Label Design 101

Put an artsy label on your favorite bottle of homebrew and you’ve instantly increased its coolness factor. The bottle not only becomes more appealing to the visual senses, but the beer tastes better, too. I swear to it! Why? Because the mind has already determined that the beer has a degree of quality depending on the aesthetics of the bottle. Face it, there’s nothing exciting about a plain, brown bottle. Which is why it’s important to have labels on our homebrew.

Another important reason is because of the sixth annual BYO Label contest. Besides the chance to win great prizes, there is also the chance of seeing your very own label grace the pages of BYO. What could be cooler than that? Of course, not everyone out there has an art degree. So here are some professional graphic design tips to help you to make winning labels.

Design 101

There is a saying in the graphic design business: “Good artists innovate, great artists steal.” That being said, the best way to come up with great-looking designs is to look at great-looking designs. Look around your favorite beer store for label design inspiration. But don’t limit yourself to beer packaging. Look at all kinds of creative product packaging — soft drinks, compact discs, old vinyl LP’s, wine bottles, anything you can think of. Study the way the type and the art are composed on the packaging. Use similar color schemes and type styles.

This is a homebrew label, not a corporate label, so don’t have any qualms about ripping off art or designs. On the other hand, try to keep it original. Pull various elements — color schemes and type ideas — from two or three different designs.

The first rule in design is to use proper type styles effectively. Use type styles that are distinctive and creative, but make sure they are easy to read. Stay away from illegible scripts and italics. Stay away from ALL CAPS as much as possible. Using upper- and lower-case typefaces generally creates more visual play in the wording, thus making the type more interesting and appealing to the eye. The most common mistake made by beginning designers is using all caps with script faces. Some folks can’t resist using script faces even when they’re impossible to read.

Of course, the other graphic design rule is that there are no rules. If it looks good — it works.

Finding Art

With the Internet, art is extremely easy to find. Say you’re looking for the likeness of Elvis Presley, or some other famous person, for your beer label. Simply turn to your favorite search engine (perhaps or and type in the name of your famous person. Suddenly you have thousands of images to choose from (the King has over 200,000 sites). One thing to remember is that Web developers save their images at low resolution, usually 72 ppi (or pixels per inch), to save memory and download time. For print, resolution needs to be fairly high (at least 150 ppi), or the image size will be fuzzy and “pixilated.” To change image resolution, look for a menu item called “resolution” or “image size” to make the necessary adjustments. Do not enlarge images because you will lose resolution quality. Instead, you should find fairly large, clean images and reduce them to enhance pixel integrity.

Scanning images is probably the best way to incorporate art in labels. Scanners can be purchased very inexpensively today. A typical home scanner will generally cost between $90 and $200. The lower- end scanners may not have all the bells and whistles that a more expensive scanner has, but is sufficent for almost any home use.

Scan images at a fairly high resolution (at least 150 ppi). When scanning images from magazines, newspapers or other print, you may notice strange patterns appearing on the scan. This is called a “moiré pattern” and it happens when the dots in the image overlay the pixels of the scan. The result is misshapen pixels on your monitor. Check to see if your scanner software has a “descreen” option and turn it on. There are usually three descreening choices: newsprint, magazine and art print. Click the appropriate option for the type of art being used or try each option until the best scan is found.

If your scanner does not have a descreen option, try tilting the image at several different angles until you find a scan with the clearest image. By tilting the image, you will be changing the way the pixels and the dots overlay. Remember that with photographs or other continuous tone prints that descreening is not necessary because the image is not composed of dots.

Label Diagnostics

It’s important when making labels to keep in mind the image area that is viewable on the bottle. A good label design should be completely viewable from one angle (it should not be necessary to rotate the bottle to read the beer’s name). Most labels read horizontal and are taller than they are long.

An average professional beer label measures approximately 2 3/4-inch wide by 4 inches high. This is a good, generic size to go by. However, designers can be creative with size too. A couple of years ago a very innovative design won grand prize in the annual BYO label contest, although the label was just about too tiny to read. The creative touch was the plastic magnifying glass that was neatly tied to the neck of the bottle. Just goes to show the art that graces the bottle can be as creative as the brew inside.

Paper, Adhesion and Bottles

A lot of homebrewers use prefabricated, self-adhesive mailing labels that they can run through their printer. These labels are easy to use because the brewer need not worry how to affix the label to the bottle. The design is merely centered in a template, printed, then peeled and pasted on the bottle. This works well enough, but a huge amount of creativity is lost here because one is forced to use the restricted dimensions and paper color provided by the manufacturer. Also, the adhesive used on these labels can be rather hard, if not impossible, to remove.

A better idea is to use a glue stick to apply your label. Glue sticks are easy to find and can be bought in any craft store. Simply dab the corners of your label, apply a small amount of glue in the center, and carefully apply to the bottle. The label peels off quite easily and this gives the designer more freedom when determining label size, paper style and shape.

There are many really cool paper styles out there, from colored, textured and marbled paper to onionskin and more. Look for specialty paper shops in your yellow pages and go check out their selection. Onionskin looks fantastic on a clear bottle.

Which brings us to the last touch — bottles. Don’t be afraid to stray from the norm when packaging your beer. Sure, this is about labels, but creative designers are concerned with the entire visual field of the package. Try some unique bottles, painted bottle caps or interesting accessories. Go all out! The judges are anxiously awaiting your entries.

Issue: February 2001