HOW Online 8.30.16
In 2008, RICHARD HATTER AND LEIF MILTENBERGER HAD GOTTEN “FED UP WORKING FOR OTHER PEOPLE,” and decided to leave the agency where they’d met and first collaborated on websites. And so they launched their own two-person firm on Vancouver Island, British Columbia (just northwest of Seattle), and dubbed the operation Hired Guns Creative. In the beginning, they took any work they could get, but as they discovered strategic advantages of specializing, the two made a concerted choice to focus their talents.
“With products like Squarespace and content management systems making web design so accessible, we could see the whole web industry starting to put itself out of business,” says Hatter, Hired Guns’ creative director. “We knew that branding, packaging and high-end print work wouldn’t be so quick to disappear, because it requires unique skills and knowledge of specialized printing processes like embossing and die lines.”
“At the time, we didn’t have a single winery as a client,” says Miltenberger, the agency’s business director. “But we could see that as an industry wineries valued good design—visit a tasting room or review wine packaging and branding and you can see it.” And yet, there was plenty of room for improvement. Very quickly, the two became known as “the wine guys” on the island, which was a little too specialized for their liking. Then one day representatives from Longwood, a local brewery, literally walked through the door, said they’d seen the agency’s work, and wanted some packaging redesigned.
“After working with a few craft breweries and distilleries, we found we were a much better fit creatively,” says Miltenberger. “Wineries are fairly conservative, and we’re not—we felt like we weren’t allowed do what we’re capable of. But the beer guys will let us do almost anything, and the spirits guys have such margins on their products that we can suggest fun packaging ideas to them—like putting gin in a box, just like Scotch—and they’ll say ‘Go for it.’”
Early work for Longwood, including Stoutnik (a Russian imperial stout), garnered recognition from The Dieline, For Print Only, and Packaging of the World in 2013. Coven Vodka, which featured a unique glow-in-the-dark label, was highlighted in Applied Arts and Communication Arts. Right around that time, Hatter and Miltenberger decided to focus exclusively on branding and packaging for the alcohol industry, and stopped accepting other client work.
Driftwood was the next brewery that allowed Hired Guns to delve into gothic imagery, with concepts like Twenty Pounder Double IPA and Old Cellar Dweller, which features a skeleton on the label, and red wax that hints at dripping blood.
“I’m a pretty dark dude,” says Hatter. “Any chance I get to put a demon or something dead on a bottle, I’m gonna do it. At the same time, the client has to be able to stand behind the brand, so that people will believe that it truly represents them.” Miltenberger echoes the sentiment: “We try to create designs for people that they can back up—something they’re comfortable with on a personal level. because a beer label is kind of like a tattoo: These guys have to wear these designs for many years.” Labels for Longwood’s Island Time and Big Rock’s Citradelic showcase the agency’s range.
From their perch in British Columbia, Hatter and Miltenberger have seen the industry change dramatically.
“The sheer volume of new breweries is staggering both in the states and in Canada, so the shelves are getting crowded,” says Miltenberger. “Add that to the fact that in the craft beer world, there’s a mindset that new is good. If a brewery isn’t pumping out new products all the time, it doesn’t matter how good that same old IPA is. A crowded marketplace and a demand for new products is fantastic for us, but if you go into a liquor store and take a look at the craft beer section, every label is screaming as loud as it can, which means it takes a lot of work to capture someone’s attention.”
And ultimately the packaging can only do so much.
“We tell our clients, ‘We’ll get them to try it once,” says Hatter. “But if they don’t come back— well, that’s your fault.”
See more of Hired Guns’ work on their site: http://hiredgunscreative.com.