August 7, 2014 - No Comments!

Charlie was a sinner.

When Nicole from HipCityVeg asked me to help brand her newest cocktail bar, I was beyond excited. I’ve always wanted to do branding for a bar. After meeting a few times to discuss concepts she called me up and said: “We have a name…Charlie was a sinner.” and I thought, “Who the hell is Charlie?” But for some reason I loved it. It was very Dickensonian in a way – “Marley was dead to begin with.” You’re immediately hooked and asking questions…wait, who? What? Why? and for a restaurant, that was the perfect kind of attention we wanted to draw. Nicole is a visionary of types, she’s trying to change the perception of vegan and make it not such a dirty word. Order any sandwich from HipCity and you don’t give a shit if it’s made from plants or meat; it’s delicious and that’s all that matters.


Charlie was a sinner. is an all vegan cocktail bar. Everything is vegan, even their South Philly Meatballs. I’ve caught a few people on Yelp slipping, saying there were items on the menu made with cheese; c’mon now guys, don’t be foolish. Chef Santoro knows what he’s doing. Anyway, on to the design aspect of this project.

In the beginning, we were really intrigued by this idea of mystery. The title was mysterious, so why not play up that card? Nicole was saying that she wanted something that felt very 1900’s-1920’s, so we went in a direction of magnifying glasses, busts and muskets.


None of those marks felt right for what we were trying to achieve. They felt too gimmicky. They were trying to play that “vintage” card too hard and we were uninterested in that. So randomly during one of our meetings Nicole spurted, “What about a hawk?!” and I was like, “Damn, what ABOUT a hawk.” Then went to work immediately. I drew a few versions of Edgar Allen Poe-ish birds, looking more like mangey ravens than graceful hawks.

Charlie BirdsCharlie_Rejects_Birds

We went through a few rounds getting the hawk to feel just right. Some with severed heads, some feeling like they should be painted on the side of a WWII plane, and then finally arriving at a bust made of circles. It was one of those marks you make and you feel like you’ve struck gold. It just felt right. We didn’t want it to feel too modern, so pairing it with Hoefler’s Chronicle Display Condensed brought it into a sort of limbo time period. Not old. Not new.


From the beginning we always had the concept of making the menu feel like a book. Menus are usually such a hard piece to design, the entire brand is resting on them and rarely will a chef or restaurant owner allow you to be playful with displaying the information of their "Art". They usually want it straight-forward and quick. But, by the way Nicole accepted using a gate-fold menu for her fast food take out joint, I knew she would love this book idea.


For the menu, Nicole asked for only one thing: that we be able to print the menus in-house, which most restaurants do. So my way around that was to ball out and get letterpressed menu covers, IN WHICH they could put their house-printed interiors. Then we thought of breaking the menu down into chapters. Chapter 1: To Quench (aka get yer drink on), Chapter 2: To Savor (aka eat) & Chapter 3: To Sin (aka to jam chocolate cake down yer throat). I was really, really excited to take this route because I knew that it would give me an amazing opportunity to make an awesome cover.

I called Scott McClelland and he hooked us up with a beautiful gold-on-red menu cover. (Disclaimer: If you go to the restaurant now you’ll note that the menus are now on a slick blackish paper. People ended up dumping their drinks all over the red covers and ruining hundreds of them within a week. ALCOHOL IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS. Anyway, I’m a little bummed that the original red didn’t work out, but I understand that it would have been financially irresponsible to keep letterpressing menus that people were ruining daily.) The nice part about designing the menu like a book was that I got to break the “norms” of menu design. No one ever said that it all had to fit on one giant piece of paper. The tables at Charlie are small and a giant piece of paper would be the last thing we’d want getting in the way. Plus this idea of a book tied in perfectly with the concept of Charlie was a sinner. being the first sentence of a story.


I don’t know if any of you have opened a book……ever. But if you go back and crack the spine of a book from the turn of the century, you’ll see a marbleized pattern on the inside covers. I tried to bring that element into some of the design as a nod to the original concept of the restaurant — everything ties back to a book. I used the marble pattern on the insides of the matchbooks, on the back side of the café menus, and it even made an appearance on the website designed by P’unk Ave. Speaking of, making the website with those dudes and dudettes was an amazing experience. I’m a little biased because my BFFL Matt Goold works there but whatevr. P’unk Ave took this on as a sprint job of sorts, meaning we had two days to concept, design, & code it. ::Thumbs up:: It ended up being a really fun project full of peep holes, css dust speckles, and much much more. We got it done in a day or two and it’s pretty freakin’ decent. They are true wizards over there.


The moral of this design project—and every design project that you do—is don’t be afraid to stand out and stand up for design decisions that you believe in. Do your research and don’t just give in when someone tells you that they need to be able to print their menus on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper in house. There is a creative way around everything, you just need to put in a little extra work. I made the sign below as a joke and said to Nicole, “How cool would this look?? We’d look like some crazy chocolate shop.” She responded with, “Oh, we’re totally doing that.” Don’t be afraid to show clients things that you love. They are people just like you. They hired you because they believe in you. All you have to do is have a little faith in them and there’s no telling how many amazing things you can create together.

I am officially moving to the New York area sometime within the next two months and am no longer able to provide the kind of dedication that the team at HipCityVeg & Charlie was a sinner. needs so if any of you out there on the internet are looking to pick up some freelance in the Philadelphia area feel free to reach out to Dina ( They are a great group of people to work with and really support making some whacky shit. Shoot them an email with your website and a few sample pieces and who knows you may just pick up a client that goes national as some point?


Published by: Mike Smith in Design, Philadelphia, Restaurant

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