Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Logo for The Western Front

Design students show off work to local beer company

The 12 members of the BFA design cohort competed to have their work on a Stemma Brewery beer label

Beer can designs and brand extensions created by design students Duncan Bennett and Owen Paznokas for Stemma Brewery's competition. // Courtesy of Duncan Bennett and Owen Paznokas

Bachelor of Fine Arts students in the design program at Western Washington University competed to have their original work featured on a Stemma Brewery beer can. One student was chosen to have their work featured on a dark winter beer for the season. 

Gathering in Miller Hall room 138 on Dec. 5, a few dozen onlookers watched as the 12 BFA students took turns presenting their designs and heard instant feedback from the judges, Stemma Brewery founders Jason and Kim Harper and faculty member Cameron Jennings. 

The audience was told that one winner would have their design on a limited edition dark winter beer, but when judges returned from deliberations, it was revealed that four students would receive recognition. 

The presentations included beer labels placed on mock-ups and brand extensions such as social media posts and merchandise. The feedback was mostly complimentary. 

“Critique is something that we do over and over and over again in this program. So by this point, we're all kind of used to hearing feedback,” said Duncan Bennett, a fifth-year design student. 

It was clear the design students had grown close while working together. They spent six hours a day, multiple days a week together, said Zoe Malee, a fifth-year whose design included comic-like panels of a city-wide snowball fight. 

“​​I think we got really close last year though, preparing for the portfolio review,” Malee said. She described their closeness as a “trauma bond.” 

Design Cohort

The BFA design cohort poses after presenting their original work to Stemma Brewery on Dec. 5, 2023 at Western Washington University. The students finally completed their quarter-long project, competing to have their design on the brewery's dark winter beer. // Photo by Jemma Alexander

Design students are given a hefty workload. Malee said she often wonders why she is still doing homework after her roommates have finished theirs. 

The students had been told about the project at the beginning of the quarter and started working on it two weeks in, but with many other projects due, a few of them were working right up to the deadline to finish their presentation. 

Harper and his wife are both Western Washington University alums. “It's a great partnership, a lot of really brilliant people we have access to,” Harper said. 

Harper teamed up with Western’s Assistant Professor Brittany Schade, whom he knew from her work designing for local beverage companies, to create this partnership.

Stemma’s brand is family-friendly, bright and playful, Harper said. After being given some adjectives and told they were designed for a dark wintery beer, they were given full creative control. 

The competition side of the project would add some fun and make it feel more like the real world, Harper said.  

Robynne Raye, the co-founder of Modern Dog Design Co., a professor of design at Lake Washington Institute of Technology and a Western BFA alum, said the design world creates competition.

“It's all going to be competitive," Raye said. "Whether you work in-house or you're a contractor or you work for a small company." 

Giving the example of Starbucks, she said designers have to compete for their work to be on the next coffee bean package. 

On Nov. 30, less than a week before presenting their designs, the students were told exactly what kind of beer they were trying to label: a coconut porter. 

Students had to decide how much they should change their designs, only a few days before presenting them. 

“It was a speed bump for sure, but I got back on track pretty quick,” said Owen Paznokas, a fourth-year majoring in design and creative writing. 

Bennett’s label depicted a ship cutting through icy water, fracturing the ice in its wake. “Since it was a porter and it kind of tied into the whole shipping and traveling and going from A to B, I didn't have to tweak it too much,” Bennett said. 

Design sketches

Duncan Bennett’s original sketches for Stemma Brewery. Bennett and his design classmates competed to have their work on the brewery's dark winter beer on Dec. 5, 2023 at Western Washington University. // Photo courtesy of Duncan Bennett

This design was from one of Bennett's first rounds of ideas but survived through the final stages. “[The idea] just kind of jumped out as a nice concept and a decent composition followed from that,” he said. 

After the 12 presentations, the judges left the room to decide on the winner. While “shaking in their boots,” and referring to the project as a version of “The Hunger Games,” the students were talking excitedly. 

Professor Schade and Harper said they wanted to have more than one winner. The designs made by Malee and Paznokas were wanted by Stemma Brewery for beers released later in the year. 

Paznokas’ design will be adapted to a spring IPA and Malee’s will be used for the Mt. Baker Legendary Banked Slalom event, but they didn't specify what type of beer it would be, Malee said. Cam Gibb, a fifth-year, was presented with a bag of swag as the runner-up to Bennett, the official winner.

Bennett’s ability to go with the coconut-shaped flow and understand what Stemma was looking for paid off as he was announced the winner. Bennett’s design will go out on a couple thousand cans, Harper said, and be sold throughout the winter. 

“I have time to do the rest of my projects now,” was heard from the front of the room as students congratulated each other and celebrated the end of this quarter-long project.

Jemma Alexander

Jemma Alexander (she/her) is a campus life reporter for The Front. She is a senior majoring in journalism new/ed and minoring in Arab American studies. When she's not doing homework, Jemma is likely working, talking loudly over movies with her roommates or dancing ’till she drops. You can reach her at

Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Western Front