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Visitors look twice when they pass by the Fort Point Beer Company at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. The colorful mosaic of beer cans, stacked wall-to-ceiling, fascinates viewers and inspires comments from all ages. Conceived by San Francisco–based design firm Manual, the wall speaks the language of Fort Point’s brand: spirited and welcoming with an imaginative appeal that draws you in for a second look.

From left to right: Caroline Reece, Eileen Lee, Jenna Boulé, Jerod Rivera, Patricia Callaway,
Tanner Irwin, Tom Crabtree.

“We’re the fastest-growing local brewery, and one of the fastest in the country,” says co-owner Justin Catalana, who started Fort Point with his brother, Tyler. He credits Manual for helping them develop their company into a timeless brand. “Our customers enthusiastically love the packaging,” he adds. “Almost more than the beer.”

Catalana’s sense of humor is not lost on Manual, which found just the right expression of playfulness in the brand’s identity to balance the rigor and simplicity that runs throughout its work. By including San Francisco’s architecture, placemaking and landmarks as icons, Fort Point’s design works as a modular system, providing endless color variations and illustrative combinations that adapt to different materials and packaging.

In the seven years since Manual began at a rented desk in a friend’s studio, it has become a successful design and branding agency, producing design systems, communications and packaging for Google, Nike and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). Having recently moved into a massive industrial building on San Francisco’s southern waterfront, the full-time staff of seven and a year-round intern work together with owners Patricia Callaway and Tom Crabtree in a large workspace filled with natural light.

The company has attracted big projects while retaining its small size by developing an extended family of collaborators—developers, photographers, writers and brand strategists—whom Manual values and trusts. “We’re interested in helping our clients consider many touchpoints, from copywriting to photography, image making, motion and interaction,” says Crabtree, 41. “We want to do it all, not just because we are control freaks—it really does help a brand feel more coherent and integrated.”

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Language and messaging are an important part of its work with the YBCA. The arts center wanted to rebrand as a unique arts organization deeply committed to civic engagement. “We needed a strong visual language that’s not strident or elitist and could work across the vast array of the things we do,” says Jennifer Martindale, chief of marketing at the YBCA. “And we needed a design framework that we could eventually execute ourselves with limited internal resources.” 

Manual designed a vibrant identity within a flexible graphic system and a logo that can be both anchor and point to content. It also created messaging for a language-based awareness campaign with phrases such as “Center for the Art of Doing Something About It” and “Center for the Art of Transporting Hearts and Minds.” Written by regular collaborator David Begler, it launched with bus sides, billboards and banners all over San Francisco. “From the graphic design to the language, Manual captured the punk rock, progressive spirit of YBCA while also giving us some much-needed gravitas,” says Martindale.

According to Crabtree, Manual is obsessive about detail and design craft. “Yes, it’s simple,” he says. “But there can be a level of complexity in the detail, especially when it comes to print and packaging production.” Crabtree’s fascination with packaging goes back to his collections, from old Graphis packaging books from the 1970s to Japanese teas to industrial graphics. 

“Packaging can surprise you, intrigue you and seduce you,” he says. “The way that you lift the lid off, the suction it might have from that, the way something could snap closed and reveal slowly—or lift—and surprise all at once. There’s always some anticipation and excitement in that last moment when you reaffirm you’ve made the right choice and you say, ‘I feel good about this.’ That’s user experience.”

Growing up in Yorkshire, in northern England, Crabtree was obsessed with music and the expressions of image making on book and album covers, but it wasn’t until he attended the University of Leeds in Yorkshire and discovered the work of Piet Zwart that he understood what graphic design could be and the simplicity it could have. “I absolutely fell in love with Josef Müller-Brockmann and the Swiss, Dutch and German designers of Swiss style in the postwar period,” he says.

After graduating, Crabtree moved to London and worked at several design studios with underlying modernist sensibilities. Within eight years, he had developed a prolific portfolio of design and packaging projects. It was here that he and Patricia Callaway, an American working in marketing and communications, were married. And, in 2006, the couple left London for an opportunity in California with Apple.

