Wine Labels

January 2015

My friend Philip makes wines. His first two were released June of last year and he asked me to help design the labels. I don't get to do a ton of design work, and I'm pretty bad at it, but it's always fun to design something for print instead of digital output.

There were two different wines, one Chardonnay and one rosé of Pinot Noir. Phil had some initial direction and from there I sketched out a half dozen ideas for each. We met up for a few hours one afternoon to hammer out the final designs.

When learning a new computer language, programmers traditionally start by writing a small program that displays "Hello, world!" on the screen. Philip works in computer graphics, so this seemed like a good place to start for his first wine.

My first sketches looked like a terrible airport thriller novel with a laughably unrealistic cyberwarfare plot. Taking inspiration from old computer terminals, the design kept getting simpler until we ended up with the name big and center. It's slightly distorted to evoke the curvature an old monitor, but the effect was lost when the label was wrapped around the bottle. It still looked cool though.

The other wine was a bit more challenging. It was a rosé of Pinot Noir, so we wanted something a bit less serious. Philip sent me a couple of photos of his cat Jayne (spelled as per the Hero of Canton) to work with.

Adobe Garamond Pro, not one of the Jannon-based Garamonds.

Her "roar" is actually a lazy yawn, and for the sake of making things a little more ridiculous I started playing with Serious Wine fonts and settled on Garamond.

The hand-written "Rawr" was drawn on an iPad in Procreate. We were sketching out a couple of ideas but the messy lettering ended up being the playfulness we needed to pull the design together.

Now, you might notice that the colors in the the final Rawr label aren't quite…normal. This is the best part of the story.

I prepped the files for print and emailed them to Philip. He opened them up on his laptop to check and saw this:

Our hearts stopped. This was completely wrong.

Philip downloaded the file and opened it in Preview where it displayed just fine. This seemed to be a bug somewhere in Google's software stack. And that's when I got an idea that something could be misreading the CMYK TIFF image as a four channel RGB image.

Each pixel in the image is stored as four numbers, one for each channel or ink plate. For example, a part of Jayne's brown fur might be C40 M53 Y56 K32. CMYK notation usually uses percentages, but in the image file they're stored as values from 0-255 just like RGB colors. That brown becomes CMYK(102, 135, 143, 82) on disk. If we copied those values directly into RGB colorspace and ignored the fourth number, RGB(102, 135, 143) ends up as a steel blue.

C40 M53 Y56 K32
CMYK(102, 135, 143, 82)
RGB(102, 135, 143)

This could be what was happening. I tried reproducing the effect in Photoshop and we were relieved when we saw the exact same image. This was a rendering bug and nothing was wrong with the file. It would print just fine.

Here's how you can duplicate the effect:

Start with a CMYK image. Use Image > Mode > CMYK Color to convert the image if necessary. This is a lossy operation and some colors can't be accurately converted, but since we're going to destroy all semblance of correct color in the next few steps it's not really that important.

The image also can't have any layers. Use Layer > Flatten Image if necessary.

Open up the Channels panel menu and select Split Channels.

I usually keep my Channels panel pinned to the right side of my screen, but I've pulled it out here to make the screenshot a bit clearer.

The file is split into four grayscale files, each one containing the data from a single channel.

Merge the individual channels back into a new file. In the Channels panel menu, select Merge Channels….

Change the Mode to RGB Color. The number of Channels should automatically change to 3. Hit OK.

Map the CMYK channels to the RGB channels like so:

Red: Cyan
Green: Magenta
Blue: Yellow

Note that the Black channel isn't used. Close and discard that file.

(You could also try experimenting with other channel mappings here. Different combinations will lead to some wicked cool false color images.)

Photoshop is being too smart for the effect we're trying to achieve. CMYK is a subtractive colorspace and RGB is an additive colorspace. That is, white in CMYK is C0 M0 Y0 K0, but in RGB white is RGB(255, 255, 255). Photoshop automatically compensates for the difference, but we don't want that.

Select Image > Adjustments > Invert (Command-I).

The final result.

This looked exactly like what Philip was seeing on his computer so we felt better knowing that we'd found a rendering bug. But then the more we looked at the image, the more we liked it. It was dark, a little spooky, and really cool.

We decided to use this glitched version instead of the original. I simplified the design down to one "Rawr", forced the image into RGB, and emailed the comp to Philip again. And, of course, the bug happened again.

Even Jayne approves.

Photo by Caitlin.

It was perfect. So that's what we ended up sending to the printers, and that's how a graphics bug ended up being a crucial part of the design.

Philip will be launching his new wine project, Highlawn Wine Company, this summer. You can drop him a line at pcuadra@highlawnwine.com to sign up for his mailing list, or follow him on Twitter @peterpanwashere.