Two years ago we hosted a design contest for our inaugural women in craft beer festival, Beers With(out) Beards. Out of all the submissions, we received one stood out. The design from Hawaiian-born artist Kailah Ogawa caught our attention with its striking ability to capture movement, color, diversity, and beer.
With minimalist strokes, Ogawa wove a quilt of colorful hands grasping bottles, cans, glasses, and tumblers. With each hand unique in its shape, adornments, and motion, Ogawa’s design beautifully interpreted diversity in beer. The art spoke to BW(O)B’s own mission to highlight the achievements of women in craft beer. We liked the design so much that we put it on the back of a t-shirt and sold it during the festival.
Two years later and with plans to host our third annual event we reached out to Ogawa, asking if she’d like to help us develop a new logo and event poster. With a resounding yes Ogawa set out to once again visually decipher what it meant to be a woman in the craft beer industry.
We sat down with Ogawa to pull the curtain back on her creative process, discover how her early dreams to become a radiologist transformed into graphic design, and why a Now 4 album reminded her of her first craft beer.
An Interview With Kailah Ogawa
Grace Weitz: I always love to start at the beginning. What is your first memory of something you drew or an art project you created?
Kailah Ogawa: I was obsessive about drawing my dad’s 87 Toyota pickup. I would draw it over and over to try and get the proportions right. I’m pretty sure I could draw that truck again from memory right now.
Growing up I very much enjoyed school. It’s funny to say that out loud as an adult, but I enjoyed homework. I remember in particular book reports. And I would spend a lot of my time interpreting the book through illustration. I treated my homework as art projects and my art projects as homework. With illustrations you have to observe what you see with your eyes and translate it on paper. I was doing that at an elementary level from a very age.
GW: Is there one book report illustration that stands out in your mind?
KO: I was a big Roald Dahl fan, so the one that stands out the most is Matilda. When you’re a kid you like mimicking what’s around you. I didn’t have my own style yet, so it was fun to draw like him. For Matilda I made tiny books out of paper, I made a border around each of them, and strung them up because Matilda can move things with her mind. I literally made these books floating in the air. It was very elaborate.
GW: Tell us more about that journey in your career from turning book reports into art projects to becoming a full-time graphic designer?
KO: I actually had my sights on being a doctor. Both my parents at the time worked at the hospital and math and science were subjects that came easy to me. The natural answer to the question of, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’, is doctor. Specifically, I wanted to be a radiologist because I loved the idea of looking at scans and pinpointing the problem to help people. However, my junior year in high school I discovered graphic design. I had no idea this career existed. It was almost like a switch. It seemed like I changed my mind in an instant and I had no doubts.
From that point on graphic design was it for me. I was lucky enough to have parents that at least at the time didn’t show their doubts. I ended up attending Chapman University on a scholarship for their graphic design program. And I was able to build a great network and start there.
GW: Describe your design style in three words.
KO: Balanced, hopeful, and distilled.
GW: Why did you pick those three words?
KO: I think of balance in the physical manifestation of the project. And I like the tension of feeling that my work has been touched by a human, especially in this digital age. I love things that are purposefully imperfect or a little bit off in the texture and not so slick. Visually as well I always like to play with the idea of duality in my work like masculine vs feminine or something that feels nostalgia, but also present at the same time.
GW: How are your designs hopeful?
KO: I chose hopeful because I’m helplessly optimistic.
GW: There’s that balanced duality you spoke about!
KO: I can’t help myself! It comes through my work whether in choice of color or the message. I believe that good design should both surprise and delight. And I love work with depth and a message within. That’s the kind of work that I want to do. I want to be a positive voice
GW: And distilled?
KO: Everyone has their own design philosophy, but I’m all about less is more. Everything I put on the page is international. Yes, there are happy accidents, but great design has great thought behind every move. You’re the architect. From the typeface you chose to the style of poster every decision is your own to design.
GW: I keep going back to that word hopeful and how you said you want to be a positive voice. I think that ties in nicely to your work with Beers With(out) Beards. We first discovered you in a design contest we put together several years ago for our very first Beers With(out) Beards festival! Now, you’re designing all the assets for this year’s event. Why did you want to participate in this BW(O)B project?
KO: I’m all for supporting women in the industry. Additionally, I wanted the chance to meet the people behind the [Hop Culture] brand. In the first couple conversations I had with you guys I could get a sense right away that you all really believe in what we’re doing. You guys truly love what you do and you’re chasing your passion. When I get to align myself with people like that I don’t hesitate. I try not to think twice because when you find people who also care as much as you do that’s when some of the best work comes out. It was a no brainer for me honestly.
