It was a perfect day for fishing—they were basically begging us to catch them.” Founder Jose Canales begins the Monday morning status meeting at his branding firm Canales & Co. by recounting his family’s Fourth of July holiday at his parents’ house on the Texas Gulf Coast. An avid angler, Canales loves being outdoors and has surrounded himself with collaborators and clients who share that passion for nature and for distinctive places, like his modernist treehouse studio in the aptly named Sunset Valley neighborhood of Austin, Texas.
Canales describes his company as a brand-building studio with expertise in identity and packaging for consumer goods as diverse as peanut butter, vodka and a taco joint. Clients have included “only-in-Austin” businesses, like SHED, a barbershop that spins vinyl and serves craft beer, along with mature brands like YETI Coolers and Whole Foods. Canales & Co.’s engagements run the gamut, from full branding programs for new offerings to specialty touchpoints like branded apparel. Once known as “the beer guys” for their package designs for Texas craft beer brands Independence Brewing and Wild Acre Brewing, the studio has evolved to serve a broader array of clients and projects and recently added a budding interior design practice to the mix.
Jose founded Canales & Co. in 2014 after nearly ten years as a designer at two of Austin’s top creative agencies, McGarrah Jessee and GSD&M. While working on accounts like Texan heavyweights Shiner Beer and Whataburger, he learned the craft—and the business—of building a brand. A line from the capabilities presentation the studio gives to potential clients states this rare combination as haiku: “an artistic lens with a sensibility of entrepreneurs.” At Abilene Christian University, Canales majored in fine arts and took full advantage of the nascent graphic design program. Now, as a small business owner himself, Canales relishes the opportunity to strategize with his clients about how smart branding can drive sales.
It’s a family business times two: Jose and his wife, Christina Canales, own the company, and brothers Zack and Gabe Guerra serve as designer and studio manager respectively, with designer Denver Gravitt rounding out the design team. In the past year, Christina has taken on a larger role in the studio—she has begun to apply her interior design talents to three-dimensional brand expression, starting with their own workplace.
Christina and Jose designed and built the two-story, two-room studio in the backyard of the two-acre property they bought in 2015. The stacked rectilinear volumes of the studio hold an informal meeting area paneled in Douglas fir planks, and up the exterior spiral staircase is a bright, shared workspace where windows and glass doors rival pristine white walls in surface area. By the printer, you’ll find a dozen liquor bottles—not a bar, per se, but a resource library for the team’s work in package design for spirits like Mission Tequila, MerryGo Spirits, and their newest libation, High Desert Vodka.
Dragonflies buzz around the breezy oak trees outside while Jose Canales takes an X-Acto to a printout of a new label design for High Desert Vodka. He carves out a window in the center of the front label, glues it onto an apothecary-like 750-milliliter glass bottle, fills it with water and sets it on a bookshelf at eye level. Peer through that window, and an illustration of a cactus on the glue-side of the back label comes to life. As you move your head, the water’s refraction morphs and inflates the cactus, animating the secret to the vodka’s unique formulation: it’s made from prickly pear cactus puree.
Ryan Springer, cofounder of Austin-based High Desert Vodka, remembers that prototype. “It was a surprise,” he says. “That’s why I enjoy working with Jose—to see things we wouldn’t have otherwise.” Canales says that “it’s so hard to catch [the shopper’s] eye on a crowded shelf. To see someone look at something I made, consider it and put it in their shopping basket—that’s a thrill from a career standpoint. And, it’s addicting.” High Desert Vodka will be on liquor store shelves in the Austin area by early 2020.
While the designers of Canales & Co. don’t subscribe to a house style, their most memorable pieces are composed of a convivial assembly of type, illustration and pattern, all cinched into a compact frame and animated by an unexpected color palette. The striking result may belie the hardworking message hierarchy at work, conveying brand and product attributes succinctly. Perhaps the best way to describe this approach is the studio’s motto, “Sharp Minds. Steady Hands.”
When they were asked to rebrand the La Posta family of wines for US importer Vine Connections, Canales and his team weighed the client’s two potentially contradictory missions: to bolster the La Posta brand in a crowded market of Argentine imports and to celebrate the unique qualities of the individual wines, each crafted from grapes grown by one of five families in Mendoza. The original labels were too uniform and confused buyers; they had trouble differentiating the wines on store shelves. Evoking Italian art deco posters of the 1930s, the new labels assert the growers’ family names, like Fazzio and Pizzella, while celebrating their European roots. La Posta’s hand-lettered new logo punctuates each label, and a filigree of gold-foil vines cradles the wine’s name.
