Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Is Magic Hat really trying to sink West Sixth's battleship?

I was interviewed recently for Austin L. Ray's "First Draft" series and said something about big beer not really being malicious, just out of touch, overeager, and seemingly disingenuous. But the recent hubbub over the Magic Hat lawsuit of West Sixth Brewing made me wonder if I had it wrong. 

It's hard to know exactly where the truth lies between the story West Sixth Brewing has very publicly sold as a tale of bullying, and the one Magic Hat says is an exaggeration of the truth

Back in the day (say, about seven years back) I spent many a "magical" afternoon over a pitcher of #9. As my palate has evolved (or is it the beer that's changed?) I moved on. Drinkable, sure. But not my first pick (or my second, or my third). 

The similarities seemed pretty obvious. A simple inversion of the image suggests that the differences may not be so distinct.  OK, so the West Sixth logo is off centered, a different color, and more simply designed overall, but turning it on it's head doesn't really solve the problem of copycatting in my book (and neither do their alternate sketches). For a design company, even one as widely solicited as Cricket Press to not only ignore those similarities, but continue to perpetuate them in their suggested alternatives, smacks of laziness, and suggests a lack of creativity.

Don't get me wrong. I'm already annoyed with the bad habits of bigger companies pushing around the little startups. It makes me want to hurl. Or at least write ranting blog posts that no one really reads. I get that the whole David and Goliath dynamic riles people up too. It feeds this feeling of justified outrage like nothing else. From the looks of my Facebook feed lately, I'm not the only one.

What really interests me, though, is that this is an issue of design. I'm willing to concede that maybe it's just a case of "great minds" thinking alike. After all, it's a label with a number on it. How different do you expect it to be? Surely stranger things have happened, like say, allowing Monsanto to patent a soybean.

My own ideas for a barrel-aged beer label weren't too far off from any of the one's pictured above, come to think of it. Which is pretty embarrassing. There's nothing much worse than realizing your ideas are unoriginal. 

But where the differences lie are in the details. Although the underlying idea is the same (because who doesn't want a barrel on their barrel-aged beer?) the artistry is original enough to avoid looking like tinkered versions of someone's original. The font choices, placement of text, subtleties of toning, backgrounds, and overall uniqueness of other design elements, create an overall artistry and stylistic thumbprint that distinguish one from the other. 

Would it be so difficult to choose another from the surely thousands of fonts available for the West Sixth logo to avoid the obvious similarities to Magic Hat's #9? The answer is, yes, actually. Because sixes do look pretty much just like inverted nines when you start looking at them, and with it touching the edge on the left-hand side of the circle like it does, other styles just look strange, or misplaced. They don't look integral to the design. 

But if the compass is integral to the identity of the West Sixth brand, why not make it more of a main feature? Its placement, coloring, and design only emphasize the similarity to Magic Hat's label. And unless they're trying to evoke the six directions (including heaven and earth) by having a compass so near the numeral, does it really make sense? There are plenty of other inspirations out there for compass designs, some of which actually point west.

Ultimately, it seems like it would be easier to just rework the design than to give Magic Hat grounds for a lawsuit. You're welcome to disagree, but from where I stand, it seems like West Sixth Brewing ought to be worrying more about their beer than this beer label. 

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