo.

The end result for the initial designs was minimal, clean, 2-colour printed labels with repeating patterns and oversized 4 letter codes that allow for easy identification in dark bar-like environments. Bright, high-contrast colours were used to identify each of the core range beers.

There’s room for interpretation, and these general principles have been extended to collaboration beers with the introduction of the HOPS NOT HATE logo / the Het Uiltje owl / or a post-punk op art pattern on the recent Verdant collaboration, but the look and feel is still distinctively North.

One thing is for sure – the beer scene has changed/developed/grown massively.

Especially over the last two decades since I’ve been drinking and working at/with/for North Bar, which is often referred to as the first craft beer bar in the country. When I was at Leeds College of Art and Design in late 90’s (around the time when the flagship North Bar on New Briggate first opened), I wrote an essay on the relevance of design to music and how the two become entwined; the design ultimately celebrates (or betrays) the values of the band/record label, and I could make an argument for beer production and packaging being a similar situation.

Much has been written about music and design. Years ago I saw one of my favourite designers’ work being used for The Spice Girls and it made me sad. It was gross, cynical and commercially driven. It was exactly what was required for a Spice Girls release. It was about catering for a specific market. Fair enough.

But at the same time, hundreds of record labels across the USA and Europe were releasing beautiful and exciting music with packaging to match… designers and artists worked hard to produce original work that compliments the creative process behind the music – rather than simply copying popular trends that seemed to go hand in hand with record sales. Of course, the best music and the best design is not always massively lucrative. My view… I’d rather work with Tortoise or Unwound than for the marketing department of a label for One Direction or Celine Dion.

It’s little wonder I find myself ranting about music when I think about my design for North, as shortly after I first met Christian (North Bar/North Brewing Co director) around 20 years ago, I soon found myself designing live visuals for the band that he was in at the time. It’s also no surprise that alternative music references  (Joy Division, Stone Roses, Bjork, The Fall) find their way into the beer names, which all contribute to the personality of the brand.

Beer is not an essential part of life.

In my opinion, anyone drinking beer purely for the alcohol is wasting money. There’s a lot of joy in drinking a good beer – this, for me at least, is the result of the skill and creativity of the brewer. Effort is required to make something delicious and interesting. The objective of brewing has to be amazing beer – not simply financial gain. The design of beer packaging should reflect this positive attitude – but they must work commercially so the best intentions of the designer do not sabotage the business. Obviously, profit is required to keep the best breweries open – keep good people in work and good beer in fridges.

The last year in particular has seen a creative explosion in the beer world. I neglected to say ‘craft’ beer because it is clearly overflowing into the mass-produced beer market. Large agencies are using design to project “craft values” onto large-scale brewing. Of course this is happening – because it makes money – but big companies mimicking the styles of well-known designers who are operating in the craft beer scene doesn’t sit well with me.

Where my work fits into this…

I can see the two competing influences on beer design in general. Yet my position is quite simple really – I am very proud to be associated with North Brewing Co and the amazing beer they’re turning out. I try not to think overly about what other breweries are doing. The work for North should alway be relevant within the perceived beer scene but not deferring to existing illustrative or design styles.

Commercially, I set parameters in place to ensure that North branding reflects our personality and is distinctive enough to be identified without the use of prominently positioned logos. The minimal and playful design approach and those arrows should hopefully mean something good to people who have tried North beer. This is a commercial decision as well as a creative one – but one I proudly stand behind.

The motivation behind creating anything – be it music, beer or packaging cannot be overstated. Ultimately – credibility has more value that short term profit. That’s the driving force behind my work for North Brewing Co.

James Ockelford (Refold Design Agency)

September 2017