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How did you discover you wanted to be a designer? Ever since I was small, I have loved making things, but I never imagined doing it for a living. Growing up in the ’70s, I had an older sister who had been to art school. She always had amazing books and magazines such as Graphis and Communication Arts. I would spend hours looking at them. We also had a huge record collection at home; I loved all the album covers, especially those created by artists Peter Blake, Hipgnosis and Andy Warhol. Album covers at the time came complete with books, box sets, crazy die-cuts, and incredible graphics, illustration and photography, which well and truly seduced me into loving design. When I was at school, the careers guidance was really limited—I was going to study law until my sister showed me the courses I could do in design. It was a revelation.

What led you to establish Denomination with Rowena Curlewis, and what fascinated you about working with the wine and spirits industries? Row and I started our own business for a personal reason—time to raise our families—and for a professional reason: we saw an opportunity to differentiate from other design firms by specializing in drinks. We both had quite a lot of drinks experience, and it was a design discipline we both loved. Spirits design requires so much skill, craft and attention to detail: you have to be quite obsessive to do it well.

Wine is an industry that involves so much passion and commitment—it’s a way of life. We have learned so much about viticulture, winemaking, packaging, supply lines and production finishes (and the list goes on), yet every day brings something new. Designing for wine, you are constantly learning, and that’s why we love it. When we started Denomination, one of Row’s previous clients—who happened to be Australia’s most iconic wine brand—contacted us, and it all started from there. Twenty years later, we are still working for them.

What unique challenges and opportunities does branding for alcohol present, and how does your approach differ from other types of branding? What’s different with spirits branding is that there are so many factors at play. So many different elements can become a brand’s most distinctive asset: Absolut Vodka is all about its bottle shape, Patron Tequila its big round cork stopper and Maker’s Mark whiskey its generous dipping of red wax. You have many dimensional things you can play with, which makes it so interesting. Wine branding is very different, as wine does not enjoy the profit margins of spirits: it’s costly to grow and make. Most wineries don’t have the budget to go to custom glass, although it is starting to become more popular—especially in the rosé category.

The biggest challenge with wine branding is the category is enormous. With uniform bottles, the label has to do the heavy lifting. Wine packaging is one of the most complex, difficult and sometimes baffling of any branding I have ever worked on, and therefore—for me—the most enjoyable and rewarding.

Tell me about some of your favorite projects that Denomination has worked on. I could list so many! I’ll pick two that are among my favorites because they both broke category norms. Elaborate gift boxes are prevalent in the premium champagne and sparkling category, yet most simply get thrown away, so the wastage is terrible. For Tasmania-based winery Heemskerk’s champagne offering, we recommended collaboration with silversmiths Georg Jensen and designed a sculptural, reusable stopper to cover the crown seal. This reusable stopper looked stunning on the shelf and doubled as a gift—plus, the added practical benefit of enabling customers to reseal an unfinished bottle to put back in the fridge kept the wine sparkling for up to three days.

Another is Tread Softly, a brand whose promise was a lighter wine style as well as a sustainable commitment: a tree planted for every dozen bottles sold. On the front label, the branding is deliberately tiny: not only does this entice consumers to stop and read, but it also reflects the message of the brand name and creates a quietly powerful shelf presence. The tiny branding is offset by a gorgeously sumptuous capsule and back label. To date, Tread Softly has planted more than half a million trees since its launch in May 2019.

Drinks brands have catered to conspicuous consumption for years. As designers, we need to focus on making more out of less: how to make things super desirable but also environmentally responsible.”

At Denomination, you’ve recently started an environmental initiative to future-proof your clients’ products. What does this entail? We encourage all our staff to present their passion projects to the team if they have them. One member of our staff has been a committed recycler for years; she gave us a presentation about the realities of recycling and biodegradability, how some packaging labeled as ‘biodegradable’ can take 100 years to break down, and how little is actually used from the mounds of glass we send to recycling depots. It was pretty eye-opening and kickstarted us to think about how we can make things genuinely compostable as opposed to biodegradable and how to make things reusable instead of simply recyclable. All our clients are setting sustainability goals; in order to help them, we are amassing a network of next-generation suppliers. There are amazing innovations in nonwood papers, pulp, glass and natural materials such as mushroom-grown packaging to replace cardboard and polystyrene foam. Sustainability is not a fad. Younger consumers demand it from brands, and this is what future-proofing businesses is all about.

