GLOUCESTER – Wenham-based designer David Polito has been chosen out of a field of over 2,000 entries as winner of Graphic Design USA’s annual American Package Design Awards in the wine, beer and liquor package design category for his packaging of Cape Ann Brewing Company’s Blackburn Stout.
Polito's design, for an aluminum pop-top, shrink-wrapped pint can available at local stores, conveys through the look of cold steel and hard graphics what it took for Gloucester dory fisherman Howard Blackburn to survive his lone 1883 journey, rowing for days through a sudden winter blizzard, his hands frozen to the oars, across the high seas of Nova Scotia —his dead dorymate beside him— that made the man a legendary hero back home on Cape Ann.
GD:USA, which runs the annual awards, has for half a century been a go-to monthly magazine for professional graphic designers and related creative and production professionals. Published by Kaye Publishing Corporation, its competition celebrates well-designed graphics' power to advance the brand, make the difference at the moment of truth, and to tell the story.
Blackburn’s story was vividly captured by Gloucester’s late historian and author Joseph Garland in his book "Lone Voyager." Polito, charged with the daunting task of telling that long, heroic tale on a can, came up with graphics Garland himself would have approved of: Blackburn, coming right at ya, full speed ahead and damn the frostbitten fingers, out of the icy void and home to safe harbor. Stout, in and of itself, conveys the kind of strength and bravery the name Blackburn is synonymous with in these parts. A dark, or brown beer, it’s been brewed in pubs since the 17th century. Cape Ann Brewing Company’s spin on it — “light bodied with a note of roasted nuts" — leverages that heritage to the max, the can enhancing the iconic image of the lone rower with the single word Blackburn, heroically emblazoned big and bold above the man himself.
Polito has been working as a design consultant for the Gloucester-based brewery since July 2016, when the brewery — then in its 12th year — was focusing primarily on lighter, “less bitter new New England IPAs” (India Pale Ales). The following year, his design for the labeling of the brewery’s Reel Easy IPA won the 2017 American Package Design award. Polito, who began designing labels as a consultant for Old Ipswich Rum, says that unlike his design process for Reel Easy — which was every bit as easy as its name suggests — the design process for Blackburn Stout was, like Blackburn’s journey itself, filled with challenges.
“We went through over a dozen rounds, back and forth, before we arrived at the winner,” he said.
Jeremy Goldberg, the former Wall Street careerist who founded the brewery in 2004 has, says Polito, become absolutely passionate about Cape Ann history. Since moving here shortly after 9/11, Goldberg has embraced its life and lore as if he were born to it. “With Jeremy, he’s such a history buff, he’ll never say, ‘OK guys, we’re coming up with a new ale. It’s always, ‘here’s the story.’” Polito, who’d heard of Blackburn but didn’t know his story, was mesmerized by it. Originally an illustrator, he started studying various marine masters’ painting of fishermen. “I started working off these ideas, simplifying design. I had ideas of what it should look like but it was really hard to get it all on that label. I knew negative space was an important element to making the design work.” In the end, it is exactly that cold, steely negative space that gives that iconic image of Howard Blackburn alone on a vast, frozen sea its power.
“Nothing is ever final in design,” says Polito, and what finally settled the label design for Blackburn Stout was Gorton’s introduction of a limited edition run of “Beer Battered Cod Bites.” The beer that Gorton’s planned — with the launch line “A match made in Gloucester”— to batter those bites with was Blackburn Stout. “They needed a picture of the stout for the packaging,” says Polito. So that settled that.
In recent years, the Cape Ann Brewing Company’s Rogers Street brew pub on Gloucester’s Inner Harbor has become a popular sport for participants in the annual Blackburn Challenge, a 22-mile tug-of-war between the ocean and the oars, manned by men such as fishermen James "Jimmy T." Tarantino, who rowed solo in a Grand Banks dory as a tribute to Blackburn. You can work up quite a thirst rowing 22 miles on heaving seas. At the brew pub, they’ve got just the stout to quench it.