In the burgeoning craft beer industry, packaging is increasingly important. Colorful and eye-catching label designs help to differentiate brands and flavors, and attract the attention of consumers faced with a plethora of choices on store shelves. Northern Michigan University alumnus Jim Young is the in-house designer for Traverse City's Right Brain Brewery. Many of his artistic creations begin as simple pencil-and-paper sketches—a nod to his bachelor's degree in illustration from Northern.
“I was hesitant about studying art for the stereotypical reasons that it's tough to find a decent job in that field, but Northern's program gave me the confidence and realization that illustration can be a viable career,” Young said. “It was a strict program that required discipline and many hours invested outside of class, but it prepared me well. I left with a solid portfolio of work to show prospective employers, which really helped, and taught myself computer-aided graphic design after graduation. The two complement each other very well in a marketable way.
“It's rewarding to utilize the skill set I began to develop at a young age and to do work I'm passionate about on a daily basis. And I must admit that walking into a store every so often and seeing your art in the beer aisles never gets old.”
Young is approaching his first anniversary as a full-time employee at Right Brain; he did some freelance work for the brewery prior to being hired. One of his favorite conceptual designs is an anthropomorphic peanut with chili pepper hair eating rice noodles. It graces the label of Thai Peanut, a spicy-yet-balanced brown ale with house-made peanut butter that is billed as “Pad Thai in a glass.”
From a visual perspective, Young is proud of his label for Social Probation, a Hazy IPA released in 2020 and promoted more heavily in recent months. Its name seemed fitting with the emphasis on social distancing during the early stages of the pandemic. The packaging features a down-on-his-luck John Strickler, an artistic shout-out to the Right Brain employee who named the brew. He is tethered to a college house similar to the one depicted in the Animal House movie, after being kicked to the curb by the deans of discipline.
The label's orange background is intentional, Young said, because color can effectively transmit vibes and emotions to customers—sometimes drawing them in before they get to the graphics and text. Heavy on the orange makes people think of citrus, or the fruit-forward flavor profile of a Hazy IPA. Green is typically identified with other IPAs. Young said the topography can also give someone a sense of the beer. If it's heavier in alcohol content, he “can get a little crazier with the design.”
More often than not, his creative process starts with a sketch he takes just far enough to illustrate to stakeholders the direction and layout, but not so far that he invests too much time in case it's not approved. If it's a go, he completes it digitally using the Adobe computer software suite. Young said he would like to use more traditional methods such as painting or pencil drawing at some point because illustration was his concentration at NMU and a passion since childhood.
“It's cheesy to say, but as soon as I could hold a pencil, I was always drawing,” said the Ortonville native and Brandon High School graduate. “I don't remember something clicking one day; it was just an activity I did all the time. I would sketch anything I was interested in, from sports stars like Chris Osgood and Michael Jordan to musicians. I received some reinforcement in high school from a teacher who had a big influence on me and was the first to encourage me to pursue illustration in college. It was a big decision. Paying for school and choosing a degree that would lead to a career I could sustain were important. I'm really happy I went to Northern. It's a hell of a school with great art and design programs.”
After NMU, Young spent a decade working on the marketing team at Stahls' in Detroit, a longtime innovator in CAD-CUT heat transfer vinyl and custom athletic numbers, letters and logos. He created trade show graphics, flyers and designs that demonstrated the capability of the company's materials.
His next position was the lead designer at an ad agency in Ferndale. Young said working for several businesses across varying sectors rather than a single company was refreshing and opened up a new world for him design-wise. Fueled by a desire to live in northern Michigan, Young moved to the Traverse City area.
“I started freelancing when I got here with Right Brain and other clients, which led me to where I am today. I wanted a more permanent job with a single company again because freelancing wasn't a long-haul solution for me. It was just a way to get up north where I wanted to live. Marquette is one of my favorite places and I would love to be there, but Traverse City was also high on my list. I love the area and Right Brain was the most exciting option and best fit for me. It allows me to utilize my creativity and true passion as an illustrator.”
Young was featured in a Northern Express story on four northern Michigan-based beer label designers. The writer praised his artistry for being “as explosively colorful and pristinely rendered as a Pixar film.” Read the full story here. View more of Young's work at jimcreates.com.