September 20 2010
In the realm of the thousands of providers who support the domestic wine industry, label designers hold a high place of esteem despite being under-acknowledged and under-appreciated. However, one young, hot design shop in San Luis Obispo is changing that, bringing progressive label design to the forefront of the industry, and starting a revolution in the process.
Started by twentysomething business partners Josh McFadden and Philip Muzzy, Proof Wine Collective is proving that the story of a winery doesn’t necessarily have to equate to a staid label. In doing so, they’re also bringing attention to the fact that, ultimately, a well-crafted label isn’t merely a piece of a wine brand, it is the brand. A well-crafted label is the portal through which a wine consumer, who may never visit the winery or its web site, transposes their feelings on the wine and their future affinity for the winery.
Like all good accidental entrepreneurial stories, Proof Wine Collective has a good one, as well. Working harvest in the Central Coast a mere three years ago, McFadden found himself assisting a number of upstart wine companies on matters of marketing and design and before he knew it, instead of being a harvest intern, he was an owner of a design business serving those same upstarts. Muzzy joined him as partner in crime. The name of the business pays homage to the quid pro quo relationship the business has with several of the wineries. Muzzy says, “Our Collective Winery members hold a special position to our business. Proof began in order to support producers like them, we currently have seven: Alta Maria, Sans Liege, Folkway, Autonom, Herman Story, Field Recordings, and Native9 ... one for every day of the week ...
They were our first clients, now they’re something different. They are our brothers, our advisors, our mentors; our alter egos if we made wine. Our business started to help out these legit producers who are the underdogs of the industry: small, underfunded owner/operators. They were grocery store clerks and farm hands. They are the Young Turks of the wine industry ...”
I caught up with Proof partner Philip (the rapper to co-partner Josh’s DJ’ing) for an interview. It’s a long read, but well worth it to get a keener glimpse into the sensibility (and the creative process) that is upending the business of wine label design. Plus, Josh and Philip are exceedingly bright guys, the kind of young, smart guys you root for because they have a vision for their work that takes most other people decades to develop.
Readers who are interested in following wine packaging trends more closely should visit a newly launched blog that is dedicated to the art of wine packaging—an offshoot of the most popular packaging design site on the Internet (The Dieline), The Dieline Wine features the best wine packaging the industry has to offer with regular contributions from the guys at Proof.
A compendium of Proof work caps our interview.
Good Grape: Tell me about the collaboration with the Dieline Wine packaging blog. How did that come about and what do you hope to contribute?
Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: The editor of The Dieline, Andrew Gibbs, found Proof through a mutual friend and posted our work something like 16 times in one day. A week or so later Andrew told me about The Dieline Wine and asked if Proof might be interested in writing some articles. We decided that this would be the perfect way to share our unique perspective with the rest of the world.
We believe there are far too many disconnected elements between the design industry and the wine industry. We are some of the few people who are in a position to see this and we feel it is our responsibility to do something about it. We hope that by contributing to the Dieline Wine we will have the opportunity to educate the design industry on the basics of the wine industry and vice versa. This is important because real design isn’t about a fancy picture, market trends or something that looks good on a computer screen. It is about an experience—a moment—that a person shares with the thing they hold and see and smell and feel. It’s about conveying emotion and giving that person a reason to get excited about the experience. We believe that once the design and wine industries understand this, there will be an abundance of new ideas and an urge to apply creativity to every part of the process.
Good Grape: I view Proof Wine Collective as cultural anthropologists that create something that visually resonates with people. Is that a fair statement to you?
Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: As consumers of culture we believe that where things come from matters; history matters. Our goal is not just to sell a story but also to help people explore the story on their own. We don’t derive our inspiration from market analysis and reports but from our own experience as wine buyers, as wine drinkers, as winemakers and wine sellers, because we’ve been in every one of those positions.
Good Grape: Do you find clients “get” the design samples that you initially present to them after it goes through the Proof blender of ideation?
Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: We honestly don’t show clients a lot of (work-in-progress) and we don’t ask them to direct the work while it’s in progress. It was a struggle at first to have them trust us, but now that we’ve had some successes, it’s a lot easier. Keeping the client out of the design process is important because they’re coming to us with a problem that they’ve been unable to solve. We go wherever the problem leads in order to solve it. The more they try to tell us about the problem and about what they’re looking for, the more everything will dead end.
Our creative process doesn’t start until we believe that we understand the client. We deconstruct who they are: their dreams, winemaking philosophy, personal history, what the wines they make say, and where they fit in the marketplace. We find allegories to their story and these truths guide our direction, in this way we ensure that what we create is an honest extension of our client, even if it’s not what they imagined.
We don’t want to show them a design until we believe it’s finished; and it’s not finished unless we believe that the package, story and wine align. Once we present them with an idea and we’re behind it, very few changes are made—if any.
Good Grape: Where do you draw the line with clients – that balance of fighting for the vision and not compromising for “safe” and “the client is always right.”
Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: When we started out, people called us arrogant. We were young, outspoken, and had very high standards. For the most part we remain all these things, but people don’t seem to mind it, now that they know our ideas work. We’ve always been very selective about the wineries we work with. We have to believe in our clients and they have to believe in us. We’ll give almost anyone a meeting, listen to their story, and give advice if we think it might help, but we only take on clients with whom we feel we can build that fundamental trust. Compromise is an easy solution for two parties that don’t know how to speak one another’s language. In the end, we’re looking for clients who respect all the work we put into what we do and are willing to push the limits.
Good Grape: You do most of your work out of the Central Coast, a relatively new wine making region, where you’re pushing the progressive envelope. Thoughts on that progressiveness relative to Sonoma and Napa, more mature wine regions?
Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: All design is beholden to its context. While it’s true that the Central Coast gives us some leeway, if the question was, “If Proof were in Napa would what we do look the same,” that answer would be no. We’re not in the business of making things crazy, but we’re also not into being safe. We’re about making things that are appropriate and unexpected. Our clients have flexibility and that allows us to have flexibility. (In correspondence) You termed our designs as “fresh” and “edgy” and that’s part and parcel of the wines we work with and their appellations. In Napa, Proof would still be “fresh” but would feel familiar in a different way.
Good Grape: Do you consider the art aspect and permanence of a bottle after drinking, aside from the pull of a good label on the shelf?
Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: Wine itself has permanence. A wine must be able to maintain constant relevance because it could potentially be consumed in 20 years. This is a part of the culture of wine, that it’s about sharing a moment of history. It’s like Mouton Rothschild, by featuring a different world-famous artist on their label every year they’re saying: “every vintage of our wine is a unique expression of our history, and this is the level of experience you should expect from what we’ve made.” They’ve been able to maintain a permanence and relevance not simply because of their first growth status, but also because they’re able to deliver on that promise. We approach the work that we do with a similar level of seriousness and far-sightedness. We are always looking to make a lasting impression and work with producers that we believe can deliver that as well. It is the coming together of experience and expectation into a surprising new whole that makes a bottle art, and not the package alone.
Good Grape: Like an artist, do you feel like your body of work says “something?” Do you want it to speak to somebody as a statement or an evolution?
Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: We think of our work as an evolution. We approach every project with special attention on empathy for the end consumer. For instance, take $5 wines. A lot of our friends drink cheap wine and sometimes we do too. When Proof was starting, we never thought we’d be making labels for $5 wines. Yet we do it today because novice wine drinkers and price sensitive consumers are so marginalized by the industry at large. These consumers need advocates working inside the system; we hope to be those advocates. As Proof continues to evolve, we are actively seeking out these sympathy gaps in the industry and trying to fix them.
Good Grape: In the pantheon of design what’s more important to you – striking visual or typography?
Philip Muzzy / Proof Wine Collective: We respect both schools of thought. We switch back and forth depending on the needs of the project. Neither visuals nor typography can give you everything you need, and neither is fundamentally necessary to tell a story (for instance Chapoutier’s use of braille on his labels). The most important part of design is communicating a message in a way that incites action and frames an experience. That should be done by any means possible.
Good Grape: Thanks for taking the time to chat guys. Your work is really fresh. Keep on pushing boundaries.