Artists and designers have never been cautious about exploiting new technologies for expressing their ideas. Most notably, David Hockney has been using a tablet for his recent work, and new manufacturing techniques have ushered in 3D printing as a sculptural method.

Now, innovative inks, varnishes, printing and shaping techniques have enabled the emergence of a new canvas for creatives – the beverage can.

A trend that found popularity among niche brewers in the craft beer community, can art and creative design is slowly leaching into the wider market. Mainstream brewers and other drinks makers have seized on the beverage can as a place to project new brand images and create new customer experiences.

“The can is a continuous canvas – it’s unique in that you can tell a 360-degree story on it,” explains Mikael Tonning, executive design director and founding partner of Danish design company Everland. The firm has created new branding for local companies including brewing giant Carlsberg. “We can do much more now, thanks to new inks, over-varnishes and lacquers, and better printing facilities.”

Cans have been used as marketing tools ever since manufacturers began filling them with food and drink. Emblazoned with corporate logos and messages, first with paper labels and later with lithography, the durability of cans has put enduring advertising boards into every pantry.

So effective is the can that the packaging of some products has become their principle identifier. Lyle’s Golden Syrup has been associated with the tinplate can for more than a century, and Campbell’s canned soup enabled pop artist Andy Warhol to elevate it from commodity to artefact without ever making reference to the food within.

A new generation of branding professionals is seizing on that potential. Arguing that metal packaging has largely been an opportunity missed by image makers, they see the can less as a container and more as a prime piece of messaging real estate.

“You can tell a story around the pack, and because they are always on the move – shoved around the shop shelf or within your refrigerator – they really allow the products to speak in different ways,” Tonning says.

The hardware
Helping Tonning and other designers are sophisticated new decorative coatings that can create a variety of effects and printing techniques that transfer them onto metal. Making a can stand out on the shop shelf has become an art in itself.

The more striking inks employ thermochromic properties, in which they change colour depending on temperature, and photochromic products that change according to lighting conditions. Others provide tactile experiences, with a varnish that enables designers to incorporate relief features in their visual designs.

Beverage canmakers Ardagh, Ball, Canpack and Crown have all marketed such special-effects products last year. At BrauBeviale, in Nuremberg, Germany, visual design played as big a part in their marketing efforts as their sustainability messages.

Poland-based Canpack, for instance, was keen to show off its satin and matte finishes and hailed its Quadromix printing process that enables the company to produce pin-sharp images and novel textures. Ardagh proudly displayed its mix-and-match offering, in which customers can choose from a selection of printing effects and match them with decorated ends and tabs. Crown similarly showed off its latest innovations, which have benefited from the opening of a new graphics studio at the company’s Pennsylvania base last summer.

Probably the most eye-catching was a range of nine effects offered by Ball, which included a thermochromic product that produces a two-stage colour change. Another offers an emerging image’s interactivity with a smartphone app.

Hip cans
The advent of can art has made metal beverage packaging hip. A survey by Gfk for the UK trade body The Can Makers, now the Can Makers Committee, found that the number of consumer respondents who think cans look good rocketed to 44 per cent in 2017 from 16 per cent a decade earlier.

“Consumers want drinks cans that look cool as well as contain a product that offers new flavours and tastes great,” wrote Martin Constable, who was chairman at the time.

While brands have often led the way in packaging design decisions, canmakers have begun taking a proactive approach to demonstrate the design possibilities of their products.

“We can showcase what can be done on a can – it’s an added value proposition we can offer,” Ana Neale, Ball Corporation’s UK-based director of marketing and strategic planning, told The Canmaker at BrauBeviale.

Ball hired Tonning and his team in Copenhagen to do just that. The US-based canmaker sought the Danish designers to create a selection of impressions to highlight the properties of its special effects range.

“Ball asked us to do the boldest designs we could imagine and see what limitations would set in,” says

Ole Kruuse, Everland’s client director and sustainable packaging specialist. “They wanted each can to stand alone, to tell its own story about each design technique. It required a completely fresh approach because we were not promoting brands but ideas and techniques.”

After being handed the brief in the spring of 2019, the Everland team created three or four storyboard concepts for each feature, ready for test production in the summer and eventual release of the prototypes in the autumn.

“We had to find a visual hook that everybody could identify with,” explains Tonning. “Usually the limitations come with the printing, because there are only six or eight colours we can utilise.” This time was different, as one of the most talked-about designs demonstrated.

‘The can is a continuous canvas – it’s unique in that you can tell a 360-degree story on it,’ says Mikael Tonning of Danish Design company Everland

To show off the two-stage thermochromic inks, Everland came up with the idea of depicting an astronaut hovering in the depths of space. As the can’s temperature changes, however, a white moon-like disc emerges behind the spaceman. Moments later the outlines of oceans and continents reveal the circle to be the Earth.

“There are essentially three stories here and each had to be meticulously planned to work in the real world,” says Kruuse. “We had considered a skier moving downhill, but it just didn’t work as well.”

Old constraints 
While technology has opened new design vistas, one constraint remains – cost. The issue is most acutely felt in the craft brewing sector, where the can-as-art concept first took root. Many breweries use up-and-coming artists and graffiti specialists to compose their often wild brand designs.

The small-batch nature of their business makes direct printing onto cans uneconomical for canmakers. As a result, small brewers often use adhesive paper labels, meaning new ink and printing technologies are closed off to them.

“We would like to direct print – but we produce a lot of new limited-run beers. To print on cans you have to order a large amount,” says Jakob Nørby Houmøller, founder of Gamma craft brewery near Copenhagen. “For any given beer, we produce no more than 5,000 cans in one go. No canmaker would want to handle that.”

According to Houmøller, it’s about “exploiting the extra space on a can versus a bottle”: “It’s important in terms of sales and branding but also gives opportunities for small artists to get their designs out.”

Art is proving a similarly popular means of conveying brand messages for fillers with fewer cost constraints. Bulgaria’s Zagorka beer, for instance, launched a limited-edition range of products in cans decorated by Ball with works of two of the country’s leading artists, Ivan Shopov and Nasimo.

Embossing and debossing
At last year’s Cans of the Year Awards, backed by The Canmaker magazine, embossing and debossing – the processes of creating either raised or recessed relief images on can bodies – won prizes for Ardagh and Crown. They’re techniques that have long been used by fancy can manufacturers for cookie and biscuit tins.

The process has been available to beverage can manufacturers for many years but more recently has best been exploited in the aluminium aerosol can industry with debossing registered to the graphics. The key point for beverage can debossing is to use the technique without compromising the structural integrity of the container.

German independent brewery And Union was quick to see the potential. The brewery started up in 2007 in Munich and began canning its beers three years ago. It immediately saw the marketing opportunities that debossed relief designs offered.

“The thing with independent brewers is that they all have elaborate can designs – we had to find something different,” says Byron Redman, And Union’s UK operations manager. “We’ve combined the relief effect with minimal decoration to do that.” He said it might add more cost but the visual effect was worth it.

The outcome was a range of beers packaged in bold, single colours with debossed impressions that give the cans a fragmented appearance. The cans were made by Ardagh, which also offered white decorated easy-open ends that have since been used by many other brands. The minimalist design of can also won the canmaker a Silver award in the 2017 Cans of the Year.

“It’s cost us more to make a can like this, but we’ve more than made up for that – I don’t think we’d have sold as much had we not been able to use this design,” Redman says.