Leif and Richard of Hired Guns Creative have been bringing high design to BC’s craft beer scene since its infancy. Their motto? Always judge a beer by its label.
For the second instalment of our Artist Behind the Label series, I sat down with Leif Miltenberger and Richard Hatter, cofounders of Hired Guns Creative and talented “art-chitects” (I couldn’t resist…) behind some of BC’s most celebrated craft beer brands. Longwood Brewery, Driftwood Brewery, and Whitetooth Brewing Co. are just a few whose bottles are lucky enough to bear their delightfully dark, brooding, stare-at-you-from-across-the-liquor-store designs. Hired Guns has been blessing BC beer with award-winning designs for nearly 14 years now and, according to them, they’re just getting started.
Q&A WITH LEIF MILTENBERGER & RICHARD HATTER
So, tell me about yourselves! How did Hired Guns Creative come to be?
LEIF: I originally studied music composition at Capilano University. While I was there, I started teaching myself how to build websites as a hobby. Eventually, that hobby evolved into a career as a web designer and developer. Richard and I met when we were both working at a web design company here in Nanaimo back in 2007. We clicked right away and eventually started our own web design company together. At first, we would take any job that would help keep the lights on but, eventually, we decided to niche down. We phased out the web design and focused solely on the packaging side of things. Now, 14 years in, I mostly handle new business development and Richard is our Creative Director. Our clients are concentrated in B.C. because that’s where we’re based, of course, but we serve international clients now, too.
RICHARD: I’ve always wanted to be a graphic designer. When I dig through old report cards and school stuff, it’s clear that’s what I focused on. I studied graphic design at Vancouver Island University and then did a post-grad in web design. After graduation, I dove straight into the workforce. I worked at a lot of shops and started lots of companies along the way that never worked out… but you’ve got to fail a few times to succeed, right? In the past, everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve been referred to as a “hired gun” (hence the name). Now, I’m like a proud papa. We’ve been able to grow our team substantially over the last year or so since the pandemic started and everything we’ve built is the result of a lot of hard work. This version of Hired Guns is badass—it’s gonna really propel us into something new. I’m excited about it.
What drew you toward the craft beer industry? Why do you love it?
RICHARD: Well, we were pretty into beer… ha! We started experimenting with designing labels for wineries—there are a lot of wineries here on Vancouver Island—and eventually phased into mostly breweries. The breweries were a better creative fit for us. We realized winery folks tend to be more conservative in their design, whereas the beer industry is far more game for experimentation… They pretty much let us do whatever! We were also entering the B.C. craft beer boom at that point.
LEIF: Yeah, the beginning of the craft beer boom was so much fun to be involved in. We were at the forefront of designing some really fun labels and it felt like we were creating something new from the ground up—that’s something I’ll always look back on fondly. It was really exciting. Also, I think a lot of graphic designers want to be in the craft beer industry because of the creative freedom it allows. For us, [craft beer is the] pinnacle of graphic design. There’s so much flexibility in what people are willing to do on a can. We wouldn’t think of doing anything else.
Can you give us some insight into what’s trending right now in label and packaging design?
LEIF: There’s been a trend over the last three years or so of minimalist design. Bright repeating patterns are something we see all over the place, as well. They’re quick and cheap to design, which I think has been driven by the crazy new beer release cycles we’re seeing these days (some of our clients have started releasing a new beer every week!).
We definitely watch trends, but we also try to avoid them for the most part. We keep our clients separate from the trends so they can stand out and not look like everybody else in the shop.
RICHARD: Yeah, in terms of leading-edge stuff, I can’t go into too much detail on what’s coming next for us, obviously, but there’s a lot we’re about to show the world. I’m excited about that! Definitely keep your eyes on our website for some new releases soon.
Does B.C. differ from other provinces when it comes to industry trends?
RICHARD: Oh, definitely. Because of the high concentration of breweries, B.C. has always been on the leading edge. The shelf here looks a lot different than it does in, say, rural Alberta or Manitoba. Other provinces are catching up, though. Everybody’s seeing what works here and integrating it. As far as beer styles go, in B.C. we’re seeing every designer hop under the sun and lots of milkshakes coming out right now, which you don’t necessarily see yet elsewhere. Like, in Manitoba, lagers and pilsners are still something people are focused on doing really well…
LEIF: …Yeah, and it’s not like in the East Van ultrahip, “hey, we just rediscovered lager” kind of way… ha! In terms of design, there are a lot more of what some might consider “feminine” designs in B.C. beer than there are in, say, Ontario right now.
