Making a Fictional Brand Look Real
In the Spring and early Summer of 2017, I set about creating an identity for the fictional brand, VICTORY, from George Orwell's novel, 1984. This included lettering, logo design, illustration, typography, studio photography, photo editing, and forgery of physical objects (the part I enjoyed the most was the forgery). Here I chronicle the process. WARNING: this is about 1000 words and 35 pictures, so buckle up
I read George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time in 2008. It was either right before or right after I finished undergrad in Graphic Design. I’m not sure why I waited so long to read it—probably because I was lazy (I don’t have that luxury anymore) and it wasn’t until 2008 that I “got into politics” lol. My first thought after reading it wasn’t “omfg totalitarianism is right around the corner and there is no escape unless we mobilize—I must find like minded individuals and start building a resistance” it was “yo it would be dope af if I designed packaging for VICTORY GIN & CIGARETTES!” which I’m sure is exactly the kind of reaction that Orwell hoped for.
I carried this idea in my head for nine years at which point I thought “ok bonehead time to actually make this.” A bunch of things fell into place that kicked me into gear: a friend gave me the perfect bottle, Value Village (a killer thrift store in ATL) had the EXACT cup that I was picturing and a great ashtray (that I ended up spray painting white), Lou (my partner who I am married to but don’t like to call “my wife” because it makes me feel like a possessive asshole) bought some black felt coasters, my sister went away for the summer and left her ring light with me, I had scanned in and made typeable a font specimen from the Dover archives, plus I remembered Camel made soft packs of unfiltered cigarettes. So I got started.
First things first, I went back to the book and found the passages with physical descriptions of the things I wanted to design. I've never been the person who is like "omg bro we totally live in 1984 bro! Big brother is watching you bro! ugh it's so real!!" But as I researched, I really connected with this concept in the book: Winston is consumed with anxiety about the Party (Oceania's government), and his main way of coping is to drink Victory Gin and smoke Victory Cigarettes; but those vices are poor quality (the gin is "like nitric acid" and the cigarettes fall apart right out of the pack) and they're created and rationed by the Party. So even in his attempt to escape the Party, he conforms to the Party. That notion is carried throughout 1984 and it's terrifying. I often feel that way in our current political climate—no escape.
I did a lot of research (shoutout to Pinterest and Google lol) on vice ads from the 40s/50s/60s to see how they were displaying these things in a time when drinking and smoking were considered good for you—or at least it wasn’t considered bad for advertisers to say these kinds of things. I also looked at cigarette packs from the Soviet Union. I was interested in what packaging looked like in a highly-controlled/regulated economic market. (Editor's note: they look cool as hell)
My initial vision was to have a white label with nothing on it but “VICTORY GIN” in the aforementioned scanned font, Venus Extrabold Condensed. I did that. It was too plain, so I added a rule around the border. Still too plain. Changed the shape of the label from a square to a trapezoid and felt great about it, so I printed it, trimmed it, stuck it to the bottle and it looked just like a Heinz label lol. I went back to a square shape and then made a cigarette pack to match. I created a template/dielines based on measurements I took from a deconstructed soft pack of Camels. I printed these out, built them, and they just looked like “eeeeh that's boring who cares.”
The Nitty Gritty
I decided that if this project was going to have the weight that I wanted it to, I was going to need to letter the logo by hand (aka by Pen Tool), so I got down to that. I wanted something that looked plain, but menacing—utilitarian, but dangerous. Here’s where I landed:
I tried a few typefaces for the “GIN” and “CIGARETTES” part, but realized that those needed bespoke treatments as well. I used those same letters (plus an O) to make the INGSOC “logo” that I put on the match book, the cigarette pack seal, and onto the lit cigarette in the ad (photoshopped on, not actually printed on the cigarette paper).
Once I had all the lettering and layout done, I realized that for this to be authentic to the 1984 universe, I needed to show an image of Big Brother himself. I went back and referred to the text to make sure I was picturing him correctly. Then I dove back into the Dover archives for some reference material. I ended up using three different faces as reference to build my version of bb (which is Newspeak for Big Brother thank you).
Physically Building the Objects—aka "The Good Stuff Baby Oh Yeah"
I made more mockups at home, felt satisfied, and had all the final productions files printed at Office Max. The gin labels and the cigarette pack are on plain copy paper; the red seal on the cigarette pack is red copy paper; the matchbook is on white card stock—I used spray adhesive to duplex it with a natural color paper so that it looks like chipboard (like a real matchbook) and the strike strip on the matchbook is fake—20% black rectangle in the file, then I colored on top of the printed strip with brown & gray water-soluble pastels. I cut everything out with an X-acto and used Scotch double stick tape to put everything together. (Click images to embiggen aka make them bigger for your enjoyment thanks)
Building the "Ad"
I did a sketch of what I wanted the photo to look like. I had thought about this so much, that it only took one sketch to know that what I was picturing in my head was going to work. I used four sheets of 18x24 drawing paper to create a (kind of) seamless background on my desk. I lit everything with my sister’s ring light and some Ikea lamps that are in my home office. Once I got the right photo, I edited the heck out of it lol. First, I cut the objects out of the background and made the background pure white. Then I adjusted the color and contrast to make it look old, added halftones to make it look printed, changed the color of the cork to make it look more like a cork, removed the “Camel” logo from the lit cigarette and replaced it with the “INGSOC” logo, added a stream of smoke to the lit cigarette, added all the ground shadows manually, and of course, I added wrinkled paper texture (the same wrinkled paper texture that I used when making Food Fortunes jfyi). Click images to enlarge.
I did a fair amount of research on Newspeak to try to get the language of the subhead right (shoutout to Wikipedia). I then set all the text on the ad in Alternate Gothic No1 D Regular using InDesign (shoutout to Typekit). I copypasta’d the vector text into Photoshop and roughed it the heck up by adding noise, blurring it, boosting the levels, then running it through the stamp filter. At this point I decided to add a lil “Eastasia/Eurasia” easter egg (do you see it?). I combined everything in Photoshop and finalized the layout.
In Conclusion lol
I am quite pleased with the final outcome, and I hope to do more “in-world” or “in-universe” work like this in the future. I got to do a little bit last year with WGN America’s television show The Outsiders. You can see that work here. If you (or anyone you know lol) have any projects coming up where you have a need for work like this, I’d love to chat about it to see if I’d be a good fit! firstname.lastname@example.org
If you read all this, wow, I honestly love you. Thank you.