How To Get The Most From Your Wine Label Designer

by Paula Sugarman, Owner/Creative Director of Sugarman Design Group

“Good Design Is Good Business.”
Although Thomas Watson, president of IBM, made this statement in the 1950’s, it still applies today. He was talking about computers, but it makes sense for the wine industry too. In this fast paced world, memorable, effective design is more important than ever. Good design communicates the key qualities of a product in a flash. For wine, it is a hint of what’s inside the bottle.

So how does one go about getting the most from a wine label designer? Yikes! Seems I have more to say than I thought.
Here are a few pointers:

1 – Choose A Good Designer
Choose a designer who is professionally trained. This will result in the most effective, memorable and professional message for your branding. Choose one that has experience with wine labels, this will yield the best print quality and insure the label looks great in the market, in the ice bucket and on the dinner table.

2 – Consolidate Your Decision Makers
The best results begin with a consolidated team of decision makers. These are folks who have a vested interest in the winery, are intimately involved in the creation of the company or the wines they produce, and are active in formative decisions about the company and it’s brand messaging.

Less is more
As a general rule, the fewer folks on your decision making team the better. The old adage holds true, too many cooks spoil the broth. However, if your company is large enough to have a key staff member dedicated to marketing, their in-depth knowledge will make them an integral part of the team.

Involvement In Every Step
All members of the decision making team should attend every meeting so they are part of the entire design process. This gives all players the opportunity to share their insights and have a say in the final design. Although attendance in person is preferred, it isn’t always possible. In this case teleconference meetings with online presentations can be arranged.

3 – Clearly Identify Goals
It’s important for the decision making team to be unified on the goals and priorities of the project before meeting with the designers. Developing a design brief which clearly communicates your objectives will save time and generate the most satisfying results. This may sound intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be difficult or formal. Here’s a short outline specifically for the wine industry.

Design Brief Outline

  1. - Project Parameters
  2. - Scope of Work
  3. - About The Company
  4. - About The Wine
  5. - Sales & Distribution
  6. - Long Term Goals

Click here for a more comprehensive list of Design Brief Questions.

4 – Need Help Clarifying? Ask Your Designer
If you can’t gain consensus on the goals of a project, ask your designer for a recommendation. There are times when a professional outside of the organization can offer a more objective view. 

5 – Getting To The Gold
Designers are trained to uncover information that may not be foremost in your mind. We look for the special little gems that differentiate your wines from others. They can provide talking points for your sales team and inspire consumer interest. We ask a lot of questions that can seem tedious and inconsequential. It can require patience and a lot of deep breathing. But that’s what it’s like mining for gold. So be expansive even at the risk of talking too much. You don’t know which tidbit of info will provide the impetus for a grand theme.

6 – Be Prepared With Lots Of Examples
We ask our clients to bring examples of designs they love and designs they hate. Our objective is not to copy, but to note similarities in your preferences. Anything goes from wine labels to samples from other industries: logos, advertising, books and historical reference. These will give us an idea of your tastes and an indication of designs that will never fly. If we know you hate that torn paper look, we can save time by avoiding those kinds of concepts. It’s a little like building a house. If the architect knows you want a contemporary home with lots of glass and clean lines, he can take a pass on concepts for a Victorian dream house.

One of our clients, Red Oak Vineyard, hired us to create a label for their award winning cherry port. The name was Captain Nick’s to commemorate an uncle who was a tugboat captain on Lake Michigan. They brought the collection below to our project initiation meeting.

Captain Nick was a tugboat skipper in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin

Captain Nick was a tugboat skipper in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin

7 – Be Open To New Ideas & Directions
Your designer should be privy to all ideas and expectations for this new label. At the same time, you are paying them to come up with something better than you ever can yourself. If you do have a sketch, your designer should definitely see this. Explain what you like about it, what the vision is. Then set ‘em loose and see what they come up with. Take advantage of their extensive training and experience by giving them a clean canvas. Think of your ideas as part of the paints on their palette.

However, if your mind is already set on a specific design or composition and you’re not interested in pursuing better options, you may not need a designer. A graphic arts specialist can do the technical work. You will not get the same level of creativity, but that’s not what you are looking for. This honest assessment will save a lot of time and money.

8 – Work Out The Schedule Up Front
If you know there’s a project coming down the pipeline, give the designer a call and let them know. That way you’ll be in their schedule when you’re ready to get started. The project can be assessed to see how much time should be allotted for design, TTB approval and printing. Getting to the perfect idea can take time. It may take a few rounds of refinements to accomplish your goals. There are also certain times of the year that printers have long lead times. It’s always good to check.

9 – Critique, Not Criticism
A smart designer will present an array of ideas for your review. Your feedback will be paramount in creating a label that hits the mark for you and your customer. Designers are trained to be thick skinned when it comes to a critique. But there is a difference between feedback and criticism: “Torn paper looks out of date” is feedback. It tells us why the design doesn’t work for you. “I don’t like it” is also valid feedback, but more info about why will be more helpful.

10 – Remember Your Audience
Whether a large winery or an exciting startup, it’s important to stay focused on your target market. Presentations may contain concepts that are not your style, but are perfect for the target consumer. If they like it, you will like the sales dollars they bring in. Alternatively, if you are a new winery, destined to stay small for a while, the label will be the first impression of your company. It’s important that you are personally happy with the label design since you will be living with it for a long time.

11 – Look At It In Context & Live With It
Once a design direction or two have been chosen, be sure to look at mockups on actual bottles. The design may not work as well as it does in a drawing. Whether retail, tasting room or restaurant table, look at the mockups in the environment they will be purchased. This is an often overlooked step. If you have the luxury of time, keep them on your desk for a while to live with. You’ll know it’s right if you still like it in a month. However, be prepared. This will drive your designer crazy. Our designs are like our children. To have one spending the night without supervision makes us worry.

12 – A Word About Your Mom, Cousin Ernie & Focus Groups
It’s good to get feedback from friends and family if they are your target audience. But don’t forget they are not privy to the goals and info of your design decision team. If Mom hates the label, but it is targeted at the millennial generation, her preferences may not be valid. Alternatively, Cousin Ernie, the rap artist, may not be attracted to an estate-bottled design with an etching of a chateau. Both are good resources to see if your message is being clearly communicated. Does the label tell them that the wine is high quality? Is the type readable? Does the chateau look like a log cabin?

Consumer focus groups often have a similar dynamic. They are looking at the product outside of the environment where it will be sold. They are also usually uncomfortable with designs they haven’t already seen in the marketplace. This leaves little room for ingenuity. Take the example of Herman-Miller’s Aeron chair, the best-selling chair in the history of office furniture. Focus groups said they hated this groundbreaking chair. It was too different for them to understand. But it was an immediate hit when put in the marketplace and has been emulated many times over.

Graphic designers went into this business because they are passionate about creating beauty. But our practical natures drove us to pursue design instead of fine art. It is the combination of these qualities that will yield the best results. Give us abundant information, come with an open mind and you will receive beautiful, effective results.

“In addition to a well-developed system for doing business, brand identity probably is a franchisor’s most important stock in trade.”

– USA Today


Paula Sugarman is owner and creative director of Sugarman Design Group, a California graphic design studio specializing in brand identity, wine label design and food package design.


2 thoughts on “How To Get The Most From Your Wine Label Designer

  1. Leroy Yamaha

    I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it. I have bookmarked your site to check out the latest stuff you post.

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