What’s one thing that the design industry should focus on more to help the environment? As packaging designers, we need to help consumers transition away from the known and accepted. In high-end characters such as spirits, that means redefining what luxury means. We need to move away from the excess of heavy bottles, ornate stoppers and massive gift boxes that are so prevalent when you walk through the duty-free section of any airport. Drinks brands have catered to conspicuous consumption for years. As designers, we need to focus on making more out of less: how to make things super desirable but also environmentally responsible. In wine, although glass is recyclable, we need to present more environmentally friendly options—imperfect transition glass and natural-fiber bottles, among others—in an appealing and premium way to break down consumer resistance to the “shock of the new.” I see it as the same challenges that electric vehicles faced: Tesla changed all of that with its first superluxury electric vehicle, and the category took off.

What do you find exciting about design? The experience. It gives me so much pleasure. It extends far beyond graphics: great product or industrial design, interiors or architecture, theater and stage design—when it is good, it is so exciting.

When I design, what I find exciting is problem solving. I hate working to an open brief because there is no problem to solve. Design always keeps you on your toes: no matter how much experience you have, ideas are not guaranteed. When I’m working on projects, it’s always so stressful until I’ve got an idea. Then I relax and start to have fun. I love how that first idea unleashes a kind of adrenaline or creative rush, and then the ideas come tumbling out. Above all, the most exciting thing about design is finding the connection with the consumer: it’s thrilling when they love something we’ve designed. Design can make such a difference in people’s lives. We’ve designed brands that have literally saved small wineries from going broke or turned around the fortunes of others. It’s very exciting and rewarding.

Has anything recently changed your perception of the design industry? The environmental aspects of what we are designing have jumped to the forefront in the last eighteen months and are top of mind now when we are briefed by a client. COVID-19 has also changed a lot of things: as people are buying wine solely online, designs have to have a great “screen presence” as well as shelf presence.

Which designer other than yours do you most admire and why? Ivan Chermayeff is my all-time hero. As a college student, I was in awe of his work. He could design anything; his identities, collages, drawings and posters were (and still are) brilliant. Apparently, he was known to come up with a graphic solution almost immediately after a client briefing, often in the backseat of a taxi on the way back to the office. His ideas were fabulous, contemporary, bold and so original: The MoMA identity—still being used today. The gigantic red 9 for the building signage of 9 West 57th Street in New York—playful and fabulous. Using the distinctive yellow border of National Geographic for its identity icon—brilliant. The sheer cleverness and beauty of his work still dazzles me all these years later.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Always read and re-read the brief. A beautiful design is worthless if it doesn’t answer the brief. Ask lots of questions. Learn how to edit your own work. When working to deadlines, don’t labor too long over things that aren’t working and learn to move on. I worked for the legendary packaging designer Mary Lewis. She told me to always assess my work with a fresh eye the next morning. All the stuff that wasn’t working would jump out straight away, so these were the designs to bin. It was invaluable advice and is how I edit my work to this day.

Finally, with so much stuff available online, don’t look at design blogs when you’re trying to answer a brief. Look outside the category for inspiration. Go to art galleries, bookshops, secondhand stores and furniture shops. Be interested in the outside world, not just the design world. That’s where you’ll find the best inspiration. ca

Margaret Nolan is global creative director and cofounder of Denomination, a design firm based in Sydney, Australia, that specializes in spirits packaging. An award-winning designer with nearly three decades of experience in luxury drinks, Nolan has stayed true to her first love and remains a hands-on designer. Working with world-renowned brands including Chateau Ste Michelle, Dow’s, Duckhorn, Nieto Senetiner and Penfolds, Nolan holistically designs effective drinks brands to capture their tone of voice and personality at every available touchpoint.


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