Canales’s entrepreneurial thirst was quenched by the La Posta project. “Not only did we design a sharp, handsome label, but we were able to measure the success of the rebrand,” he says. Business goals are often defined in Canales & Co.’s proposals, and for La Posta, the target was to simply increase revenue. La Posta represented a rare opportunity to quantify the results since the company didn’t pursue any other changes, like new wine formulations or marketing efforts, when the new brand launched in 2015. Comparing sales 24 months prior to the rebrand launch and 24 months after, La Posta experienced a sustained revenue jump of 19 percent. Canales sums up, “This is one of my favorite case studies because it demonstrates that design is valuable.”
Cape May, the seaside Victorian town on the southern tip of New Jersey, probably shares little in common with the high plains of Mendoza, Argentina. However, the founders of Cape May Brewing Company craft their beers using the same passion and skill with which winegrowers tend to their vines. The upstart brewhouse was four years old when Cape May Brewing cofounder Ryan Krill and marketing director Alicia Grasso met Jose Canales. Local craft beer had gotten a late start in New Jersey, and Canales understood that his experience in Texas’s more mature and competitive market could spark a dominant head start for Cape May Brewing. The nondescript logo didn’t convey the vibrancy of beachy Cape May, nor the imagination and humor of Krill, his dad, Bob, and Chris Henke, the three founders who had given their beers names like Coastal Evacuation and Mop Water.
Canales designed a new wordmark, with a windswept script you might find on a fishing boat’s hull, and three seagulls soaring overhead to represent the three founders. Grasso says, “Here at the brewery, we have a lot of strong tools at the ready: great beer, a fun location and a really wide road ahead of us. Jose brought a strong, consistent visual representation of our company and reflected the nuances that come with it—our geography, our cofounders and our community.”
Packaging came next. With more than one hundred different brews pouring out of the beer works a year, Canales and the Cape May Brewing team knew they needed to establish a framework that could grow with the brewery’s ambitions while making room for limited runs, special collections and collaborations—the concoctions that attract and delight craft-beer buffs.
The first task was to define a system for the flagship series, which includes Cape May IPA and Devil’s Reach, a Belgian-style ale. The design team crafted a memorable color palette and wallpaper pattern for each brew. The only white space is reserved to highlight the Cape May Brewing brand and each beer’s startling illustrated mascot—a burnt orange–tinged octopus for Devil’s Reach, or an overloaded powder-blue station wagon for Coastal Evacuation. The inspiration for all these elements derived from Cape May itself. “There’s tons of color in the houses, tons of patterns from porch railings to shingles,” Canales says. “You’ve got to know it’s a Cape May beer.”
“A lot of brands would stop there,” Canales continues, “which used to be enough. Now it’s not. A standard template doesn’t address some things that move the brand forward, like innovation.” Every year, the team at Canales & Co. designs a new template for Cape May Brewing’s “out-the-backdoor” series: small-batch beers, some sold exclusively at the brewery. Last year, the subbrand theme was “coastal kaleidoscope,” colorful, flat-colored geometric puzzles printed on partially translucent wraps that extended across the can’s face, squeezing the beer names, like Great Wit Shark, into a vertical stamp on the back. The labels were easy to design, produce and apply—and, just as importantly, Instagram-ready. Canales emphasizes the importance of these brand experiments. “They scratch the itch for the brewers to get something new out there,” he says. “From a social media perspective, it helps them product test. All their branding efforts are helping them grow into an iconic brand, dominating their backyard.”
And how does Jose Canales envision the future of his own company? Canales, Christina and the team relish the small size of their treehouse studio and its family-like atmosphere. “I would imagine we’ll always be committed to branding, packaging and interiors projects for our clients,” he says. “But what if we also trusted in ourselves, and created products for ourselves? What could that do for us?” Always attuned to both the creative and business sides of design, Canales is contemplating a new revenue stream for his firm: launching their own line of consumer products. Going beyond the fee-for-service model, their small team could grow their business without the staffing demands of a bigger agency. As Canales says, “Why not give that a try? It’s easy to move the ship when the boat’s really small.” ca