Premises & Approach

As with any problem solving process, we must do our best to establish the contextual premises that frame it.  The first thing I should mention about what I’ve done for MWT so far in terms of the rebranding design is that my perspective about the work needing to be done has changed somewhat from when I first started.  It’s become that of someone wanting to give expression and clarity to shared desires that are already present within the organization itself.  I see myself as less of a visual architect and more of a house cleaner, someone who isn’t trying to build something totally new but rather someone who is trying to uncover what is already there.  That may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s my observation that designers can have a tendency to bring their own preconceptions, agenda, style, etc. to the table and filter their work through more of their own lens than that of whoever they are working for, and then project whatever they think their client wants to hear onto essentially whatever the designer felt like doing.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact, I’d guess that most of the time this can function well for organizations that haven't quite nailed down their own sense of identity or voice, so they hire designers who resonate with the direction in which they’d like to go.  That, however, is not what I discovered to be the case with MWT’s rebrand.  At least not totally.

After receiving plenty of feedback about the current and past designs MWT has had, as well as having the critically important opportunity to sit down and listen to what some of the members had to say about their vision for the brand, I’ve been challenged to move in directions that are somewhat out of my comfort zone.  Monticello Wine Trail is a diverse organization in that it is formed around a few shared goals by members who all have different tastes, styles, and aesthetic preferences.  What I’ve understood my job to be is to first realize that the MWT has two kinds of “customers”.  Its members are one kind of customer of course, but while MWT’s brand design relates in some ways to its members, all of whom might have their own aesthetic proclivities, the chief reason for the organization to spend some of its resources to improve its visual appearance because of how it relates to the second kind of customer.  That second kind of customer, as I understand it, is any potential customer of a MWT member winery.  So, I say this has all been out of my comfort zone simply because rather than designing one brand representing one business (like all other branding projects I've taken on), MWT is one brand representing multiple businesses, which all have their own brand.  I have tried and am still trying to find the sweet spot between the the poles of that which would look too generic and simplistic in the context of the general public and that which would look off-brand or obtuse in the more narrow context of relating to any of MWT’s member brands.

Whether or not I’ve done a good job of splitting that difference is discernible will have to be judged for itself.  For now, I’ll just begin by sharing what I feel the issues are that my work needs to address, given my impressions from the feedback and information I’ve gathered.

Defining the issues

Relevance.  As with anything that stands the test of time, the question to be asked is not “is this relevant?”, but rather “how is this relevant?”.  By my estimates, people have wanted to drink good wine for a very long time, and probably will for a great while longer.  It’s my strong opinion that the brand should not enter into the vast array of brands insisting that they matter, and making assertions about about what matters and what doesn’t (and, of course, whatever they have a vested interest in matters).  Instead, the first stride in the direction in which I think the Monticello Wine Trail brand should head is to make a certain set of presumptions about the justification of its existence.  These aren’t all the presumptions we could make, but these are the ones which I think most influence my work as they relate to branding and design decisions.  Forgive me if these sound insultingly simple:

  • People like wine, particularly good wine.
  • People like stories, especially ones which relate to them.
  • People like pretty things, consumed and/or observed.
  • People like good, memorable experiences.
  • People like to feel culturally sophisticated.

It might be just me, but if I can ask questions of a design which are founded on specific presumed truths about its context, then I’m able to better determine whether that design is “good” or “bad”.  So, as I’ve been working on the MWT designs, I’ve been working as if whoever interacts positively with the MWT rebrand likes good wine, enjoys stories, likes pretty things, and finds pleasure in feeling culturally sophisticated.  This means that I’ve been working as if the Monticello Wine Trail is already relevant in an objective sense because of its subject matter (good wine), and that the issue of relevance is merely at the level of style in communication.  In other words, by operating on the presumption that the people who want to “discover the birthplace of American wine” already are interested in doing so, the brand’s design is free to focus more on illustration than information—to entice rather than to convince—people are already convinced that they like good wine, we just have to show them where to get it and why it's better here!

Clarity.  Not dissimilar to the issue of relevance but still an issue by itself is clarity, specifically—clarity of information.  I’ve gathered that one of the challenges of the Monticello Wine Trail as it relates to the general public is communicating clearly what exactly it is and how it can help people get what they want, which, as we’ve presumed, is good wine, personally relatable stories, pretty things, making good memories, and the pleasure of cultural sophistication.

I know MWT is so much more as an organization than a pretty, oenophiles information hub, but as far as the rebranding and website's main functions are concerned, that seems to be the most important function—to show off all the beautiful vineyards and delicious wines in the Monticello AVA!

Design thinking

I’ve already shared this with Sarah, but so anyone else may better understand how I approach abstract design projects like this brand identity design, below is a basic outline of how I usually think about and execute branding projects.  I like to illustrate the process by using the analogy of how trees grow, or in this case, we could say how grapes grow!  There are three steps or phases:

The Soil. The first part of the brand identity development process is for me to understand all I can about a brand's "soil". All the pertinent information about an idea and its purpose form the soil of a brand.  The things that people don't always see are usually the things that are actually most important, influencing what people do see.  Just as soil sustains whatever grows in it, so the intangible abstractions like ideology, context, target audience, mission and values, etc. form the soil of a brand's visual identity and sustains the logical outworking of those concrete things which I call the "roots" of a brand.

