Capturing the Spirit of SXSW in Bud Light’s Rad, Psychedelic Art

Every spring, people make their way to Austin, Texas, for South By Southwest (SXSW), a festival that includes film, interactive media, and music. What began in the 80s as a small gathering of people discussing the future of entertainment and media has turned into the conference for anyone involved in film, music, comedy, or the entertainment industry. As the official beer sponsor for SXSW, Bud Light worked with artist Nate Duval for the second year in a row to create some truly memorable brews that capture the local culture Austin and the vibe of the city.

What were the first steps you took when starting this project with Bud Light? What did the brief look like and how did you set out to accomplish it?

Nate Duval: Having worked on this exact same project last year, the brief was pretty straightforward and relatively the same as last years.  

The Bud Light people took a very trusting, “hands-off” approach to this project (which is always appreciated) where they essentially were asking me to try to capture the vibe of SXSW in this illustration (knowing that I have been there 5 or six times) and not really offering much else, leaving it up to me to decide “what works best."

The main difference this year was: the goal was to inject a bit more local, Austin/TX flair to the illustration and to try to achieve a “similar to last years, but different” feel to the look of the packaging. Almost making a “cousin” to last years art vs a "brother or sister," if that makes sense.

Walk us through your process for creating the artwork on the SXSW special packaging.

Nate Duval: The process in creating this year’s art and trying to create that “cousin” was really the main differentiator and where the process and thinking diverted. Last year, the fun, flowing, softly psychedelic art was hand-drawn with pen and ink on paper, giving it a rough, imperfect vibe that I feel was a good match for the event. SXSW is a loose, raw, sprawling event with a lot of energy pulling you in many directions every day, exposing you to a wide range of experiences and feelings.

The art had that hand-inked outline throughout which contained the color and created the structure.

I knew that having this year’s art take a similar approach in capturing the energy and feeling of the event was something to keep, but I wanted to create the illustration without any solid, dark colored outlines and to create the art by hand in Illustrator using vectors.  

I had a feeling that would allow me to make something that I knew would create a great looking image with the right feeling, but give it a quite different visual look and feel and it turns out that I think I was right, ha. Once I made that choice, it came together really nicely and fairly quickly. It came down to just picking the right Texas themes and elements and making sure they fit with the flow of the package and looked good in the overall layout.

From the initial pass at it, we knew were onto something with this new approach and the Bud Light folks had very concise, purposeful feedback that pushed it to the finish line. The editing process was mainly a “deductive” process, where we inevitably continued to strip the piece down a bit, make it less busy and reduce the number of ink colors used mainly for production purposes.

The first drafts had more op art/southwestern pattern design in them than what you see today as the final and I do think that was the right choice, as it gave the overall piece some room to breath and was a bit less intense overall.

This art gets plastered all over town on billboards, ads, POPs for the event, so a more approachable, turned down execution made for an "easier to re-apply on other things” set of art, I think.

You've actually worked with Bud Light before, on last year's SXSW packaging. What did you learn last year that you put into practice while working with them this time around?

Nate Duvall: I learned to trust my instincts. I landed this gig last year by trying to capture the vibe and feel of the event, rather that trying to focus too much on trying to illustrate musical instruments or film iconography, etc. I assumed the other people working on the brief would focus on that angle anyway, so I wanted to stick to what I know and let the vibe lead the way.  I took the same approach this year, but knowing what worked last year certainly made my thinking more focused and confident on this years design.

The artwork has a bit of a psychedelic meets Texas vibe. Where did you turn to for inspiration in creating this design?

Nate Duval: I have been making hand-printed, officially commissioned Rock Posters for some of the biggest bands in the world for the past 10 years as a large portion of my workload. I knew (and I think the Bud Light people did too) that marrying my expressive illustration work I use for a lot of my rock band clients with a slightly more restrained approach for this packaging assignment may end up in a result that was a perfect fit for the gig.

Attending SXSW is an whirlwind event. It’s fast paced, it’s exhausting and at times it’s overwhelming. It’s anything you want to make it and the city itself is the star. I wanted to have the design have as much movement as attending the fest often has as well as highlighting some very specific Austin things (as compared to simply “generic Texas”).

My hope is (as you drink one outside in the hot sun watching your favorite bands or eating tacos) is  that you discover things you didn’t see at first when you look at the can.  From the subtle Southwestern Inspired Patterns , to the various TX elements to the unexpected, hypnotic OP-Art bits.

Last years art had that “flow” that worked and I really tried to make something that matched its movement in this years art.

What was the most challenging part of creating the artwork for the SXSW Bud Light packaging? How did you work through it?

Nate Duval: The hardest part of any high-profile project like this (for me at least) is getting STARTED. I know I personally usually panic for the first day or two and have blank pieces of paper and blank files open on my computer until I can get past the “scale” of the project and just get into doing what I do best. This year’s project had a lot less of that happening since I had done this project just a year ago, but instead that anxiety was replaced by trying to figure out how to make something that was “the same but different” and still hit all of my goals I set for myself on what would make for a good illustration.

I had the same “starting line anxiety” when I created the label for Hoptimum (Sierra Nevada), some shirts for Nike and an ad campaign for Sweet and Low. I’ve just tried to learn to approach ALL projects with the same, loose, expressive, creative approach I would take to a band poster, regardless of project budget, distribution scale or profile.

Often times, I need to remind myself that there is a high probability that someone reaching out to work with me (regardless of size of project) probably found one of these very expressive, illustrations or designs I have made for a poster or tee shirt and that I owe it to BOTH of us to keep that spirit in mind when working on whatever it is that I am working on. I find overthinking it, or trying to hard to do something “I think they may like” usually ends up in a stiff, uninspired, inevitably rejected submission.

What advice would you have for illustrators who are interested in branching out and getting their work onto packaging?

Nate Duval: For me, constantly trying new styles and approaches to making an image has always opened unexpected doors for me. While I certainly understand and respect the approach of “mastering a style” and pushing it to the max, that was never an approach I thought would be good for me. Maybe I am too insecure in my abilities to think I could ever be “that good at one style” or maybe its because I always thought “if I just have one style, and someone doesn’t  like it, they’ll never have a reason to work with me.”

Either way, trying new things and styles, often times more than once, is what keeps me going and in the end, is what likely has allowed me to work with so many of the great folks I have been lucky enough to work with in the past 10 years.