Home » The Art of Label Design: A Conversation with Pen and Ink Artist Jen Borror
Borror’s label design work combines traditional pen and ink with trendy craft brews
Mother may say that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. But we beg to differ. More and more businesses — and consumers — are considering package and label design just as important as the product inside.
Jen Borror, who combines her knack for pen and ink illustration with her background as a graphic designer, seems to think so. She worked design and agency jobs for 15 years. It was a space where she could hone her skills, but she also felt creatively restricted. She started looking for opportunities to create the type of art she loved most: pen and ink illustrations.
The work started out as side gigs and, just last year, turned into a full-time job. “I took the leap of faith,” she says. She opened her own design company, Hoot Design Studio.
Her father, who died last year after a battle with dementia, nudged her to pursue her true passion. She says, “During my father’s journey with dementia, I would catch glimpses of the man I once knew and he often reminded me ‘Life is short, Jenny do what you love now while you have time.’ Words that will forever guide me in my entrepreneurship.”
Borror has designed for greeting card company Papyrus and craft brew heavyweights like Tröegs Independent Brewing and Monument City Brewing. She’s found a niche in label design, particularly for craft beer cans and bottles.
She lives with her husband in York, Pennsylvania, where they lovingly tend to their cat and koi pond. That’s where we caught up with her to talk about art, design, greeting cards and, well, beer.
Artistic Fuel: What your earliest memories creating art? And when did you know you had a knack for it?
Jen Borror: When I was 3 or 4 years old, I was always making something. Clothes for my Barbies. Taking a cereal box and paper towel rolls and turning it into some art project. As I went into high school, I loved my art, photography and ceramics classes. I knew I wanted to do something with art as a career but I didn’t know what.
In a high school class, we were asked to illustrate the word “between.” I drew a banana between two pieces of bread. I just thought it was something quirky, but my teacher said ‘have you ever thought about going into graphic design? I didn’t really know what graphic design was. So I started looking into it. And the more I learned I thought, hey, I could work in advertising, and do layout and design.
A|F: How do you describe your style?
Borror: I do a lot of pen and ink. It’s a hand-crafted look, almost like a tattoo design. My first label design was for a moonshine bottle, so it really fits the branding that a lot of these breweries are looking for — that vintage and organic look.
A|F: How did you land on that style?
Borror: In college, my professor took a large painting and cut it into one-by-one squares. Then asked each student to stipple their piece. I just had so much fun with it. Your square, when put with the others, made this amazing piece of artwork, with crazy amount of detail. That’s how I got into stipple, or dot work. And that’s how I got into Papyrus. They saw my stipple work on Instagram and reached out. I got to set up at the Towson, Maryland, store as a featured artist in residence. From there, I got to do a couple more shows and it really sparked my career and following, and then I started to get more work.
A|F: Tell us about what led you to start your own design studio, and focus on label design?
Borror: After I graduated in 2014, I worked at a sign shop. Then an auction company, doing branding and graphic design work. Then I went to York Wallcoverings and later worked for an advertising agency, which gave me the opportunity to be a little more creative. I started doing freelance design work on the job — and I loved that it was less restrictive.
After Papyrus reached out, I made that leap of faith and decided to work for myself full time. And boy, that was a hard decision, to go from a full-time paycheck to now I’m responsible for not only doing design work, but hustling to secure work next week and the following week. But I have no regrets. As soon as I went full time on my own, I started getting more work because I had more time to network and put myself out there. I had worked design and agency jobs for 15 years, it was just time to be able to do more than what I was doing.
A|F: Any advice for young designers who are considering venturing out on their own?
Borror: I’d recommend working at an ad agency or other smaller companies where you can learn on the job, and when you have a steady paycheck coming in. I don’t have any regrets about working for a variety of companies before starting my own studio. Because I learned so much more in that realm versus what I learned in college. There’s so much that you learn from first-hand experience. When you’re starting your own business, it’s not just designing all day. I probably only do design work 30 percent of the time. There’s licensing, billing, administrative and clerical work, email, social media — you’re not just the graphic designer. You’re the business manager and the head of sales. So I think if I would’ve tried my own graphic design business right out of college, I don’t think I would’ve been ready.
A|F: What have you been working on lately?
Borror: Labels for beer cans has been one of my niches for a while, and it’s oddly exploded because of the whole COVID-19 thing. For a while, illustrational beer cans have been trending and really growing like crazy. … And now all the breweries can’t have people in, so they’re doing a lot more canning of beers that they normally just have on tap. So they’re kind of forced to do more curbside to-go sales. And they want a compelling design on their beer cans. So for me as a designer it’s worked out really well.
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Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.