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Blog

What Brewing Beer Taught Me About Design

Jul 05 2017

Years ago, I was working at a law firm in Boston. Many of my colleagues had the same hobby—training for the Boston Marathon in the middle of the frigid New England winter. This was what they did for “fun.” I was so amazed that these people with such unhappy day jobs would choose what seemed like such an unhappy hobby to fill their nights and weekends. Many years and two careers later, I moved to San Francisco to take a job as a designer at IDEO. In my first months here, I remember being struck by all of the wonderful and absurd hobbies that my new colleagues had. It was a delightful and inspiring contrast to my dark days in Boston.

So I decided to pursue my own absurd hobby that would combine my twin passions for beer brewing and fictional cartography into what I hope is the ultimate beer drinking experience. Or at least the most ridiculous. I call it Bean Brew.

Bean Brew Collage Hero

We talk a lot about the user journey at IDEO. It’s a way to break down how a person experiences important moments when interacting with a product or service. While bottling my first few batches several years back, I obsessed over the taste of the beer and the bottle's label design—two key moments in the beer drinker's user journey. But then I realized that there are so many other moments that I was leaving out of the design process.

So I asked myself: Could I contextualize the combined drinking experiences of each person who received a bottle of Bean Brew? Could I turn that into a map? And could I deliver that map back to Bean Brew drinkers months later in the form of a delightful silkscreen poster? That became my design challenge.

Bean Brew Collage 1 1

So what have I learned from my side gig?

1. Quantitative data inspires design

Bean Brew has taught me a lot about how to integrate quantitative survey data into a cohesive storytelling experience (something we’re trying to do more and more of at IDEO these days). I start with questions like these, which I include as part of a survey wrapped around the bottle’s neck:

  • What are your three favorite board games?
  • Complete the following sentence: If I were on a ship for 1 year, my ideal job position would be ________.

I then transform the responses I get from people who received a particular batch of Bean Brew into a poster that looks something like this.

Bean Brew 3 Poster A

2. There's more to design than what meets the eye

Sometimes, as you go through the design process, you realize the thing you think you're designing (a bottle of beer) isn’t what you're actually designing (a beer drinking experience). This is true for most of the projects I’ve worked on at IDEO, and for Bean Brew, too.

3. Side gigs = side skills

Finally, I’ve learned a bunch of tangible skills throughout the process of making Bean Brew: Arc GIS (cartography software), best practices for glue adhesion (getting elaborate labels to stick to bottles), and how to use the power of analog experience to blow away anything an iPhone can do. I’m confident that I’ll be applying at least some of these skills to an upcoming IDEO project.

Bean Brew is my attempt to bring as much joy and delight to my hobbies as possible, and in doing so, I find that I’m more more creative and productive as part of my day job. And so much happier.

I am not training for any marathons. Just an expedition to Antarctica. In a submarine. With beer.

Bean Brew Collage 3
  • Sean Hewens

    Senior Design Lead, IDEO San Francisco
    Sean is a senior designer at IDEO and a legal innovation explorer. He’s also a writer, a beer maker and a fictional cartographer on the side.