We’re interested in helping our clients consider many touchpoints, from copywriting to photography, image making, motion and interaction. We want to do it all, not just because we are control freaks—it really does help a brand feel more coherent and integrated.” —Tom Crabtree

Crabtree joined Apple specifically to work in its packaging design group. “It was a really exciting time to be there, working for a great team on this secret new product called the iPhone,” he says. The Apple process involved looking at all aspects of a design to consider how each could be elevated in a small incremental step. And then do it again and again. “That’s what gets inside you at Apple,” he says. “This pursuit of perfection.”

Working for Apple required a different pace and workflow and a new level of focus—all valuable lessons. After a few years, however, Crabtree missed the variety of working with different clients and solving problems in different industries. He was excited by the prospect of starting the kind of design studio he had experienced in London: boutique and multidisciplinary, with a focus on identity. “I have a more European design sensibility and experience in building identities for clients in food, drink, fashion, and arts and culture, and I wanted to bring that experience to San Francisco,” he says.

Meanwhile, Callaway was expecting their first child. When she later joined him as a partner running the business side of Manual, she discovered “the appeal of having a role in a company where the days are never the same and the challenges are never the same”—her favorite part of the business. “We work with so many different types of people, and that’s something that I love.” she says. 

One of those people is Jonathan Lee, creative director, Material Design at Google. Lee and his New York team designed Google’s new user interface under Matías Duarte, Google’s vice president of design. Known as Material Design, the interface is a design language extended to all of Google’s desktop, tablet and mobile products. To help celebrate Material Design’s launch in 2014, Google turned to Manual.

“It was the first time Google really put a flag in the ground as an investment in good design,” says Crabtree. Google wanted a takeaway to give to designers and developers who attended its annual I/O conference in San Francisco. Manual created a sketchpad and a set of abstract graphics that expressed Material Design’s principles through a limited edition set of tactile, lavishly printed postcards.

After the conference, hundreds of e-mails were sent to Manual requesting the printed pieces. “It was fun to watch [attendees] passively collect a postcard kit and walk away, only to return and ask for multiple copies for their design teams,” says Lee.

I have a more European design sensibility and experience in building identities for clients in food, drink, fashion, and arts and culture, and I wanted to bring that experience to San Francisco.”—Tom Crabtree

The next year, Manual designed the award Google presented to the six best apps applying Material Design to create engaging user experiences. The team produced a 3-D object made of painted layers of Corian that Crabtree describes as “an ode to Josef Albers,” the artist best known for his series of abstract colors nesting in squares. “We were looking back at minimalist art and sculpture as something that excited us,” he says.

“Manual has a talent for presenting work that appears simple in mocks or comps and for surprising you with a sensitivity to material and careful attention to finishing details,” Lee says. “You can see this in both projects. For example, the die-cut and glued paper in the postcards, the hidden perforation in the sketchbook, the cool heft of Corian for the awards.”

Inside Manual’s office, the team sits at a central table, collectively engaged and working independently. There is a familial ambience, except for one distinct difference: unlike a real family, they appreciate each other’s eclectic musical tastes. Electronic, ambient, African, classical, post-punk, dub and hip-hop music plays constantly throughout the day.

The diversity in the studio is also evident in the works in progress. Photos of a new luxury coffee are pinned up on one wall, next to images of a Waymo, Google’s self-driving car. Crabtree loves the mix and keeps an eye out for projects with tech, arts and culture, environmental, nonprofit, and health organizations. He is particularly intrigued by brands seen by millions of people every day. “It’s a cliché,” he says, “but [designing] a transportation system identity, such as a city’s metro or an airline, would be fantastic.”

As for his dream project? “SpaceX,” he says decisively. “[Its] brand identity and overall design language looks dated and seems squarely aimed at teenage boys. I would like to shift the notion that space travel should adopt a visual language that was defined in sci-fi movies from the ’70s and ’80s and move it toward something simpler, more contemporary, more human.” 

Sounds like an ambitious goal. And Manual is ready. SpaceX is developing its Dragon spacecraft to colonize Mars and will need a flexible design system. As Crabtree declares, “Who doesn’t want to design a logo that floats about in space?” ca

Ruth Hagopian began writing about fine art at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she received her MFA. She was a cofounder of Visual Strategies, a design firm in San Francisco, and writes about art and design.

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