GW: How have you approached this project?
KO: It all starts with a conversation. I had a nice conversation with [Hop Culture Founder] Kenny Gould. We both came to sense that we wanted to celebrate the sense of community that BW(O)B gives a platform to. The rest came naturally. We thought of a nice warm summer night with people out enjoying beers and that captures the spirit in itself. After that, it all came together pretty easily.
GW: It starts with a conversation, but now you’re sitting down at your desk. Paint us a picture of how you go from conversation to pen to paper. Give us a little behind-the-scenes peek at your creative process.
KO: You want me to pull the curtain back!
KO: The whole purpose of the conversation is to get a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish, but also to get a sense of what you’re like. Design is a wonderful gray world where; there is not a right or wrong. It is all subjective. I love getting to know what you’re like and the nuances of your sense to get myself into that space. After that conversation in-between I’m thinking about the project all the time; when I’m driving, when I’m at the grocery store, when I’m in the shower. It’s always humming in the back of my head.
GW: I’ve come up with some of my best ideas in the shower.
KO: Yes! It’s a springboard. You think about where the design might be headed. For me, it’s waiting for the pieces to fall into place. I always carry a notebook with me to scribble down notes and draw thumbnail sketches or if I’m driving I’ll make voice memos. When I finally put pen to paper I already have a vision of what the design looks like or at least feels like. After I hand the project over to the client it’s hard to say where it goes from there. One of the great lessons design has taught me is to separate your ego from your work. It’s a great exercise in confidence.
GW: Now that we’ve pulled the curtain back on how you design, let’s focus on your other passion. Beer! After all, we are a beer magazine and you did design the artwork for our beer festival. How did you come to love craft beer? What’s the story behind the first craft beer you ever tried?
KO: I feel like the answer to this question is like [divulging] the first album you bought with your own money. Anybody that said they bought some really great album by themselves…we all know it was Oops I Did It Again by Britney Spears or Matchbox Twenty. Right?
GW: Oh, the first album I ever bought was Ricky Martin Livin’ La Vida Loca.
KO: Exactly! The first album I bought was Now 4 from Costco.
GW: Okay, so the first craft beer you tried probably wasn’t the greatest. I’ll admit mine was Goose Island 312 (before AB InBev bought Goose Island I should add!), but there are probably still some great memories around it, right?
KO: My first craft beer was thanks to a good friend of mine, who converted me. We all had that one friend. Craft beer is so contagious. The world is so deep and so wide. There is so much to explore. A lot of my great memories are wrapped together with a nice bow of good beer during low-key get-togethers and game nights where we shared beers.
GW: What kind of similarities do you see between beer and graphic design?
KO: It all comes down to passion, caring, being intentional, and also the sense of exploring and trying new things. Creativity drives both of these cultures. Just like design, there is a beer for everyone, every mood, every occasion. It’s endless.
GW: All this talking about beer has made me thirsty. What beer are you currently drinking while in quarantine? What’s in your fridge?
KO: I’m back home in Hawaii for this time. What was supposed to be a one week trip has turned into two months with my parents. I feel like I’m back under house rules and my parents don’t drink, so I’m not really drinking right now to be honest. But lately, I’ve been into lighter beers like lagers and hefeweizens.
GW: I’m all about the lagers right now. Just ask anyone on the Hop Culture team. It’s my go-to.
KO: What are you drinking right now?
GW: Aha, the interviewee has become the interviewer! Haha. My wife has High Life in the fridge, which is probably my favorite s***** beer. But I live like a 10-minute walk from Temescal and Modern Times and a 10-minute drive from Almanac, so beers from any of those three breweries are my go-to’s right now.
KO: You’re making me miss California!
GW: Obviously, we’re really stoked you’re helping us out with BW(O)B, but I’d love to share more about any new projects you have coming down the line. What else do you have coming up?
KO: The next project I’m most excited about is myself. I’m figuring out how to present myself as my own brand, working more from a collaboration standpoint versus a behind-the-scenes designer. This whole time where everything has been on pause I’ve seen this as a great opportunity to reflect and articulate what it means visually. I’m figuring out where to go from here.
GW: Do you have the answer yet?
KO: Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Haha. I’m getting a lot closer. I’ve been working a lot in someone else’s shoes and being a translator for people. I’m ready to articulate my own creative voice.
GW: Anything else you’d like to add?
KO: It was so rad that you reached out to me and I am super honored to be a part of BW(O)B. It has truly been an honor to work with people who love what they do. Thank you for trusting me with this.
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