Roots, or if we take the analogy closer to home here, the “vines”, of a brand are the foundational visual concretions that inform and support all future growth and expansion—the DNA that determines the nature of the practical visual applications of a brand.  The three most common and important "roots" are brand marks (logo and variations thereof), color, and typography.  Those three elements all work together to influence the observable nature of a brand's visual communication.  Without a strong root system, a tree dies—the same is true of a brand.

The Fruit is the contextual application of the "roots" to produce and sustain "fruit".  The "fruits" of a brand are the various touch points in the real world that people take in, or "eat", if we continue the analogy.  This means everything from packaging to digital ads, photography to copywriting—everything that people interact with from a brand shares common roots that can be traced back to the very core nature of a brand.

Put succinctly, we can know a tree by its fruit (or should I say vine?!)—it's the same with a brand.  And just like we can't change a fruit without changing its root, a brand can't affect cohesion in its “fruit” without first defining and understanding its “soil” and “roots”, so I like to follow the natural progression from soil, to root, to fruit.



The Soil

I distill my research, discovery, and analysis down to some key words that form parts of the “soil” that will help me better determine how the “roots” of the brand designs are formed.  These words are carefully chosen qualifying criteria that simply help make design decisions by asking the question “Is this design _____?”

The feedback I received from MWT members regarding the current brand and design was very informative, making the development of the brand’s “soil” relatively painless.  The keywords that should define the brand’s soil can be divided into three separate categories of inflection.  It may be helpful to think of these inflective categories as elements in soil, the proportions of which will in turn affect the “taste” of what is produced.

  • Category 1 — Exuberant, fresh, energetic,
  • Category 2 — Refined, elegant, simple
  • Category 3 — Classic, historical

From these constraints, I can create aesthetic formulas that act somewhat like a trellis, guiding the roots as they’re just starting to take shape.  Here’s are a few examples of the kind of formulaic constraints that can be put into place now that the soil is better understood:

The design must be energetic but not too bold or zany or else it will not be elegant.

The design must be simple but not too minimalistic or else it will lose some of the warm that more classic and historical designs usually exude.

The design must be historical but not too intricate and stylistic or else it won’t feel fresh and energetic.

And so on...



Sprouting the roots...

Taking into consideration the constraints and all that's been covered so far, this is where the process gets a little more "messy".  I'm still refining and working on finishing a lot up, so I'll just show various concepts that I've been working on and make notes on them as I think elaboration is necessary.

A few notes overall:

Custom typeface/font

One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to make some showable progress is because I didn’t feel like there was a typeface that had the right combination of classic, old-world feel, combined with more simple, clean legibility of the modern world—so I’ve been making one.  I’m hoping I can use for the branding of Monticello Wine Trail across all sorts of applications.  That’s why you see the multiple weights of the font—the thinner styles can work really well when there’s more elegance needed and the application allows for larger type to be in play, while the larger type is better for smaller applications or just when the statement needs to be a little more bold.


You’ll notice that I haven’t started employing a lot of different colors.  I’m currently trying out the color schemes you’re seeing on this website as well as some of the sample designs so far, but I’m intentionally trying to keep the color to a minimum so it doesn’t influence making other important design decisions too soon in the process.

My thought process for the current color palette on the website and in the design samples is to create a more bright and fresh atmosphere, one which also complements the photography.  I’m considering deep reds, various shades of gold, and deep purple, but I think those might just feel a little too played out and stuffy.


Above is an example of how I'm working on cleaning and classing up some of the work I started for MWT in last year's brochure.  I really like the design of the tagline (and what a killer tagline it is!), but the old design is a little too grungy and masculine for the new direction, so I recreated the flourish at the bottom to be cleaner, more fine lines, and employed one of the lighter weights of the custom font I'm working on to even out the overall color of the piece.  I really like how it's turned out (see below in a more familiar context).

One of my challenges so far has been trying to marry some of the historicity of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello into a fresh take for the branding.  Jefferson is obviously a large part of the history, but with so many other organizations around town using his images, likeness, etc., and not to mention possible conflicts of copyright and such with the Jefferson Foundation, Monticello, UVa, etc., I’ve tried to find a way to still use his handwriting from the original MWT logo, which will also help bridge the gap from old to new for folks who have a harder time with change in general—I’m one of them, ha!  That said, I’m still working on it, but you can see in the comparison images of the original vs. my current work-in-progress that I’m working on getting it simplified, cleaned up, and a little more legible.

My goal is to be able to develop a branding design system where I can employ several lockups (variations of main logo elements) in different ways.  For example, maybe just the signature logo like is on the website right now, but then incorporate some more elaborate designs or an illustration or something when it would be fitting to have a more enhanced image presented.  That’s part of what I’m still working on, but hopefully this all is making sense and is pleasing to you all so far...