RICHARD: Yeah, you’re not gonna see a leather-clad unicorn on the shelf there as you would here. You’ll see more forest scenes and wheat designs—that sort of thing.
You manage a lot of different brands. How do you keep things fresh when your designs all need to be different?
RICHARD: Hmm… staying well-read on history is something I personally find helpful to pull from for inspiration… But otherwise, keeping things fresh is kind of what we do! It does get difficult when people come to us because they’ve seen something specific in our portfolio (which happens quite a bit). We’re pretty paranoid about keeping our clients separate from each other—especially when they’re competing in the same market. Our designers are all pretty spread out now, too (we have people in Pittsburgh, Edmonton, and the UK), which is awesome because they all come with their own unique experiences and visual languages.
Do you and your design team have any rituals to help get you into that creative headspace?
RICHARD: As far as creative rituals go, let’s just say I used to be a lot more punk rock about it… but lots has changed over the years. I’m 40 now. I have kids. I kind of have to just show up and do it. Although, music has always been a huge driver in my ability to focus. When I sit down to work, I crush albums, get into my zone, and try to ignore as many texts and emails as I can throughout the day (which isn’t always easy).
LEIF: Yeah, we do sometimes taste the beer first, so we have an idea of where the product is going to be competing in the market and we try to design something that really speaks to the flavour of the product. I’d like to say we taste them all first, but sometimes we’re designing the label for a beer that doesn’t even exist yet.
Talk to me about some of Whitetooth’s designs—THE OUTDOOR SCENES.
RICHARD: That idea came from their camp—they really wanted the designs to revolve around outdoor activity. It totally makes sense for their brand; that’s who they are, it’s what they’re passionate about, and what they design their beer to be about. I don’t know if you’ve been to Golden, but it’s insane. It’s gorgeous. And Whitetooth owns that place, they totally do. We usually stay away from the place-based designs—we’re always pushing for new approaches and new art—but those designs make sense for them.
Longwood’s Stoutnik. I need to know how the idea for this came about!
RICHARD: That was one of the first labels we ever did! I was really bringing high design to beer at that point. It was a big fishing lure to get people interested in Hired Guns back then and it worked! It did really well. We won several major international design awards. It was one of the more expensive beers in Longwood’s portfolio at that time and they gave me 100% free rein to do whatever I wanted. We were able to spray paint the bottle black and add a blind embossed label with prism foil and a morse code story hidden in there. If you were to decode it, you’d find it reveals the tasting notes of the beer. You wouldn’t even know [the morse code] was there unless you touched it. That decision really came from our experience in the wine industry. If you watch people buy wine or spirits, they touch the labels—it’s pretty interesting; it plays into the whole purchasing decision.
I love Driftwood’s “Bird of Prey” sour series. What’s the story there?
LEIF: Yes! So, before we started working on their labels, Driftwood had a hawk fly into their brewery one day and it ended up staying for a while. They looked it up and it was called a cooper’s hawk. A person who makes barrels is called a cooper and they just so happened to be crafting some barrel-aged beers at the time, so it became the “bird of prey” series. Then, once Richard got his hands on it, he went a bit apeshit with it—it’s just so weird and cool. They’re some of my favourite designs he’s ever done.
RICHARD: Yeah, Jason [at Driftwood] kind of just lets me draw. As we continue through the series, each bird gets more and more obscure. Some of them just stare at you from across the liquor store; the stopping power they have on the shelf is pretty amazing. Those types of labels are really why I got into this—to do that kind of work.
Do you have a favourite label or series you’ve worked on?
RICHARD: Other than Bird of Prey, there’s a new series that’s also unfolding from Driftwood right now that has a cyber tech alien thing going on (you’re going to see a lot more of that type of theme coming out). It started off with Oumuamua, then it went to Eccentricity and now it’s evolved into a whole other thing. I’ve had a lot of fun with that because, creatively, it’s so “out there.” Son of the Morning we had a lot of fun with, too—that one actually got us an interview in Decibel magazine, which is a heavy metal magazine publication. All of them are my favourites, really.
Okay, final question. Honest truth: Do you judge a beer by its label?
LEIF: Not just the beer… I’ll judge the whole brewery!
RICHARD: Yeah, I know it’s “cool” to say “it’s what’s in the can that matters,” but if it didn’t matter, then you might as well just have a piece of tape on a can.
LEIF: What you do on the outside says how much effort you’re putting into what’s inside, in my opinion. I don’t think high design means bad beer, by any means. The label matters.
Is there some can art you’re currently crushing on that’s almost too beautiful to drink? (Keyword: almost.) Post your pics and tag the @bcaletrail!
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